[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, McPheron offers a brief biographical introduction and an analysis of Dorn's poetry divided into three distinct periods, presenting Dorn as a fundamentally political poet.]
Edward Dorn is a political poet committed to the ideals of democratic culture. A fierce partisan of the free play of critical thought, he is acutely sensitive to the socio-economic forces aligned against an open society. "Democracy," he insists, "literally has to be cracked on the head all the time to keep it in good condition" (Contemporary Authors 129), and he understands its most serious enemy to be capitalism's enormous power, which in the post-World War II era has reached beyond the marketplace to infiltrate and control every aspect of American life. Though he despises the bourgeois ethos that sustains these commercial interests, Dorn remains hostile to all parties and ideologies, rejecting liberal pieties as well as conservative platitudes. He advocates neither party nor platform but offers instead a tensely alert mind that challenges every form of political and cultural authority. The result is a series of imaginative, intellectually provocative, and steadily more disturbing images of the American nation.
The purpose of his art, as Dorn himself defines it, is "to create ... a cognizance in the society of itself, to furnish the means--through clarity of language--for self-appraisal and self-evaluation" (Interviews 109). For him a poem is less an aesthetic icon than an instrument of intellection; it seeks not to afford his readers pleasure but to demystify their perception of American reality. Energizing this project are Dorn's emotional alliance with marginalized people, his deep suspicion of mass culture, an obsession with language's fate in post-industrial society, and--most of all--his own extraordinary wit.
The literary tools of Dorn's pedagogy have changed frequently and dramatically over the years: lyric verse, realistic fiction, investigative reporting, burlesque epic, and satiric epigrams all act to awaken his audience to "self-appraisal and self-evaluation." In contrast to this variety of genres is the singleness of his attention to the American West. Throughout his career, the geography, history, and mythology of this region have served as the principal site of his vision of the American circumstance.
A native of eastern Illinois, Dorn self-consciously adopted the West as his artistic territory and now considers himself "a poet of the West" (Interviews 44). For him the region discloses with stark clarity the original promise and present condition of America. Spiritually at ease in the vast expanse of its landscapes, Dorn ranges widely over the area: the Pacific Northwest, the inter-mountain basin of Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah, the New Mexican Southwest, southern California, the High Plains of Colorado and Wyoming--all prominently figure in his writings. These places mark significant points on an odyssey that Dorn began with high school trips along Route 66 to California and has since continued in a succession of different Western residences. His actual experiences of these locales as well as the other circumstances of his life often become material for his art and...