Arts: Poetry: War, cancer and other ills

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FOR LOVERS of post-Poundian poetry favouring both a long line and a sticky wicket, Ed Dorn is something of a legend. After being taught at Black Mountain College by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, Dorn successfully grafted a hip style and a beat sensibility to the modernist tradition re-established by such disciples of Ezra Pound as the great Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting. His works of the Sixties, such as Gunslinger, Books One and Two, prefigure the shaggy-dog narrative and playful tricks of later poets such as Paul Muldoon, and the lines fairly crackle with acrid satire and anti-imperialist invective. Set in the Mexican border country of the American West, Gunslinger is like a satirical verse version of Cormac McCarthy, and features among its picaresque cast of characters a horse that not only talks but rolls joints too.

This one-off reading was a valedictory for Dorn's 70th birthday, and something of an occasion, with the writer Ian Sinclair and the film-maker Chris Petit present to record the event.

Dressed in cool white on a very hot night, Dorn looked a little like Dennis Hopper gradually morphing into Buster Keaton, and his reading veered appropriately from angry railing against the evils of war to tragic accounts of treatment for cancer. "The poems are absolutely self-explanatory and rhetorically uncomplicated," Dorn began, and, true to his word, nearly every word printed itself on the mind.

A sequence on the war in Kosovo, written, he said, from an admittedly unpopular position, featured a catalogue of the damage wreaked on clinics, schools and churches, in "a victory of God over the shopping-less infidel". Americans, he said in an aside, are "noxious people", and there were a good many swipes at Bill Clinton's big cigar.

The poems on cancer and its treatment were shockingly matter-of-fact and unsentimental, with the effects of particular painkillers always related to the big picture of the multinational combines that produce them. "My tumour is watching all this," went one line, with a David Cronenberg- like concern to see the disease's point of view. When, at the beginning of the second half, Dorn introduced the evening's "surprise guest", the English poet Jeremy Prynne, with whom he has corresponded for 40 years, he was overcome by emotion and wept.

In contrast to Dorn, Prynne proved to be a surprisingly hearty figure, rather like a public school classics master. "The written word is a very frail medium," Prynne said before embarking on an extended sequence, his first public reading in this country since 1971 - and so it proved to be. Without the benefit of the microphone, which he had rather fogey- ishly switched off, his audience struggled to appreciate the often complex lines, although what did come across sounded tantalisingly like a sort of modernist nature poetry.

At the end I got Dorn to sign my old copy of Gunslinger, and asked him whether the cancer experiences were indeed his own. "Yes," he said. "The fright comes through, doesn't it? I decided that I had to try to do something with it." In Ed Dorn's case, poetry really is a matter of life and death.