Poetry News

Ed Dorn's Collected Poems Reviewed

By Harriet Staff


At the Guardian, Patrick McGuinness guides us through Ed Dorn's much anticipated and massively large (clocking in at close to a 1K page count!) Collected Poems. McGuinness fills in the background of this shadowy gunslinger Mr. Dorn, and suggests a few starting points for the uninitiated reader:

[Dorn] was associated with Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, writers who, like Dorn, took their early bearings from Charles Olson.

From 1965 to 1970 he lived in England, where, invited by the poet and critic Donald Davie, he taught in the English department at the University of Essex. His time in England was productive, and helped orientate his poetic interest – as exile often does – in the place he left behind. It also fostered lifelong friendships with poets on the experimental reaches of British poetry, notably JH Prynne, whose memorial tribute to Dorn appears as an afterword here, and with the small poetry presses he continued to publish with into the 1990s.

For the reader coming to Dorn for the first time, and faced with a book this long and this unusual, there are three good places to start, none of which is the beginning: the love poems of Nine Songs (1965), the first book of his psychedelic cowboy epic Gunslinger (1968), and the posthumously published Chemo Sabé (2001), in which the dying poet describes his cancer against the background of the Clinton impeachment and American foreign policy adventures.

Dorn's poetry is many things at once: rangy and compressed, rough and refined, metaphysical and crude, slangy and grandiloquent, subtle and hectoring. He has recesses of esoteric knowledge yet his poems are riddled with pop culture, buzzing with philosophy, history, high and low politics, theology and economics.

McGuinness goes on to discuss each section he mentions. Because we're big fans of all psychedelic westerns here at Harriet HQ, we'll take a gander at what he has to say about Gunslinger, which he calls the "strangest long poem of the last half-century" (quite an endorsement!):

[Gunslinger is] a quest myth wrapped around an acid-inspired western comic strip adventure in which a gunslinger, astride a drug-taking, talking horse called Levi-Strauss, searches for Howard Hughes ("they say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it. / I can't remember which"). Charles Olson had insisted, in the wake of Pound, that where Europe had history to make poetry with, America must take geography. Dorn's contribution to the Great American Long Poem – Pound's Cantos, WC Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus … – was Gunslinger, which appeared in five sections over six years. The American west was Dorn's imaginative home, and his poem is an extraordinary feat of imagination, humour, allusion and lyric invention. It takes the standard fare of a good if surreal western (brothel madams, saloon brawls and gunfights) and melds it with high philosophical riffs.

Follow the link here to see what McGuinness has to say about the other two recommended sections.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2013