'To fire we give everything': Dorn's Shorter Poems

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Author: Donald Wesling
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 115. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,928 words

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[(essay date 1985) In the following essay, Wesling discusses the unique aspects of Dorn's shorter poetry, providing an extensive analysis of Dorn's treatment of the concept of attention.]

          "We are bleached in Sound           as it burns by what we desire" and we give our inwardness in some degree to all things but to fire we give everything. (Book IIII: "Prolegomenon," S [Slinger] 145)

As readers become acquainted with the work of Edward Dorn, they quickly learn that certain kinds of poetic pleasures are not going to be indulged.1 Notably absent, and regretted because they sometimes make access more prompt, are (1) direct self-revelation from the poet; (2) straightforward narrative; (3) elaborate structures of metaphor to challenge the puzzle-solving impulse; (4) lines engraved on marble or gaily tripping or otherwise in traditional iambic pentameter. In their place are (1) persona and comedy, irony and sarcasm; (2) speculation and speculative politics; (3) a range of direct, unfigured discourse from song to argumentative wit to pronunciamento; (4) free verse whose main attributes are speed of transition from one thought to another and abstraction of diction. The mode of address is laconic, often uncompromisingly stern in the midst of love song and elegy. Dorn sometimes seems to merge into his own fictional character, the semidiós Gunslinger, whose acts are so magnificent that they can only be imaged as immaterial thought and whose thoughts are so elegant that they must be imaged as the curves of perfect acts:

                                                  Hey Slinger! Play some music. Right, breathed the Gunslinger and he looped toward the juke then, in a trajectory of exquisite proportion a half dollar which dropped home as the .44 presented itself in the proximity of his hand and interrogated the machine (S 23)

There is in this poet an inability to stoop, a noble contempt for Americans ("the mumbling horde") who fail to risk or examine their lives, their language:

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. (YL [Yellow Lola] 63)

Contempt for the collective is so withering that it sometimes seems strong enough to extend to Dorn's friends and readers, but this is never the case.

To write this kind of poetry, Dorn requires a band of fellows. These persons he salutes in his preface to The Collected Poems, 1956-1974 (1975): "My true readers have known exactly what I have assumed. I am privileged to take this occasion to thank you for that exactitude, and to acknowledge the pleasure of such a relationship" (CP v). The writer separates himself and his readers from the horde rather like an Augustan satirist, whose effects depend on a privileged elite with inside knowledge that enables them to crack the codes of the writing, and, so doing, scorn the uninitiated. This analogy needs immediate qualification, however, because for Dorn there remains the chance that the horde...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420104871