from Cento Magazine
On Ed Dorn's Gunslinger
This essay originally appeared in Bob Grumman's Comprepoetica
Gunslinger, Edward Dorn
with a critical introduction by Marjorie Perloff
Duke University Press, PO BOX 90660, Durham, NC 27708-0660
1995, 200 p, $16.95
"A Pageant of Its Time": Edward Dorn's Slinger and the Sixties,
James K. Elmborg
Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York etal, 1998
146 p, NPL
(Studies in Modern Poetry #6, Peter Baker, Towson State University, general editor.)
Sagetrieb, Edward Dorn: Special Issue
Volume 15 No. 3, Winter 1996
National Poetry Foundation
Room 302, University of Maine
5742 Neville Hall
Orono Maine 04469-5752
262 p, $9.
There is no longer any where to resist the reading of Gunslinger from. In "A Pageant of Its Time": Edward Dorn's Slinger and the Sixties, James K. Elmborg has written a very good book explicating a great poem. Elmborg's claim in his preface that "I think Gunslinger is perhaps the most important poem of the last half of the twentieth century...(xii)," is here repeated and restated for the purpose of removing the "perhaps." The only poems on this scale with which Gunslinger can be usefully compared are Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend, and Sharon Doubiago's Hard Country. Elmborg's Metahodos, as they say in Black Mountain Speak, is to correlate the composition of Gunslinger to Dorn's essential grounding in the social and economic reality of his understood surroundings. This very useful practice permits generous and mystery popping insights into passages hitherto misunderstood by critics and casual readers. "The poem's subject is nothing less than the survival of intellect and moral integrity in the postmodern world" (105), according to Elmborg. It is a worthy subject for the greatest long poem in American literature.
Alongside the contexualization of the various time periods and locations where Dorn lived as he wrote the four books of Gunslinger plus the section called "The Cycle," Elmborg surveys a substantial portion of the published critiques of the poem. Elmborg builds and extends those opinions he finds useful and offers insight into those he finds mistaken or lacking. An extensive bibliography of "Works Cited" on Gunslinger is included and it is apparent that interest in the poem is reaching critical mass. This scholarly aspect of the work provides a pertinent starting point for further inquiries. The poem has been admitted into the literature, if reluctantly in some quarters. The work now, as always, is to locate the poem's maximal audience.
Elmborg begins his inquiry with a "Preface" where he registers his opinion of the poem's importance, and an "Introduction" in which he very wisely locates the "...1960s as that period from roughly 1965 to 1974--..." (1). Ten year periods, decades of unitary social significance, have rarely in this century conformed to the literal decade, ie 1960-1969. Even though "Dorn took up a position stubbornly outside mainstream culture" (5), Gunslinger was in fact received enthusiastically from the beginning, at least by people who have given Dorn's poetry the fine attention truly original writing deserves. By the time the complete composition was first published by Wingbow, the encomiums included Thomas McGuane's "Gunslinger is a fundamental American Masterpiece," and Robert Duncan's "Let me be among those who acclaim Gunslinger as one of the poems of the era, of the one we are going into, or the era Gunslinger begins to create for us."
This sense from Duncan that the poem begins to create a new era for us will eventually become apparent to everyone and the issue of the establishment's or the academy's equally stubborn refusal to acknowledge the poem and recognize the new era itself will be taken up later. Elmborg's "Pageant," a six chapter book with notes, index and bibliography, considers the work in chronological sequence. Chapter one, "Between Here and Formerly," takes for its title, as do the other chapters, succinct lines of poetry from the text of the poem. Elmborg applies his intended method of correlating the poem to its social and historical era, first to the Dorn poetry that preceded Gunslinger, on his way to writing what "...might be described as a biography of the poem" (xii). Dorn's career can be viewed in approximately three components, pre-Gunslinger, Gunslinger, and post-Gunslinger. Throughout the stylistic development, Dorn has not wobbled on his pivot. "While Gunslinger seems in many ways radically different from Dorn's previous poetry, it grows naturally from his earlier career. Gunslinger is neither intensely personal nor overtly political, but it does employ the Western motifs of Hands Up!, the geographical method of "The Land Below" and Geography, and an awareness of the systems of language and power that Dorn explores in North Atlantic Turbine" (16). Elmborg also points out that the terminal poem in North Atlantic Turbine, "An Idle Visitation," is in fact a version of the opening sequence of Gunslinger, which contains the literal signal of the enhanced attitude: "I have no wish to continue/ my debate with men" (5). A "tectonic" shift has occurred and Gunslinger is the result.
