On Ed Dorn, 'The Newly Fallen'

I’d like to insert Dorn’s first book, The Newly Fallen (Totem Press, 1961), into the Symposium to address an element I felt missing in the original presentation of texts. Senses of space and seemed crucial to the new news about poetry I encountered at age twenty-one, living in Vancouver and having grown up in the Kootenay mountains in the southeast of British Columbia. The New American Poetry anthology tapped into a need to identify the “local” as an aesthetic that was just blossoming in the northwest, and was of great interest to us Canadian postcolonials. Olson’s poetic mapping of Gloucester was as overwhelming as our concurrent discovery of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. But younger, and more western poets like Dorn, Whalen, and Snyder suggested a geographically closer-to-home and local flavour. Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” in the Allen anthology was, for me, a gem of affirmation, a poem about the kind of work I had done in the kind of place I came from. The “home of my mind” seemed eligible for the world of the poem.

The Newly Fallen was published by Leroi Jones’s Totem Press in January 1961, just before Dorn turned thirty-two. It represents the initial staging of Dorn’s work and, it seems, (from the correspondence between Jones and Dorn) that Jones had the manuscript in hand by December 30, 1960. [1] Black Mountain cohort Fielding Dawson did the cover for the book and his drawing plays off of the book’s title (in turn, the last line in the book): it is of an aerial contraption used for transporting manure on a farm (can’t recall why I know this). In any case, Dorn’s first book is central to any assessment of American poetry from 1960.

Dorn had been living in the Pacific Northwest since the midfifties, the setting for his autobiographical novel By The Sound, and was in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1959–60, in the midst of a poetic community that included Robert Creeley, Max Finstein, and Judson Crews; Gil Sorrentino and Allen Ginsberg were visitors. He had been published in Paul Carrol’s Big Table, courtesy of a push from Creeley, The Evergreen Review, John Wieners’ Measure, Migrant, Ark II, Moby I, and had work solicited by Jones for Yugen. A twenty-two-year-old Tom Raworth, in Britain, had just started publishing Outburst and solicited poems from Dorn in late 1960.

1960 was very much in the era of a lot of nuclear bravado (French nuclear test, US Polaris missile underwater test, Atlas and Titan missiles, and so forth). That year Leroi Jones travelled to Cuba, met with Castro, and published “Cuba Libre” in Evergreen Review. By 1960, living in Sante Fe, New Mexico, the middle of the continent, in the middle of what Olson called “SPACE […] the central fact to man born in America,” Dorn depends on the shared poetic interest of an expansive community of writers from New York to San Francisco. [2] He accepted a teaching job at Idaho State in Pocatello in 1961 where he wrote his stunning journey poem, “Idaho Out,” which I first heard in February 1962 when Creeley, who taught at The University of British Columbia that year, brought Dorn to Vancouver for a reading. I was enthralled by a poetry that foregrounded place and class and fleshed out a range of attention to the local, the sensuous, the political, and the national that I could feel somewhat at home with. Soon after, I managed to pick up a copy of The Newly Fallen.

Dorn tells Jones that his selection for the manuscript will be earlier works, “None of the things there were in Don Allens’s antho,” but scattered magazine pieces. And, he tells Jones, “the chore of selecting from my own work will be a headache”. [3] The selection seems a little tentative, considering the more specifically “western” poems in the next book (Hands Up!). A few of the poems incline to an easy kind of lyricism, but more generally they move through what he calls “the great geography of my lunacy” (“Geranium”), a range of love song, the domesticity and furnishings of what he saw as Williams’ “grand / commonplace” (“The Open Road”), some biotextual references to growing up in midwest Americanism, farm stuff, Illinois, Sousa, etc. [4] The collection contains no grand address to the geographical but a number of inclinations that a little later, in something like “Idaho Out,” shape Dorn’s ambivalent tension between the freedom implicit in Olson’s capitalized (and open) SPACE and the west as a site of poverty and estrangement, “mad elements to be scrutinized” (“The Open Road”). [5] And an uncollected poem, “The Mountains,” likely written in 1960 in Sante Fe, ends with the lines “there is no coming back from the space / you make,” a rather sardonic ambiguity so characteristic of Dorn’s view of space. [6] The poems in The Newly Fallen intuit his impending observation that the outsider, the stranger in town is the one to pay attention to, “He’s the man who knows where he’s come from” (The Poet, The People, The Spirit, Berkeley, 1965). Or maybe not:

I go on my way frowning at novelty, wishing I were closer to home
than I am. And this is the last stop before Burlington,
that pea-center, which is my home, but not the home of my mind.
That asylum I carry in my insane squint … [7]

Along with the poems in the Allen anthology, The Newly Fallen signals Dorn’s presence in the 1960 roll call of New American Poetry.

[1] Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative 1, no. 1 (Winter 2009).
[2] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Grove Press, 1941), 14.
[3] “Correspondence, 12-1-60,” Baraka and Dorn, in Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960.
[4] Edward Dorn, “Geranium” and “The Open Road,” in The Newly Fallen (New York: Totem Press, 1961), 4, 10.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Originally published in the “New Poetry 1963” issue of The Yale Literary Magazine; also reproduced on Isola di Rifiuti; “New Poetry 1963,” blog entry by John Latta, July 13, 2010.
[7] Dorn, “Geranium,” in The Newly Fallen, 4.