Peter Riley on Ed Dorn’s Collected

The Fortnightly Review just published the first instalment of Peter Riley’s review of Edward Dorn‘s Collected Poems (Carcanet Press 2012). It’s one of 3 or 4 “big bokes” on my desk that I wanted to talk about on this blog — happy that Peter Riley did it so splendidly. Below the opening 1/4 of the first instalment of a review that promises to be a major assessment. Part II will be added in a week or two, according to Peter (should be two if “Fortnightly” does what it means):

The relentless fury of Ed Dorn 1.

A Fortnightly Review of

Collected Poems 
Edward Dorn.
Edited with a preface by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn.

Carcanet Press 2012 | 1023pp. | 40.00 £ 25.00

Two Interviews 
Edward Dorn.
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko.

Shearsman Books 2012 | 102pp | £9.95

By Peter Riley.

Edward Dorn: Collected Poems. COLLECTED POEMS of Edward Dorn, the American poet who died in 1999, is a necessary and overdue publication, and, whatever the circumstances, the fact that it was not published in U.S.A. suggests that there is something very wrong with the local culture over there, a fact of which Ed Dorn was very much aware. In fact most of the time it dominated his writing.

It has often been said that a “Collected Poems” is a dreadful thing, and when it is 1000 pages long it is certainly a daunting thing, and there are all sorts of problems in how to use it. When Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems appeared in 1971 I got rid of all the original books, and now can’t find a poem I want unless I can clearly remember the title or incipit. The first collected poems of Charles Olson (Archaeologist of Morning, 1970) had only a non-alphabetical chronological list, no indexes, and above all no page numbers (pagination being evidently considered bourgeois) – I had to pencil my own in.

But Dorn’s Collected Poems is very professionally edited and produced in these respects, indexed and sourced, everything dated, and the original volumes are kept distinct, so the reader’s conceptual problems are reduced to the effects of sheer bulk. For me the principal of these is that a poet’s entire work over a long period (in this case 55 years) becomes one solid lump (or “Sllab” as Dorn might have called it). You don’t of course have to read it from cover to cover – only the hapless reviewer has that obligation – but nevertheless it is formed into a unit and will be thought of as such whether in adulation or doubt. Everything however various becomes equally validated, and the extremes of the writing are inhibited from challenging each other.

There are some poets (e.g. W.S. Graham, Pierre Reverdy) whose work tends towards a sense of unity because it is the product more of a single-minded drive, as if attempting to write the same poem over and over again. Edward Dorn is not one of those. There is an immense variety of modes, scale, and pitch, from high elegiac seriousness to casual jokes, and from lyric to narrative and polemic, and there are latent contradictions. But all these strategies are conjoined in his insistent purpose as poetical radical, hater of establishment and commerce, towards which verbal projectiles of many kinds never stop being directed, bearer of a fury which never relents.

IN MANY QUARTERS, Dorn has become a hero of the new, and the adulation is total, “a master among masters” as Iain Sinclair says in his blurb. Although younger than most of them, his reputation sits comfortably with the poets of the “new American poetry” of the 1960s – Olson, Creeley, Duncan, O’Hara, Ginsberg et al., inheritors of the techniques (modes of attack) and purposive scope of Ezra Pound, but never of his politics. These are the masters he sits among. And for all their differences they do stand together in opposition to the entire drift of American politics and society in the twentieth century,1 none more so than Dorn. Naturally in present conditions, many poets and readers experience a dependence on these pioneer radical poets which makes them sacrosanct, just as for many of us the light beaming towards us from Americans such as Dorn in the 1960s seemed the only channel to a future for poetry worth thinking about, however much we later learned what our native strengths were.

I think that in Dorn’s case this was justified, and much of the work he did up to and including his first move to England in 1965 could well bear the adulation.He went into Black Mountain College at the age of 21 and was taught there by Olson, but the manner he developed in the next two decades was his own, obviously influenced at first by Olson as well as by Williams and Stevens, but not drawn into Olson’s cultural agendas, nor apparently tempted to run for the academy. In fact for a decade he moved around in the western states, which is where he came from, getting various manual labour jobs. The poetry comes straight out of this.

Now it is 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 out to look for fuel.

“Los Mineros” p.85 (1960)

So evidently not in a great rush to be an avant-gardist, nor to rush the poem through its own excitement, but happy and able to take on a centuries-old calm elegance of landscape conjuration which you’d think any well-read young poet could do at the drop of a hat, but strangely they don’t. Nor is it without verbal subtleties (contrast of fallen / stand, and an ABAB quatrain end-rhyme in the vowels only). It is an introductory passage, and the poem goes on into a more prosaic realist account of the failed quest for coal, ending

Madrid is a gaunt town now. Its houses stand unused
along the entering road, and they are all green and white,
every window has been abused with the rocks of departing children.

[continued here]


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