Critical Obsolescence: Ed Dorn Live
Edward Dorn was, as August Kleinzhaler put it in the New York Times last April, “the least endearing, domesticated or predictable of poets, always determined to go his own way, no matter what anyone thought.” For some, the late period of Dorn’s life is notable for his shift in writing away from the pop culture-based, comic book-like epic, Gunslinger, toward a deliberately flattened, yet often hilarious, political commentary.“The political urgency of the later writing,” Kleinzhaler continues in his review of Way More West: New and Selected Poems, “seems to overtake the poetry and, finally, to undermine it.”
With the recent publication, however, of Ed Dorn Live from the University of Michigan Press, critics may begin to realize what Dorn’s fans have known for some time: the late work is sustained on razor-sharp perceptions and keen intellection capable of sizing up cultural events with precision and, frequently, great humor. With this poetic shift from epic to epigram came a renewed respect for the rhetorical, for by looking to the Enlightenment for models of public address, Dorn perfected a public medium of exchange on the political and cultural events around him. His great achievement in the late work was to provide a model of quick-witted intelligence and commentary. As a force of witness and documentation, books like Hello, La Jolla, Abhorrences, and Chemo Sábe provide hard looks at cultural “drift” away from the deliberative and commonly shared public intelligence Dorn associated with the Enlightenment.
“I’m not using ‘rhetoric’ in the spirit that the word was used in the late sixties,” he said in a 1984 talk, republished here, “which was to put down anybody who was making sense, but rather as it was practiced as an art mainly in the eighteenth century by people like Sydney Smith… one of the great writers of the period, not because of the ideas he held necessarily, but because of the way he expressed them.”
By turning back to the biographies of Samuel Johnson, the satirical writings of Pope and Swift, and the public sermons of divines like Smith, Dorn largely abandoned lyric poetry in order to find the available means of persuasion by which to address a contemporary audience. Rather than using beautiful language and employing a renewed sense of Elizabethan prosody as he had earlier in his career, Dorn chose instead to flatten his writing into essential arguments aimed at the venality of American culture, the failure of democracy, and what he perceived as the increasingly inane language transactions by poets who were writing toward the end of his life. This shift to rhetoric away from lyric let him invent a role for himself as a cultural critic capable of great insight and provocative statements. This role, however, also put song at a great distance, which has troubled some critics. Instead of taking Dorn to task for what he is not, however, we should look at him for what he became: a strategist of language situations, a poet who tracked the motives behind language use during the last years of the twentieth century.
While Dorn -- unlike his contemporaries Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley -- rarely wrote essays, he made himself available frequently to interviewers. The “lectures, interviews, and outtakes” gathered in Ed Dorn Live cover a period from the mid 1970s to only a few months before his death in December 1999. Here we find Dorn responding to a number of political and social changes that happened during this period, most notably intensifying in the U. S. during the presidency of Reagan in the 1980s. Importantly, his emphasis on the “external,” or the outside, is articulated in a variety of ways throughout these interviews. Such outside views permit a shift in perspective from the “inner self” to multiple points of view that require attention for the recovery of the world from disciplines of power that program human behavior. Because his movement into the rhetorical clashed with more traditional poetic procedures, Dorn’s role as a poet became more and more figurative. His stature, sharp mind, and virulent wit could prove instructive as well as damning to those who came into contact with it. But through the rhetorical analysis of social and political situations, he developed a style of address that could rupture polite social discourse with penetrating perspectives based on an Enlightenment respect for knowledge. With this too came the possession of a relational capacity to read cultural data with an anthropologist’s eye for detail.
“I don’t see poetry today talking about anything at all,” he said in a 1984 talk in Detroit. “When it purports to talk about something, it’s talking about the extremely questionable ideas, if such things can be attributed, of various writers who will remain forever adolescent and novice and who have no real interest in the language. They have a kind of interest in a kind of linguistic leeching which has come to be called Language.”
Because of his willingness to take unpopular positions within poetry communities and in larger social situations more generally, one blogger, John Latta, has recently compared Dorn with the Slovenian theorist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose own recuperation of “lost causes” and his reinvestment in universal structures of thought frequently get him into trouble as the bad boy of contemporary theory. Dorn and Zizek, however, are fine intellectual companions, for both use arguments to push and prod an audience into recognition of the world around them. They both challenge our thinking as programmable consumers to remind us instead we possess an active intelligence of our own that is capable of great insights and actions.
Dorn’s late perspectives on the outside are complicated, but intensely available as a model of strategic argumentation. His commentary on language, poetry, culture, and history comes from an interest in public awareness. In his poetry and in these interviews, he continues to point out the problems of late capitalist culture under conservative administrations, from Nixon to Clinton. “I probably have more sympathy to the Left,” he said, “but the Left is pretty ridiculous most of the time.” Such critical political views and investments in public scrutiny led him to write and speak in a way that “exhibits a certain kind of aggression toward… readers.” Such a rhetorical approach pushes aside aesthetic concerns. “Given where we’re at,” he said, “nobody is going to be aesthetically enlightening, certainly not if you look back over the last 150 years.” Instead, he was interested in a kind of reportage that retrieved the language of the moment by exposing its embeddedness in history.
