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Joe Safdie

Ed Dorn and the Politics of Love

Notes are given at the end of this file, with links that look like this: [125]. Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text. If your browser employs JavaScript, just hover your mouse over the link: the note will appear in a pop-up window. This piece is 3,400 words or about eight printed pages long.

From his early verse, written in the late 1950s and 60s before the mock epic Slinger, to his “middle period” of satirical epigrams, to his late reports on the cancer that was consuming his body, Edward Dorn wrote demonstrably “political poetry.” That he did so is easy to show; more arguable is the proposition, advanced here, that his political poems achieve their efficacy and success because they’re grounded in love. If I have a formal thesis, it’s to demonstrate what Duncan McNaughton, in a 1997 letter, wrote — that Dorn “had been one of the faithful of love.”

These are large terms, so it might be well at the beginning to present a few definitions: Dorn’s practice of political poetry was something broader than what might, in 2004, come to mind. Indeed, many current practitioners resist the term outright, thinking that it leads to preaching, agitprop, or telling readers what to do; they equate it with literalness, or a paucity of expression.[1] But Dorn’s poetry, while unabashedly “referential,” incorporating historical fact and commenting on it, eschews any immediate political goals. The function of a poet, he told Stephen Fredman in a 1977 interview, was “to stay as removed as possible from all permanent associations with power”; he was responsible only for delivering the best product he was capable of to his readers (I 65–66). “Dorn is not a poet of causes,” agrees Donald Wesling, in his essay on Dorn in Internal Resistances. “In fact, he is suspicious of anyone who favors anything” (35). In a letter to Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) in 1961, Dorn pronounced himself “embarrassed”

at the poor prospect of fellow poets singing the praises of any thing so venal as a State.... Sides are a bigassed drag. The biggest small-talk of all, like which one are you on? motherfucker (quoted in von Hallberg 58).

In other words, he believed that he could “write around the ideological encampments that are usually the governing forces... in political poetry” (58). James Scully, in his collection of essays Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, makes a useful distinction between this broader practice, which he calls “dissident poetry,” and “protest poetry,” which

is conceptually shallow. I think of the typical protest anthology: poems in opposition to the Vietnam War [or, in 2003, to the invasion of Iraq] or to the coup in Chile, ecologically concerned or anti-nuke poetry... Such poetry is issue-bound, spectatorial — rarely the function of an engaged artistic life.... Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries it breaks silences: speaking for, or at best with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life rather than shutting it off into a corner. It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it (5).

If “speaking for, or at best with, the silenced” is an important characteristic of this more valuable poetry, Dorn’s translation, with Gordon Brotherston, of One Word: Guerrilla Poems, would seem to qualify on the basis of its title alone; “putting [poetry] back into the middle of life” and “talk[ing] back” were, of course, central concerns throughout his career. He would also have shared Scully’s disdain of conceptually shallow protest poems. In the Fredman interview, making the argument that poetry “of a certain ambition and size will attempt to treat its culture in an instructive way,” he speaks of the perils of basing poetry on an event,

Like the Vietnam War was an event. I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s experiences of that. I’m saying that in terms of poetry, it’s not stable enough.... The people who talked directly at it really dropped their tongues. (I 92, 94)

Two years later, he described the difference between such attempts and what he was doing as “a difference in morality”:

There are some people who have power and a certain kind of means at their disposal who are trying to get the society to think in a certain way, to do a certain set of things, and so forth. I think any responsible writer is never that. No writer is ever trying to get anybody to do something; what they’re trying to create is a cognizance in the society of itself, to furnish the means — through clarity of language — for a self-appraisal and self-evaluation. (I 109)

Or, as he has it in Yellow Lola,

The common duty of the poet
in this era of massive dysfunction
& generalized onslaught upon alertness
is to maintain the plant
to the end that the mumbling horde
bestirs its prunéd tongue. (63)

The admission of the other, however — the recognition and articulation of forces outside one’s person — is also characteristic of love. In this, Dorn’s work is very much in the tradition of the love poems that have shaped western practice, which includes, as Louis Zukofsky reminds us in Bottom: On Shakespeare, the “configurations of Dante and Cavalcanti” (15). Dante, in the course of La Vita Nuova, changed the lyric from a narrow complaint of personal despair to a broader and more nuanced exploration of the effects his love for Beatrice was having, and could potentially have, on Florence (and eventually in the Paradiso, to the sun and other stars): “I felt impelled to take up a new and nobler theme than before,” he writes in Section XVII of La Vita Nuova. “I had said almost everything about my state and I thought it right to be silent and say no more, for I felt I had explained enough about myself” (53).

