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Skip Fox reviews

Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, by Tom Clark

Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002. 434 pp.

This piece is 2,500 words or about six printed pages long.

In a 1977 interview with Stephen Fredman, Ed Dorn said, famously, “My readers are the people who have read me. I know almost exactly how many they are, and I even know a large percentage of them personally. And by statistical extension I know them all” (7-8). In the twenty-two years until his death, this would remain essentially true, and it remains the case to this day, with no wider prospect for the near future, due both to Dorn’s subtleties as an artist and his consistent open interrogation of and resistence to unconsidered opinion paraded as thought, a sentimental fog put forward as honest emotion, and avarice in the guise of business-as-usual. Yet amid his disdain for humanity as practiced, Dorn continued to suggest that man had possibilities for a far higher state of existence. That is, it’s easy to be an idealist, especially if one doesn’t have to mind the evidence. What Dorn came to do was hard. His way narrow. At least it seemed narrow, amid the sprawl. Or take Amiri Baraka’s elegant “I dug Ed Dorn because he wd rather / Make you his enemy / Than lie” ( Link). Indeed, in the intervening years he has been dropped from the second and third editions of Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair’s Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and both editions of his Collected Poems have gone out of print. Which is to say, I suppose, that we should not expect, given what we know, that more than a small percentage of our fellow creatures, even of our poets, will ever read Dorn, where reading him means, to quote Gerald Burns, to encounter “a life experience.” Some tastes are acquired through an attention born of ardent patience and a reverence for what the world might offer through the agency of such a man.

Certainly Gunslinger has the possibility of wide, if transient, appeal among, say, first-year graduate students. Perhaps “From Gloucester Out” will find itself a narrow shelf in literary history as a young poet’s tribute to and confession of continuing dependence upon Charles Olson as a mentor, the young poet by then all but unknown. But who will come to Twenty-Four Love Songs for its certainties? To “Death While Journeying” for it’s lyric, speculative and slow but inexorable drift into an elegy for the passing of an age, the age of the exployers? To “The Hide of My Mother” for what Clark calls its “sparce, dry, offhandedly rhyming humor” (356)? Lovely angular creature. Or to “The Problem of the Poem for My Daughter, Left Unsolved” for what Stephen Ellis terms Dorn’s “singular intensity . . . brought to bear on dimensions both political and spatio/temporal in a . . . direct, yet . . . complex manner” ( )? Or to “The Rick of Green Wood” which Duncan saw as “a poem devoted to the rich pleasure (lasting) of sound and simple sense. . . . simple excellencies that come from complex attentions” (qtd. in Clark, 343) Only a few may be expected to approach Dorn, fewer still may stay, those who realize the compensations are real and illuminating. For these, Clark’s  Edward Dorn: A World of Difference will be an essential component in the packet of texts for the study of Dorn along with, of course, the primary work, a collection of essays, and a few special issues of little magazines.

First, to get it straight, Clark’s biography is not scholarly. Although the text is stocked with such sources, outside of the epilogue there’s rarely a reference to a specific letter, manuscript, or interview, making it impossible to follow Clark’s trail through the archives. Neither is this, simply, a writer’s biography of a fellow artist and friend, if one means by that a sympathetic reminiscence, even if extended to include the poet’s correspondence with others, unpublished, autobiographically based work, and the reminiscences of surviving friends and family. Although it more closely resembles the latter, the multitude of exquisite, if brief, readings of individual works written during or having reference or other relation to the period in question (1929-1959) raises it toward the status of a critical biography. These readings are thoroughly informed by the biographical record, both published and unpublished, Clark’s personal knowledge of the man through nearly a lifetime’s friendship, and the understanding of a fellow writer whose poetics are sympathetic to Dorn’s. But even further, Clark’s ability to locate Dorn in his terrain, whether it be the brutal geometry of agricultural Illinois or the debilitating rain-soaked poverty of Skagit Valley in Washington, provides a series of high-resolution portraits of Dorn from birth to thirty, focusing on what is, perhaps, most difficult period for most writers, his twenties, where we witness Dorn wresting dignity and art from the world amid the daily impoverished grinding of necessities, a young family in tow.

