Herbie Butterfield
from Cento Magazine

Ed(ward Merton) Dorn (1929-1999):
A Memoir, an Introduction, an Overview, Some Poems, and a Song


This commemorative talk on Dorn was given shortly after his death by Herbie Butterfield to staff and students of the Department of Literature at the University of Essex in England, where Dorn had taught intermittently between 1965 and 1975. It is precisely that, a commemorative talk rather than a scholarly paper or article, and is published here exactly as it was delivered, with no attempt to correct any inaccuracies or misunderstandings, if such there be.

This is a talk about a person who was first a good friend of mine, albeit of late I had seen him only on some of his occasional trips to England; who was also formerly a departmental colleague; who over the years was a teacher or writer in residence at a number of universities; who was an unrelentingly watchful social and political critic; who with Gordon Brotherston of this Department was a translator of Native and Latin American poetry: and who above all of course was a poet. I wish to say something about him, less or more, in all of those facets, having in mind that several of you will also be remembering him personally, that some of you may know the work but not the man, whilst others may know nothing of him whatsoever. Hence, a memoir for a few; an introduction for some; an attempt at an overview for others; perhaps a hodegepodge for all.

Ed Dorn and the Essex Poetry Scene

Before talking about Dorn himself, I shall say something of how he first came to the Department of Literature, back in 1965, the Department's second year of existence. The story, a creation story, will be superfluously familiar to some of you here, but not to others; and since it ought not to be lost, it can do with retelling every now and again.

The Department's founding professor was the previously Cambridge-based poet, translator, and literary critic, Donald Davie. In the 1950s he had established his reputation as a neoclassical critic and poet of what was known as The Movement, the anti-romantic, anti-apocalyptic, or simply anti-Dylan Thomas Movement, within which Davie was associated with other Movement poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, later each to go his very separate way. By the early 1960s Davie's way had taken him to an interest in the American high modernist, Ezra Pound, and to the publication in 1964, his first full year at Essex, of his Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. Davie's first appointment was the Californian, George Dekker, who had also published a book on Pound, Sailing after Knowledge. Davie furthermore brought with him from Cambridge several doctoral students working on various aspects of American modernism. They included Elaine Feinstein, soon to be better known as a novelist, but at that time chiefly a poet and also the recipient of Charles Olson's widely circulated and seminal statement of poetics, "Letter to Elaine Feinstein." They included Andrew Crozier, later to share a Paladin volume of Selected Poems with Davie, and to edit one of the best anthologies of contemporary British Poetry, the aesthetically ideological A Various Art. Crozier had already in the early 1960s discovered a campaigning interest in the then wholly overlooked American Objectivists of the 1930s, both modernist and Marxist they had been. One of these, Carl Rakosi, had stopped writing in 1939. His volume, Amulet, of 1967, is dedicated "To Andrew Crozier who wrote the letter which started me writing again." And Davie's doctoral students included also Tom Clark, at that time poetry editor of the Paris Review, on his way to becoming prolific poet, novelist, omniscient celebrant of baseball, exposer on the literary scene of crackpot fake, and biographer (of Olson, Jack Kerouac, Damon Runyon, and prospectively, I understand, of Ed Dorn). Jeremy Prynne, although he never left Cambridge, may also be mentioned here, in part because it was on his learned advice that the bases of the Essex library's extensive holdings in American poetry were established, and because Prynne had already become Dorn's earliest British contact and correspondent.

Whether it was through Prynne or Clark or through his own reading that Davie came upon Dorn I don't know, but by 1965 he was appreciatively reviewing Dorn's recently published volume, Geography, and in the autumn of that year at his invitation Dorn joined the Department as a Fulbright lecturer, to be here on and off for five of the next ten years. It was through Dorn that his friend, Tom Raworth, became attached to the Department between 1967 and 1971 - Raworth, who takes his place in the anthology of American poets, 20 + 1, 20 American poets plus the one Englishman, Raworth, whom the editors thought too integral a part of the American scene to omit. Raworth's close friend, Ted Berrigan, the leading figure of the New York School of the 1960s and 70s, spent what many of his students found to be a memorable and personally formative year in the Department in 1973-4. And Berrigan had followed the most famous American visitor of all, who came to the Department at the invitation not of Davie, but of his successor in the Chair, Philip Edwards. This visitor, a member of the Department for three years between 1970 and 1973, was Robert Lowell, generally regarded at the time as the major living American poet, though working out of a rather different poetics from most of those that Davie had attracted. During these years, in addition to such longer-term presences, many leading American poets came to the Department to read and talk about their work, for without doubt the Department of Literature here was then the chief outpost for the study of American poetry in this country and perhaps outside the North American continent. Charles Olson came, Lowell's fellow New Englander, the two opposing champions of the American writing scene they appeared at that time; and Galway Kinnell; and Louis Simpson; and during the 70s and into the 80s, often through the heroic efforts of Joe Allard for his festival, there came Robert Creeley (twice), and Carl Rakosi, and Wendell Berry, and Gary Snyder, and Denise Levertov; and then in 1990, ten years ago to this week, to grace the Department's quartercentenary celebrations, there returned Donald Davie and Ed Dorn, both now departed.

