Charles Potts
from Cento Magazine

The Dorn Story


I spent six days with Dorn in March of 1999 and a few hours with him in Denver and Boulder eight months later, three weeks before he died. I hadn't seen him since October of 1976 when I set up a reading for him at the University of Utah. I visited him once in San Francisco, spent the night at his house in Chicago in 1971, and took four Dorn classes at Idaho State University between 1963 and 1965. I always opened his letters with the eagerness John Muir would rush out of a tent during an earthquake in the Sierras with, certain that I was going to learn something.

Edward Dorn was never my favorite poet. When I was a student of his my favorite contemporary poets were Robert Creeley and Philip Whalen. As I learned more about the subject, Robert Duncan and Thomas McGrath became my favorites. When I met Dorn I had already been familiar from the age of sixteen with the writer who will guide me right off the face of the earth, Feodor Dostoevski. Among the first and most enduring things I learned from Dorn was that it is possible to put an emotional and dramatic narrative into a vernacular poem, rather than in prose, and consequently leave out several thousand pages of he said, she said. Up to that point I thought I wanted to be a novelist. From that point on, I became a poet.

"I still have the notion in our time that a poem ought to make something clear as well as be beautiful," was the way Dorn ended a review he published of W.S. Merwin's The Moving Target in Poetry magazine in 1964. I still like that notion. A poem ought to make something clear as well as be beautiful.

Dorn was a great classroom teacher. He was a chain smoker in the 1960s and brought a vivid intensity into the seminar room. He harangued us vituperatively occasionally, once because not a single poetry student had attended a lecture by a visiting architect. "Architects determine to a great degree what the built environment is going to look like," he shouted. "If poets don't care what the world looks like, then who the hell will?"

Dorn made a diligent attempt to help every student, to understand work that may very well have not been understandable. He took seriously his description of himself: "I am a classical poet. My Gods have been men and women. I renew my demand that presidents and chairmen everywhere be removed to a quarantine outside the earth somewhere." Dorn believed and acted on the classical notion that it was part of a poet's imperative to defend lost causes and champion oppressed people.

I've met very few people even remotely as well informed as Edward Dorn. He read a wide variety of subjects with the same depth and intensity with which he wrote and lived. He once said to me, "You never miss anything, do you," which I took to be a compliment and part of the basis of our shared admiration. We also shared a common, hardscrabble, rural background.

Dorn never rested on his laurels, quite possibly because there were very few to rest on. What were his laurels other than a DH Lawrence Fellowship at the Lawrence Ranch in New Mexico, where he did what, water the horses? and an American Book Award in 1980 plus an American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, both from the Before Columbus Foundation, neither containing any prize money. I could give two awards a week if I don't have to fund them. I took flak from Dorn himself for confusing the Lifetime Achievement Award from Before Columbus with an NEA Lifetime Achievement Award, which actually comes with $50,000, in the liner notes to Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry. He said he was used to the abuse. If you can bear to read the hundreds if not thousands of poets substantially his inferior who have received, as he never did, an NEA grant for creative writing, you may also be learning the price of seriousness in an infotainment culture.

Am I entitled to guess that the "genius" grants from the Insurance Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, will be restricted to those writers who have sufficient genius to keep their opinion of the insurance business to themselves?

The laurels that Dorn is getting away with is our attention. And by our I mean to include here, but not limit to, some of the places and people that got stirred up and altered beyond former recognition by his presence. There were 50-60 writers reading in March, 2000, in Pocatello, Idaho, at the Rocky Mountain Writer's Festival including his old and dear friend, the painter-poet Raymond Obermayr, the man who suggested he bail out of the University of Illinois and check out Black Mountain. Dorn was the chief instigator of the magazine Wild Dog and the prime creator of the enduring Pocatello scene in the first half of the 1960s. Tom Raworth has eloquently testified on how Dorn enlivened England when he went there for the first of his Fulbright Fellowships in 1965 which bailed him out of Idaho State. I can feel some of you thinking a Fulbright Fellowship is one type of laurel and you are right. You'll be even more right when you realize he got those fellowships, not because some American appreciated what Dorn had done at that point, but because the Englishman and scholar Donald Davie insisted that if the State Department send anybody to the University of Essex, it be Edward Dorn, and not some more politically correct and irrelevant substitute they were trying to palm off on them.

Back from England, Dorn made deep impressions in Chicago, inspiring among others, Al Simmons, the founder of what has become the Taos Poetry Circus, which in their own humble words, bills itself as the nation's premier literary festival. At Kent State University, he stimulated to a penetrating degree, Ralph La Charity. In Lawrence, Kansas, at the University, magazines like Tansy sprang up around his dynamic presence.

