A Note on Edward Dorn's Way More West: New and Selected Poems
In one of her poems, Diane Wakoski speaks of Edward Dorn's Gunslinger with considerable reverence, noting that the book (actually, the entire of Gunslinger is in four volumes) represents an unanticipated advance in Dorn's work. If I remember correctly, after asking "what happened" to cause the leap forward, Wakoski writes: "It is hopeful, I think."
I was pleased to see August Kleinzahler's review of Dorn's Way More West: New and Selected Poems (Penguin Poets, 2007, edited by Michael Rothenberg), in this week's New York Times Book Review ("Black Mountain Breakdown," NYTBR, April 22, 2007, p. 20).
"Then, in 1968, Black Sparrow Press published Gunslinger, Book I , included here in this New and Selected. The poem––the last of its four books was released in 1974––comes out of left field. Nothing in the previous work seems to anticipate it. The influence of [Charles] Olson and Black Mountain is no longer in evidence, as it had been earlier, especially in the volumes published in England. It is altogether a brilliant and strange performance, with no true parallels in American poetry, at least up until then: comedic, phantasmagoric, a mix of spaghetti western, psychedelic cartoon, allegory and quest saga, chockablock with puns, gags, and metaphysical, epistemological and phenomenological asides, not to mention plenty of first-rate poetry. It's a mess, to be sure, but a glorious mess, featuring a 2,000 year-old Gunslinger, his pot-smoking, talking horse, Claude Levi-Strauss, a formidable brothel owner named Lil who seem to be in charge of things, not to mention a character named 'I' who is disposed of partway through, only to reappear a couple of books later as the messenger of the pre-Socratic philosopher Paramenides. It's a druggy poem, written in a druggy time. The voice, which Dorn handles with mad aplomb, continually transforms from hipster to Hollywood cowboy to mock literary, spouting scientific terms and speculations on the nature of language as it all proceeds, vaguely in the direction of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas. If it's not the major 20th-century long poem a number of serious critics claim it to be––it's all over the place, hit and miss, and some of the gags go on too long, like an inside joke among stoned friends––it's the work of a brilliant, wildly original, very funny poet firing on all cylinders."