Academic journal article Chicago Review

A Map of Locations

Academic journal article Chicago Review

A Map of Locations

Article excerpt

Edward Dorn (1929-1999) should need no introduction. Regardless what readers may not know of his fugitive early and late work, his masterpiece Gunslinger (1975) remains in print, and is both "a pageant of its time" and still relevant to ours. Most serious readers of poetry can be expected to know Dorn's name, and could readily locate him among the ramages and moieties that constitute contemporary Anglophone poetry's kinship chart: there he is, over there with the Black Mountaineers (whether this is a taxon of convenience or substance) arrayed under and around Charles Olson's decisive influence. But it is also understandable that Dorn would need an introduction. His career doesn't submit to easy parsing. Most of his books are out of print. (1) And much of his work after Gunslinger functions as a department of disturbances, running athwart whatever linguistic, political, or cultural securities or sincerities we might hold. If he has not been absorbed into the canon of postwar American poetry it is exactly because he is unabsorbable. This is both the value and the difficulty of his work.

Edward Dorn, American Heretic is not exactly intended to introduce Dorn to the 21st century. Introduce Dorn? "Not even a sunrise could quite manage that," quipped Robert Creeley in his preface to Dorn's Selected Poems (Grey Fox Press, 1978). More to the point, there are already a number of excellent efforts to that end. (2) Instead, this issue of Chicago Review intends to confirm Dorn's location on the map by presenting a number of late poems along with several different types of dispatches that show Dorn in action with his contemporaries. These include a cross-section of his correspondence with Tom Raworth, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and others between 1960 and '62; a 1977 poetry workshop that takes etymology and geography as two coordinates for a writing assignment; and a 1990 interview that sparks from Dorn's fiction and poetry to Olson to politics to Eliot, with various vivid waystations between. The essays on Dorn collected here fill several gaps in the archival and scholarly record, supplying context for his middle and late work (especially the central involvement printing and publishing was for Dorn--see Alastair Johnston on Zephyrus Image and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn on Rolling Stock), analysis and evaluation of his poetry and prose (Keith Tuma looks at Chemo Sabe and other late work; Dale Smith considers The Shoshoneans), a description of the man (in John Wright's memoir), and a proposal for collecting his correspondence (made by David Southern). Each of these essays demonstrates the kind of care and interest that persists for Dorn's work, while Dorn's own words in this issue reveal the generosity, the bracing intelligence, and the style of engagement that make him worthy of our attention as we slide into the 21st century now off to a calamitous start. In the interest of setting the scene and whetting new readers' appetites, the next few pages of this preface offer a quick sketch of Dorn's writing, and try to suggest something of his perduring value as a poet and a thinker.

Dorn's writing is marked from the start by its intense clarity. It can be lyrical or descriptive, but those capacities are always in the service of a more ambitious and idiosyncratic project: an apprehension of the American human condition. The more he wrote the more this project gained the force of a seizure. The best poems in Dorn's early books are lyrical, colloquial, dense, and analytical--often in the same poem. This work is motivated by a flinty didactic tendency that attends to a range of historical and socioeconomic circumstances: the Depression-era downstate Illinois of his childhood (carefully reconstructed by Tom Clark in his recent biography, reviewed by Lisa Jarnot in this issue); the High West of his adult years, and the "cow-boys and indians" that haunt it; the "North Atlantic turbine" of commerce and culture investigated in the 1967 book with that title. …

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