This passage would surely have resonated with Dorn, who, as Wesling said, is unique “in the extent of his scorn for personality and inwardness” (IR 17). When “I” dies in Book II of Slinger, it’s not just a clever linguistic turn, but the end as well of an entire mode of poetry based on individual complaint or report — “I didn’t want to have any truck with that first person singular excuse,” he said in a 1972 interview, “which I find one of the most effective brakes on current verse practice” (I 30). Before “I” becomes the receptacle of Kool Everything’s five gallons of acid, though, he asks Slinger about love, offering a chance for Dorn to update Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi Prega” (which, in Pound’s translation in Canto XXXVI, reads “A lady asks me / I speak in season / She seeks reason for an affect, wild often / That is so proud he hath Love for a name” [177]) with this dialogue:

What do you know
of Love?
Know? Nada, if I knew it
it couldn’t be Love.
Even a mortal knows that.
Then, what is it?
IS is not the link
it takes nine hundred years
to explain one blown
spark of Love
and you don’t have
that much time Amigo.

Not long after this first book of Slinger was written, Dorn would publish Twenty-four Love Songs, #22 of which contained a similar sentiment: “The agony is beauty / that you can’t have that / and sense too. There is / no sense to beauty.” That poem ends with a surprising couplet for a book of love songs: “really, the world is shit / and I mean all of it” (CP 248). Dorn would adopt radically different forms, voices and techniques throughout his career, but this interpenetration of love and politics would remain a constant theme.

In the poem that usually appears first in collections of his work, “The Rick of Green Wood,” Dorn explains to the woodsman that he prefers “cherry or alder or something strong / and thin, or thick if dry, but I don’t  / want the green wood, my wife would die” (3). He goes on to explain that “Her back is slender” (as in fact it was, Helene Dorn having suffered excruciating back pain for several months — Dorn seldom felt the need to “make things up,” and there’s a strong connection between realism and the strident positions he often takes in his poems).[2] As this conversation is going on, “my daughter was walking / singing — /... in the november / air, in the world, that was getting colder” (4). This poem inaugurates the co-existence, in much of his work, of a “cold” outside world combined with expressions of affection toward the people he loves who would be most threatened by it. In another early poem, “The Air of June Sings,” Dorn’s daughter is examining some of the inscriptions on the tombstones of a country cemetery; he himself is “moved to tears” as he hears “the depth in ‘Darling, we love thee,’ and as in ‘Safe in Heaven’”(11). But he avoids

the largest stone, larger than the common large, Goodpole Matthews,
Pioneer, and that pioneer sticks in me like a wormed black cherry
in my throat, No Date, nothing but that zeal, that trekking
and Business, that presumption in a sacred place, where children
are buried, and where peace, as it is in the fields and the country
should reign. A wagon wheel is buried there.

This is a visceral recognition of the forces Dorn would be engaged against throughout his career, the ones that trivialize the “love of common object, / and of woman and all the natural things I groom, in my mind” (13) and obliterate the “possibility” inherent in the common ground of the cemetery, with the less pretentious stones and inscriptions like “Budded on earth and blossomed / in heaven” (12). These forces sometimes assume the shape of characters, such as Howard Hughes/ Robart in Slinger, but are always marked by a ruthless, a-historical (“No Date”) lust for power and “Absolute Authority,” like the Catholic Church during the Crusades (Languedoc Variorum). Sometimes their economic nature is emphasized: “the oblivious process / of a brutal economic calculus,” for example, in “Problem of the Poem for My Daughter, Left Unsolved” (CP 93) leads to “the elimination of freely disposed / intellection” (96). For Dorn, whose poetry is “theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone” (v), the “Entrapment” brought about by such forces is total:

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits (Slinger, Book III)

The focus of Dorn’s political poems would change: while the early poems concentrated on perceptions of his local environment (seen occasionally through the lens of Carl Sauer’s cultural geography), North Atlantic Turbine investigates an overall theory of global and monopoly capitalism pushed along through the turbines of world trade. He would, though, come to look on that book as “over-reached” and “the most uncomfortable of my work to me” (I 24): “I wanted to stop looking through these binoculars at the horizon,” he said, and instead “look at who was standing next to me. Like who was in the immediate room because I had never done that” (25). But, in fact, he had — in his first three books. Dorn was always to deny that he wrote domestically, but his examiner at Black Mountain College, Robert Creeley, disagreed: “Ed writes from a domestic base all the way — and it really underwrites his politics” (Clark 36).

