Tough and chiseled, Ed Dorn’s poems are emblematic of his own features. It’s fitting that artist Philip Behymer’s portrait adorns the cover of his Collected Poems. There’s a surface density to the language in Dorn’s work found alongside a grimness of outlook which matches up well with his visage: the John Donne of his time, as poet Charles Olson refers to him in an early letter. Dorn is a truly original postmodern artist, with nothing but distaste for the term. Yet his poetry bears many telltale hallmark signifiers of postmodernism: meta-narratives, many-centered identities of the speaking voice, a nascent embrace of hybridity in terms of writing forms, including but not limited to journalistic, historical, slapstick, and stoic, which he is found to be ever expanding upon and maturing in style. His work exudes evidence of what were for him necessary self-inventions that are made evident in a series of distinct stylistic transitions. Throughout these changes, Dorn’s austere intellect and careful concern for evading any hint of lulling pretension assures a clear tone of disdain for false affectation remains heavily evident.
The agony is beauty that you can’t have that and sense too. There is no sense to beauty. It offends everyone, the more so in ratio to the praise of it. And I’ve known this for a long time, there has been no great necessity to say it. How really, the world is shit and I mean all of it
Dorn’s acidic aversion for many points of view commonly shared by large portions of society brightly shines forth in his poems, providing a continually updated and unflinching assessment of his take on the shifting state of things from the 1950s on up through the 1990s. Dorn’s fellow poet and peer, Amiri Baraka, acknowledges in his afterword that he holds Dorn’s poetry in rare high regard not only for “its faultless craft, but also his piercing understanding of where him was and who him are. His understanding and overstanding too of just where we all were heading, moving out of the twentieth century.” To bear the burden of sight as transmitted through the lens of Dorn’s poetry is an experience that’s ruffled and bruised many readers, notably poet and critic Ron Silliman, among others. But as Baraka says in his memorial poem, “Ed Dorn”: “I dug Ed Dorn because he wd rather/Make you his enemy//Than Lie.” There is no better assessment of the perspective wherefrom Dorn’s poems emerge. Take it or leave it.
Collected Poems provides a well-rounded perspective for placing both Dorne and his work.
I’m with the Kurds and the Serbs and the Iraqis And every defiant nation this jerk Ethnic crazy country bombs— World leaders can claim What they want about terror, As they wholesale helicopters To the torturers—But I’m straight out Of my tribe from my great grandma Merton Pure Kentucky English—it would take more paper Than I’ll ever have to express how justified I feel.
All of Dorn’s quick-moving incisive poetic work is here; nothing’s been left out. A few avid readers of Dorn will be familiar with it all, which in itself is a tremendous gift to be said of any collected poems. This considerable bulk of a book is as thorough and meticulous of a collection as would be hoped. The editing is scrupulous and deserves praise, organized chronologically with at-times surprisingly large quantities of “uncollected poems” placed between collections as published by the poet during his lifetime. Included are such hard-to-find items as Spectrum Breakdown: A Microbook (originally published in 1971 as an insert in the small press mag Athanor). And the appendix includes Bean News, an accompaniment to Dorn’s Epic poem Gunslinger (1968, 1969, 1972, 1974), which is “said to be the paper the Gunslinger read.” In addition, all prefaces, jacket notes, and introductions...