Prose from Poetry Magazine

Because He Was Flesh

How Edward Dahlberg changed my life.
"My friendship with Dahlberg ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him."

Frank MacShane, the biographer of Raymond Chandler, was the first one to introduce me to Edward Dahlberg. He gave me his book Because I Was Flesh and then, when I was finished, he gave me his address so I could write a fan letter. I had never done such a thing before. It was 1965. I was twenty-four. Dahlberg answered me immediately and for a couple of years I would receive letters from him that were both solicitous and patriarchal. In a certain sense these letters changed the course of my thinking life.

Dahlberg, who was said to be the originator of the proposition that one perception must immediately lead to the next—a proposition that drove American poetics from after WWII on—was not a poet unless you call a highly-charged, iambic, metaphorical prose "poetry." Some people call Moby-Dick a poem. I call Because I Was Flesh a poem as well as Dahlberg's less known book, Bottom Dogs. Perhaps it is simply a term of respect for those who push language to its limit.

Dahlberg left a burn mark on whomever he met; he branded his students and friends and then abandoned them as his mother had for a time abandoned him. He even broke off with the other priapic genius Charles Olson over the value of Moby-Dick. Dahlberg wrote that "Moby-Dick is gigantology, a tract about a gibbous whale and fifteen or more lawless seamen, who are alone, by choice, though they are together." He was against Melville, who may have been too strong an influence.

He grew up in Missouri, the son of a lady barber. And in order to get a flavor of the man one must read lines like these, describing the orphanage where he spent childhood time:

They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls; others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynocephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans' sore eyes and granulated lids.

Dahlberg talked and wrote like this. Unlike Charles Olson, whom he'd met at Harvard and whose work would always return to postwar Eurpoean philosophy and American politics, the autodidactic Dahlberg had identified with the proletarian underground since the twenties—and with ancient texts; he went into seven years of withdrawal from writing to study these. His first book, Bottom Dogs, had an introduction by D.H. Lawrence. After his withdrawal, he renounced his former self, his politics, everyone he knew, almost all men who aspired to write, and his early works.

In a letter written to me in December, 1966, he wrote:
Now, you can't admire Tolstoi along with Joyce, Jane Austen and Henry James. That's the usual academic pother of the day. Should you have understood Tolstoi you won't be able to read the famous rubbish of James, Joyce and Austen. You must learn how to expurge what is foolish, bad garbage; otherwise you'll never find those values you long for and should possess. Now, I know it is well-nigh impossible to give people good advice, particularly when you've got no doctrine or dogma to go along with it. But just take from an experienced worm of prose style that this kind of chaotic and amorphous thinking will be a fell obstacle to your own ripening.

We met in cafes in New York and once at Elaine's where he was disgusted by what he saw. I was proud to be with him, my secret teacher, and only Frank MacShane shared my interest, my desire to please him. He sent me a list of writers I was instructed to read by June, 1967. This is that list, verbatim:
Osiris by Wallis Budge
Egypt by Maspero
The Book of Job by Morris Jastrow
The Song of Songs
The Gentle Cynic
The Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin
L'Amour by Stendhal
Physiology of Marriage by Balzac
Enquiries into Plants by Theophrastes
The History of Greece
Greek Poets by John Addington Symonds
Lives of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
Last Essays by Eric Gill
Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison
Amiel's Journal
The Goncourt Journals
Imaginary Conversations by Landor

And later he handed me a further list:
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy
Sir Thomas Browne
Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
Animals and Birds by Buffon
Les Characteres by Lydell
Love of the Nymphs by Porphyry
Gil Blas by Le Sage

Dahlberg had no interest in mystical thinking. Myth was good, but best was the point of view of the naturalist and the anthropologist. I read some of the above, but concealed from him my other reading (then mostly European fiction in translation—Montale, Camus, Duras). He would have excoriated me in ways I couldn't handle. I was a sucker for bullies. I submitted, I even married them, but I didn't grovel or let it go on too long.

My friendship with Dahlberg ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him. My last letter from him was a racist diatribe against my marriage and the wasting of my "sweet, honeyed flesh."

What I received from him, before this event, was invaluable: the sense of the writer's life as a religious vocation. You had to protect yourself from Philistines, and read what he would call "ethical" writing. That is, writing that is so conscious of potential falsehoods, contradictions, and exaggerations in its grammar, it avoids becoming just one more symptom of the sick State. Dahlberg told me to take a vow of poverty if I was serious about my work. He believed in writing from the heart, not the head, and he insisted on seeking a physicality in language that was palpable. This was his politics, he who had been a card-carrying Communist, and to this day I believe he was right. I was like one of his orphans, starved for truths that he gave me:
Though all day long nothing was in the ailing minds of the orphan-asylum Ishmaels but the cry for food, what these mutes ask for was never given. O Pharisee, when will you learn that we never came to your table for the gudgeons and the barley loaves?
Originally Published: July 1st, 2008

Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Stanford University. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily...