It would be tedious in a brief review to discuss the tremendous insights in each chapter of Elmborg's text. His methods are sound. From a combination of a close and since close, sympathetic and enthusiastic reading of the text, with quotes from Dorn's interviews and other occasions when Dorn responded to questions about the poem, with generous references to the locations and social circumstances of the poem's composition, and further with the aforementioned survey of the other correct and incorrect critical responses to the poem, Elmborg makes a very strong case for the immediate admission of this poem into the canon of great literature. Elmborg is at his most useful in elucidating "The Cycle," in correlating the circumstances at Lawrence, Kansas, to the poem, and at documenting the shifts in attitude from one book to the next of the poem itself, for Gunslinger, like all great literature, manifests a dynamic engagement with its circumstances, rather than a static one.
A great treat awaits those who are yet ignorant of Gunslinger. Elmborg has a good time discussing the attempts that have been made to place Gunslinger in a genre. Is the poem comic opera, comedy, an anti-epic, an allegory, mock-epic, or a romance. It is all and none of the above. These futile attempts to pigeonhole a work that breaks down categories, defies authority and reduces if not eliminates distinctions are themselves somewhat comical. Literature exists outside the university English Departments. While some of it is there being routinely contaminated with redundant exegesis, literature's more permanent repose is the minds of people willing to have their states elevated and their intellects instructed while their emotions are assuaged and purged. Obviously a single great poem cannot break the university monopoly on irrelevance, but Gunslinger is certainly one of the ones that is having that unintentional effect. It is also, for the record, the greatest contribution to civilization made on cocaine since Sigmund Freud's The [Mis]Interpretation of Dreams.
In order to travel to the end of the poem with its merry band of travelers, it is necessary to come into the poem on the right wave length. From up here on the mesa where Gunslinger has lifted us, the verse works like capillary action. Which way was that preposition going? Who put the squeeze on you now? The comedic effect is achieved and its valence is determined by the sheer differential of the perspective. It is not necessary that comedy be light or dark. It can be heavy and light handed simultaneously. Shakespeare's best "tragic" plays are and so is Gunslinger. Its effects are transformational rather than transcendental.
In order for a poem to be an epic, something heroic has to take place. In the case of Gunslinger, that heroicism is language itself. One of the talking characters in the poem is "I." "I" plays a role not unlike that of the straight man who keeps asking questions that the answers to are more or less already understood by his companions. That is, until they discover that he is dead.
The question of what becomes of "I" is answered thusly:
Keep in mind that these characters are riding in a stagecoach with a horse capable of speech and of rolling joints and that the six driverless horses have just stopped to pick up a hitchhiker named Kool Everything. Kool Everything is transporting a five-gallon can of LSD and the issue of what to do with I's body lest it decompose in their laps gets resolved by pouring I full of the LSD.
These characters are on a mission which is picking up momentum:
In the middle of all this psychedelic riffraff, a trip conducted along the lines of many million others, with the constant breaking and entering of the conversation stream by individuals loaded down by their own weight, many very positive admonitions break thru. The "Purity of the Head" is a noble goal, or at least it ought to be in what is left of The Enlightenment. Dorn has composed a great poem in a time of colossal social stupidity that has been effectively disguised, if not entirely, by the media and their hand maidens in the university system.
In order to get under this scar and see it for what it really is, "I" had to die.
I returns later in "Book IIII" as the secretary to Parmenides. Meanwhile the readers are treated to a feast of "presysntactic metalinguistic urgency," "terrific actualism," an "ABSOLUTE LINGUATILT SURVEY SITE," "a cherry pit/ emerging from the anus of George Washington," and a "double hydrocarbon" hustling the future. The group of course is curious as to what I's immersion in the batch was like.
