Ed Dorn and William Everson

Edward Dorn
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko
Shearsman Books ($17)

The Light the Shadow Casts
Selected Everson Poems and Five Interviews
edited and introduced by Clifton Ross
Freedom Voices ($14.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Among the dozens of poets represented in Don Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Ed Dorn and Wiliam Everson stand out as two self-isolated individualists with large, singularly unique and significant bodies of work. Each developed and sustained the adoption of a dramatic public persona through which they became quite recognizably “The Poet” of the poems. For Dorn, this was the rugged, Clint Eastwood-like appearance that accompanied the writing and publication of his epic poem Gunslinger. This marked a shift in Dorn’s poetic practice and it also came with his separation from his first wife and family and the beginning of his relationship with his second wife. For Everson there was a two-part persona development: as a Dominican monk he published the majority of his early poems under the name Brother Antonius before dramatically tossing aside his monk's habit at a public reading in 1969, leaving the order to marry a young teenager whom he had been counseling. He then donned what he referred to as his “Mountain Man” look, complete with bear claw necklace and freely flowing white hair and beard.

The first interview with Dorn in Two Interviews, originally published in Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper The Peak in 1971, was conducted by students of poet Robin Blaser’s and took place on the front balcony of a commune along a busy street with neighborhood noise (for instance, the “Miltonic bellowing” of nearby neighbor Vancouver poet George Bowering) interrupting on the tape. The presence of British poet J.H. Prynne (along with Ralph Maud and Stan Persky) chiming in during the interview is a plus. Dorn—along with second wife Jennifer Dunbar, toddler Kidd, and baby Maya—had just completed a drive across the United States with Prynne, and the congenial warmth between Prynne and the Dorns is attested to by a photo of the cover for the Vancouver publication Writing 8, consisting of a Prynne-Dorn family totem pole pile up.

Dorn’s dislike of his own work The North Atlantic Turbineis striking: “one of the beasts. Because it’s like, made of the parts of a verse practice that was ending, in that way, so strong, that it couldn’t stop before that book got written. I just look at that book as a curiosity.” And his sharp pushback against interviewer Brian Fawcett’s voiced disgruntlement with Gunslinger as being too “current” as well as “too easy” is adroitly on point. Dorn points out that Fawcett’s cited example, the phrase “Tampico bombers” is in fact “not current. Nobody says that.” And anyway, “what’s wrong with current? I mean I refuse to use a language which is calculated backward in time so as to appear not current. I mean absolutely.” Dorn is sensitively aware of the changes happening within his work and his inclinations are to try to change the direction of conversation, and ask for local information: “Well, is there any interest around here in Poetry? Do people get together and give readings?”

The second interview, conducted in 1981 by Gavin Selerie while the Dorns were visiting London and projected for inclusion in Selerie’s Riverside Interviews series, is by far the more substantial. Dorn speaks of his experience teaching at the University of Essex under the Pound scholar and poet Donald Davie. Dorn discusses the development of his course “The Literature of the Westward Expansion” and how he benefitted from teaching the unusual, “I suppose you could call it interdisciplinary” studies at Essex. The emphasis on bringing in material from outside of students’ own creative work was a relief for him: “It’s much better to let people write and convey other things to them which will enable them to write, rather than trying to tell them what they’ve written after they’ve done it.” Dorn interestingly names British poet A.E. Housman as a recent revelation to him of how it is “entirely possible for a scholar to be a poet” and knowingly remarks how “procedures do get defined by one’s possibilities of living” when discussing poet Charles Olson’s work in comparison.

Selerie’s lengthy introduction to his interview refers to remarks made by Dorn during readings he gave while in England, quotes extensively from transcripts, and provides historical framing for situating transitions occurring in Dorn’s work at the time. In addition to both interviews, short selections of Dorn’s writing are also included. Of most significance is “from The Day & Night Report (1971)” along with further information regarding both the composition and publication of this uncollected work, portions of which appeared in Tom Clark’s anthology All Stars and Clayton Eshleman’s literary journal Caterpillar, which raises the question of why The Day & Night Report was left out of the recent Collected Poems. The other works, “From Juneau in June (1980-81)” and “Three Poems and a Draft (1981),” are better off left to the realm of the archive-junkies.

While Dorn’s work has received a tremendous boost in publishing since his death in 1999, accompanied by the long overdue interest of younger scholars and poets, in stark contrast, Everson’s work has suffered neglect since his death in 1994, nearly vanishing from the radar of today’s readers. This absence of care for Everson’s work mirrors a similar lack for that of Kenneth Rexroth and Robinson Jeffers, his self-termed “mentor” and “master” respectively. Marking Everson’s centennial year of birth, the American republication of The Light the Shadow Casts, Clifton Ross’s slim but nonetheless substantial and informing collection of interviews with an accompanying small selection of poems spanning decades of Everson’s writing, signals a possible change of fortune.

Everson, author of the foundational study of Pacific coast poetry Archetype West, is a fascinating poet of California, viscerally engaged with the landscape of both the coastline and the central valley. His work represents nature poetry immediately one with the spiritual, psychological, and mystical elements of his being in a fashion that is strikingly dissimilar to his peers. Everson calls out for a deep engagement of writing with local physical locale: “I think we’re going to come back to a regionalism with a much higher consciousness than what it was before when it was just a kind of ‘scenery’.” His poetry answers his call, lushly expansive in its reaching after metaphor: “. . . the quenchless wound, / The wound that throbs like wakening milk in the winter dugs of the doe, / Like honey out of the broken comb in the rock of Tamalpais.”

In Ross’s words, “Everson reaches into the darkness, into the Shadow of consciousness, to find the light of God.” Everson himself says, “the poet takes language and articulates it in such way that the madness is there. That’s where his gonads are. He stands in a most direct approximation to the psychoid state in his creative trance. He is utterly possessed in it.” He understands the nature of his role quite clearly: “I take up the progression . . . from the prophet to the shaman.” It is not surprising that today’s readers haven’t felt compelled towards embracing the rich, often overburdened feel of his poetry. The reluctance is especially understandable given the heavy and heady nature of just how substantively rooted Everson is within both Catholic and Jungian disciplines. The vocabulary and concepts with which he is comfortably at home writing and discussing have become far removed from where the audience for poetry now exists in most of our society. While giving poetry readings Everson nonetheless felt called to reach out: “I had to challenge the audience and get them out of this bland expectancy which they have.”

Both Everson and Dorn follow what each in their own manner conceives of as dutiful service upon the path of “The Poet.” Everson pursues an encounter within the unconscious: in his view, “the shaman and the poet enter into the collective unconscious via the personal unconscious” and then he attempts “to correct what he finds there.” This is often a personally messy practice, and he observes how “most poets don’t accept that risk. They make for the ideal, to create a perfect statement out of the ideal.” Dorn doesn’t share interest in the unconscious, his own or anybody else’s, but he is likewise wary of the tendency among poets and readers alike to avoid risking the unfamiliar. He acknowledges the poet’s job as one of study, of keeping one’s self accessible to incoming information and the disturbing openness that entails:

I think the definition of a poet’s life is really a life of study. And as that study progresses, the terms of its transmission change—not because the poetry changes but because the deliberation dictates what can be said . . . I believe that the whole function of poetry is the criticism of one’s lifetime and one’s life in that lifetime, and it’s an endless attempt to encourage the reader to enlighten himself.

Poetry might at best “encourage” personal engagement and change. It’s a take it or leave it proposition and Dorn knows the casual, ordinary reader will likely leave it again and again. “The Poet,” however, will return to struggle without end.

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