One way to resolve this seeming contradiction is to realize that Dorn is at his best when he combines the personal and the political, as in Part I of the “Oxford” poem in Turbine. Sitting on a train and ruminating about the rich and beautiful women who come to Oxford from would-be imperialist countries in search of “The Good Life,” he realizes that “The woman opposite me / by no other act than Murder / is permitted existence. Nothing less / will shape and spread / those legs” (CP 197). One of the last poems in that book again attempts, as Zukofsky had it, to “Perfect the composition of a two-point view” (A–8 49):

                         And I would not believe it
If Europe or England
Could in any sense evoke her without me,
The guitar of her presence the bearer of her scent
Upon my wrist
The banding of her slightsmiling lassitude... (CP 230)

This poem is probably addressed to Jennifer Dunbar, soon to become his wife, who also inspired “the Song about a woman” at the end of Book I of Slinger. The previously mentioned Twenty-four Love Songs, which celebrates their marriage, again combines political awareness and indignation with the contrasting values of sex and the body. While asserting, in a lovely early passage, that “we are / everyway locked / inside the warm halls of flesh” (CP 238), he acknowledges later that his partner “will permit / any property of herself / any slanted permission / but make you know / any property is a careful / waste of time” (248). This union is ecstatic; it partakes of the cosmos:

                    I am nothing
     anymore at all
     than in myself, you be
     a still center
     which has about it pivoting
     ramifications of my strain
     a marvelously pure crystal
     the center still and in me
                              located (243)

This is reminiscent of an early dream Dante writes about in Section XII of La Vita Nuova, when Love admonishes Dante to put aside pretences: “I am the center of a circle to which all parts of the circumference are in a similar relation, but you are not so.”[3] Soon afterwards, in a weakened state after another vision of Beatrice, Dante realizes that his love for her has “set his feet in that part of life beyond which it is not possible to go with any hope of returning” (XIV 48). Charles Williams (whose The Figure of Beatrice “breaks through the literalism and poverty of our thought about love,” according to Norman O. Brown[4]) expounds:

This is the present climax of self-preservation and self-loss. Love itself says “Flee,” and the stones say “Die.” The beauty and the joy are too much for him; they are absolute over him; there is in them a high and dreadful conclusion; it is either flight or death. But if he stays? if he dies this little death? if he, so far, understands this new centre which is Love? It is, I think, true to say that from this point the quality of Love is found illuminating in a new way. (25–26)

This “new way” is perhaps equivalent to Dorn’s in these love poems and in Slinger, in which the death of “I” was soon to follow. But even from this new center, Dorn doesn’t forget that the New World to which he’s returning with his new bride is where “Diego de Landa / the glyphic books destroyed” (CP 236) and where “the agent’s dark eyes / burn from the dark short past / represent, handles the claims / of those we over ran / and they scream with their / fixed smiles / for satisfaction” (CP 245).

Dorn’s work of the late seventies and eighties would mostly consist of the fierce and funny political epigrams of Hello La Jolla, Yellow Lola and Abhorrences, books in which love can be intuited only through its absence: “Environmental carcinogens / and large bowel cancer / go together like marble steps / and fancy dancers” (YL 18). He does, however, insist “I’m no hater” (54), even while noting (about Henry Kissinger) that  “Moved was a bit too classy / to be used to note an emotion / and I doubt that it occurred to him” (71). These fierce moral discriminations dissecting the simulacra of love persist throughout his work, even to the last months of his life. “There is a certain amount of mail unconsciously addressing me in the past tense” he said in a letter to Tom Clark in June of 1997; in another letter on July 1, he vowed to ignore these “we’re scared-so-shitless-we-assume-you’re-dead people... when I die I’ll be dead but until then I’m living. Hope is beside the point.” (qtd. in Clark 406). At the same time, he acknowledges in Chemo Sabe that

My tumor is not interested in what
or who I love,
My tumor is not interested in love,
no neoplasm is — the blind cells thereof
are not interested in love or affection,
she sends out little colonies, chipped genes
mark their crossing the river
            (“The Decadron, Tagamit, Benadryl and
            Taxol Cocktail Party of 1 March 1999”)

It’s hard not to remember an echo of Pioneer Goodpole Matthews here, that arrogant usurper of what was common. The Alien of Dorn’s tumor, like other enemies and rogue capitalists in his previous poems, assaults the condition of peace and common humanity that was always at the center of his work. Cancer is also “Catholic — it loves to / evangelize, and it will intermarry with anything / to claim the progeny” (“White Rabbit”) and “was environmentally / Induced and politically generated” (“Enhancement”). The last poem in the book, and possibly the last poem he ever wrote, “The Garden of the White Rose” also echoes “The Air of June Sings” in its invocation of Dante’s White Rose (“Budded on earth and blossomed / in heaven”), which, unlike himself, “will return next year” and “whose house is light against the / threatening darkness.”

I mentioned a letter from Duncan McNaughton at the beginning of this piece, from which I’d now like to add a bit more context:

you might say the nyad of his being has taken over — a radiant sweetness, even joy, which his tears... etc. His being is literally flooding with this grace. It is “because of” his love. He has been one of the faithful of love. He was never finally capable of being otherwise.

