Friday, October 8, 2010

The Lyrics of Ed Dorn [Part III]

Ed Dorn [1929-1999] had a lean, rugged visage, the kind that Hollywood has always loved, sort of the Clint Eastwood look. The "rugged, lean" hero, the tall, silent type, a loner, wary of compromise, with private codes of honor and simplicity, independence and toughness, secretly romantic, successful in love, a failure in society. 
In some fairly obvious ways, the real Ed Dorn, the poet, was a little like this. He was difficult in may ways, sarcastic, severe, cranky, with several personal demons. An uncompromising recalcitrance is often expressed as a gestural flair in his early poems, work in which he appears to have been trying to define himself, while exercising his facility, showing off his talent.          

This precocious lyrical virtuosity underwent transformations during his middle age, as he became increasingly preoccupied with radical ideation and somewhat disillusioned. As his view of the world became more cynical, the content of his work began to reflect a frustration with the effects of traditional nativist symbols and modes. He had always written and thought about the settlement of the American West, but his sense of its usefulness as subject-matter changed over time. The first phase of his work shows in a poem like--
The cowboy stands beneath
a brick-orange moon. The top
of his oblong head is blue, the sheath
of his hips
is too.
In the dark brown night
your delicate cowboy stands quite still.
His plain hands are crossed.
His wrists are embossed white.  
In the background night is a house,
has a blue chimney top,
Yi Yi, the cowboy's eyes
are blue. The top of the sky
is too. 
--from the late 1950's. This diverting, cliché'd, cartoonish portrait might be of a motorcycle dude standing outside a bar in Laramie--all effect and no substance. Which is often how Dorn thought of the American West, a tawdry habitation, scrub and scrabble, cheap and phony, a forlorn aspect. This vision would in due course be converted into the graphic surrealism of his pop Western meta-epic Gunslinger. "Vaquero" in fact seems like a kind of early profile of Gunslinger, a character in search of a story. The dry pan of the plains--Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Texas--informs many of Dorn's sweetest lyrics, made out of the arid clarity of desert air, the lost expanse of space, the flat bottom basin. 
Daffodil Song
The horns of yellow

        on this plain resound
    and the twist on the air
of their brilliance
                            Say where
say where I will find find
a love
             or an arabesque
of such rash fortune.  
Love Song
        for Lucia

Captured, her beauty
would not leave her
thus inclined by the railing
she never lifted her head
from the waters
a blue gull drifts
         she moves from the rapture
of the ascending fog.
Lost in the moving passengers
she left the ship
and entered the city. 
Oh Gods of my disembarked soul this is sad
a merriment of unteachable waywordness
I tell you the gleaming eye
is a mirror of
                         the green hills
where love struggles
                                      against the drought
in the desert
in the spring
in the quickness
of the fresh bush
                  over the cove.
As with Cummings, Dorn's twin concerns--romantic lyricism (or lyric romance)--and biting sarcasm (or burlesque, or diatribe)--usually seem mutually exclusive, repelling any resolution, like the opposite ends of a magnet. As here, in
Parlor Car Beer
They look coach, in the morning
pants wrinkled.
And I am coach, CHICAGO spelled out
across my front teeth.
Don't want to be sleeper.
look sleeper
coming in from the other end, the
dirty & tired
have a beer
with the rested & clean.
     Get this:
we talked of the all England
ice skating championships, 1959