These communal Departmental reminders have been a nostalgic but also, as it seems to me, proper and necessary preliminary before I remember Dorn in his singularity, as I now do.

The road to Black Mountain

Ed Dorn was born in April 1929, in Villa Grove, a small railroad town in Illinois, 100 miles or so South of Chicago. His grandfather had worked on the railroads, and railroad lore, as in folklore, and law, as in rule, came to pervade his writing and thinking, whether in a predominantly realist short story like "C.B.& Q" (C.B.&Q for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy line) or in a polemical poem like "The Sundering U.P.Tracks" (U.P for the Union Pacific railroad). Amongst the books that he gave me on returning to the States one time and that I continue to treasure is John Stover's American Railroads, and Donald Wesling, another former colleague here, recalls Dorn opening a course in literature thus: "He remained silent, thumbing through various volumes, and the students became restless, gazing at one another and wondering why he did not speak. After a prolonged silence he grasped a roll of paper beside him and rose from his chair. Leaning forward, he proceeded to unroll a map of the United States across a large expanse of table. It wasn't a political map or a topographical map or a road map, but a railroad map. 'This is our area,' he said with a smile." His natural father he never knew, the paternal presence in his life from early childhood on being his stepfather, an agricultural worker and farm machinery mechanic. With his mother, as he said in an interview in 1973, "I've always had a very good relationship, I respect her very, very much." Characteristic of Dorn, I think, rather than 'love,' that restrained and essentially moral 'respect.' Respect, tenderness, pity, understanding inform the poem I shall first read, a recollection of the hard-pressed lives of those, like his parents, who worked but did not own the bountiful land, a poem in which an implicit, wholesale critique of mail-order ethics is briefly held in check by a pragmatic recognition of the temporary benefits and relief.


(Read "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck")

And for the ordinary people generally of prairie and plain, he always retained affection and, yes, respect, as witness the poem, "The Air of June Sings," which was written around 1960 on what was evidently a return visit home with his own now young children. It reminds one that in the first instance Dorn comes out of the same broad Middle West as Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Wright Morris, Carl Sandburg, and closest to hand Vachel Lindsay, whose "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," he once told me was "oh, God, absolutely one of my favourite poems."


(Read "The Air of June Sings")

Yes, tearful affection and tender respect "for the small quiet stones of the unpreposterous dead," for the common people, but not for their overlords, "larger than the common large." It's with that basic identification that Dorn begins and where essentially in sympathy he stays.