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  1. July 6, 2008

    I love this apprecation of Dahlberg--the excerpts from his writings, his reading lists !!!, the clearly evident warmth that exudes from you. And yet, I do have some trouble getting past the revelations of his untoward behavior towards the end. Clearly his behavior was immoral, perhaps criminal, and clearly pathetic--but--but to me, including it in such detail seems to undercut the appreciation...and ultimately further drive this sadly neglected genius into obscurity. Easy to dismiss. Clearly, I'm torn here, not wanting to excuse or erase experiences that were painful unwanted, but also fearful that now a "good" excuse for burying Dahlberg is out there for all to grab onto. After all, just another male pervert.

  2. July 8, 2008
     Juan Cristobal Crisosto

    Actually, I share the same feeling with myshkin2. I think including personal memories that shed a somewhat ¨dirty¨ light on a figure that would be better known to readers by merit of his ouvre, makes more a selfserving remark on being attractive than giving a better insight to Dahlberg.

    I do not feel that personal behaviour should be disregarded when trying to understand a writer, but just throwing it in without a context seems to me a cheap shot from behind. And stabbing a former mentor might have the same effect on this article: I will remember it more for the faux pas than for Dahlberg, as much as I will think of Dahlberg as a dirty old man with his pants down.

    I think literature has not been served in this piece at all.

  3. July 12, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    I must say, Juan, I'm totally flabbergasted to hear you suggest Howe's motive in telling a story about being chased out of a window by a man with his pants down was to demonstrate her own attractiveness. Do you even recognize the profound problem in what you're suggesting?

    myshkin2's concern at least deserves a response. However, I'd argue Howe's anecdote isn't the least damaging to Dahlberg's steadily sinking reputation. With some writers it's maybe important to really think through the telling of such personal stories, but this is Edward Dahlberg, not just any writer. Jonathan Lethem's essay on him gets it about right: one great book, a lifetime of scurrilous statements and acts that maybe occasionally had some "tough love" point to them but usually just evinced the depth of his own violent angers and resentments. I've heard tens of appalling stories of Dahlberg's racist and sexist behavior and views, some of which he tells or at least hints at in his own books. Let's remember this is the man who described his own literary approach as "word as cock"--are we sure this story isn't exactly what Dahlberg does and ought to stand for?

    As for Dahlberg's "genius," let's not forget that the majority of his books are excellent studies in the most pointlessly overblown rhetoric this side of King James.



  4. August 1, 2008


  5. August 8, 2008
     dony p herwanto

    that's good articel. i like it, wont you come to my weblog.

    thanks and regard.

    dony p. herwanto

  6. August 8, 2008

    hi!!! just want o be new frnd

  7. August 21, 2008

    Thank you, Brent. And thank you, Howe. I'm a young, illiterate student unfamiliar with Dahlberg's work; so I feel no betrayal in your portrayal of Dahlberg. I thought you did a splendid job of illuminating the twists and turns of one's intellectual and artistic journey. You seemed to walk away with Dahlberg's ideal of "[expurging] what is foolish."

    It seems that those who feel uncomfortable acknowledging or accepting the darker sides of Dahlberg's humanity are maybe just having trouble dealing with their own.

  8. December 13, 2008

    Few novelists have grown up as hard or have organized as extensively on behalf of the poor and marginalized as Edward Dahlberg: from being arrested on picket lines, being beaten by Nazis in Germany, and writing prominently against racism in the United States. He was a mentor both to Charles Olson and Fanny Howe, two of the best American poets of the Twentieth Century, and had friendships with Robert Creeley, Irving Rosenthal, Jonathan Williams, and Louis Zukofsky. Anyone who enjoys reading John Dos Passos would like Dahlberg's first three, and his collection of essays, first issued as Do These Bones Live, is a defense of Thoreau and anarchism. The ad hominem attack by Jonathan Lethem addresses none of this substantively, and seems to use as the measuring stick of a novelist the briskness of his sales.

  9. January 14, 2009

    hey i lliked it but it was along poem i like it because its about dogs and i like dogs!!!!! hahahahahaha just playin i hated it

  10. August 1, 2009
     the turgenevist

    I've read alot of Dahlberg, and I like the work: an anarchist with a tough -- seriously tough -- upbringing who wrote in an elaborate Jacobean prose. I once heard Fanny Howe talk about him and she insisted on his importance and his positive influence on her. But then she comes out with this essay -- as if Dahlberg making a pass after years of swapping amorous letters with her (sold by Howe in the 80s -- now in university special collections) was somehow unexpected and a fatal betrayal. I just think this is a weird essay -- like Howe's trying to pull us into a dead psychodrama.

  11. October 8, 2010
     Tim Chambers

    It has been a long time since I read any
    of Edward Dahlberg's work. I was
    greatly enamored of it as a student in
    the early seventies. I was reminded of it
    by a friend who brought up Guy
    Davenport in an email and I asked him if
    he had read Dahlberg. He hadn't. He led
    me to Jonathan Williams and Guy
    Davenport, two other sadly neglected
    writers, and now to you.

    To bad about his sex addiction. I
    remember reading an article about him
    that, as a guest in a friend's house, he
    seduced the friend's wife. The Sorrows
    of Priapus must have been
    autobiographical, too.