The Dorns toured Eastern Washington last March, giving three readings in 72 hours in Walla Walla, Spokane and Pullman. No one had ever done that before and it is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Dorn read three times in three days and never used any words twice except "and" and "the." The final reading at WSU was videotaped. I put this fluky tour together and Dorn got paid at Eastern Washington University in Spokane because his old friend, the novelist John Keeble, happened to be chair of the Creative Writing Department there. He got paid at Washington State in Pullman because Jim Elmborg, author of A Pageant of Its Time: Gunslinger and the 60s, used to teach there. Dorn got paid in Walla Walla because I play tennis with Tom Cronin and Dan Lamberton, the President of Whitman College and the Director of the Humanities Program at Walla Walla College respectively.

Dorn taught for twenty years at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn published Rolling Stock, a magazine of eclectic cultural sanity. Another example of the laurels accorded to Edward Dorn is provided by the treatment he received from the University of Colorado during his fatal illness. Dorn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after having taught for eighteen and a half years. He was appropriately given a year's sick leave, appropriate because more than a third of the victims of pancreatic cancer don't survive a year after diagnosis. But Dorn was plucky and did survive as another third of the victims of pancreatic cancer do. Comes the end of his year of sick leave and the bean counters at the University discover he has only taught for nineteen and a half years. In order to be eligible for his pension, which he had been paying into all that time, the university insisted that he return to teaching for another six months.

Isn't that a wonderful academic touch, to prop up a nearly dead poet scarecrow fashion in front of his classes to make the digital requirements of their pension system pencil out?

I'd like to suggest at least one reason among many why Dorn has acquired the laurels of our, also unfunded, attention. Dorn's approach to poetry, unlike many of his more famous and more useless, more highly rewarded colleagues in the general concept movement of postmodernism, was dynamic rather than static. The typical postmodern poet arrived at a style that got him or her the requisite attention. They then proceeded to repeat variations of it indefinitely as if style were more significant than substance. Dorn's style changed with the pressures of his environment as a vivid response to altered circumstances. It is possible to hear the changes in his dynamic style from the early lyrics and didactic odes through the dramatic narrative repartee of Gunslinger to the pithy satiric epigrams of Abhorrences and on to the multidimensional approach in Langue d'Oc Variorum. I share Tom Clark's belief that this later work, when finally assembled and published in toto, will generate as much interest and praise as Gunslinger already has.

Changing styles dynamically can be fatal to the marketing of art. But for us it represents the triumph of process over product: one voice, many tones and manners. Style is a necessary component of art, but it is not the reason for its existence. Substance trumps style.

I feel blessed to have known Dorn and his work, even as imperfectly and sporadically as I did. Dorn made a difference in American life. From 1974 when he first suggested it, we had been desultorily planning to do a tour of the Olde West together. Since that won't be happening, it appears I have been and will be making that tour indefinitely with others and by myself.

I took a long slow train ride with Dorn on the Portland Rose in 1964, from Pocatello to Portland and back, to attend an academic clambake known as Northwest Manuscript Day at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The beautiful secretary of the ISU English Department, whose name after nearly forty years has escaped me, met us at the Pocatello depot with a six pack of beer and a sack of homemade sandwiches to get our trip off on the right lovely note. We watched elk feed out of the domeliner as it slid across the Blue Mountains and rattled through the Columbia Gorge, its greenery interspersed with waterfalls.

The Eugene event itself was a field day for high-toned establishment poets to ridicule the original work of youth, a fitting introduction to official "Northwest" poetry. We met mel buffington and Ron Bayes from La Grande in Eugene and that was the beginning of a fine alliance with the genuine poets of Oregon. Dorn also read in Edward Van Alysteyn's living room, one of the editors of Coyote's Journal. CJ was the magazine created to accommodate the work that had just been driven off the U of O campus as the editors had gotten sacked from their positions at The Northwest Review. The issue that got them in trouble with the Christian legislature for taking the Lord's name in vain, had work by Oregon native, Philip Whalen of The Dalles, some Charles Bukowski, and a translation of the undoubtable Antonin Artaud's "Pour En Finir Avec Le Judgment de Dieu," or "To Have Done With the Judgment of God." Is there anything as valuable and rambunctious as Whalen, Bukowski or Artaud currently being published with funding from the legislatures of the Northwest in their pitiful universities? These legislators will be the last people to escape the judgment of God.

The last time I saw Dorn his body had desiccated to angelic consistency. He couldn't have weighed more than 80 pounds. His hair was very blonde. He chose his words carefully and spoke with effort. We trouped to the movies in a Brazil-like cinema in downtown Denver and returned to the Dorn's living room with take-out pizza. Reluctant to leave, I said a common thing, "I'll see you later."

"When?" he asked immediately.

"The next time I come to town."