On Ed Dorn's Gunslinger

Charles Potts

Gunslinger, Edward Dorn, with a critical introduction by Marjorie 
Perloff, Duke University Press, PO BOX 90660, Durham, NC 27708-0660, 
1995, 200 p, $16.95.

“A Pageant of Its Time”: Edward Dorn’s Slinger and the Sixties, James K. 
Elmborg, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York etal, 1998, 146 p, NPL. 
(Studies in Modern Poetry #6, Peter Baker, Towson State University, 
general editor.)

Sagetrieb, Edward Dorn: Special Issue, Volume 15 No. 3, Winter 1996. 
National Poetry Foundation, Room 302, University of Maine, 5742 Neville 
Hall, Orono Maine 04469-5752, 262 p, $9.

              The poet starts the strings,
        as sleep inhabits the stage,
        along the silver of a morning raga,
        So this raga disperses
        as the shimmering of its sense goes out,
        Into the dry brilliance of the desert morning
        along the vanes of the willow leaves
        along the hallucination of the atmospheric realism
        Into the upper reaches of the Yggdrasillic yoga
        Over inner structure of the Human Thing
        like Unto the formation of the pinnate ash
        in which our treehouse sways
        and the samara goes wingèd, Oh wild Angelica!
        Oh quickbeam! oh quake and sway into waking,
        With aspergill enter Into the future. (47)

There is no longer any where to resist the reading of Gunslinger from. 
In “A Pageant of Its Time”: Edward Dorn’s Slinger and the Sixties, James 
K. Elmborg has written a very good book explicating a great poem. 
Elmborg’s claim in his preface that “I think Gunslinger is perhaps the 
most important poem of the last half of the twentieth century...(xii),” 
is here repeated and restated for the purpose of removing the “perhaps.” 
The only poem on this scale with which Gunslinger can be usefully 
compared is Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend. Elmborg’s 
Metahodos, as they say in Black Mountain Speak, is to correlate the 
composition of Gunslinger to Dorn’s essential grounding in the social and 
economic reality of his understood surroundings. This very useful 
practice permits generous and mystery popping insights into passages 
hitherto misunderstood by critics and casual readers. “The poem’s subject 
is nothing less than the survival of intellect and moral integrity in the 
postmodern world” (105),  according to Elmborg. It is a worthy subject 
for the greatest long poem in American literature.

Alongside the contexualization of the various time periods and 
locations where Dorn lived as he wrote the four books of Gunslinger plus 
the section called “The Cycle,” Elmborg surveys a substantial portion of 
the published critiques of the poem. Elmborg builds and extends those 
opinions he finds useful and offers insight into those he finds mistaken 
or lacking. An extensive bibliography of “Works Cited” on Gunslinger is 
included and it is apparent that interest in the poem is reaching 
critical mass. This scholarly aspect of the work provides a pertinent 
starting point for further inquiries. The poem has been admitted into the 
literature, if reluctantly in some quarters. The work now, as always, is 
to locate the poem’s maximal audience.

Elmborg begins his inquiry with a “Preface” where he registers his 
opinion of the poem’s importance, and an “Introduction” in which he very 
wisely locates the “...1960s as that period from roughly 1965 to 
1974¾...” (1). Ten year periods, decades of unitary social significance, 
have rarely in this century conformed to the literal decade, ie 
1960-1969. Even though “Dorn took up a position stubbornly outside 
mainstream culture” (5), Gunslinger was in fact received enthusiastically 
from the beginning, at least by people who have given Dorn’s poetry the 
fine attention truly original writing deserves. By the time the complete 
composition was first published by Wingbow, the encomiums included Thomas 
McGuane’s “Gunslinger is a fundamental American Masterpiece,” and Robert 
Duncan’s “Let me be among those who acclaim Gunslinger as one of the 
poems of the era, of the one we are going into, or the era Gunslinger 
begins to create for us.”

