Edward Dorn spent several years at Black Mountain College, a North Carolina school founded in 1933 as a liberal alternative for teachers and students seeking a creative educational environment. Breaking away from tradition, those affiliated with the school created art and literature that had a profound effect on American culture even after the college closed in 1956. Over the years numerous noteworthy artists and writers, including Dorn, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder, were associated with the college as teachers, students or contributors to Black Mountain publications.
Although poets who were involved with the college have often been grouped together as the "Black Mountain poets," Dorn told David Ossman in The Sullen Art that he has "been unable to find any similarity" among the writers associated with the school. Discussing his own inclusion in the group, Dorn added: "I think I'm rightly associated with the Black Mountain 'school,' not because of the way I write, but because I was there." Dorn once told Contemporary Authors: "I've always thought that the whole usage of 'Black Mountain Poets' only has an existence in the minds of the people who use it. I don't even know of such a thing myself. . . . I think Black Mountain as a school, irrespective of poets, denotes a certain value toward learning and the analysis of ideas. The perspective that I refer to as a school would refer to the whole school and its history and its conception and its principles and its various periods of authority and so forth—and not to poets, necessarily. I certainly believe that it was a school, in the old sense."
While at Black Mountain, Dorn was admittedly influenced by Charles Olson. Several critics have commented that Dorn's use of free verse and breath-determined rhythms is similar to Olson's: The Virginia Quarterly Review heralded him as "an experienced and accomplished poet who has absorbed Olson, Williams, and Pound and moved beyond them." Marjorie Perloff, however, suggested that other than some "thematic links, Dorn is really quite unlike Olson; he is, for that matter, quite unlike any poet writing today." Dorn explained: "The way I write is really in clots of phrase. . . . When the individual line ceases to have energy for me . . . I usually break the line there."
Dorn's most influential and highly acclaimed work was the four-volume epic poem, Slinger, which evolved from his earlier poem, "An Idle Visitation." Describing the first volume, Gunslinger, as "one of the fine poems of the decade," Charles Stein predicted that it was "the first part of what promises to be a major American narrative poem." Perloff later called the completed poem "one of the masterpieces of contemporary poetry."
Slinger is a fantasy about a demigod-cowboy, the poet-narrator, a madam of a saloon, and a talking horse named Claude Levi-Strauss, all of whom travel southwest America in search of Howard Hughes, a symbol of everything that can and has gone wrong with the modern world. Although Donald Wesling said that Slinger "tends to resist description," he observed that the poem "is 'about' how and why we spend money and words in this 'cosmological' place; about . . . surreal imagery, personifications, the texture of jokes, the paradoxical aspects of thinking . . . and about how a self or voice can be differentiated into a cluster of other selves."
In Slinger, Dorn cleverly mixes the jargon of junkies, Westerners, structuralists, and scientists to reflect the jumble of American speech. He intentionally frustrates the reader; syntax is ambiguous, punctuation is sparse, and puns, homonyms, and nonsense words become an integral part of conversation. Wesling declared that such frustration is "one of the pleasures of the poem when you finally discover the mechanism." Perloff pointed out that Slinger's collage of language "perfectly embodies Dorn's theme that nothing is what it seems to be."
This poem as well as many of Dorn's other writings are set in the western states. In fact, he has referred to himself as "a poet of the West—not by nativity but by orientation." William J. Lockwood speculated that "the southwestern landscape would seem to supply to his creative imagination those elements of brightness, clarity, and austerity that correspond to the forms of his own mind and appear as the distinctive qualities of the best of his early poems."
In some of Dorn's earlier poetry, critics have commented that his "prosy manner and chopped-up lines" detract from the ideas he presents. Martin Dodsworth noted that although Dorn tackles important themes in The North Atlantic Turbine, "I kept on getting the feeling that he could argue it all much better if he weren't trying to write poetry at the same time." A Times Literary Supplement critic echoed those sentiments in a review of Geography, suggesting that "Edward Dorn might do better to publish his fulminations against America . . . as prose."
Dorn's writing is almost always socially and politically oriented. From his earlier studies of Shoshoni Indians and the transients near Puget Sound to his reflections on the state of America in Slinger, Dorn's concern for his neighbors is evident in his work. Reviewer Peter Ackroyd argued, "Dorn has become the only plausible, political poet in America" because of "the quality of his response to public situations, not whether that response is 'right' or 'wrong.'" During the middle 1960s, Dorn moved to England and "his work for a time grew overtly political, that is, preachy," noted Bill Zavatsky in the New York Time Book Review. "His (perhaps temporary) need to slam his reader over the head with politics is unfortunate, for all of Dorn's work is inherently political, needing no soapbox."
When asked about his poetic critique of America for its imperialism, its carelessness with the environment, and its treatment of minorities, Dorn once remarked: "I take democracy very seriously, but on the other hand, it's a form of government that you have to change your mind about a lot because its form is protean, and its instinct, essentially, comes from a mob psychology. Unlike an adherent to a dogmatic position like Marxism, about which there is very little to change your mind, a democrat is liable to change his mind a lot. So none of these concerns and principles ever leave my mind much, but I vary my attitude according to the angles of perspective I'm able to get on them. Democracy literally has to be cracked on the head all the time to keep it in good condition. But all other forms are more or less sudden death."
A long-time teacher of writing, Dorn once told Contemporary Authors that rather than be taught to write, many students are able, instead, to be "provoked." "I wouldn't say someone can't be taught to write," Dorn explained, "although I'd be inclined to say it. So that's why I would prefer to say 'provoked,' because it doesn't involve that question. And I believe it completely. But of course that presupposes an intelligence that's provokable."
It is perhaps in the provocative union between poetry and political engagement that Dorn has most clearly made his mark. In Ackroyd's opinion, "Dorn's proper achievement has been to create single-handedly a language of public reference, and to have brought within the sphere of expressive language and poetic experience objects and feelings which had been, literally, unimaginable in those terms. It is in this context that he is one of the masters of our contemporary language."
For a previously published interview, see entry in Contemporary Authors, Volumes 93-96, Gale, 1980, pp. 128-29.