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A Review of Ed Dorn’s Collected at The World Socialist Website

By Harriet Staff

Ed Dorn

A supersolid review of the Collected Poems of Edward Dorn, edited by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, Justin Katko, Reitha Pattison and Kyle Waugh and published in 2012 by Carcanet, is up at The World Socialist Website. Andras Gyorgy writes of both the poems and biography in the book’s 1,000 pages:

As his friend and associate, the British poet Jeremy Prynne, puts the dominant view of Gunslinger in his “Afterword” to the Collected Poems, “the entire American adventure is laid out there with great wit and humour.” That’s the majority view. Slinger, to be sure, is a hippie masterpiece, but to this reviewer’s ears as dated as the era, with its cast of characters who come on the “stage” coach on which a troubled and indistinct “I” lifted from space and time explains that he really doesn’t know what is going on, dies unexpectedly, only to come back to life when drip-fed five gallons of LSD.

Along the way we follow this displaced “I” of postmodernism or his alter ego Slinger as one or the other, or neither, ride a “Stoned Horse,” who is also called Heidegger (Hi Digger) and Levi Strauss, searching for the elusive Howard Hughes in Las Vegas.

Dorn, apparently tired of the poem, forgot all about its original conceits to retreat into a very self-centered solipsistic lyricism about failed love and the groundlessness of existence. The cast of characters, Kool Everything, Tonto Pronto, Taco Desoxin and Dr. Flamboyant, disappear. As Abraham Lincoln might have said diplomatically, this is the kind of book for people who like this kind of book, which the eminent critic Marjorie Perloff thought the paradigmatic text of postmodernist poetry.

The earlier Dorn had such an ear for common speech, the equal of William Carlos Williams and more. Now, he sounds phony, putting on the style: “you don’t want none of your sacred/quatrapeds packin no Honky Bi-peds to/ the top of no sierras for a look at whets/ left of their more prominent hysterias!” For comparison, here is how Dorn sounded in a poem published in 1960, “Los Mineros”: “Now it is the winter and the fallen snow/ has made its stand on the mountains, making dunes/of white on the hills, and the cold cover/has got us to look for fuel.”

He is now in the relatively good years mounted on a postmodernist talking horse who, asked how far it is from Mesilla to Vegas, replies, “Across/two states/of mind.” Nothing is real and nothing to get hung up about. No wonder Gunslinger is that mythologizer Stephen King’s favorite poem and title of the first novel of The Dark Tower series.

Then, to the surprise of many, Dorn utterly changed his poetry from the ground up, again the historical content of the epoch seeking new forms in art to express itself, as it does in life, in contradictory ways. Responding very differently, radicals from many confused political streams of the 1960s poured out of graduate schools and surrounding coffee houses abuzz with the newspeak of postmodernism, and rose over the next decades to pre-eminent positions over disintegrating English departments.

There were many who were startled and made unhappy by Dorn’s political poems after his return to the US, especially in his second long poem, Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics, written starting in 1990 to the end of his days in 1999 specifically in opposition to the imperialistic looting presented as “liberation” from Kosovo onward. Indeed, Dorn lost a lot of fans when postmodernism from many diverse skeptical trends of French intellectuals gathered force over American campuses. “The political urgency of the later writing seems to overtake the poetry and, finally, to undermine it,” one prominent reviewer of an earlier collection disapprovingly commented.

With this volume, we have a wonderful opportunity to observe how Dorn’s late work of overt political engagement was in fact a return at the higher, structurally more complex level to the concerns he displayed when leading in youth, and throughout his career, the life of an itinerant laborer become itinerant professor with deep roots and sympathy for working people, so rare in today’s artistic productions. Ed Dorn was always a little different, a poet of the American working class, writing in its voice and blessedly without “Populist Front,” condescending imitation.

Read the full review here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, October 10th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.