Leaving high school in 1947, he began several years of roaming, to Los Angeles, up to Seattle in Washington State to work in the Boeing plant there, back home to work in a tractor factory in Shelbyville, two years at the University of Illinois where the important figure for him, and "for all my life since then," was his art teacher, Ray Obermayr, who was the first to spot in him some special gift and who pointed him in the direction of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which he first attended for a year in 1951, and where "I felt very country in the face of [the other students with their] city expression and sophistication," especially as "I don't think I'd ever met a person from the eastern part of the U.S." before that. "The East - the eastern United States - was Europe as far as I was concerned." After that initial year at Black Mountain it was back West, to Kansas, Wyoming, and again to Seattle and the forests around, where he employed his talents as a carpenter and like Gary Snyder and Ken Kesey at the same time came upon remnants of that early-century North-Western radicalism, working amongst "loggers who had been Wobblies and people in the woods who had been trained by Marxist Unions." Here too he met his first wife, HelËne, who was to be the mother of his three older children, Fred, Shanie (Chansonette), and Paul. This life, itinerant, socially marginal, either backwoods rural or ramshackle, down-town urban, is the stuff of his early prose fiction, of stories like "Ist Avenue," "C.B.&Q," and "Driving across the Prairie," and of his novel, The Rites of Passage, which was republished in 1971 as By the Sound, the title that he himself preferred, because "it's not a middle-class novel and I was not a middle-class person, [but Rites of Passage] is a middle-class title," being a cultural term more familiar to the educated elite than to "the people that I drew my story from {and wished] to pay homage to," those who simply lived By the Sound, which is to say Puget Sound, the long, narrow inlet of Pacific water by which Seattle stands. Dorn's prose of these years is characteristically plain, vernacular, demotic, at ease, as he recreates a world of drifters, railroad wanderers, casual workers, cabin and trailer dwellers, loggers, fishermen, hunters, bar and tavern drinkers, men and women both, white, Indian, and mixed-race, with himself, evidently Carl Wyman in By the Sound, very much amongst them, not watching from apart; and never a necktie to be seen. The kind of the writing, its rural or wilderness settings and the human subjects and conditions it depicts, has as literary antecedents the Hemingway of In Our Time, the Steinbeck of Cannery Row, Faulkner at his less ornate, in "The Old Man" sections of The Wild Palms, for instance. But broadly accessible, loosely realist prose fiction was not the way Dorn was to go.

The way he was to go took him first in 1954 back to Black Mountain. Although Black Mountain existed as a college for only a little over 20 years between 1933 and 1956, it had an impact upon American intellectual and artistic culture out of all proportion to its size and duration. Pedagogically experimental, socially libertarian, intellectually demanding and elitist, but oppositionist and heterodox, its dominating presences were in the earlier years, the abstract painter and modernist theorist, Joseph Albers, former teaching member of the Bauhaus and refugee from Nazi Germany, and from 1948 until its closure, Charles Olson, the historical and speculative thinker and poet at the cusp of modernism and postmodernism. Dozens and dozens were the artists and writers of achievement who came to and from Black Mountain as teachers or students, especially during Olson's rectorship; I'll mention only a representative score. The composer, John Cage; the choreographer, Merce Cunningham; the film director, Arthur Penn, probably still best known for Bonnie and Clyde; the architect, Buckminster Fuller; the painters, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg; the literary critics and social thinkers Edward Dahlberg, Paul Goodman, and Alfred Kazin; the prose fiction-writers, Fielding Dawson and Michael Rumaker; and the poets Robert Duncan, Hilda Morley, Joel Oppenheimer, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson himself, and of course Ed Dorn. Black Mountain was an extraordinary American phenomenon. Short though was the time he spent there, paying his way by carpentry and printing work, its impact on Dorn was profound and pervasive, which is to say the impact of his principal teachers, Olson and Creeley. Olson gave him his theoretical base, his reading list, literally, in the shape of Olson's later published "A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn," his range of reference for lifelong use, and his radical self-confidence. Creeley's influence was something narrower, purer, more essentially poetic. I hear it in "The Rick of Green Wood," not Creeley's voice, but his exquisite ear for the smallest elements of language and his miniaturist artistry. Or as Creeley himself put it: Dorn has "an ear that hears the weights and rhythms of sound as clearly as either wind or water might make them." It is placed first in both Dorn's Collected and Selected Poems and dated beneath, 1956, as none of his other poems are, as if to say "this is the beginning of my work."


(Read "The Rick of Green Wood")

Places West

On leaving Black Mountain, obviously feeling the need to go far west again, he went to San Francisco and stayed there for a year, coming into contact with many of the writers, his contemporaries or immediate seniors, associated with the overlapping cultural groups of Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance - Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, and William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time) - and metaphorically presiding over these his godchildren, as to his irritation they were sometimes called, would have been Kenneth Rexroth, with down the coast the brooding figure of Robinson Jeffers. I've worked extensively on Jeffers over the years so was pleased to hear Ed accord to him one of his highest terms of praise: "Jeffers, oh, he's elegant!" - a description surely not so much of Jeffers's literary style as of his existential stance.