“I just write about it, report the events; I don’t invent it,” he told Effie Mihopoulos in a 1991 interview. “Being a witness is your whole presence.” Such an attitude toward the poem challenges others who see it as a beautiful object, or, conversely, as a methodical tool designed to subvert the expectation of bourgeois readers. Instead, Dorn moved toward an understanding of the poem as a tool through which documentation of the moment could be constructed in some useful way. The goal was to provide a correction to cultural drift, to preserve an intelligence operative in language that can document the shared affinities between, say, democracy and fascism. He was concerned, moreover, with creating a poetry that could confront a public space being transformed by mediated ads of state and other extensive institutional branches of power and control. By pointing out how Dow Chemical and the German Luftwaffe shared certain genocidal affinities, he argues how “terrible things can be generated by democracy too, and are, in fact, right there right now. But we don’t talk about those things as terrible things because what we’ve been programmed to receive democracy as the only legitimacy, and not just democracy, but our democracy specifically.”
Anticipating the limits of his arguments in verse, Dorn claims in his interview with Mihopoulos, that poetry is obsolete. “But so what,” he says. “There are lots of great things that are obsolete. Kerosene lamps are obsolete, but there’s no light like it in a cabin in northern Wisconsin. And maybe it’s a good thing not to have electricity. Think of the best things in the world, actually, and they’re all obsolete. Sure. But that’s 'cause a world that grows more and more venal and greedy and opportunistic makes things obsolete at a great rate. And what they replace it with is something pretty awful and foul and cheap and temporary and terrible. So poetry is real obsolete.”
The apparent contradiction between poetry as an obsolete medium of witness and documentation -- a “field of action,” moreover that could exhibit “aggression” to an audience -- reveals the deeper conflict in Dorn’s thinking about the poet’s role in the world. Obsolescence, for Dorn, preserves outdated channels of thinking and ancient arts of style and poetic delivery. At the same time, this obsolescence limits the extension of his documentation. The comparison of poetry to a kerosene lamp, however, gives us some clue about how the obsolete remains useful within particular contexts and situations. The kerosene lamp can’t compete with a light bulb, but in situations when electricity fails, it becomes essential. To be relevant, in fact, is to be taken for granted; obsolescence remains in demand, just with much less frequency, perhaps.
Because in his final years Dorn turned his attention to religious heresy, particularly in the long work about the Cathar heresies in twelfth-century France -- “Languedoc Variorum” -- his readings of political events grew more and more informed by the history of religion in world cultures. In his last interview with Ian Sinclair, Dorn said: “What is that thing you do when you punch in the base numbers? It’s the base reference to all the other wars. It will go on and on and on. It’s the base reference. Where the next war will be, of the Kosovo kind, we don’t really know. It could be the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates because the Kurds are a lot more numerous than anybody else who is in that situation. They’re surrounded by enemies because they’ve got the Syrians and the Turks and the Iraqis. And, to one extent or another, the Iranians a little bit off that. We’re talking about the prime conditions for creating an everlasting powerful, intense and intensified enemy.”
This, written in 1999, foresees our current situation, pushing back Islam from the West in a pattern that predates democracy. Such an argument attempts to uncover the motivations behind events, so that we can read how global catastrophes continue to form from religious and prejudicial impulses embedded deep within ethnic and religious identifications. Dorn remains always quick to note that bringing democracy or freedom to some region of the globe does not immediately translate into a good time for everybody. Democracy he claims is used to perpetuate corporate agendas that, in turn, are often modeled on that most divine corporation of all, the Church. This stance, in the end, against monotheism, gave Dorn a way to witness the local and the polytheistic richness provided in it. In his later work, as in these interviews, he shows us how to retain our local substance in the face of corporate programming and social agendas.
This late work confounds many people still, because it reveals an aggressive, and passionate, temperament. Few other poets of the twentieth century, however, bothered to address a public so thoroughly, nor have others so fully dignified the public ideal with such exemplary respect: for only a public commons invested with love could drive someone of Dorn’s perceptive acumen to such rhetorically strategic lengths. In his case, he shares a rhetorical tradition not with Greece, but with, instead, the Israel of the Old Testament. And it is within this uniquely American trope of the lone voice crying in the wilderness that Dorn’s later work begins to make sense. He does not provide a feel-good space for tolerant, multicultural discussion. Instead, his intolerance for the cultural “drift” he perceived drove him to refine his arguments in an attempt to provoke the public mind. The results of such provocation will be vetted by generations to come.