Collected Poems by Edward Dorn

30 May 2013

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Edward Dorn
Collected Poems, eds. Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, Justin Katko, Reitha Pattison and Kyle Waugh
Carcanet, paperback,
995 pages, £25,
ISBN: 978 1 84777 126 1

 

Nikolai Duffy

 

The publication of Ed Dorn’s Collected Poems is one of those rare things in poetry publishing: a landmark event, and not because of the sheer size, and surprise, of the book. It’s weighty, substantial, a tome, with Ed Dorn’s sun-cracked face staring out from the cover behind a pair of aviators in the early 80s painting of the poet by Philip Behymer. That portrait sets the tone for what follows: there’s a touch of Clint Eastwood about Dorn, and the suggestion of that resemblance isn’t meant lightly. Dorn and Eastwood share something, a certain kind of myth about individualism and being American, and space, great long stretches of space, and a body (or, more often than not, bodies) passing through. Think of the skies in Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, the static shots of the shifting road. This is all of a similar terrain. Dorn’s life was in this landscape, even when he was away from it as he was for much of his later life. As Dorn puts it in the first book of his masterpiece, Gunslinger:

 

How long, he asked

have you been in this territory.

 

Years I said. Years.

Then you will know where we can have

a cold drink before sunset and then a bed

will be my desire

if you can find one for me

I have no wish to continue

my debate with men,

my mare lathers with tedium

her hooves are dry

Look they are covered with the alkali

of the enormous space

between here and formerly

 

Dorn was born in small-town Illinois in 1929, six months before the Wall Street Crash signalled the beginning of the ten-year long Great Depression. As far back as 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner had sounded a note of anxious caution about the end of the American frontier and the programme of Westward expansion which had largely sustained the American economy for a couple of generations. But even in the 19th century the mid-West was somewhere people passed through, on their way at a wagon’s pace from here to there. By the 1930s rural poverty in the mid-West was commonplace.

In 1950 Dorn attended the legendary and often experimental Black Mountain College, North Carolina, then under the surrogacy of Charles Olson, and aided by the close associations of Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. Olson, in particular, had a strong influence on the young Dorn, especially his sense of the relationship between America and space. As Olson put it at the start of his 1947 work on Melville’s Moby-Dick, Call Me Ishmael:

‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’

For Olson the question for poetry concerned how this notion of space should inform and structure a new kind of poetics. In 1950, in his essay, ‘Projective Verse’, Olson named this poetics ‘composition by field’. It is about ‘certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.’ It is about poetry as open, kinetic, concerned with transitions and shifts, juxtapositions, discontinuities based on experience rather than the received forms and measures of poetic tradition. It was also about the influence of Edward Dahlberg’s sense that ‘ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’ and the impact of this on poetic form. ‘Best thing to do,’ Olson once told Dorn, ‘is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man.’ Or as Olson put it in a 1965 letter to Cid Corman, ‘A man can only express that which he knows. Now the further difficulty is, we think we know. And that too is a mare’s nest: we don’t even know until we bend to the modesty to say we have nothing to say.’

In 1965, after some years of travel, marriage, and the acceptance of a first teaching post at Idaho State University, Dorn accepted an invitation from Donald Davie to take up a post in the English Department at the newly established University of Essex. It was while he was at Essex that the first book of Gunslinger appeared, and that he met his second wife, Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, and became life-long friends with J.H. Prynne (this Collected Poems is edited by Dorn’s wife, and also features an afterword by Prynne).

Gunslinger is one of the greatest long American poems of the twentieth century. It’s why poetry matters and there isn’t enough of this sort of wide-ranging, multi-volume sequences these days: a poetry that reframes the lyric into something bigger (and often more classical) than the single frame of much contemporary poetry, something more idiosyncratic, complex, lyrical, allusive, open, expansive, freewheeling, and funny. It is very, very funny. It’s about a gunslinger and a talking horse called Levi-Strauss, who go in search of Howard Hughes. It fits into the tradition of long American poems from Whitman to Olson, via Pound and Williams, but over the course of its five volumes published over a six year period, it establishes a poetic ground all its own, and makes something specific of America, in the process: the comic-strip West as philosophical crucible. As Prynne puts it in his ‘Afterword’, ‘the entire American adventure is laid out there with great wit and humour.’

Dorn was an individual and, across a long career, his poetry says that time and again, and marvellously so. This is not a poetry of groups or tastes or manifestoes but of experience, often contradictory, doubling, jarring, and vital for that very reason.

From Gunslinger again:

 

When the act is

so self contained

and so dazzling in itself

the target then

can disappear

in the heated tension

which is an area between here

and formerly

 

Carcanet’s Collected Poems is a fitting tribute to a hugely important poet. Seeing and reading Dorn’s work like this encodes the experience of ‘between here/and formerly’ and allows room for wandering. It’s in the syntax, the phrasing, the often sprung rhythms, the shifts which are also connectives. As Dorn writes in the volume that appeared one year before the first book of Gunslinger, The North Atlantic Turbine:

 

I am nothing

anymore at all

than in myself, you be

a still center

which has about it pivoting

ramifications of my strain

a marvelously pure crystal

the center still and in me

———————located

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