Thence to New Mexico, the time now the late 1950s, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, "working as an assistant to a reference librarian, one of the most interesting jobs I ever had," and Taos, where haunted the shades of Haniel Long, Mary Austin, Mabel Dodge Luhan and D.H.Lawrence. I don't think he was ever much interested in the early English Lawrence but for the American Lawrence and the observer of nature, of birds, beasts, and flowers, he had always the highest regard. In a piece written for the London Observer in 1990 he described Lawrence's nature writings as "a chastisement for the loose thinking which passes for 'ecology'" today and as being "the most comprehensive reflection on our responsibilities to other creatures." And surely the opening line of "Los Mineros," a poem about the dead of a New Mexico mining disaster, "Now it is winter and the fallen snow," is a conscious echo of the first line of Lawrence's awesome, preparatory "The Ship of Death:" "Now it is autumn and the falling fruit/and the long journey towards oblivion." But the most important, the most enduring legacy of his years in New Mexico, and originally perhaps again in part a debt to Lawrence and certainly to Haniel Long and Mary Austin, was the foundation of his scholarly knowledge of and moral, spiritual, and political commitment to Native American peoples, their histories, mythologies, and cultures. This was to find expression here and there throughout his writings but concertedly in the prose-work with photographs, The Shoshoneans of 1966, in the volume of poetry, Reflections of Gran Apacheria of 1974, and in the translations with Gordon Brotherston from the Nahuatl, the Maya, and the Quechua, collected from the work of three decades and published in 1999 under the title, The Sun Unwound: Original Texts from Occupied America.

It was not until 1960, when he was already in his early thirties, that Dorn published his first separate work, the essay, "What I See in The Maximus Poems," - The Maximus Poems being the vast epic, in the line of Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson, upon which Olson had been at work for many years. The Maximus Poems are rooted in Olson's home town, the fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which provided Dorn with the title, "From Gloucester Out," of the grateful and thoughtful and beautiful homage to his tutor and mentor that he also composed at this time. A year later in 1961 his first 'slim volume' of poems, The Newly Fallen, was published by Totem Press. This was a press run by LeRoi Jones, later to be known as Amiri Baraka, the black poet, theatre writer, revolutionary polemicist, and political activist. Dorn and he had recently become the closest of friends, who for many years engaged in a no-holds-barred correspondence about writing, art, and politics in these years when the Civil Rights Movement was looking to wear the bolder shade of Black Power and when the U.S. was embarking on its forty-year quest to undermine and overthrow the Cuban Revolution. Jones's Totem Press invites me to mention the fact that throughout his life Dorn preferred to be published by small, dedicated presses rather than the big, commercial houses: thus, Jones's Totem Press, Harvey Brown's Frontier Press, Black Sparrow, Grey Fox, and in England Gael Turnbull's Migrant Press, Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum, and Nicholas Johnson's Etruscan Books.

In 1961 the Dorns moved a thousand miles or so north from New Mexico to Pocatello, Idaho, where he taught at Idaho State University for four years until 1965 and worked on the poems that were to appear in Geography. Geography was dedicated "To Charles Olson," and in its title and general conception, though less so in individual poems, the volume may seem to be the summation and the culmination of Dorn's debt to Olson, the man who foregrounded geography in his understanding of the human story and who famously opened Call Me Ishmael, his marvellous short book on Melville's Moby-Dick: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America....I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning." Well, that sense certainly underlies and coordinates Dorn's volume. But it is an altogether diverse volume too, in which no less than sixteen of the thirty five poems are simply entitled song or have song in their titles; love songs to his wife, Helène, and for his children; laments; cris de coeur; songs of both political endeavour and political anger. Though Dorn was to be first and foremost a public and political poet, he always held to a conception of poem as song, albeit "language-song rather than music-song," as he idiosyncratically differentiated, and in the 1970s for his second wife, Jenny, he was to put out two volumes, 24 Love Songs, and Songs, Set Two: A Short Count. The poem that I first want to read, though, is not a song but a letter, a public letter, of solace and solidarity. It remains for me an exemplary poem of its kind, but I also want to read it for the personal reason that it was the first of his poems that took my eye and the first of his poems that I in any sense 'taught' - a year before I came to Essex, when I was working at the University of Wales in Aberystwth and conducting a specialist course in American poetry, which would meet, in the sometimes manner of those days, in the back bar of the Bellevue Hotel.


(Read "Mourning Letter, March 29, 1963")

For all the excoriating indignation there, it is restrained within an almost stately formality of address, which contrasts considerably with the fast-paced, breezy scorn and sardonic humour of the extract that I shall read next, albeit both poems emerge from the same source of poverty, suffering, and injustice. This extract is from a three-part poem, entitled "Inauguration Poem #2," the title altogether public and altogether ironic, as if Dorn were orating at the inauguration ceremony of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and addressing all Americans gathered in their hundreds of millions in some vast, natural auditorium. I shall read the closing lines of the first part that refer specifically to the conditions of life in the discarded mining communities of the Kentucky hills and all of the shorter second part that refers generally to the wholesale discarding and uncomprehending of native Americans by the invading and occupying Europeans.


