Myrna Oliver

Ed Dorn Obituary from the Los Angeles Times


Edward Dorn; Teacher, Poet Known for Epic 'Gunslinger'

By MYRNA OLIVER, Times Staff Writer

Edward Dorn, creative poet and educator best remembered for his epic five-volume poem "Gunslinger," which has been likened to a Western American "Canterbury Tales," is dead at 70. Dorn, leader of the University of Colorado's creative writing program for the last two decades, died Friday in Boulder.

The poet was one of many avant-garde artists in various disciplines--including dancer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning and architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller--who attended the utopian Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The college, which functioned from 1933 to 1956, had only one rule--"be intelligent." Teachers and students built their own dormitories and classrooms, grew their own food and jointly determined their courses of study and lives.

The native of Villa Grove, Ill., once described himself as being "educated at the University of Illinois and somewhat corrected at Black Mountain College."

"Black Mountain as a school," he said, "denotes a certain value toward learning and the analysis of ideas. . . . The institution's importance to me would be incalculable."

Since 1961, Dorn had taught English and creative writing regularly, beginning with Idaho State University, where he co-edited the literary publication "Wild Dog," and ending at Colorado. In between were visiting stints at the University of Essex in England, the University of Kansas, UC Riverside and UC San Diego.       

During his career in education, he wrote about three dozen books of poetry, a collection of short fiction titled "Some Business Recently Transacted in the White World" and in 1965 a novel, "The Rites of Passage."

None was as well-received or as memorable as his contemporary Western narrative "Gunslinger" published from 1968 to 1972. Like the early "Canterbury Tales," to which poet Robert Duncan compared Dorn's masterwork, "Gunslinger" involved a trek in search of enlightenment and the nightly tales told by the participants. In Dorn's allegorical epic, the musical instrument accompanying the entertaining yarns, appropriately, was dubbed an "abso-lute."

Dorn's band of pilgrims, all stoned on drugs, were led by the Slinger, a 2,000-year-old "son of the sun," his dance hall madam companion Cocaine Lil and his talking horse, Claude Levi-Strauss. Their destination was Las Vegas, where they planned to confront Howard Hughes, whom they viewed as a robber baron intent on "hustling the future."

The actual purpose of the trek, however, the poet revealed ever so slowly, was the journey itself, or in Dorn's words: "To see/ is their desire/ as they wander."

In "Gunslinger," Dorn, who once described his writing as "clots of phrase," happily mixed jargon from junkies, Westerners and scientists into a jumble of speech, full of puns and nonsense words rarely interrupted by any punctuation.

The work proved durable. When the separate small-press volumes were gathered and reprinted in 1989, a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer wrote: "This engaging extended narrative comes across today just as speedy, angular, subversive, eloquent, uplifting and funny as it was 20 years ago. And its principal satiric premise--'Entrapment is this society's/ sole activity. . . . Only laughter/can blow it to rags'--may now be more relevant than ever."

His writings, in free verse or in prose, were virtually all socially and politically oriented. Asked about his criticism of America as imperialist, unfair to minorities and other ills, Dorn once said: "I take democracy very seriously. . . . Democracy literally has to be cracked on the head all the time to keep it in good condition. But all other forms are more or less sudden death."