Peter Riley on Ed Dorn’s Collected 2.

The second part of Peter Riley’s reveiw of Ed Dorn’s Collected just cam eout in the Fortnightly Review. Below, the opening paras, for the whole piece, click here.

The relentless fury of Ed Dorn 2.

A Fortnightly Review of

Collected Poems
Edward Dorn
Edited with a preface by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn

Carcanet Press 2012 | 1023pp. | $40.00 £25.00

Two Interviews
Edward Dorn
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko

Shearsman Books 2012 | 102pp | £9.95

By Peter Riley.


Edward Dorn: Collected Poems.

The second part of a two-part review. Part one is here.

DORN HIMSELF WAS dissatisfied with The North Atlantic Turbine, mainly because most of it is concerned with England and he recognised a failure to “perceive things English” – “…there’s a harping note in the book because it’s vague and unfocussed.”1 Most of his work heretofore had come from a particular locality which he knew intimately and here he was floundering in a foreign land. This worries me less than what happens to the poet’s voice. There is in fact a lot of fine writing in the book, particularly when it is bound to his own questing experience and allows of his own innocence. But there is also a lot of pontification, all rather monotonously extremist, which seems new to his poetry. The title-poem, also called “A Theory of Truth”, is a solid nine pages of it, all from a position of total cynicism.

Dorn’s position facing the world here should be noted, for it informs just about everything he was to write from now on, involving some tortuous difficulties which badly need the clarification. “Thesis” was extremist but it was a poetical enactment; in “A Theory of Truth” and elsewhere in the book he expounds his position baldly as he had not done before, and makes it clear that as far as he is concerned the entire civilisation he inhabits, and probably a lot more than that, is simply “crap” or “Evil” and always will be (“permanently intended disablement”).

The condemnation is total; it is, in the last analysis, the world itself which is reviled – not just capitalism, though commerce and finance are the principal destructive agents; not just war and exploitation, but the very buildings, the objects, the people and everything they say or produce, art and all. The world is totally degenerate. This cannot be taken for any kind of leftist agenda, for all the “politically correct” attitudes and all practical approaches are equally despised (civil rights, education, socialism, opposition to the Vietnam war, ecology…). As for art, “The fact is there is no art /no vision in the West…”2 The Renaissance “…is simply expanded commercial enterprise”, the Ghiberti doors on the Florence Baptistry “are the doors to the biggest bank” (they “would fit Chase Manhattan as well”). There is no discussion, no justification, the word “bank” is enough to spotlight the core of Evil. There are two interesting lists of places and things which should be bombed or “blown apart”, which includes the Empire State Building (I seriously wonder what he would have thought of 9/11) but also the back passages of elephants in zoos, all computers, all internal combustion engines, anyone possessing more than £5, and so on. “Finally the earth as a primary object must be destroyed” and indeed “life on earth” is itself an exploitative trick played on us from birth.

The question of how serious all this is doesn’t of course arise. Obviously it cannot be totally serious, but neither can we treat it as pure comedy, which would leave us free to be amused by the stand-up audacity,  because it is too insistent for that. And certainly there is a reality to which Dorn points his finger, one which has become exacerbated since his time. But there is undoubtedly a burning resentment and impersonal hatred behind it all and, increasingly, a sense of election.

These pronouncements are offered in a tone of public address without public accountability, and all the demands that would make of the poet’s knowledge or realism are bypassed. The public world is a complete fake and nothing is owed to it. And what is the “theory of truth” here? It could be the claim that truth is defined or created by strength of feeling, that truth is essentially negative, that truth has died the death because of commercialism – but there are several hints that the singular figure of the poet is the central depositary of truth and the only citizen to have the chance to be liberated, by dint of the inversions and distortions of poetical language, from the untruth and Evil which absolutely govern this society. This lionisation and privileging of the poet seems to be something he picked up in England, and it had an increasing influence on his subsequent writing, mainly in a deliberate hardening and dehumanising of the voice, and, eventually, a miniaturising of the vehicle of address. But first there is an interruption, an extremely big one.


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