April 8, 1963

Ed Dorn (photo by John Friedman).

8 Apr 63[1]

First off, thank you very much for that letter.[2] I’m shamefully late in making any reply at all, acknowledgement, etc — the mess of the times here & me as well. As always, yes.
                                                                                                                                                    But yr letter was a great thing & believe me more than a little sustaining, simply, to get. Paul Blackburn was here overnight abt 10 days ago & read yr letter outloud to himself & me[3] (& also wanted to make off with that photograph of you sitting on the stove in Santa Fe)[4] — so it was heard, too, & felt there.
                                                                                                                                                                           Exactly where June will bring me I don’t know yet — there is a possibility of a job in Albuquerque but all uncertain. I want to sit long enough to see that country again but I don’t know how long that is, who does, or when it will start flowing off in another direction, north, west, even back toward Kansas who knows. It would be a great thing to be at that conference in Vancouver this summer[5] but all seems too far away & no money — anyway, the feeling certainly is as you move for — to travel, no tying to one place to have to be in. I hope sometime before terribly long I get near Pocatello[6] & will come to see you all, again it’ll be, a long time since that last night in Santa Fe.[7] Meanwhile here it becomes almost impossible to do a damn thing for my classes & simply jesus knows if I will finish up with anything but the leaving itself. But then. The sun is out & you must figure how much importance just that has come to have for me — as it always is.

So. The writing goes very slowly & pretty dry & forced when it does — it seems like formally I keep coming back on top of myself, i.e. short lined quatrains that aren’t the way I want to move, but take over when anything to be said is uncertain & wavering. So well anyway. I saw a letter in Gordon Cairnie’s book shop[8] the other day from a J. Prynne[9] in England (Cambridge?) who had been here last year — & he mentioned he had a book of yrs in manuscript trying to get it published in England[10] — anything developed on that, or here with it? Or the novel?[11]

But back to those quatrains — I once a long time ago in Santa Fe asked you the incredibly general & headon question — what do you do about form? which to ask that way was only further indication of my confusions at the time, or maybe that I come on rather idiotically anyway. But the gist remains, & I find myself all over it, still in the most elementary fashion it seems to me. Who has answers? like you said. Who does? nobody is well off, sure. But I come back to as I keep coming back to the way out of any buildingup situation where the pressures become intolerable, over whelming — here at Harvard, the Army, or in the situation from which the poem comes. Each poem does generate its own form, but not so simply? Are Creeley’s increasingly predominant quatrains the constant same extension of a constant same content (to use his phrase)? Or simply finally the iron framework he has come to not want to fight any further, working all over it, but the framework not moving into new shapes. As I keep seeing myself going into, but that 4 line stanza ain’t mine!
                                                                                                                                                   Why I very much read & reread yr “Geraniums” & Sousa Poem.[12] The line is much more where I want to take myself.

& anyway — I’m covering you in this when simply I don’t know where it’s going. Forgive me that, the spring thaws are slow in coming this year. To get back down on top of it, I’m not satisfied with that short line, constantly attentive to the careful breaks of breath & phrase, out of Williams[13] — not because it & he aren’t great things, but because 1) I can never feel at ease in it & 2) because you cant stay long in what is already so finely worked by others you do not extend it.
                                                                                                                                          & yet to run “loosely” (in form) makes me too often run loosely (in thought) where I shd be tight — you’ve seen a couple of those things I was writing in Albq — I showed you abt the time you went to Idaho — & they very much lost, from where they did not tie in constantly to the energy they sought to extend. I’m not after a closed form, there, all made for me, but I also do not so simply work from Olson’s projective sense[14] (nor does Creeley it seems to me). Well shit, I’m belaboring what I’m sure to you is not even there to belabor, but figure me for trying goddamn hard to find out where the hell I’m, it’s, going. & writing to you on this absurdly general level is at this point abt the only way I can begin to get into it — do you see me in this?
                                                                 As, where does the poem end?

When I was in the Pacific last summer it seemed to me what I was writing or trying to form out in writing finally was held together formally by just one thing — a long building rhythm that reached, in some manner or other, a crescendo or peak & so was resolved (or a quiet, & so was resolved) — as myself speaking would become more & more excited till the point was reached the whole thing burst (begins to sound sexual, perhaps it is/was). This is, it seems to me, what Blackburn is talking about in that Sullen Voice interview[15] when he speaks of the musical structure of a poem & its resolution. Constantly I felt, though, that most of what I was writing, then, did not somehow tie itself together — so often there was the use of some sort of wrapping up at the end, bringing back movements, images, references, from the poem as it had gone along, esp the beginning, to bring it back to itself in a neat whole. Too goddamn neat most of the time, & artificial — done, I figure, when what & where I was going wasn’t certain.
                                            Oh shit anyway. The question is as much, where does the poem start. As birth & death. & as impossible to say. Or an after-the-fact rationalization.

But the element of actually speaking to somebody is very strong with me. I wrote abt this to Bob last week or so, coming up to mainly from a poem by the Spanish poet Pedro Salinas, which had struck me very much as having the tone & movement of Bob’s “For Love”[16] or others close to that:

        No te veo. Bien sé

 que estás aquí, detrás

 de una frágil pared

 de ladrillos y cal, bien al alcance

 de mi voz, si llamará.

 Pero no llamaré.

 Te llamaré mañana,

 cuando, al no verte ya,

 me imagine que sigues

 aquí cerca, a mi lado,

 que basta hoy la voz

 que ayer no quise dar.

 Mañana … cuando estes

 allá detrás de una

 frágil pared de vientos,

 de cielos y do años.