One of the apparent discomforts of the academy with Gunslinger is the fact that the anticipated final confrontation at four corners between the Mogollones and the Anythingarian Single Spacers controlled by Robart (the Gunslinger transmorgrification of the historical Howard Hughes) never takes place. What traditionalists must be reading as a dramatic letdown, no stage littered with dead bodies such as the murderous climax of Hamlet for example, seems in fact to be the escape of a peculiarly indomitable villainy. It is as if there were yet possible a sequel after the purity of the head was reestablished and maintained, where the wrecking ball transnational politics and economics has taken to The Enlightenment, the environment, and ordinary people world-wide, could finally be shutdown. The psychedelic heroes "...dont care who wins/ None of that bunch trusts us/ and if they werent so careless/ they'd trust us even less" [.]
As it is, Robart on what is described as "Not exactly an ordinary cow," (196) is headed if not for the border, perhaps "it's a naked singularity/ he must be headed for Siberia!" (196). Gunslinger by this time employs more and more Spanish in its lines as well as such new characters as Taco Desoxin, among others, who show up where "we also kick the perpendiculars outa right anglos" (167) and things on the confrontation plane are described as "It's like Brutalidad, quarks/.../holding a hatful of dinosaur piss" (194). It is typical of the timelessness of this poem that just when you think your totally in outer space, "dinosaur piss," or in the case of this week's (7-20-1998) newspapers, it's dinosaur shit, that has been unwrapped and is now being mined for its DNA.
The last strophe in the poem is in unitalicized Spanish, the language that much of the rest of the history of the American West is now slowly being re-written in. One of Gunslinger's gentle admonitions is "Do not deny in the new vanity/ the old, original dust" (193). I think what's really frying the academic bunnies is a reluctance to admit that they and their progeny will have to learn Gunslinger well enough to one day teach it as the preeminent example of American Realism.
And if that won't drive you to reach for your stash of drugs in this multifaceted pharmaceutical catastrophe, what will? What elevates Gunslinger into an echelon above The Cantos [the beak of Pound's ego problem] and The Maximus Poems [still strungout on the poet's considerable ego] is the process of putting "I" into suspended animation for most of the poem resulted in the "ego" function being dispersed into many other characters. Pound and Olson compose largely in a monotone from a single enlightened perspective and the result too often is monotonous political cant, however righteous, and not poetry. The salubrious effect of Dorn's inspiredly different approach is the delivery of the poetry from many competing perspectives, much as in a great Shakespeare play with its many talking heads as contrasted with the dreadfully dull Miltonic sappiness of Paradise Lost. Get back and read the poem and have your state elevated. Get into the new era. Take Dorn and Elmborg with you. They can save you a ton of time.
The Sagetrieb special Dorn issue is like six small books in one including a facsimile reprint tipin of Bean News, the psychedelic newspaper that followed the action of Dorn and his acolytes. The other five parts in aesthetic order are a forty page spread of recent Dorn poems, great essays on the work by Peter Michelson and Burton Hatlen, the annotations to Gunslinger by Stephen Fredman and Grant Jenkins, and an essay by Grant Jenkins. We're absent the space and time to adequately treat the depth and complexity of all the ideas generated by the essays, but I will try to describe the work and recommend it be taken seriously.
"The Denver Landing--11 Aug 1993" is a top drawer satire on what could be called the Pope's rowboat ride to Denver and the filthy "counter reformation." This poem could be drop shipped whole into The Temple's aborted sequence on "The Rest of the Reformation" as it is loaded with primary reasons. In "Aboard the Tan Am With Odin, a Dog of Judgment" Dorn demonstrates he knows how to get inside a metaphor and extend it every laterally. Here we find:
Dorn's commitment to the work is also clearly restated: "The sheer writing of the poem must be our shelter."
The poem "Jerusalem" from the series "Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics" employs effectively on the page, a hypertext style of the poem per se on the top of the page, the middle of each page is given to "Subtexts & Nazdaks" and the bottom is a sendup on the stock tickers at the bottom of the TV screen, all three sections separated one from the other by a string of paragraph signs and a religious club symbol. Shall we wait around in the gutters for the moment when "the Living shall Email the Dead." This is high grade poetry from a master poet still at the peak of his powers.
