Obituary: Edward Dorn

WITH THE death of Edward Dorn, the United States loses not only one of its finest poets, but a rare critical intelligence and cultural commentator.

Dorn was born in rural Illinois in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, in poverty. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, then high school (where he helped on the local newspaper) and for two years at the University of Illinois. He worked for a while at the Boeing plant in Seattle, returned to Illinois, and through his art teacher, Raymond Obermayr, was directed towards Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he arrived in the autumn of 1950.

In 1951 he left and travelled to the Pacific Northwest, where he did manual work and met his first wife, Helene. In late 1954 they returned to Black Mountain, where he studied under Charles Olson (Dorn's first published work was the pamphlet What I See in the Maximus Poems) and graduated in 1955 with Robert Creeley as one of his examiners.

After two years of further travel, the family settled in Washington state. Their life there, on the edge of poverty, is vividly portrayed in Dorn's first prose book, The Rites of Passage (1965, republished in 1972 as By the Sound). By 1959 they were in New Mexico, and at the end of 1961 moved to Pocatello, where Dorn taught at the University of Idaho until the middle of 1965.

Donald Allen's 1960 anthology The New American Poetry included some of Dorn's early poems, but his first book, The Newly Fallen, was not published until 1961 by Amiri Baraka's (then LeRoi Jones) Totem Press in New York. Three years later the same press published Hands Up! Poems from this period, so clear, moving, unromantic and filled with the memories of his hard early life - "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears RoeBuck", for example - echoed not only in the United States, but across the Atlantic.

In the summer of 1965 Dorn and the photographer Leroy Lucas collaborated on The Shoshoneans: the people of the basin plateau - a book too long out-of-print, which anticipated the now fashionable interest in all things Native American, and gracefully left the last words not to the authors, but to Clyde Warrior, an activist.

That autumn, at the invitation of Donald Davie, the family arrived in England where, with a year's break, Dorn was to teach at the new Essex University until 1970. Dorn arrived already aware of the work of young British poets such as Tom Pickard and Lee Harwood, and he had corresponded for some time with J.H. Prynne (who accompanied the Dorns on their transatlantic liner). The American poet Tom Clark was a graduate student at Essex and shared many of Dorn's interests.

Creeley, Olson and other visitors passed through the various flats and houses in Colchester and Wivenhoe. On the faculty was Gordon Brotherston, and Dorn began with him a series of collaborative translations of Latin American poetry that continued for decades. He met Jennifer Dunbar, his second wife.

In London there was a lively small press scene and Stuart and Deirdre Montgomery's Fulcrum Press published two collections of poems: Geography (1965) and The North Atlantic Turbine (1967). And Dorn began to write Gunslinger, one of the major North American long poems, first published as a sequence of books while in progress and finally as one volume in 1975, the year after its completion.

Those years saw the Dorns in Chicago, in Mexico, and, with occasional breaks, in San Francisco. Dorn's early newspaper experience and his work in the Print Shop at Black Mountain combined in the tabloid Bean News, with contributions by Prynne and other correspondents. His neighbour Holbrook Teter's old Linotype machine, held together with wire, produced the type for this, and for the complete Gunslinger, while Teter's partner, Michael Myers, drew the elegant cover for Recollections of Gran Apachera, Dorn's next book.

In the autumn of 1977, Dorn began to teach at the University of Colorado in Boulder where, in 1980, he and his wife Jennifer started Rolling Stock (motto: "If it moves, print it!"), a newspaper-sized journal that encompassed their many interests (including a delightful golf column by Nick Sedgwick) and ran throughout the decade. Still happy to work with his hands, Dorn built his own workroom with scrap timber.

The academic world didn't escape his pen. Captain Jack's Chaps (1983) is a hilarious account of the MLA conference in Houston, and he ended the decade with Abhorrences (1990), a collection of short, savage observations. During his last years he continued to travel - in Montana, in Wyoming - and to write (even a country and western song) with undiminished energy. An exchange year teaching in the South of France, at Montpellier, sparked a new interest in the Cathars and Simon de Montfort. It is thanks to Nicholas Johnston's Etruscan Books that some of his later work is in print in Britain.

Dorn suffered fools not at all, and sloppy thinking not for a moment: a lonely position at the best of times, and one that made him almost persona non grata within the literary and academic climate of his homeland.

For anyone interested to see how wit, intelligence and a dispassionate eye can survive through pain, I suggest reading "Chemo du Jour" (Denver Quarterly, Spring 99) - the Clinton impeachment seen through chemotherapy. A line in a note this week from the Swansea-born poet Doug Lang comes to mind: "When I first read his work, in 1970, it changed my idea about what poetry could be."

Dorn died at home, in his own bed, with his family beside him, in the West: a pure American who didn't go crazy. Fools can sleep easier.

Edward Merton Dorn, poet and teacher: born Villa Grove, Illinois 2 April 1929; married first Helene Buck (one son), second Jennifer Dunbar (one son, one daughter); died Denver, Colorado 10 December 1999.

A Fate of Unannounced Years

I will have to pick my cluster of grapes

in this country,

after everyone else has gone

to Korcula or Spain. It will be strange

here, walking through the parks, the folding

chairs gone, the meandering lovers

and old women in their Sunday hats gone;

an empty air, and a peaceful kind of rest.

Finding myself in America

slowly walking around the deserted bandstand, waiting

for the decade, and the facetious new arrivals.

from Edward Dorn, Hands Up! (1964)

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