Ed Dorn and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: A Correspondence
Identity and memory are crucial for anyone writing poetry — Susan Howe1
How do narratives capture space? I stand in front of a Jackson Pollock at MOMA in NYC and think about the Cedar Bar 40-something blocks south, and I think of Ed Dorn in Pocatello, Idaho, writing letters to, receiving letters from, then-LeRoi Jones-now-Amiri Baraka, then living in Greenwich Village, about to move to Harlem, presently located in Newark, NJ. The Pollocks are huge and commanding, a woman literally gasps out loud when she walks in, and I wonder, is that gasp for real, the gasp of one artist to another upon recognition, or is it prescribed, because this is a room full of Pollocks in a hot-damn-brand-new-architecturally astonishing New Yawk City museum? The tendency to get locked into political and intellectual arguments that are forced (gasp) rather than true is overwhelming. I compose a letter in my head to a poet, from a poet. Operating outside form.
Back again, here, still feel, like the man who said let's go, meaning to the scene of the disaster. — Ed Dorn to LeRoi Jones, 19612
In a society of contact (we are), I talk to you, you listen, maybe. You talk to them, they talk to each other. Variations and permutations of communication that almost immediately, at the moment they are being said, become transformed into narrative, and we tell stories, truthful or otherwise. Narratives to let us know what we know — from fact to myth in order to come back to truth, as Robert Duncan once said. This is okay. But full of dangers, and we are mired in them. Fearful of a complex narrative, of a narrative that isn't neat enough, or straight enough, or makes us look bad. Look good, make sense, be rational. Rational: a key in American identity, in American mythology. (Americans don't talk about the idea of an American mythology, because we are living in it. We live in reality, we think. But where does it come from? A creation. A point not to be taken lightly, and the point at which, I think, we would do well to heed the Dorn/Jones letters.
Come on, back off. I'm not no counter-anything. — Dorn to Jones, 1961
Of the many and varied forms of writing Dorn practiced, one of the most prevalent is letter-writing; there are literally hundreds of letters written by and to Dorn throughout his life. This act of letter writing connects Dorn to numerous people — and, by implication, their historical, present-day, and future contexts and all which that encompasses — across the U. S. and England, extending his presence and reach beyond whatever locale he occupied at any given moment (and of these, there were many, consummate "migrant" that Dorn was). A major correspondent and friend of Dorn was LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a founding figure in the Black Arts movement; Baraka was also a poet using language as a means of social, political, and cultural change. Publicly one of the most militant, anti-white black nationalists to emerge in the 60s, the deeper truth of the matter is considerably more complex. What Baraka himself held in low profile at the time but now openly discusses is the fact that he maintained numerous white friends and colleagues who continued to have influence and effect on his life, socially and artistically; Dorn numbers key among these.
I mean whats campier than a fucking black bourgeois soi disant intellectual trying to say what's right for all these poor coons in the hills of Mississippi. — Jones to Dorn, 1961
The politics of narrative. You don't just tell a story, willy-nilly. There are so many layers (of knowledge, of forgetting, of truth to be dealt with, the deciding what you want people to know. This seems, as I say it, like old news. We know all this already, don't we? But it isn't, even when we do know it, because it's just so much easier to pretend, to offer the narratives we'd rather hear, to categorize and compartmentalize and impose neat linearities on what is necessarily much messier, much denser, than we know how to deal with. We are lost, colluders in our own demise. The Dorn/Jones letters do not do this. The letters grapple with complexity, with the relationship of poetics to knowledge, they open up space and let us in, collectively, individually.
Oh fuck it. All this abstract sociology. Still I am stuck with it, since so much of my own conduct is based on trying somehow to find and be somebody. — Jones to Dorn, 1961
Not afraid to face truths, Dorn's use of language as a means of knowledge, critique, and understanding marks him a poet of the highest caliber, a poet in and of the world he inhabited whose insights add greatly to our present-day context, and for this, many stay away from him. The wanting/not wanting to know. Where does it land? Difficult (so some say), angry, maybe; but intellectually hungry, dissatisfied with the status quo, yes (as Eirik Steinhoff says, Dorn's work "functions as a department of disturbances, running athwart whatever linguistic, political, or cultural securities or sincerities we might hold"). Ed Dorn spent his life continually traveling (an "intellectual migrant," as put by Dorn biographer Tom Clarke) throughout the United States, writing about what he saw and engaging in sharp, critical inquiry in an attempt to push into motion what he knew was a too-often complacent country. This complacency is deep, entrenched, all-encompassing, if you aren't careful. Dorn was careful. He called this place "a permissive asylum."
I never have connected loyalty to anything save love, ideas, never, with them, principles also, I am a renegade, they arent worth a shit and you know it. — Dorn to Jones, 1961
The letters between Dorn and Jones are honest, difficult, friendly, and of tremendous importance: this is a relationship that reveals major knowledge to our understanding of the 1960s (and, implicitly, American history directly preceding and following long after this period). The dynamic revealed in these letters uncovers and allows us to talk about any number of things that we need to be talking about but aren't, as they constitute the history of these men and the times as well as, and probably better than, many other forms of documented history. David Southern says of his letters, "Each is a freeze-frame of the quotidian within a clear, continuous commentary on the late-twentieth-century world." These letters constitute both history and autobiography of central ‘outsider' writers who in their very ‘outsider' status reveal an extraordinary amount of information and knowledge about American identity and history. Danger: of getting caught in an idealistic past that we've overly generalized and managed to lose the particulars of. Danger, again: of forgetting that there is a present we must deal with without labeling, defining, giving boundary to. How do we see what's happening? How can we avoid codifying memory (of past, of present? I will interpret. How a work is framed (historically, presently affects our conception and understanding of it.
And your poor goddamn grandfather… that it has to be a colored grandfather is the sadness, because I get sad when you separate me from yourself with that color shit. — Dorn to Jones. The black white bullshit is bullshit, make no mistake. …And fuck all the politics anyway, it comes down, stupidly enough, to men again. — Jones to Dorn. 1961
Is letter-writing privileged in America? Have you read these letters? Have you read anyone's? This is not necessarily your fault. The construction of knowledge. Then, we can begin to get into it, figure out its terms and breaks those terms down and let ourselves in. And: why were/are we outside of those terms in the first place? Letters remain in the control of the artist — they are a space to speak truthfully in a way we are often unable when others control what we say. Emily Dickinson knew this; she cloistered herself, her poetry, in order to say what she meant. She was very clear about this. Dorn, too was very clear. His cloistering was less self-imposed, maybe; he was trying to say what he meant and have people hear it, and he paid for it dearly, with poverty and ostracism. The Dickinsons and the Dorns, they pay. But they write. And it is possible that this separation (forced, chosen) might be a positive thing. In this America where art is so often considered useless or frivolous, certainly not necessary, art floats about unmoored and, maybe, free. The patronage system of old Europe does not follow into this place, and artists are pushed aside for capitalism. If you are Emily Dickinson, or Ed Dorn, you are not monetarily privileged. Outside the system. But: you are privileged with language and the ability to say what you mean. You take control of art and space, of narrative — you allow it to be messy and uncouth and you deal with it, without any mechanisms upon it. You are a poet, writing.
Christ fuck shit, is definitely poetic. Dorn to Jones, 1961
1 Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
2 All letter excerpts taken from: Edward Dorn: American Heretic. Chicago Review (49:3/4 & 50:1) Summer 2004. Ed. Eirik Steinhoff.