Peter Michelson's essay, "Edward Dorn, Inside the Outskirts," is exceptionally good on Dorn's methods, preoccupations and results. Michelson is right on a hundred and fifty points and only mistaken on one or two. He reminds us that Dorn's preoccupation is with rational attention, mentions the Rexroth effect on Dorn and suggests that it may be even more pervasive than the Olson effect, correctly locates the great poetry in the repartee, and points out the purposes of the various philosophers subsumed into the text and backgrounding of Gunslinger. Michelson rightly dismisses the noise that Epstein and Gioia throw into the arena, but he is mistaken in the phrase "practitioners of public poetry," even though his examples, Ginsberg, Dorn, Rich, and Baraka, are as well known as we can make them. There is no such thing as public poetry in the United States. I've lived and worked my entire life among the public. Only the merest, infinitismally small number of them have even the faintest idea what poetry is and they are not apt to be induced to learn. Dorn in a poem entitled "Dismissal," speaking of Ezra Pound:
The public can tell you the names of Pound and Ginsberg but they haven't read more than two lines of the work. Poetry is public in the same sense that the judgments of the superior courts of Okanogan County are public; you can find them if you have to but nobody knows ahead of time what they are. That poetry is intensely debated among those people who seek their sacred paths within a six-foot radius of university English departments doesn't make the work public.
Burton Hatlen's "Toward a Common Ground: Versions of Place in the Poetry of Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, and Theodore Enslin," is a high quality piece of criticism. He nails several of the essential Olson limitations, some of which can be found in Olson's preoccupation with Jung, and the pathological degeneration of Olson's mythos regarding the relationships between male and female, man and woman. "The explanation lies, I think, in Olson's increasing tendency simply to collapse the personal, the local, and the historical." It could also be the degenerative effects of a Catholic propadeuticism.
Hatlen under the influence of much classical backgrounding, persistently insists that Gunslinger is a mock-epic, a term he may not find pejorative, but it is. He claims "...the effect is to dissolve all epic certainties in a corrosive bath of irony." I'm willing to acknowledge the poem giving us a bath in corrosive irony, but if ever a culture deserved to be linguistically eviscerated, this is it. I've read enough epics to know that certainty is not one of the things they left me with. Gunslinger, referred to above as an example of realism, leaves you on the street alone in a vicious system at the mercy of such friends and other arrangements as you can make. This truth, being the truth, is the most useful kind of certainty. I'll take Hatlen on Enslin at face value. Hatlen admits that what he misses in Dorn and Enslin is "a sense of the possibility of a politics that might allow us to act within a public scene, in our historical moment." Could anyone possibly be getting or ever require such a sense of politics from a close reading of Shakespeare? Hatlen seems in fact to be lamenting the absence of Olson's most crippling limitation: the notion that there could ever be a politics that would resemble a solution.
The "Annotations" to Gunslinger are by turns, instructive, amusing, irrelevant and obvious. They'll be most useful to people completely in the dark. Jenkins' "Ethics of Excess" apparently written while he was a student, (it is well known what being a student can do to de-arrange a mind) is confused and too heavily laden with extraneous references to be of much use. To have his ideas taken seriously they will need to be detoxified, as in a book length Chomskian treatment where the juice would probably not be worth the squeeze. "Dorn breaks a great, unwritten rule of narrative: consistent character names." I thought consistency was the hemoglobin of bleeding harts. Inconsistent character names do not diminish the work of Dostoevsky. It's only a typo, but reference is made in Jenkins' essay to Dr. Flamboyant's "Turning Machine." It's cited more accurately if incompletely in the "Annotations" at page 135, line 20 as a "Turing Machine," so at least the double entendre on "tour" is maintained. A turning machine sounds like a railroad roundhouse or a rotisserie rather than a model for computer simulation. In his Coda, Jenkins writes, "I cannot end this essay without qualifying or unsaying some of my statements about the ethic in Gunslinger." "Unsay?" How about re-write? Isn't that why Dorn referred to Universities, among other places, as natural centers of double talk.