(Read from "Inauguration Poem # 2")

North-Atlantic Gunslinger

Geography was published in 1965, the year Dorn came to Essex, to live successively in Lexden village, within sound "of the rookery in Lexden churchyard," as one of his poems remembers, then at 6 Victoria Road, back of the Royal Grammar School, in what was veritably a poet's house, as it passed from the Northern Irish poet, Bill Rodgers, to the Dorns, and thence to Tom and Val Raworth, and then in a large Victorian house at Ardleigh next to the railway crossing. Penny and I first met him and HelËne in the summer of 1966 by arrangement in the Wagon and Horses at the top of North Hill, when it was a nice, old-fashioned place with several small bars and before it became the preferred watering-hole of the Durham Light Infantry. We all got on, hit it off immediately, one of those rare, charmed occurrences. I think the University gets only one mention in his poetry: "I shifted deftly out of the window/of the new university, the english workers/saunter easily building this thing." I love that materiality, the university as, first, cut down to size, another "thing." But he was wholly committed to his courses and his teaching and without doubt became for a number of his students the most important, formative influence upon their later intellectual lives. This January, after Ed's death, there came to me from Germany, where one of them, Dave Cook, has been living for many years, a four-page letter of grateful reminiscence, all of thirty years on, which concludes: "he was a truly, very, very bright star." The American literature teaching at that time was shared between Ed, George Dekker, and myself, and was organized on both a generic and a regional basis, with the genre courses being focussed on the nineteenth century, on the work therefore mainly of New Englanders and New Yorkers. In the share-out, George took the South and non-fictional prose, I the Middle West and fiction, and Ed the Far West and poetry. Ed's exam questions usually had to be reset. They really were very mysterious, along the lines of - I vaguely remember one- "what connections are there between Whitman's poetics and General Westmoreland's military strategy in Vietnam," which was doubtless amended to "Whitman was quite a good poet. Discuss." Give and take, I suspect that what he in turn most gained from working in this Department was the eighteenth century, the largely eighteenth-century Enlightenment course being even then the foundation course of the School of Comparative Studies, and Donald Davie's strongest scholarly suit being always the eighteenth century, on which throughout his life he continued to write with such extraordinary clarity and perspicacity. In any event, the major writers of that century were to become the English writers for whom Dorn felt most affinity - Swift, Pope, Johnson above all, and Byron, if we can corral Byron into that century as the most Augustan of the romantics. Indeed Dorn has been described by one critic as "Swift trapped in a democracy."

The volume that came out of Dorn's time at Essex and in England was The North Atlantic Turbine, published in 1967. It was a volume with which he later said he came to feel "uncomfortable," perhaps because it is the only volume of his that emanates from outside the American West. As he wrote for the blurb on the jacket: "In The North Atlantic Turbine . . . I have tried to locate another hemisphere. And I want this collection to be the last necessity to work out such locations. . . . Off shore I have missed my country for the first time," - then, lest we mistake this for the beginnings of any sort of booster patriotism, "thanks to an increase of bad news" from there. So these are poems about being an American in England, an often humorously bemused journey of probing exploration and discovery, broadly in the tradition, I remember Donald Davie once remarking, of Hawthorne's English Notebooks and James's English Hours, though I find Dorn's tone to be closer to that of Henry Adams's Education. And they are poems too, as the title of the volume means to imply, about a world, a globe, driven over the centuries by the engine of the North Atlantic nations, European and American, the turbine of trade and money and power and domination. Dorn made a recording of a number of poems from this volume, and to give you the sound of the man and a flavour of his mind and his work at this time I'll play, first, a section from the sequence, "Oxford," taken by Dorn reasonably enough to be, along with Cambridge, one of the quintessences of England; and secondly, the volume's final poem, whose setting and concerns are wholly North American.