Structurally, the work is somewhat difficult to describe.  At center, it consists of a linear narrative from Dorn’s birth in 1929 through 1959, approximately six years into his writing life, or slightly less than one-eighth the entire. Yet the volume begins with a thirty-page reminiscence of Clark’s initial contact and friendship with Dorn at the newly formed University of Essex from 1965 through 1968, and includes interludes in the main narrative on railroads, specific works, later trips Clark took with Dorn over the territories of his youth, and unpublished work. In additon whenever biographical material provided the settings, figures, motifs or manners of thinking in the later work, Clark stops the forward progress of the narrative to consider the possibilities. The volume ends with a series of letters from Dorn, interspersed with other relevant materials and spare commentary by Clark, detailing Dorn’s reaction to the diagnosis and treatment of his pancreatic cancer and impending death forty years after the end of the narrative itself. Such a structure, while not giving readers the difficulty of Malatesta’s postbag, is certainly designed to engage them on a very human level and to reinforce Clark’s insistence upon seeing Dorn’s life as a continuum, each period connecting with every other, the cloth of his life cut from the fabric of each period. Clark’s insistence extends from Dorn’s early association with the De Moleys and the vocabulary of spiritual resistence “provide[d] an essential tincture in the virulent anti-authoritarian rhetoric of Languedoc Variorum” (65), written near the end of the poet’s life, to the influence of a bleak and often fatalistic Methodism on Dorn’s stance of stoical resistence.

Clark’s biography is a report, largely, from eye-level, of Dorn’s childhood, adolescence, and especially, his first years as a writer, probably the most precarious years in any writer’s experience. Through it all Clark is the ’istorin, Olson’s ideal researcher who discovers his story for himself amid the welter of the materials at hand, in Clark’s case: letters, unpublished manuscripts, and interviews. (Clark relies little on secondary sources, the main exception being Olson and Creeley’s published assessments of Dorn’s early poetry.) Dorn’s development during his early manhood, for instance, is often presented through series of letters he wrote to Gordon Taylor, a high school friend, after leaving his home town in Illinois, covering the first eight years of both men’s wandering. This series of letters is an extraordinary resource, and in Clark’s hand it provides a rare and privileged insight into the workings of Dorn’s human and artistic development from a period when he desired, vaguely, to become a painter through his first few years as a serious writer. Concurrently Clark draws upon unpublished manuscripts, including an early novel, to fill out the biographical record, noting parallels between Dorn and his protagonist, but also exploring Dorn’s structural methodology of weaving areal particulars into a whole, arising from Dorn’s reading of Carl Sauer on geography. Other major sources include Ed and Helene Dorn’s letters to her former husband, David Buck, who with remarkable generosity helped the young couple sustain themselves for several years after Helene left him for the poet, and a series of refreshingly straightforward interviews with Helene, Dorn’s first wife, and Fred Buck, his step-son.

Through it all, Clark gradually provides a full portrait of the adolescent and young man in a series of interlocking pictures of his subject. Dorn, for instance, as the young autodidact, taking an active engagement and responsibility for his own understanding of the world trying to synthesize his own situation and experience with what he could find of the wisdom of the past. Clark maintains that such an intellectual self-reliance reinforced Dorn’s temperamental predilection toward a skeptical and resistant individuality. But Clark shows Dorn’s resistence has its sources as well in his feelings of social inadequacy as a child and adolescent, his deep empathy with those dispossessed, and his struggle to understand his agency in the world without the dodges, yet with whatever grace might attend its discovery in process, all the while going about the harsh business of staying reasonably alive with a young family just beyond the margins of economic stability, with the bad luck so often attendant upon such circumstance.

The overwhelming impression one gets is that of the persistence and struggle of a man of singular nature, often halting, stumbling through the confusions of this period from an impoverished childhood, to an adolescence alternately idealistic and grimly realistic, to a young painter, to the young man taking up the “serious business” of writing “that requires a progressive struggle as much moral as literary” (195), and finally to the writer, apprenticeship over, striking out onto one path after another, making significant progress along each. (Dorn, perhaps more than any other noted contemporary American poet, has been through more notably divergent and distinct periods. Clark’s biography covers at least the first two of these.)  In fact, the image that come most clearly to mind is of a man pushing, head-first, into obstacle after obstacle, as his resistence becomes the more certain and resilient.

