The Hero and the Gunslinger
Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn
Almost a decade ago I was interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on his radio show Bookworm. I’d edited Ted Berrigan’s posthumous Selected Poems, and the show was an opportunity to talk about Ted and his work and to publicize the book. In the middle of the interview, Silverblatt surprised me by remarking that Ted and I and a number of other poets, including Ron Padgett and Tom Clark, represented a second generation of the New York School but that we hadn’t managed to live up to the achievement of the first generation: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler.
“Isn’t the next generation supposed to improve on its predecessors,” Silverblatt mused rhetorically.
I held back several possible responses and tried to make a case for the fact that Tom Clark, for example, was the author of a far larger oeuvre than any member of the first generation and had written in a greater variety of genres. Perhaps temporizing, Silverblatt went on to say that the difference was that we hadn’t had to measure ourselves against a masterpiece like “The Waste Land” and therefore wrote more modestly.
We had measured ourselves against Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish,” among other works, and Ted’s book-length poem The Sonnets is, in its way, an exhilarating successor. What is more true of our generation is that we didn’t play by the rules of the literary establishment. We came of age during the ’60s and paid a commensurate price in censure and revisionism for that. The first generation of “TV babies,” raised during the post–World War II economic boom, we were less grateful for our parents’ sacrifices than we might have been, while at the same time being natural denizens of a newly electrified culture.
I might have added that I myself was only nominally a New York School poet. My first allegiance had been to the Black Mountain poets, to Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Edward Dorn, and to a number of others as well. Indeed, there was a time when these poets meant everything to me, when they embodied the possibility of the kind of life I wanted for myself.
All are gone now, and I’m struck by the shape of their various careers in long view. Charles Olson and Robert Duncan seem to me to be major American poets, great and generative figures as much today as they were during the ’60s. Denise Levertov is a personal favorite, though her range is more modest. Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn, on the other hand, wonderful poets in youth, both seem to have lost their way in midlife.
Creeley’s early work—which comprises poems, stories, and essays, and which is perhaps crowned by his novel The Island, published when he was in his mid-30s—holds the promise of a major American literary figure. Edward Dorn, also a practitioner of all these genres, seemed to many of us a figure of comparable promise with perhaps a broader vision of the American sociopolitical as well as ecological landscape. Dorn, only three years younger than Creeley, had been a student at Black Mountain College during the years when Creeley taught there.
At 20, having gotten an assignment from Henry Rago at Poetry to review The Island, I dared to write to Creeley in New Mexico from New York, and was rewarded beyond expectation with a long and interesting letter about his sources as a writer. As we exchanged several more letters, I was moving around in search of an apartment and remember writing him from a hotel in Brooklyn Heights where I stayed only a night or two. Those were heady days. For me, corresponding with Creeley was what I imagined it might have been like for a young political aspirant to correspond with then–President Kennedy.
Here is a favorite poem from Creeley’s first mainstream collection, For Love:
When I know what people think of me
I am plunged into my loneliness. The grey
hat bought earlier sickens.
I have no purpose no longer distinguishable.
A feeling like being choked
enters my throat.
There is a wonderful poker-faced humor to this bleak poem, signaled in the title, and also in the clotted syntax of the fourth line. It’s so vividly an emotional thing and at the same time a made thing, a fact of words that delivers its message with the artful artlessness of a young master of what would come to be known as the Black Mountain School. Looking through the book the other night, I was struck by how often Creeley uses a title as a distancing device, while the poem itself may be entirely enveloped in the dilemma it presents.
What distinguishes these early poems is the personal detail, the signature of a more-than-literary life. Robert Bly pointed out that the energy and specificity of these poems are diluted in later volumes, by which time the poet, as so many have done to survive, had become a tenured professor. The Creeley biography by Ekbert Faas notes that during the ’60s Allen Ginsberg told Creeley that he didn’t necessarily have to write “good” poems, advice Creeley seemed to take almost literally in his next book, Pieces: a book of very short notations arranged down the pages with a kind of blithe insouciance, as if to say, I’m a poet and therefore this is poetry. This is the way Creeley would often henceforth write. Being a technical master, given a particular circumstance or assignment, he would on occasion write a fine poem or essay. But the early work is another order of achievement, full to bursting with “felt life,” Henry James’s measure for literature.
Edward Dorn once said to me that Creeley’s handicap—a missing eye since a childhood accident, over which Creeley wore no patch—added something to his mystique, something perhaps comparable in its effect to Byron’s clubfoot. In fact, Dorn himself was the best-looking white-man poet of his day, a tall, angular figure with a handsome face akin to the textbook renderings of Andrew Jackson. My first encounter with him occurred in the summer of 1964, when my friend Jim Brodey and I visited LeRoi Jones in Buffalo, where he and his family were sharing a house with Dorn and his family. Both poets were teaching in the summer session at the state university there.
Dorn, celebrated among his peers and an admired elder of Jim’s and my generation, proved to be an elusive figure, darting in and out of the living room once or twice as Jones generously played host to the two young poets. In part spurred by his unavailability, I audited one of Dorn’s classes.
I don’t think I could have told you what the class was about five minutes after it ended—although I remember that the subject included Melville—but Dorn was a marvel to see and hear. Seated at his desk at the front of the class, he didn’t engage in dialogue with students. He lectured, but at the same time was somehow casual and unassuming. He simply spoke, and the combination of his voice and his diction was spellbinding. He had a special way with vowels, evident in his poetry; and his wonderfully even pitch and intonation, coupled with word choices seemingly conjured out of the moment, made up a kind of spoken music. Here is the title poem of Dorn’s collection The Newly Fallen, which had appeared several years earlier:
If it should ever come
And we are all there together
time will wave as willows do
and adios will be truly, yes,
laughing at what is forgotten
and talking of what’s new
admiring the roses you brought.
You didn’t know you were at the end
thought it was your bright pear
the earth, yes
another affair to have been kept
and gazed back on
when you had slept
to have been stored
as a squirrel will a nut, and half
there were so many, many
from the newly fallen.
The music in these words, a kind of dancing melancholy, seems to me the signature of Dorn’s greatest work. He was raised by Illinois farm people without the advantages of Harvard-trained peers like Creeley, save his gift and the effort with which he cultivated and refined it. Dorn’s early long-lined poems “Geranium” and “The Air of June Sings” deserve a place among the permanent American poems, I think, being the closest I know in our literature to the musical complexity and felicity of the Elizabethans.
What happened? Over the years, the voice gradually turned into a hipster’s cutting, sarcastic instrument, often so elliptical as to be incomprehensible. Somehow the shading and suffering in his early work was forgone. This happened gradually, and he never succumbed to the willfulness one finds in middle and later Creeley. He remained a searching and interesting poet, but he no longer moved one as he had. Like virtually everybody who experienced the ’60s firsthand, Dorn experimented with drugs, and one can imagine that so finely tuned a verbal musician might have been more affected by them than others who had never made such music.
The cover photo of Edward Dorn was taken at the The Poetry Project 20th Year Symposium.
Aram Saroyan is a poet, novelist, memoirist, and playwright. He attended the University of Chicago, New York University, and Columbia University, but did not complete a degree. The son of the writer William Saroyan, Aram made his debut as a writer with six poems and a review of Robert Creeley's novel The...