Saturday, March 14, 2009


Amiri Baraka's essay Ed Dorn & the Western World arrived yesterday — the chapbook an exquisitely designed title brought out jointly by Effing Press and Skanky Possum. Edited and introduced by Dale Smith, the essay is a welcome intervention that points toward the ongoing importance of Dorn, Olson and Black Mountain to Baraka's poetics and articulates well with the work Claudia Pisano's been doing for the past couple of years with the Jones-Dorn correspondence. The essay was first delivered as the keynote address at the University of Colorado's Ed Dorn Symposium in 2008. But unlike a formal keynote talk the essay moves like a memoir fueled by Baraka's desire to mark the signal moments of his decades long and at times tense relationship with Dorn.

As Dale writes in his introduction:
Baraka has provided here a rare living document that presents dynamic motivations for ideas and actions that defined the period for him. The vision he offers is of strife, argument, and struggle to attain self-definition against the ideological positions that contested individual freedom of perception and speech. In an era where the heart and mind of the individual are under assault by every element of our so-called culture it is instructive to attend to Baraka's comments carefully.
The period Dale refers to extends from the late fifties, when Baraka and Dorn first began corresponding, through the nineties when their correspondence came to a gradual close. But the thrust of the essay concerns itself with encountering and responding to the west or westness, Baraka reflecting back on the way emerging crises specific to their moment but symptomatic of a more deeply seated longue durée forced him and Dorn to radically rethink their poetics and break from dominant cultural tendencies. As Baraka locates his own transition in the jump from Greenwich Village uptown, Baraka sees the transitional moment for Dorn embodied in his departure for the UK:
So that it was not just Jones journeying through the land of Blackness to become Baraka up through Harlem... there had been deep change in Dorn, but one that had been always sharp in observation, perception is poetry he said, brilliant in rationalization, and the use he made of it in poetry and in practice. The journey away from the states was to me, his own way of signaling the breakup of our camp.
Dorn bounces to England in 1964 to teach at the University of Essex as a Fulbright scholar — a moment that gives rise to much of Geography (1965) and all of The North Atlantic Turbine (1967), both first published by Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press. The years in England also see Dorn developing early drafts of what would later become Slinger. So what Baraka identifies as a break for both he and Dorn in the mid-sixties can be sensed to some extent through Dorn's early publication history, his first two titles coming out through Baraka's Totem Press (in association with Ted Wilentz's Corinth) in New York and the following titles published between 1964 and 1967 brought out by Montgomery in London. This break can also be located in the shifting form of the poems contained in Dorn's early collections, the shorter lyrical interludes of the first two books (The Newly Fallen and Hands Up!) giving way to much longer and at times far more ascerbic meditations. Where the lyrical character of the earlier work registers in large part as eulogy or playful celebrations, the work brought out in London through the mid sixties snaps and bites with a cantankerousness and cynicism commensurate with Baraka's increasingly militant position following the assassination of Malcolm X.

But it's in thinking through how he and Dorn each approached an idea of the west that allows Baraka to point toward a deeper continuity in their individual poetics and their enduring friendship:
The moving out to investigate the real West the Westness of us, that is the real openness, freshness, innovation of America the promise is to finally see that this promise has been the threatened future of this world.
Or as he says of Dorn's west:
...the West for Dorn was not just the western part of the United States but that is how he got to the bigness of the whole West. That Western World that Europe claims and has never been.
Or as Dorn says himself in "Song: Europa" (Geography):
The brutality of your frankness
has come to me
inches at a time,
and so slowly the pain marches
through the veins of my soul
with the heavy step of a migrating herd
tramping out the vintage
Just as Baraka's early work as Leroi Jones tends to enjoy more critical attention than the poetry produced after the transformation into Baraka, Dorn's Slinger tends to be read in isolation from those poems produced before and after, dislocated from the broader field it emerges out of — a field of work Baraka suggests coheres to some extent through Dorn's lifelong investigation of the west as both an interminably broken promise and a space of possibility.