Western Epic Poetry 1: Dorn, the epic poetry-slinger, as I knew him by Exquisite Corpse
Concerning Ed Dorn, author of Gunslinger, AKA Slinger, a multi-volume western epic poem:
“Edward Dorn spent several years at Black Mountain College, a North Carolina school founded in 1933 as a liberal alternative for teachers and students seeking a creative educational environment. Breaking away from tradition, those affiliated with the school created art and literature that had a profound effect on American culture even after the college closed in 1956. Over the years numerous noteworthy artists and writers, including Dorn, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder… Dorn added: ‘I think I’m rightly associated with the Black Mountain ‘school,’ not because of the way I write, but because I was there.’ Dorn once told Contemporary Authors: “I’ve always thought that the whole usage of ‘Black Mountain Poets’ only has an existence in the minds of the people who use it. I don’t even know of such a thing myself. . . . I think Black Mountain as a school, irrespective of poets, denotes a certain value toward learning and the analysis of ideas.’” (Poetry Foundation).
I had the honor, privilege, (and sometimes horror) of taking Ed Dorn’s last graduate writing seminar at the University of Colorado prior to his death about a year later. Dorn was suffering from pancreatic cancer, which in itself was insidious as it is often considered a “lifestyle disease” which leaves the patient not only with slim chances of survival, but a potential load of guilt to also carry when contemplating earlier life-choices and the resulting personal etiology. His friend and fellow poet Robert Bly once said to me during lunch at the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House that “Ed did too many drugs during the sixties.”
Dorn faced a more unpleasant set of drugs that last semester in the form of chemotherapy. His chemo treatments were the subject of some of his last poems, published in part in a CU English graduate school publication Sniper Logic. In class, he alternated from raging at students to the point that some would simply pack up and leave, or crying uncontrollably which especially made the male students squirm. Of course, this was the chemo talking. Most importantly, Dorn’s frustration stemmed around not being able to pass along to us the vast resources and wisdom he had accumulated along his life’s journey – what Frost would have called a road less travelled. Sometimes he would not be able to remember a certain word in his discourse, such as the day he sat and tapped the table repeatedly “What is it the Jamaicans say?” Finally, he remembered, “Oh yes. Respect, mon.” He then launched into a lengthy discourse concerning why this phrase contained a whole lot of wisdom about how to best approach modern life and simply live. “Respect” became a common course theme.
Dorn had a lot of “respect” for dogs, which he allowed in the classroom: these were not service dogs, but pets. He himself had also been working on a treatise about the history of war dogs, and his insights into the beasts conveyed genuine enthusiasm and awe for their raw courage. The Gunslinger’s mount is described with similar appeal to its inherent capabilities beyond the norm: for one thing, it is sentient and can speak.
Dorn’s choice of writing his western saga in epic poetry style was no accident. His last semester with graduate students had us reading the Iliad which we discussed minimally, but was obviously there for us to digest as we could as a model of epic writing which survived the test of time. We read a variety of modern writers as well: a seeming hodgepodge assortment which struck Dorn as other models to use as touchstones. One of the most significant pieces was a novella penned by one of Dorn’s good friends, a simple story about a wanderer that Dorn described as a “great book.” The paper he required us to write had a simple thesis: why was it great? Heaven help the student who said aloud that it was a “good book,” for Dorn’s shouts echoed down Hellem’s hall upbraiding this slight but distinct imprecision. Perhaps this is in line with Dorn’s philosophy of teaching writing: budding writers should be “provoked” to write rather than taught, providing they have the type of innate abilities which would respond to provocation (Poetry Foundation). Could any one of us have been provoked into greatness? We were there as Dorn rode into the sunset (a cliché he would have abhorred), absorbing what we could from the man in the saddle heading west. Whether or not we could be “provoked” into epic awareness of his last formal thoughts, some of us were not able to endure the chemo-laced ravings which sometimes, like the Gunslinger’s quest for Hughes, overpowered his other sensibilities. Yet we were there: respectfully aware that we were witnessing something beyond noteworthy.
That Dorn was capable of, and may have achieved greatness is of little dispute. Charles Stein went on record that Slinger may have been “the first part of what promises to be a major American narrative poem.” (Poetry Organization). Wikipedia notes that even the popular and prolific novelist “Stephen King admired Dorn, describing his poetry as ‘talismans of perfect writing’ and even naming the first novel of The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, in honor of Dorn’s poem. King also opened both the prologue and epilogue of The Stand with Dorn’s line, “We need help, the Poet reckoned” (Ed Dorn, Wikipedia).
Dorn seemed to equally regard The Gunslinger as his own epic work: the saga of a protagonist on a landscape ready to draw guns with Hughes, an enemy clearly representing the excesses of capitalism and trivial pleasures of modern life. The Gunslinger’s quest eventually fades with regards to pursuing this enemy, as he himself bumps into, absorbs, distills, and evolves with others to become part of the classical western landscape. Dorn’s writing was forged in the unique and alternative views of the Black Mountain arts: his protagonist reflects the absorption and mutual shaping of the hero within the landscape: post-modern life itself.
Ed Dorn: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Dorn
Poetry Foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edward-dorn