some skills pass the understanding
of the uninitiated
right in the middle of Nebraska.
--where the satiric voice dominates an otherwise High American Gothic train poem, complete with sleeper cars and a parlor car scene. The parlor car beer trope, one might say, the symbol of a whole way of life passed inexorably into history, which the hip poet--his prickly hyper-sensitive feelers set to the dud frequency of decadent mid-century dilapidation--summarizes as a Wild Wild West in true television consciousness.
The great thing about Dorn, what sets his work apart from 99% of the rest of the poets of his time--especially those domiciled west of Chicago--is his refusal to cash in on, to invest in the romance of, the American Dream of the "West." Even as he abandons the straightforward lyric voice for the camp satire of Gunslinger in the 1960's, his view of America, even when bizarrely exaggerated and weird, is so much truer to its spirit, than, say, the work of William Stafford, or Rexroth, or Snyder. For those other poets, the West was what one might make of it--their effort was not unlike the exploiters and frontiersmen of the 19th and early 20th Centures, for whom the wide-open spaces represented opportunity, raw material, and several kinds of ethical potential which might do service as aesthetic properties. But for Dorn, the West wasn't a mystical notion, or dreamscape of future fulfillment. He saw its ugliness as our ugliness, its ambition and selfishness as expressions of intent, not as the accidental or unfortunate accompaniments of a greater vision, cooked up in New England or Virginia and packaged for immediate delivery to a waiting audience. The pollution and waste were us, we had made them, there was no place to hide, no one to blame, no ethic of "wilderness" and "stewardship" to salve our complacent consciences. 
If Dorn became bitter and thorny in later age, it may be observed that he had been driven by these realizations into emotional or artistic dead-ends. But these were certainly truer places to have come to, than the easy condolence and tired resolutions of the mildly coerced. If Dorn came in the end to see villains and devils under rocks, that paranoia may be understood in the context of the total annexation of half a continent, by a people selfish and pompous beyond imagining.     

You can see in the man's early lyrics a loveliness and sternness, an innocence and loneliness that are purer than anything.       


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

I relate to Dorn as a fellow Protestant. I think his meanness even is Protestant -- his attempt to SAY EVERYTHING, with no holding back, as a vision of honesty, fierce and unrelenting honesty. The first poem appears to me to be a description of a crayon drawing by a child. But note that the individual is present, the fierce honesty of an individual.

By the last years, and in the last poems, his Protestantism is seeping up to the very surface.

His honesty is something like Theo Van Gogh's in Amsterdam (the film maker who was stabbed for calling Muslims goat fuckers, among other things). Ian Burumi's book Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance (Penguin, 2006), details this very Protestant and yet outlandish truthtelling in which the fierceness of the blast is evidence of its honesty, and thus evidence of its unbridled truthfulness, even among those who have somewhat lapsed from churchgoing itself, the trend continues and is perhaps even magnified by no longer being modified by a congregation, as splintered congregants confront their secularist, mad neighbors, and do so without the reminder of neighborliness, and confront other religious traditions (such as Islam, or Marxist feminism) with a vitriolic intolerance that is doubled by its hatred for religion, and specifically for any other religion.

Dorn's final poems reference Luther, among others, as clear influences. In the biography, it becomes clear how important Dorn's childhood in Protestant churches was to him. We never quite get over those early influences, even if they morph into things nearly unrecognizable.

"Religious wars are the only real wars" Way More West, 290.

Kirby Olson said...

Also, this one:


that eternal dissent
and the ravages of
faction are preferable
to the voluntary
servitude of blind

This is a big part of what animated him.

I think it's also what drew he and Creeley and Charles Olson together. Creeley had been raised Baptist. He told me it still mattered to him. I never knew Charles Olson, but his Max is shot through with church references and wonderings. They never let go of the shores near Jerusalem.

Tyre isn't that far to the north, even if it's currently in other hands. That notion of holdouts, against popular thinking.

It's this heretical strain that united the Black Mountain poets.

I don't think they knew this.

J said...

Baloney. Dorn was friends with the natives, and usually condemning the western WASPs,their hypocrisy and their dreary puritan towns

The WASPishness may be part of the problem of his writing---sort of like John Wayne.

(and really Sir F., Dorn may look sort of macho in that pic (maybe from his chemo-days? ) but in terms of character he was sort of ...dandyish--some of his writing also...a bit sensitive. Drugstore cowboy, not ...a rogue or rowdy. There was a trace of a ...british accent to his voice . And...he was known to par-tay with Hunter S Thompson when Hunter rolled into Boulderberg....and BPD promptly notified. Also ...lets ask Ward Churchill about Dorn's politics...perhaps not perfectly PC and a bit anarchistic...but not with the GOP, or mormons or fratboy WASPs...)