(Ed reads from "Oxford" and "The Sundering E.P.Tracks")

In the year of The North Atlantic Turbine's publication, 1967, Dorn also began the writing of what was to be his longest work, eventually a book-length single poem in four parts, his "American Epic," in the line of Hart Crane's The Bridge, Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus Poems. This was Gunslinger, often referred to in abbreviated form as Slinger, whose parts appeared successively between 1968 and 1975, as Dorn lived and worked peripatetically in Colchester back and forth, in Kansas, Chicago, San Francisco, and Ohio. He and Helène had parted by now, and he had remarried an Essex literature student, Jennie Dunbar, mother of his two younger children, Kidd and Maya. And just as continual movement and radical change were the tenor of his life during these years, so is Gunslinger all movement and a change of poetic character.

I suppose it is Gunslinger for which Dorn is now best known; certainly it's the work of his that has attracted most critical attention and analysis; and whether it's his finest achievement or not, it's undoubtedly his most substantial. My difficulty is that, though I admire its brilliance and enjoy reading it at a fast trot, I don't feel in any sort of command talking about it, or just trying to say crisply - for those of you who don't know it - what it is and what it does. It's an epic, a western, an allegory, a satire, a burlesque, a parable, a songbook, a philosophical deconstruction, a political fantasy, a running joke, a picaresque ramble through New Mexico and Nevada, which are less place or setting than stage for endless talk. Like Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, with which it may be usefully associated, it is infused with drugs, grass in the first book, acid in the second, coke in the third and fourth. Said Dorn in an interview, "the drugs are like the facade or the molding on the building." Its characters, a few of whom retain an individual integrity, whilst others coalesce, separate, exchange identities, and reform, include the Gunslinger; Lil the whorehouse madam; Lady Jane the nominal embodiment of marijuana; a talking horse, either cigar-smoking or stoned; Claude LÈvi-Strauss; Heidegger; Kool Everything; Dr. Flamboyant; Portland Bill; Tonto Pronto from Toronto; Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher; Howard Hughes, acting for the power and madness of capitalism, also called RobArt; the Poet, not Ed Dorn personally, but the representative, generic poet; and I, who again is not I, Ed Dorn, but either the ego or the first-person pronoun, and whose death is at one time announced: "What happened to I she asked/his eyes dont seem right. I is dead, the Poet said." But not to worry unduly, I is soon brought back, if not to life, to usage. For want of something succinct and coherent to say about Gunslinger, I'm going to take the wimpish way out and have two others speak for me. First, Donald Davie on its manner: "a jokey poem, high-spirited and good-tempered, carried forward on a steadily inventive play of puns and pleasantries." Secondly, Tom Clark: "The anti-post-industrial-capitalist mock-epic, Gunslinger, is an ambitious, multi-voiced allegorical narrative, [which] plays off pop song and cowboy ballad in assembling an outrageous outlaw metaphysics, extravagantly updating pre-Socratic philosophies and the myths of comic-book gunman and Hollywood/TV frontier hero to fit the subjectivist ethics of the Vietnam-era drug culture." So there you have it! If you're curious, read it, it rattles along.

Simultaneously with the completion of Gunslinger in 1974 appeared Recollections of Gran Apacheria, whose grotesque, comic-book cover-drawing by Dorn's friend, Michael Myers, wittily belies the often solemn nature of the proceedings within. For it is a volume with a single, concentrated purpose: to pay homage to the Apaches and their heroic chiefs, Victorio and Geronimo, to celebrate their nobility, "not in themselves/so much as in their Ideas," and to mourn their defeat, dispossession, and enforced exile. I'll read its final, elegiac poem.


(Read "La Maquina à Houston")

Home in Colorado

In 1977 Dorn took up a teaching-post at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which turned out to be a permanent place of settlement, a home, first in Boulder, latterly in Denver. Over the next decade or so he issued four volumes of poetry, Hello, La Jolla; Yellow Lola; Captain Jack's Chaps; and in 1990 Abhorrences, a sort of daybook of the 1980s, the Reagan years. The poems throughout these volumes are broadly of a kind, a kind that may indeed call in question by some their status as poems. Well, is this a poem? "I'd live on the Moon/if the commute were/a little less." Or this, entitled "Permission Refused:" "I used to say Frisco all the time -/but now that it's OK, I'll stop." To which Dorn might reply, and did: "I'm writing shorter and shorter pieces, which I'm not interested in calling anything, and I don't mean poems, but I mean anything. And yet I'm interested in formulating what the function of them might be." He'd never been much interested in defining poetry or distinguishing between kinds of writing generally. Back in 1960 he'd written: "The distinction as to whether a thing is verse or poetry, or indeed prose bores me;" and elsewhere that there was little difference between poetry and prose or even poetry and talk. Maybe poetry was just rhetorically aware writing, sometimes rhythmic and variously moving, as in motion or emotion, sometimes just a fast shot, hitting or missing. What he knew was that he was a writer, a poet, and the poet's job, the job of the political poet he had now so completely become, was to speak of and to and for the polis and to witness, monitor, mock, expose, abjure. Thus came these 'things,' some of them much more like 'poems' than others, and a few of which I've photocopied for the handout, - things whose function, in which Dorn said he was interested, is ....well, very traditional, to instruct or to please or to move, to anger or laughter or disdain. They're essentially aphoristic and epigrammatic, and one reader, Alan Golding, has interestingly compared and contrasted them with the formally strict epigrams of the the age's leading epigrammatist, J.V.Cunningham. Cunningham and Dorn are of course very different kinds of poet, but share, as Golding observes, "abstract diction and acerbic wit." Our colleague, Jack Hill has written well of Cunningham as one of nature's Romans, whilst of himself Dorn had early written: "My desire is to be/a classical poet." So perhaps they're not so far apart after all.