Casual readers of Dorn would probably not think of him in exactly that way; many, after all, know his work only through Slinger, or the acerbic epigrams of the late 70s and 80s. Breaking through “the literalism and poverty of our thought about love,” though, would mean realizing that love can co-exist with scorn and disdain for anything that would thwart it, and that it’s closely aligned with what Dorn said was the function of the poet: “to stay as removed as possible from all permanent associations with power.” Such a breakthrough might extend as well to our notions of politics and political concerns in poetry. Rather than limit these to the latest outrages of an illegitimate administration, we might more profitably realize that such a practice would be an “Art designed”

     to keep us apart, but more than that, to keep
     our senses apart, to make dormant at least
     and at best to make wrecked
     to have made inoperative the mechanism
                              whereby we track
     with the capturing powers of our own love
     the expanding universe, as it goes
     in our brief time beyond us (CP 100)

Only then, perhaps, might we experience “the return / onto the land again / the spore of politics / the ringing arrangement of love” (CP 144).

Works Cited
Alighieri, Dante. La Vita Nuova. Tr. Barbara Reynolds. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1969.
Benjamin, Walter. “One-Way Street.” Reflections. Tr. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Brown, Norman O. Apocalypse and/ or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
Clark, Tom. Edward Dorn: A World of Difference. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002.
Dorn, Edward. Chemo Sabe. Boise, ID: Limberlost Press, 2001.
———. Collected Poems. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1975.
———. High West Rendezvous. South Devonshire, England: etruscan books, 1997.
———. Interviews. Ed. Donald Allen. Bolinas, CA: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980.
———. Slinger. Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1975.
———. Yellow Lola. Santa Barbara: Cadmus Editions, 1981.
McNaughton, Duncan. Letter to the author. 3 November, 1997.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1975.
Scully, James. Line Break: poetry as social practice. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988.
von Hallberg, Robert. “‘This Marvellous Accidentalism.’” Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn. Ed. Donald Wesling. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Wesling, Donald. “‘To fire we give everything’: Dorn’s Shorter Poems.” Internal Resistances: The Poetry of Edward Dorn. Ed. Donald Wesling. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Williams, Charles. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante. New York: Octagon Books, 1978.
Zukofsky, Louis. A 1–12. Garden City, NY: Paris Review Editions, 1967.

[1]    Ron Silliman, on his blog, is typical: “themes, for me at least, don’t work. That is to say, I literally can’t read them. Them, in this instance, being poems with a point. When I try, the poem invariably loses my interest before I complete the text. My experience as a reader is that it feels like coercive sentiment & I find myself physically repelled by the poem. The affect is nausea. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the sentiment or not.” Such thoughts contradict Walter Benjamin’s, who wrote, in One-Way Street, “The tract is an Arabic form. Its exterior is undifferentiated and unobtrusive, like the facades of Arabian buildings, the articulation of which begins only in the courtyard. So, too, the articulated structure of the tract is invisible from outside, revealing itself only from within.” (Reflections, 83)
[2]    In another essay in Line Break, Scully expounds on this point: “Realism and partisanship are inseparable. It’s not simply that partisanship without realism may be toothless, but that the dependency is the other way round: there can be no realism without partisanship. (We can’t describe anything accurately without entering into a relationship with it and accounting for that relationship in our description. This doesn’t mean we must be ‘subjective’ rather than ‘objective,’ though these are question-begging terms, but that we must struggle to be objective about our subjectivity” (67). Also see Robert Holub, in Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction: “Prejudice, because it belongs to historical reality itself, is not a hindrance to understanding, but rather a condition of the possibility of understanding” (41)
[3]    Dorn’s attainment of the center, though, more closely approximates St. Bonaventura, who wrote, at about the same time: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere.” (Being compared to a Catholic theologian, however, would not have pleased him.)
[4]    Brown’s late essay “Revisioning Historical Identities” in Apocalypse and/ or Metamorphosis is a central stimulus for this one. Directly after this sentence, he adds “Love, believe it or not, is what moves the sun and all the stars; as well as any political or social movements that may be moving.... There is a connection between Beatrice and the Revolution; communist politics must be grounded in Amor” (167–168). Scully, in Line Break, asks (rhetorically) “Can you imagine looking Dante in the face and saying poetry and politics don’t mix?” (5)

Photo of Joe Safdie

Joe Safdie (seen here with his friend Sean) was born in Oklahoma City and has lived in Seattle since 1994, where he teaches at Lake Washington Technical College. Before that, many years on the West Coast of California (Venice Beach, North Beach, Bolinas) and three years in the early nineties teaching in the Czech Republic (Olomouc and Prague). Author of September Song (Oasis Press, 2000), Spring Training (Zephyr Press, 1985) and Saturn Return (Smithereens Press, 1983). His debt to his teachers, including Norman O. Brown, Lynn Luria Sukenick, and Edward Dorn, is constant.

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