Academic journal article Chicago Review

Late Dorn

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Late Dorn

Article excerpt

Edward Dorn is the dead poet I miss most these days, when the poetry passing for political is about as forceful as a garden hose sans nozzle. In the last decades of his life, Dorn was mostly writing a topical poetry, and that is exactly what we need right now--a topical poetry unafraid of statement but refusing the easy solidarities of agitprop. Dorn's is a topical poetry grounded in a reading of history, a poetry in which history is made topical, as relevant to the present as a slash-and-burn cartoon. That kind of thing hasn't been at all fashionable of late--Vietnam is about as far back as most political poetry has recently been able to think. This is as true of the counter-discourses of post-constructivist poetry as it is of the poetry of witness employing normative representational modes. The politics of poetic form has mattered a great deal to Language Poets and other post-constructivists, but this is not what politics means in Dorn's late work, which can unabashedly make use of the simplest of poetic forms or explore more complex structures. Genre and form can seem mere conveniences for him, their premises easily abandoned, as if in these late poems Dorn is forever impatient to get to the point. This is not always for the better. In a poem like "El Peru / Cheyenne Milkplane" (published in Sagetrieb and High West Rendezvous) satire and farce nearly collapse beneath the weight of critique.

Less the pedant than his mentors Olson and Pound, Dorn rarely bothered with citation and never forwarded a bibliography, but he read widely and voraciously. He thought of himself, he said in one interview, as a "theorist." But he is like no theorist ever published in Critical Inquiry. Read Dorn's little essay "Adios Jefferson, Hasta La Vista Madison, Chinga Su Madre Adams: the scapegoating of the Angloamerican literary inheritance by the descendants of the Armada" in Way West and you get a taste of some of what occupied him in later years. That and the poems about heresy and heretics are one place to start. The essay seems to have been occasioned by widely publicized complaints about Columbus Day in the early 1990s. Like the poem "Ah Yes, Columbus Day, No Mail"--which begins

     A lot of Native Americans
     Blame Columbus--that's like berating
     Napalm while ignoring Dow Chemical
                         (Sagetrieb, 52)

--part of its point is to show how trivial the protests about the holiday are, and how silly the scapegoating of Columbus is in light of the clashing of empires, peoples, and ideologies that made the New World. Dorn thought that "multiculturalism" in most of its discursive forms in "ethnic crazy" America ("Tribe," Chemo Sabe, np) is "the cult par excellence of late imperialism" (High West, 54), dogma easily made to serve the agendas of corporate internationalism. Dorn's late work is significantly informed by reading in the economic, religious, and legal history of Europe going back as far as the First Crusade, which is not only an historical event for him but a living, still relevant sign of the violence of religious orthodoxy and all that it represents as the legacy of Europe in the world: hierarchy, the management of difference and dissent, the power of corporate elites not so hidden beneath humble creeds. How many other poets are prepared to defend the legacies of the Common Law of "the arrogant islanders" (Way West, 269) as compared to the legal and cultural outflow of the Code Napoleon? Or, rather, how many know enough legal history even to argue with Dorn?

Dorn's chief enemies are authority, orthodoxy, and the production of conformity; the exploitation of the third and fourth worlds by the United States and Europe; the stupidity that tolerates all of this and tolerance itself as a mantra of political liberalism. Every-where Dorn looks and no matter how far back he sees barbarism (though he had what was for him a sentimental weakness for the eighteenth-century for its having given birth to the United States). …

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