Curtis Faville said...


I don't think either one of us is in a position to speak authoritatively about Dorn's private life, or private character. One works backwards from the texts. Beyond that, there's the Tom Clark bio, and the rumors and anecdotes.

I think it best if you read the work, and talked about that, since it's the subject of the post.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when he caroused with Thompson!

J said...

the personal is political as they say, and since KO was making religious insinuations, I think it more than warranted to rebut them. He was more about outlaw persona
than actual outlaw. But no churchie, unless at the last few moments...Dorn hated the coors cowboys, the jockos and mormons who took over that pleasant freak village in the 80s

his writing seems....sensitive...or per yr "'ism", romantic lyricism...ala DH Lawrence...still a hint of meter, isn't there---not the bric a brac school (Creeley et al). Ah..>Edward Abbey also an influence, and one of his cronies .Poetic im not but Dorn also seems a bit similar to Robinson Jeffers (a scribe Tom Clark tries to emulate at times as well. Mr Clark's a clever writer or was but he's not the final word on anything)

Dorn did write some about the ugliness of the WASP towns, and so forth . I remember the Boulder battles, Rolling Stock (tho' nagropa war before my time...maybe KO can fill us in on da details...oooo lalla lal lal alalala) and that's relevant to understanding Dorn.

Kirby Olson said...

Dorn was mainly a supporter of Clark and Sanders in the G. Naropa Poetry Wars. To my knowledge, he never wrote directly on the fracas that Clark put into his book (now out of print, because Ginsberg asked Clark on his deathbed to let it go op), and Sanders put into his book The Party.

Dorn was at UC Boulder, which is about a half mile from where Naropa had its campus at the time.

I signed up for Clark's Poetry and investigation class for that summer, but it was cancelled. I should have transferred to Ed Sanders' class, which investigated everything (I knew a lot of people in the class, and talked with Sanders several times during that summer), but I took a course in jazz drumming instead from Jerry Granelli, who used to be in the band Oregon before he died on the Autobahn sometime in the eighties.

So I only know of the phenomenon of what happened through those books, and what appeared in the local press that summer.

Unlike many who only wanted to investigate the other side, Dorn, clark, and Sanders saw that their side could go bad, too. They had a journalistic credos that was different from the purely poetic side of things that the Beats were sworn to uphold.

Clark, in particular, liked the pamphleting of Tom Pain (sic). Sanders lives about an hour away in Woodstock, where he still pamphlets on things like the use of salt on the roads. It's a kind of investigating that he continues -- it's a model out of journalism.

How does this square with poetry? Just the facts, m'am, is part of poetry from Williams and the objectivists up through Black Mountain, and there are still some poets like these.

Have women done this, too?

Probably, but I don't know about it.

J said...

Dorn was at UC Boulder.

No shit. He taught Creative writing and on occasion lit. courses, which filled up quickly(We tried to add his course but it was booked up, mostly hot WASP schicksas). Dorn was regarded as an interesting jester --if regarded at all. The CU engineers/scientists/techies probably didn't know he existed. The jocks and CU athletic mafia would have liked to beat the sh*t out of him. The marxists and existentialists considered him a cowboy anarchist more or less--retrograde. The New Critics, tradition-mongerers, and shall we say Toynbee types considered him mad and dangerous like his beatnik-boodhist pals down in the gully at Nagropa . The poetics' life.

(tho' apart from the drunken gurus and Bleat generation there were a few authentic jazz people at naropa--and what's a a freak like Burroughs or Ed Sanders compared to........ Coltrane, or Bill Evans).

Kirby Olson said...

Actually, the guy I studied with I think his name was Colin Walcott (in the band Oregon). I also studied with Jerry Granelli, who later ended up teaching at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. I thought I would learn something about rhythm that I could apply to poetry, but I don't think I learned anything applicable. I liked those guys and those classes, but should have done more poetry classes. I really wish I had taken Ed Sanders' course.

I just felt I might get burned out at the time taking so many courses.