John Wolff
from Cento magazine

Edward Dorn: An 80's Reminiscence


On my first night in the graduate poetry workshop with Edward Dorn at the University of Colorado, Ed began his weekly rant with the phrase “looking back on the eighties”—and followed it up with a cynical, but deadly accurate account of the writing that was on the Republican wall. The year was 1981. I marveled, in my innocence, at the moxie of one who would feign to know the contents of a decade that had only just begun, but I also became fatally attracted to the vigor of it, the nerve, focused in laser-like concentration on the Gipper and his ilk. To me, Ed was like one of the wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism: outwardly wrapped in robes of incinerating fire, but inwardly possessed of a core of compassion and tenderness.

As I contemplate the thangka of his character now twenty-some years later, I see how much those years in Boulder were a constant jump on the griddle of Ed’s mood. At one moment he might grace you with an almost confessional reverence, and in the next, turn and pour poison into your ear—and then forget he had done it. But we students of the nerve, acolytes of the naked dendrite, loved him in any case and willingly walked into the blaze to get whatever it was we thought he had. He was an entity, starving for attention, loud and total in his denunciations, ever-original, most thoroughly informed—and ultimately compassionate. His acumen was both his greatest strength and the source of what seemed to me his personal isolation and torment.

Of course, from an outward point of view, he seemed unassailable. He was tall, well built, and had an implacable face with more crags than Guilin. Eliot Weinberger, perhaps referring more to his writing style than his physical appearance, had called him “the Clint Eastwood of American poetry,” an epithet he adored, and it surely fit the creased, heavy-jawed face. When he spoke, you listened like you would listen to a mountain. His voice prevailed, even when it went nasal, swollen sinuses betraying the heavy use of cocaine, alcohol, and tobacco. Indeed, he was such a picture of male confidence and individualism that I remember getting a tremor in my hands at the thought of calling him up on the phone. But call him I did, and knowing his predilections for whiskey, made it a habit of always inviting him out for drink. It was my way of getting him to look at my work, which under any other circumstances probably would never have happened. And so off to the Boulderado we would go, smokes and Dickle, poesy and Dos Eqis and lime.

I’d read almost everything he’d written. Like many readers, I fell in love with the early lyric poems, especially the sensitive “Geranium,” and became a careful imitator. (And I don’t apologize for this.) I tried pushing the scale of my poetry, tried to envision a multi-page grandness of execution as he had done in long lyrics like “From Idaho Out.” One day, after a few sips of the requisite booze, I spread out some big sheets of rice paper on which I had typed (we used typewriters, then), a longish poem. He started to read it, and at some point I said something but he didn’t hear me. I realized then how deeply he concentrated. And I learned never to interrupt him when he was reading because he simply wouldn’t hear you. Finally, a moment came when we might be permitted to talk. He suggested I delete a line or two and I, foolish, objected, stating that “I loved those lines.”

“Well, the poem doesn’t care about you, John,” he said. The words cut their way into my dim brain, leaving a trail that can still be followed today. It was always like that: one-on-one we talked, drank, and I, neophyte Dorn-ophile groupie, learned. I earned my degree in the Boulderado Hotel.

We generally communicated through the haze and confusion of an almost continuous set of parties, nicely chilled by an illimitable polar expanse of cocaine. It didn’t help matters that one student in the creative writing program was Ed’s dealer, and this dealer liked to dish out freebies at parties. Naturally Ed’s behavior altered into its Hyde state by the ingestion of so many drugs and so many drunken, buzzing devotees. Many of the parties were at Ed and Jenny’s house, where the kids, (Kidd and Maya Dorn), went to their respective lairs and closed the doors to the thumping of the stereo and the loud banter of grad students and faculty. There was a certain pattern to these evenings that started with simple literary gossip and then eventuated into Ed’s holding court at the central table of the dining room, eyes crunched into twin glints of anti-establishment asperity. He waxed long and hard on the evils of our empire, Ronald Reagan, and anything else that suited the moment. As the booze took root in his mind (and ours) his little pronunicamentos became more and more outlandish and puzzling, until someone finally had to call him on some especially bombastic claim—at which point he almost invariably became enflamed. Then his eyes squinted even more and his jaw jutted out. He would spit epithets and venom at anyone and everyone, except Jenny—usually—who hopelessly tried to rein him in. It was always at this point that the smart ones left the party. The rest of us were either too drunk to realize it was time to go home, or too much in love with the madness we saw exfoliating before us—and like moths to flame we flew in for the glory of the moment.