In some respects Dorn's poetic output of these years may be seen as but an adjunct to his principal activity which, in equal partnership with his wife, Jennie, was the editing, running, financing, and supervisory organization of Rolling Stock. Rolling Stock - still that railroad reference - was a 24 to 42 page newspaper that appeared twice a year between 1981 and 1991. This was neither a journal nor a magazine, but a newspaper - that was the format it had, and that was the kind of thing it was. Dorn had always been interested in the "idea of a newspaper," as, say, Cardinal Newman had been interested in the "idea of a university," and a decade before, as an accompanying sidenote to Gunslinger, he had issued just one number of Bean News, a sort of esoteric tabloid. Rolling Stock was altogether more substantial, and as a from-first-to-last subscriber, I found it, as it reached me here in Colchester, the best newspaper around - seriously! Ed and Jennie did a great deal of the writing, but there were twenty or so other regular correspondents and contributors, of whom I'll mention only those with any sort of Essex connection: Tom Clark, who was literary editor, Tom Raworth, Jeremy Prynne, Gordon Brotherston, Nick Sedgwick, a former student here who wrote a splendid golf column, and Woody Haut, a doctoral student of Jim Philip's in the early 1980s, as I recall, who sent articles from London on Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, amongst others. In terms of foreign coverage, Rolling Stock was especially good on Latin America and the various oppositionist and guerilla struggles there, in Argentina, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile. Native American conditions and causes in both the U.S. and Canada featured large, and all kinds of challenge to the dominant forces of the Reagan/Bush Republican era. How to give any sense of its idiosyncrasy and variousness? - well, just to say I remember enjoying in particular pieces on the Cowboy Poetry festival in Elko, Nevada; on the Havana film festival; on the fifteenth-century Scottish poet, William Dunbar; on C.L.R.James, nicely entitled, in furthest Colorado, remember, "Marxist Cricketer;" a whole special number in 1989 on the crumbling Soviet Union; and the several tributes and memorials to friends and fellow-artists falling by the wayside, Richard Brautigan most poignantly.

Rolling Stock itself fell by that wayside and folded in 1991, or just didn't come out again. There is a time for everything. A couple of years later, for the volume, Way West of 1993, Dorn gathered together stories, essays, and what, rather than poems, he now interestingly called "verse accounts." Herein and elsewhere his judgements upon the United States were becoming ever more severe and contemptuous, upon the United States as a bastion of myopic, self-serving stupidity and upon the United States as simply the turbine that drove the material or materialistic world, global capitalism, I suppose. "We've simply got too much . . . our habits are showing to all the world, and they're bad habits, and they're gargantuan habits. This is what is ordinarily said to be the standard of living. It gets to be monstrous." Or again, "'America' is a smug, hardhearted, unforgiving nation of jackals, which forever slaps itself on its back over how generous, selfless, and idealistic it is. It is the most preposterous propaganda barrage since Goebbels ran an office, in bloodier and more interesting times." Mind you, "forever in America is about as long as it takes the sun to go down. Somewhere around three minutes." He affected to regret that there were no barbarians at the gates, ready to "waste this decadent power." But if all that he latterly said or thought was a calculated insult to established or mainstream America of the political right and centre, he took trouble also to offend the intellectually correct left within the universities, speaking here in defense of the literary canon and the English language:


The whole deconstructionist racket was concocted from long smoldering French resentment over the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. Taken up in recent decades by the self-loathing troops of 'The Canon' bashers in the Humanities enclaves in the U.S., English is the sole target of this linguistic mortar attack - French is not deconstructed, nor German, not Spanish or Italian or Japanese, although since all those languages were either members of the Axis powers or associates, one would think there's plenty of work to be had.