                                    (Presagios, 1923)[17]

The use of the images, what few there are, isn’t the same, granted, but the place from which the poem begins is it seems to me, similar; & is where I find myself most of the time — that talking to, across the works laid out, to someone. The talking, though, the coherence in those terms, as here, not by rhyme or any set meter or count.[18]

Enough, I’ve got exams to finish grading, not to mention all the rest of the accumulations that wear us out. Figure on all this that I simply need to say it out to someone — if nothing strikes you, leave it. Come back on it where you can, but I’m not after tapping you for replies — to speak it out is enough (i.e., the opportunity to bother you, I reckon!) Yes, well, hell. My best to you all. Spring is here (& as Machado[19] said, nobody knows how it did it). Banzai, hang loose, etc etc




1. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 8 April 1963, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

2. Extremely dissatisfied with the walled-in, dreary atmosphere of “the one vast city of the east coast,” and having decided to discontinue his PhD work at Harvard, Irby wrote to Dorn, who was living in Pocatello, Idaho, on February 24, 1963, asking for any kind of advice on a place to go, to find work, someplace “West & out of this East,” even Pocatello maybe. Irby begins this letter (April 8, 1963) by thanking Dorn for his response (March 9, 1963) to the previous letter. In many ways, Irby’s shifting residence and frequent road-going over the next decade-and-a-half can be viewed as his way of following the advice in Dorn’s March 9, 1963, letter. After a droll, underwhelming description of Pocatello, Dorn turns to the main issue, as he sees it:

It is a pain in the ass having to tell you this because I can very rightly understand your wanting to get the hell out of there. Why don’t you roam, if I were single that’s what I would do, I mean, I wouldn’t because I did that, but if you haven’t, then you ought to, you can certainly stop here, but you shld not plan on Staying anywhere. The thing is, people have never really seen america, that’s still open. And if you want to be a writer you ought to say to yourself, and mean it, be willing to kill yourself over it, I am a writer. Read walk write live go see be arrive leave fuck around work hear, very much hear, (suffer if the chance comes but don’t press it) and exercise your mouth and lungs and fingers and given any any any intelligence which you got, you’ll be a writer. And don’t get married. I mean it’s wonderful. But it takes more time, and since you aren’t, wait. But not on the road. Be a serious traveller, no one has been that in America since La Salle. As you can see there are no problems at all. […] Let me hear from you…this is very quick, I am under more shit than you could conceive …[.]

(The above is excerpted from a letter from Irby’s personal archives and appears here with permission of Jennifer Dunbar Dorn.)

3. [Irby’s handwritten note]: it got here the same day as one from Creeley — what a conjunction! [/] Bob suggested I write to Loewinsohn in SF, which I did, but no reply yet. Hopefully something…

4. The photograph Irby is referring to appears on the cover of Tom Clark’s biography, Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002). It was taken by Gordon Clark, a friend of Irby from his time in the army (1960–1962; see the chronology in this issue), in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Clark accompanied Irby on a visit to the Dorns’ house on “Camino Sin Nombre,” in Santa Fe, in 1961, at which point the Creeleys were also visiting the Dorns.

5. See endnote 20 (“January 16, 1963”).

6. See endnote 19 (“January 16, 1963”).

7. See endnote 4, above.

8. Gordon Cairnie (1895–1973), founder of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square.

9. Jeremy Prynne (b. 1936), British poet and Life Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, influenced by Charles Olson and Donald Davie, and who became close friends with Dorn during his time at Essex.

10. The book to which Irby is referring was tentatively titled Idaho Out, but was never published as such. Much of its content was later included in Dorn’s 1965 volume Geography (London: Fulcrum Press, 1965).

11. Dorn’s The Rites of Passage: A Brief History (Buffalo: Frontier Press, 1965); reprinted as By the Sound (Mount Vernon/West Newbury: Frontier Press, 1971), and again as By the Sound (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1991).

12. “Geraniums” and “Sousa” both appear in Dorn’s first collection of poems, The Newly Fallen (New York: Totem Press in association with the Paterson Society, 1961).

13. William Carlos Williams (1883–1963).

14. See Charles Olson, Projective Verse (New York: Totem, 1959).

15. Paul Blackburn (1926–1971). Irby is intentionally avoiding the correct title of The Sullen Art: Interviews by David Ossman with Modern Poets (New York: Corinth Books, 1963). In Irby’s review of the book for Kulchur 11 (Autumn 1963): 83–85, titled “The Unacknowledged Legislators,” he criticizes Ossman for inexplicably excluding two interviews from the collection — one with Robert Duncan, the other with Cid Corman — and remarks that “the choice of title for these interviews is, I think, unfortunate, whatever Mr. Ossman’s justifications.” See Matt Hofer’s piece in this feature, which focuses on the many book reviews Irby has written for magazines such as Kulchur, Caterpillar, Sulfur, and Poetry.

16. Robert Creeley, For Love: Poems 1950–1960 (New York: Scribner, 1962).

17. Pedro Salinas, Presagios (Madrid: Indice, 1923). It’s possible that Irby knew of Presagios (Omens), Salinas’s first collection of poems, through his brother, James E. Irby, who earned his PhD in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Michigan, and subsequently taught at Princeton University, where he created the first Latin American literature courses ever to be offered at the school. James Irby’s cotranslation (with Donald A. Yates) of Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths: Stories and Other Writings was published by New Directions in 1964.

18. [Irby’s handwritten note]: i.e. what I said I was trying in the Pacific w/ a building-up rhythm, stays w/ me — the problem is modulating it — not falling into the trap of making all poems of statements into its one giant build & crash. Yes, well sure!

19. Antonio Muchado (1875–1939), Spanish poet.