But Clark’s real contribution comes from his ability as a reader.  With a few biographical details and a few hints from Dorn’s letters or reminiscence, Clark provides exquisite, although brief, readings of Dorn’s important poems and prose of this period, which are, themselves, a repayment in full for the reader’s attention and time. Time, in fact, is what is required when reading this biography because Clark’s insights into Dorn’s work are so compelling, that the reader finds himself rereading the primary work, Clark in hand. Tantalizingly as well, Clark points toward a possible new emphasis in the study of Dorn’s aesthetic: the “Idea” (which Dorn capitalizes), or content of speech, as opposed to Olson’s breath poetics which he terms “a false problem” (330).

Although Dorn’s relationship to Olson is adequately covered, the information is somewhat scant concerning Dorn’s relationship to Creeley and Duncan, both at least secondary mentors during this period and beyond. The unpublished correspondence between these writers not only provides a stunning record of the intelligence and steadfast energy behind an oppositional poetics, it also details these writers’ concern for one another, especially that of Duncan, Creeley, and Olson for Dorn, as their collective charge, student, fellow artist, and friend. (Although outside this period, a striking example is Duncan’s letters in the late 1960s to Olson and Creeley in opposition to book I of Dorn’s Slinger, believing Dorn was wasting his considerable talents. To his credit Duncan dropped his opposition after seeing Book II in manuscript.) One misses, by and large, the sense of shared endeavor which is most obvious in the webworks of correspondence among these figures. Yet one realizes Clark had to set limits and the biography already runs 434 pages.

I might also have wished as well that Clark’s biography answered a few of the minor puzzles I have collected over the years reading these writers in and out of the archives. What was Dorn’s relation to Creeley after the latter hit the West coast in 1956, reeling from the failure of his first marriage, and crashing into relationships often with disastrous results? Why did Dorn leave logging (choker-setting) for lesser paying and less secure employment in 1956-1959? What was Dorn’s subsequent relationship to Helene, his first wife, and his step-son Buck? But these are, perhaps, prurient interests.

I would also wish, this time actively, for a second volume in which Clark “completes” the record, providing intelligent delineations of Dorn’s later “periods” (noting the similarity and differences in in concerns, etc.), extending his tantalizing hints about Dorn’s notions of a content- or Idea-determined poetic, and perhaps discussing what role this emphasis had in Dorn’s attack on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, while providing readings of Dorn’s work in which this preference might be delineated.

One would also wish, if not for citations so that one could follow the many trails Clark opens, for an index of Dorn’s works discussed in the text, primarily because of the very real benefit of Clark’s text which provides biographical background as well as intelligent readings of the work. But such an index would be wildly out of keeping with a text which doesn’t simply ignore reference, but seems to eschew it. And perhaps there is a point to all this. An index would make this a reference work as well as a biography. The average users of reference works want to use the work in under ten minutes. Clark seems to avoid this employment, ignoring readers who would refer to his book for a quick fix (in this case, to find a reading of a specific piece) in favor of readers who would are willing to dig in and wade through a life, with all of its mistakes, confusions, impoverishments, embarrassments, delights, creations and struggles, of one who insisted upon understanding the world on his own. And these are, after all, that small percentage of the readers who actually care about Dorn.

I will not write of the moving epilogue except to say that it mainly constitutes snippets of Dorn’s letters as well as published and unpublished work from when he became ill until, nearly, the day of his death. I began reading this section and would not set it aside to begin the book properly. It nailed me to the chair.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. “Ed Dorn.” Museum of American Poetics (2001)

Ellis, Stephen. Some Notes on Dorn’s ‘The Problem of the Poem of My Daughter Left Unsolved.’ Cento Magazine (2003)

Fredman, Stephen, Roadtesting the Language: An Interview with Ed Dorn. Documents for New Poetry, no. 1. San Diego: Univ. of California, San Diego, Archive for New Poetry, 1978. Rpt. in Edward Dorn. Interviews. Ed. Donald Allen. Writing, no. 38. San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980.

Skip Fox has published several volumes of poetry, most recently What Of (Potes & Poets) and Adventures of Max and Maxine (Auguste). His work is included in Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (U of Alabama). He has been published by such little magazines as Hambone, o.blek, Talisman, and Exquisite Corpse.

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