Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet and teacher.
April 2, 1929
Villa Grove, Illinois
December 10, 1999
Edward Merton Dorn is generally regarded as one of twentieth-century America’s most brilliant satiric poets. Born in 1929 into a poor Illinois farm family, he never knew his father, who left the family during the Depression; his mother was of French ancestry, and his grandfather was a railroad man. Growing up, Dorn attended a one-room schoolhouse through eighth grade. After graduating from high school, he spent two years at the University of Illinois. After working for a time at the Boeing plant in Seattle, Washington, he returned to school and ended up at the renowned Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1950. While there, he studied with the poet Charles Olson, who strongly influenced his work both spiritually and intellectually.
Because of his association with Black Mountain College, Dorn is usually grouped with the Black Mountain poets, among them Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, John Wieners, and Denise Levertov. Other members of the student body and faculty at the time included prose writer Fielding Dawson, dancer Merce Cunningham, composers Lou Harrison and John Cage, and painters Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg. All these diverse aesthetic and cultural influences contributed to the development of Dorn’s unique poetic vision, one that responded with particular vehemence to social and political injustice. He was especially concerned with the plight of American Indians and addressed their degrading treatment by European colonists in several of his finest works, such as The Shoshoneans (1966) and Recollections of Gran Apachería (1974).
After a few years at Black Mountain College, Dorn decided to leave school and go exploring. He wandered around Kansas, Wyoming, and Washington State, where he worked and met his first wife, Helene Buck, with whom he would have a son, Paul. He returned to Black Mountain in late 1954 and finished his degree the following year, after which he traveled for another two years before returning to Washington to work in the Skagit Valley in 1957. Dorn would later record his experiences during this time in a novel, the highly regarded The Rites of Passage (1965), republished with minor revisions in 1971 under the title By the Sound. His reading of cultural geographer Carl Sauer’s Morphology of Landscape (1925) crucially influenced his poetic stance and caused him to take humankind’s interaction with the natural environment as his primary subject matter for the rest of his writing career.
Dorn and his family moved from Washington to New Mexico in 1959 and then, in late 1961, to Idaho, where Dorn accepted a teaching position at Idaho State University. For the next four years, he taught and continued to publish poems that drew serious critical attention, collected in such volumes as From Gloucester Out (1964), Hands Up! (1964), and Geography (1965). In the fall of 1965, Dorn moved to England to teach at the University of Essex at the invitation of English movement poet and critic Donald Davie. An important work that came from his English experience is the now-famous book-length poem The North Atlantic Turbine, which documents the negative effects of American capitalism on England and western Europe and explores the devastating effects of US involvement in the Vietnam War. While in England, Dorn split from Buck and began a relationship with Russian-born English writer and filmmaker Jennifer Dunbar, then still a university student, who would become his second wife.
In the 1970s, after returning to the United States, Dorn taught at a string of various universities, including Kent State University, the University of Kansas, Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of California, San Diego. During this time, he was composing what was to become his masterpiece, the infamous long poem Slinger. He published the first three parts under the title Gunslinger (books 1–3) in the years between 1968 and 1972; the completed poem was published in 1975. A highly diverse set of satiric observations and meditations on the heart of the American-dream-turned-nightmare, Slinger is one of the truly original mock epics in American poetic history. Dorn’s attack on American values is at times savage in its Swiftean parody of traditional character types from literature and popular culture. The titular gunslinger becomes the prototypical mythic quester who is searching for the authentic American hero Howard Hughes (whose projects in the poem include buying Las Vegas and moving it to the Pacific Coast). Slinger is full of surrealistic figures, including the gunslinger himself, who dies and reappears as an articulate, dope-smoking horse; Kool Everything, a strung-out hippie who befriends Lil, the madame of a house of ill repute; Dr. Flamboyant, a typical academic blowhard; and “I,” Dorn’s parodic remedy for the ever-present ego of the proliferating confessional poets of the American academy.
In Hello La Jolla (1978), Dorn moves from the sprawling epic form of Slinger to an aphoristic style reminiscent of the eighteenth-century Augustan era. Many of the poems are short epigrams, such as “Chicken Relativity,” just three lines long. Though the poetic form has tightened, the target of Dorn’s venomous rage is, once again, the military-industrial-corporate powers that control virtually everything. Throughout the poems in Hello La Jolla, Yellow Lola (1981), and Abhorrences (1990), Dorn attacks language as the primary tool of the powers of government and multinational corporations. The tendency of language toward abstraction, a movement that the computer has made irrevocable, is a particular target of Dorn’s splenetic raids. At the beginning of Abhorrences, he lists what he calls a “Baseline Vocabulary,” creating neologisms such as “
Dorn began to teach in the University of Colorado’s creative writing program in 1977. Three years later, he and Dunbar began to publish and edit Rolling Stock, a newspaper-sized journal addressed to political and literary issues in the western United States. The journal ceased publication in 1991.
Edward Dorn died of pancreatic cancer on December 10, 1999, at his home in Denver, Colorado. He and Dunbar had two children, a son and a daughter. Dorn was one of the most brilliant satiric poets in modern American literature, maintaining his integrity and high moral standards.