The Thursday Review
16 December 1999
With the death of Edward Dorn the United States loses not only one of
its finest poets but a rare critical intelligence and cultural commentator.
Dorn was born in rural Illinois at the start of the Great Depression,
in poverty. He was educated in a one room schoolhouse, then High School
(where he helped on the local newspaper) and for two years at the University
of Illinois. He worked for a while at the Boeing plant in Seattle, returned
to Illinois, and through his art teacher Raymond Obermayr was directed
towards Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he arrived in
the autumn of 1950.
In 1951 he left and travelled to the Pacific Northwest, where he did
manual work and met his first wife, Helene. In late 1954 they returned
to Black Mountain, where he studied under Charles Olson (Dorn's first
published work was the pamphlet What I See in the Maximus Poems)
and graduated in 1955 with Robert Creeley as one of his examiners. After
two years of further travel the family settled in Washington state.
Their life there, on the edge of poverty, is vividly portrayed in Dorn's
first prose book, The Rites of Passage (later republished as
By The Sound). By 1959 they were in New Mexico, and at the end
of 1961 moved to Pocatello, where Dorn taught at the University of Idaho
until the middle of 1965.
Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry (1960) included
some of Dorn's early poems, but his first book The Newly Fallen
was not published until 1961 by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones)'s Totem
Press in New York. Three years later the same press published Hands
Up! Poems from this period, so clear, moving, unromantic and filled
with the memories of his hard early life -- "On the Debt My Mother
Owed to Sears Roebuck," for example -- echoed not only in the United
States, but across the Atlantic.
In the summer of 1965 Dorn and the photographer Leroy Lucas collaborated
on The Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin Plateau -- a book
too long out-of-print which anticipated the now fashionable interest
in all things Native American, and gracefully left the last words not
to the authors, but to Clyde Warrior, an activist.
That autumn, at the invitation of Donald Davie, the family arrived in
England where, with a year's break, Dorn was to teach at the new University
of Essex until 1970. Dorn arrived already aware of the work of young
British poets such as Tom Pickard and Lee Harwood, and he had corresponded
for some time with J.H.Prynne ( who accompanied the Dorns on their trans-atlantic
liner). The American poet Tom Clark was a graduate student at Essex
and shared many of Dorn's interests.
Creeley, Olson and other visitors passed through the various flats and
houses in Colchester and Wivenhoe. On the faculty was Gordon Brotherston,
and Dorn began with him a series of collaborative translations of Latin
American poetry that continued for decades. He met Jennifer Dunbar,
his second wife. In London there was a lively small press scene and
Stuart and Deirdre Montgomerys' Fulcrum Press published two collections
of poems: Geography (1965), and The North Atlantic Turbine
(1967). And Dorn began to write Gunslinger, one of the major
North American long poems, first published as a sequence of books while
in progress and finally as one volume in 1975, the year after its completion.
Those years saw the Dorns in Chicago, in Mexico, and, with occasional
breaks, in San Francisco. Dorn's early newspaper experience and his
work in the Print Shop at Black Mountain combined in the tabloid Bean
News, with contributions by Prynne and other correspondents. His
neighbour Holbrook Teter's old linotype machine, held together with
wire, produced the type for this, and for the complete Gunslinger,
while Teter's partner Michael Myers drew the elegant cover for Recollections
of Gran Apachería, Dorn's next book.
In the autumn of 1977 Dorn began to teach at the University of Colorado
in Boulder where, in 1980, he and his wife Jennifer started Rolling
Stock (motto: "If it moves, print it!"), a newspaper sized
journal that encompassed their many interests (including a delightful
golf column by Nick Sedgwick) and ran throughout the decade. Still happy
to work with his hands he built his own workroom with scrap timber.
The academic world didn't escape his pen... Captain Jack's Chaps
(1983), is an hilarious account of the MLA conference in Houston, and
he ended the decade with Abhorrences (1990), a collection of
short, savage observations.
During his last years he continued to travel... in Montana, in Wyoming..
and to write (even a Country and Western song) with undiminished energy.
An exchange year teaching in the south of France, at Montpellier, sparked
a new interest in the Cathars and Simon de Montfort. It is thanks to
Nicholas Johnston's Etruscan Books that some of his later work is in
print in Britain.
Dorn suffered fools not at all, and sloppy thinking not for a moment:
a lonely position at the best of times, and one that made him almost
persona non grata in the current literary and academic climate of his
For anyone interested to see how wit, intelligence and a dispassionate
eye can survive through pain, I suggest reading "Chemo du Jour"
(Denver Quarterly, Spring 99) ... .the Clinton impeachment seen
through chemotherapy. A line in a note this morning from the Swansea-born
poet Doug Lang comes to mind: "When I first read his work, in 1970,
it changed my idea about what poetry could be."
Dorn died at home, in his own bed, with his family beside him, in the
West: a pure American who didn't go crazy. Fools can sleep easier.
-- Tom Raworth
Edward Merton Dorn, poet and teacher: born Villa Grove, Illinois,
April 1929. Married Helene Buck (one son). Married Jennifer Dunbar
one daughter); died 10 December 1999, Denver, Colorado USA.