On one such night, Ed had been pleasant enough until he ran out of coke and none could be had. He started going crazy. The rage was quickly mounting. Then he found out from one schizy student (let’s call him Greg) that I had a little envelope preserved in my pocket as tomorrow’s birthday gift for a friend. There was a sudden flash of light, a shock wave, and then a profoundly uncomfortable burning sensation. At that moment the image of my skeleton was singed into the wall by a blast of carbonizing invective. (And here I had had the audacity to think that Ed liked me.) He wrote out a check then and there, gave it to me, with all the complacent aplomb of a paymaster of debauchery; I turned over the coke and the god’s angry sinuses were appeased in an ensuing, sullen silence.

Things healed over, but I learned to watch my step around Ed when he was drunk. While the rages could be entertaining, one certainly didn’t want to be targeted for one of his sorties. If you knew him well enough, you could prick him with a few choice comments, bring up the spleen, then sit back and watch the fireworks from a safe distance. But gizzing Ed had occupational hazards associated with it, and sometimes innocents could be caught in the crossfire. One evening at the Boulderado Hotel, for example, a large herd of us had gathered to destroy our brain cells, and someone, knowing full well they were lighting dynamite, asked what Ed thought about one conspicuously gorgeous woman at the table. Ed replied in a voice loud enough to be heard and quiet enough to be denied, “Yeah, she’s great. I want to fuck her.” The table went daft with silence. Was I supposed to learn how to write serious poetry from this person?

For Ed, life flourished where there was danger and he saw danger everywhere and forcibly contributed to it, driving under the influence at breakneck speeds around Boulder in his Mexican-made VW Thing, sans belts. (He was famous for his condemnations of airbags too, supporting of the idea that the fittest would survive.) But on another evening in my own efficiency apartment, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with young writers, Ed holed up in the kitchen and showed off, juggling oranges. The tossed fruits began to scent the room, and suddenly he paused, catching them, holding them to his nose. In a moment that stood in stark contrast to the usual raving, he was calm, almost in a state of religious gratitude for the sweetness of oranges. Inhaling deeply, he said, with a sincerity that I could hardly correlate to his burning deity persona, “Ah, doesn’t it smell wonderful?”

At one of our later tête-à-têtes in the Boulderado, I tried to get at the essence of his dual nature. It was a ticklish sort of business. I wasn’t a Tom Clark or a Peter Michelson, not a close friend and age-mate; I was just a student probing for a character’s core. But as the evening wore on there came a revelation of sorts, though it must remain for his intimates to explain it. What he said to me was that he had felt guilty his whole life. Guilty for something he had done (with others, apparently) as a young man. He said he should have been “put in prison” for it, but as soon as I asked what he had done, the door flung shut and nothing could part it again. What was his “crime”? I never knew.

And there was fear. It may come as a surprise to those who may only have experienced one of Ed’s rages that this angry god was a terrified god too. When I look back at his almost legendary power of character and intellect, I see it more as a hedge against the onslaught on idiocy that was (and apparently still is) American politics. Once, visiting his house in calmer social weather, he told me how confounded he was by the simultaneous report of two national polls concerning Ronald Reagan: one proclaimed that most Americans believed Reagan had lied about the Iran-Contra Affair (no kidding) and the other reported that Americans approved of him. Ed, considering this from the little contemplative’s writing shack he’d built behind his house, said, “The only thing you can conclude from that is that Americans want to be lied to.” He was shocked. “And I shocked that I’m shocked,” he said, because he knew better than to expect anything else. But his moral core, his tenderness, his compassion clawed at him and could never let him sink into utter jadedness. A world in which millions cheered for the “Great Communicator,” for “Mr. Teflon,” for Mr. Stroller-of-Nazi-cemeteries, (who, let us remember, ruthlessly funded the Contra insurrectionists), was a truly horrifying place for Ed. In a rare moment of candor about his own emotional reaction to the early 80s, including the hysteria about the Sandinistas, he once confessed to Sidney Goldfarb (another member of the Boulder faculty) that he was so terrified he just wanted to run back to the 18th century. It made perfect sense to me. It would have been a natural fit for Ed. He was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson’s enlightened mind and exalted rationality for its own peculiar aesthetic gleamings. He admired the relentless beauty of thought that was the Age of Reason.

