Dale Smith


Edward Dorn's Coups

A formidable presence of mind is revealed in Edward Dorn's work that is commanding, eloquent, tender, and capable of sudden shifts of tone into satiric over-drive. No poet of the post-war era addressed the conflicting public interests of American democracy with the same rhetorical force. Whether he wrote with passionate lyricism or scathing satire, he always argued for the principles of locality against the self-interests often embedded in social and political abstractions. For him, more than most, poetry was written to reveal public situations many of us have experienced, such as July Fourth festivities, political election, and other civic incidents of custom. He praised the weak and exploited laborers of the West and its native inhabitants while blasting with satirical invective those for whom power was a tool to extend self-interests. He also made himself accountable to his experience of the American West, relating it through his public and private uses of the poem.

It's hard for me not to associate Dorn with velocity, a kind of poignantly insightful propensity to make connections. The previously unpublished poems gathered here in Low Coups and Haut Coups show that speed of imagination in the seemingly spontaneous readings of American politics, culture, and science. Dorn was not one to base knowledge on certain inviolate principles; instead life revealed itself in its manifest relations. No science, myth, or religion could satisfy such a mind, but science, cultural myth, and religion could be related through the poem to reveal public moments of political crisis, and to challenge the easy acceptance of a faux identity (consumer, American, patriot, or whatever the fuck). The poetic play of language in its compressed urgency here strikes with delight to reveal a singular poet in opposition to, uh, the big shitty. For example:

The Traffic Report

An aecyetelene sunset
turns into a parafin dawn—
there surely must be
another war in Deserta Arabia—
and Babylon.

How about it commuters?
let's have a swaller of coffee
for the children
screaming under the carpet-bombing.


Low Coupe Bumper Sticker


Interrelations of high and low manage to confront our expectations while asking us to suspend the usual Democracy-will-still-function bullshit. You get the sense in Dorn's later work, like this, that human institutions such as political parties and the rest of it exist to provide quick insights to the dull and bovine presence of ourselves we have bartered into acceptance. The whole human racket is on display, and that's what Dorn, finally, who opposes the long slogan of solutions our nation adopts as a guiding purpose, questions.

No atrocity or horrid event
from the past can equal the
ghastly enactments stored
in the future: In fact the
worst horrors of the past
were once the future

That word, coup, of course, has a number of uses in the language, and enters via Old French as a strike or blow, as in a kind of physical or verbal combat. Another sense of coup, however, comes from German, and in its early modern usage it refers to a wagon "fitted for carting dung." Surprisingly, moreover, the Old Norse contributed a version of coup too, meaning to pay for, or suffer for. In Dorn's poems it's easy to see how all of these usages might apply, high and low, the Germanic and Romantic origins of the word in English subtly undercutting any stable notions we may have. And then, of course, there's "counting coup," a battle practice of Plains Indians, from couper, to strike or touch the enemy. And there's usually a coup in some little shit country resulting from CIA ethnic pot stirring. Some claim there was a coup in the US in 2000 when G. Dub won election. Dorn, however, reminds us to watch that democratic sentiment by taking an occasional reality-check:

Slow Coup

If voting changed anything
it would be illegal

There's also a song, "Coo-Coo Fourth July," though the bird therein may derive from alternative origins.


A Note on the Essays in this Feature

I asked a number of people to send their words about Dorn. I offered little if any editorial guidance. Dorn put people in touch, and so I think of the work here in that way. What stands out in his writing to keep us in touch? What do these writers respond to in Dorn's poetics and how do their words sound together in this context? I'm happy that this isn't strictly an academic gathering, nor is it a popular one. The warmth of connection provides the body of feeling here.

When I first moved to Austin, Texas, in 1997, Ed insisted that I contact the poet John Herndon. I neglected immediately to act on Ed's generous suggestion. One Sunday morning, quite early as I recall, he called, demanding that I contact John and get to know the folks in Austin. He spoke with patrician command, and I finally heeded his suggestion at this time and have been grateful sense. My strongest sense of friendship with people I know in Austin comes through that bond—the poetry—of which Ed was the ultimate link.

Reno Lauro's memoir of our days working together and talking about poetry and especially Ed's work is particularly significant to me. Dorn's work is generative and compelling, and this particular piece shows how one young man was turned on to poetry by a singular and demanding voice. Richard Owens' article provides an excellent scholarly reference for Dorn and Olson via their preoccupations with the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca. I'm honored that he allowed me to include that piece here. Claudia Pisano writes about the correspondence between Dorn and Amiri Baraka, looking at how narrative is created personally and in confrontation. Her concern for public formation via personal narrative is of absolute value for many of us working to show the asinine clusterfuck present so-called public identity is. Finally, Alice Notley's memoir/study of Slinger brings a great historical testament to the period of Ed's composition of that great narrative poem. Along the way she offers insights to the long narrative in verse that tell us a lot about Ed but also about the direction a certain poetics has headed since.