Yes, offence intended, given, and, one gathers, taken, here, there and everywhere. As Tom Raworth observed in his obituary for the Independent, "Dorn suffered fools not at all, and sloppy thinking not for a moment; a lonely position at the best of times, and one that made him almost persona non grata within the academic climate of his homeland." But he enjoyed it, I'm sure. He was, to use Middle West vernacular, an ornery cuss.

Despite that knock at the French there, he happily undertook an exchange year, teaching in the South of France at Montpellier in 1996. It sparked in him what might seem to be a completely new interest and enthusiasm, for the mediaeval Cathars of that region, heretical, subversive of papal authority, dangerously popular, and at length violently suppressed in the Albigensian crusade. Dorn set to work this time on another long poem, which was on every page one part verse, one part prose, and one part what I can only call, archaicly, telegrammese. It was entitled, after the Languedoc region in which Montpellier is situated, Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics. Sections of it appeared in a volume called High West Rendezvous, which was published in 1997 by Etruscan Books, who I understand are to bring out the whole of it, or all that he wrote of it, sometime this year. "A Defense of Heresy and Heretics." Perhaps not a new interest and departure then, just the latest shape of a lifelong project, a lifelong mission, the latest manifestation of a lifelong, consistent character. For Dorn was of course a born heretic, a devotee of heresy and heterodoxy, anarchic, individualistic, nonconforming, in a word, going right back to his Middle Western roots, Protestant, a word he stood by, cherished, waved proudly. Speaking together over the telephone after Donald Davie's death in 1995, I must have sounded surprised by the evident extent to which, despite their great differences, Dorn identified with Davie. "Well, we're both Protestants," he said, and laughed. And in Languedoc Variorum, that "Defense of Heresy and Heretics," Davie is saluted as "a truly reconstructed Protestant soldier," whose late volume, "To Scorch or Freeze is the most economical rebuke this age in moral free-fall is likely to get." Of course, unlike the devout Davie, Dorn was no Christian Protestant, no Christian at all, hostile to any monotheism, but a deep-dyed, original Protestant none the less, in the sense of one registering a radical, individual protest against any controlling, monolithic centre of power or opinion, whether in the sixteenth century called Catholicism or in the twentieth or twenty first State Socialism or Liberal Democracy or Political Correctness or New Labour or Market Forces or Common Sense or of course established or institutional Protestantism. One of his poems, or things, from Abhorrences is entitled "The Protestant View:" "that eternal dissent/and the ravages of/faction are preferable/to the voluntary/servitude of blind/obedience." But Protestant doesn't sound quite right, does it, because of the necessary Christian context; nor Protester, because of the mass, communal associations. ProTESTant, it'll have to be, protesting ceaselessly and individually in the name of morality, intelligence, awareness.

In May 1997 Dorn was diagnosed as suffering from pancreatic cancer and told he could expect only six months to live. Treatment, care, will, and fortune stetched that six months to more than two and a half years, during which time he continued to work, to travel, and to give readings. In his obituary for The Guardian James Campbell wrote of how in London in late 1998, "Dorn clearly ill, gave a strange, mesmerising performance, which was somewhere between poetry, stand-up comedy and personal tragedy.....The overall impression was of an almost unbearable sensitivity." And as recently as last August he came again to England, to read in Bristol, in the company of Jeremy Prynne, who honoured his friend by agreeing to read in public for the first time in more than thirty years.

I shall end this memoir with a note that hasn't quite been heard yet. It's not his voice, but they're his words, it's his song, and it's pure Ed. He was a country boy and a westerner, and this is a country and western song, written by him in 1995 and sung by his friend, Greg Keeler, with whom he would go on trips, fishing and such, up through the vastness of Montana. Montana, last redoubt of all kinds of political outlaw of extreme right or anarcho-left, where heavily armed survivalists await government agents or apocalypse, and where the unibomber was at length tracked down and taken. As the song says, "Some of them dead/Called to their last tattoos." With due acknowledgement to Walt Whitman, father of American poetry, "So long, Ed, Camerado."


(Keeler sings "Montana and Montaner")

April 2000