But outwardly he spewed venom about Reagan and American imperialism with vehement disgust. When the “Great Communicator” was elected in 1980, Ed sat watching the returns with a few students, commenting on the motley crew of advisors and cabinet members: “What a bunch of crooks!” We were all too young to know the “cabal of zealots,” Edwin Meese, Donald Regan, Robert McFarlane, Elliot Abrams, Casper Weinberger, el al., but Ed knew. He had not forgotten history, a lesson learned well under the mentorship of Charles Olson. Within a few years, Reagan had doubled or tripled our national debt, evaded every effort to point out the idiocy of targeting the Sandinistas of El Salvador, helped create the Contras, (the opposing rightist guerillas in El Salvador), provided covert support for Guatemala’s genocidal army in its destruction of Indians, and consistently rejected negotiated settlements between the opposing parties of El Salvador.

But there were fears at home too. Ed was sure that students of the Naropa Institute, which at the time was a Tibetan Buddhist arts school essentially managed by Allen Ginsberg (with the blessing of Trungpa Rinpoche), were enrolling in Ed’s poetry workshops with the express purpose of “spying” on him. The “pods,” (from “Naropa Pods,” thus “Naro-pods”) as he called them, were all around him. All of us dismissed this as part of a paranoid streak in Ed’s personality, or perhaps even jealousy of Ginsberg’s notoriety. In the poetry workshop on the evening of Reagan’s swearing in, my mother-in-law-to-be (visiting the class) was accused of being a pod. “This is my mother,” explained my fiancée, a student in the workshop. Without missing a beat, Ed replied, with obvious reference to Reagan’s having just taken the oath of office, “We should all have our mothers with us today.”

And yet Ed could be the master of grace. I had asked Robert Creeley to come to the university to give a reading, and I offered him my apartment for a couple of days. That night, after the reading, the inevitable party at Ed and Jenny’s became an uncompromising booze-o-rama. In the morning, therefore, when Ed and I were taking Creeley to the Denver airport, they both were shaking and sick. We sat in an airport tavern, staring dully at each other. I suggested a hair-of-the-dog, a grudgingly accepted alternative to what would have been a mute, hour-long tableau of day-after agony. Creeley dispatched, Ed and I drove back to Boulder, and captive in the car, Ed explained things to me as he had not done before. Chiefly, I remember asking him why he had changed his style so completely. Readers of Dorn’s poetry know that there is a clear division between the early, lyric works and the later aphoristic material of books like Hello, La Jolla. I had always liked the early work much better and thought it was so much more a part of his character. Why did his writing style change so dramatically? “I just got tired of it,” he explained. “Now all I want to do is write it quick and cashier it.”

Back in Boulder, he invited me in for lunch. He snipped fresh marjoram from the garden and sprinkled it into bowls of tomato soup with crackers. I no longer remember what we talked about that day. The sun shone beautifully. We took our time. When I left, he walked me out the front door and there he saw a rose under the front window of his house, picked it, and gave it to me. “Here,” he said. “Take this. It’s the last of the season.”

Years later, I returned to Boulder with my wife Tandy Sturgeon and our baby son, Ben. Ed held the baby and played with him like a grandparent. Ben stared, fascinated, into the rocky face and patted it over and over. “It’s Mount Rushmore,” said the poet, seeing himself seen from an infant’s perspective. And then he put Ben on the floor. Ben was trying to learn how to crawl. Ed bent over him and moved the little limbs. Jenny intervened. “Ed, you’ve got to let him learn how to do it on his own.”

“No,” replied Mr. Rushmore, “you gotta help him.” And there was an absolute certainty in that stone voice, like one who had lived, always in some way, sometimes with fire, sometimes with balm, to help others learn to crawl.