This sense from Duncan that the poem begins to create a new era for us 
will eventually become apparent to everyone and the issue of the 
establishment’s or the academy’s equally stubborn refusal to acknowledge 
the poem and recognize the new era itself will be taken up later. 
Elmborg’s “Pageant,” a six chapter book with notes, index and 
bibliography, considers the work in chronological sequence. Chapter one, 
“Between Here and Formerly,” takes for its title, as do the other 
chapters, succinct lines of poetry from the text of the poem. Elmborg 
applies his intended method of correlating the poem to its social and 
historical era, first to the Dorn poetry that preceded Gunslinger, on his 
way to writing what “...might be described as a biography of the poem” 
(xii). Dorn’s career can be viewed in approximately three components, 
pre-Gunslinger, Gunslinger, and post-Gunslinger. Throughout the stylistic 
development, Dorn has not wobbled on his pivot. “While Gunslinger seems 
in many ways radically different from Dorn’s previous poetry, it grows 
naturally from his earlier career. Gunslinger is neither intensely 
personal nor overtly political, but it does employ the Western motifs of 
Hands Up!, the geographical method of ‘The Land Below’ and Geography, and 
an awareness of the systems of language and power that Dorn explores in 
North Atlantic Turbine” (16). Elmborg also points out that the terminal 
poem in North Atlantic Turbine, “An Idle Visitation,” is in fact a 
version of the opening sequence of Gunslinger, which contains the literal 
signal of the enhanced attitude: “I have no wish to continue/ my debate 
with men” (5). A “tectonic” shift has occurred and Gunslinger is the 

It would be tedious in a brief review to discuss the tremendous 
insights in each chapter of Elmborg’s text. His methods are sound. From a 
combination of a close and since close, sympathetic and enthusiastic 
reading of the text, with quotes from Dorn’s interviews and other 
occasions when Dorn responded to questions about the poem, with generous 
references to the locations and social circumstances of the poem’s 
composition, and further with the aforementioned survey of the other 
correct and incorrect critical responses to the poem, Elmborg makes a 
very strong case for the immediate admission of this poem into the canon 
of great literature. Elmborg is at his most useful in elucidating “The 
Cycle,” in correlating the circumstances at Lawrence, Kansas, to the 
poem, and at documenting the shifts in attitude from one book to the next 
of the poem itself, for Gunslinger, like all great literature, manifests 
a dynamic engagement with its circumstances, rather than a static one.

A great treat awaits those who are yet ignorant of Gunslinger. Elmborg 
has a good time discussing the attempts that have been made to place 
Gunslinger in a genre. Is the poem comic opera, comedy, an anti-epic, an 
allegory, mock-epic, or a romance. It is all and none of the above. These 
futile attempts to pigeonhole a work that breaks down categories, defies 
authority and reduces if not eliminates distinctions are themselves 
somewhat comical. Literature exists outside the university English 
Departments. While some of it is there being routinely contaminated with 
redundant exegisis, literature’s more permanent repose is the minds of 
people willing to have their states elevated and their intellects 
instructed while their emotions are assuaged and purged. Obviously a 
single great poem cannot break the university monopoly on irrelevance, 
but Gunslinger is certainly one of the ones that is having that 
unintentional effect. It is also, for the record, the greatest 
contribution to civilization made on cocaine since Sigmund Freud’s The 
[Mis]Interpretation of Dreams.

In order to travel to the end of the poem with its merry band of 
travelers, it is necessary to come into the poem on the right wave 
length. From up here on the mesa where Gunslinger has lifted us, the 
verse works like capillary action. Which way was that preposition going? 
Who put the squeeze on you now? The comedic effect is achieved and its 
valence is determined by the sheer differential of the perspective. It is 
not necessary that comedy be light or dark. It can be heavy and light 
handed simultaneously. Shakespeare’s best “tragic” plays are and so is 
Gunslinger. Its effects are transformational rather than transcendental.

        Very good. Then you must
        never consort with the Perfect,
        stick to the Absolute, it’s
        pliable, and upon it
        you seem to play any tune
        you choose. (48)

In order for a poem to be an epic, something heroic has to take place. 
In the case of Gunslinger, that heroicism is language itself. One of the 
talking characters in the poem is “I.” “I” plays a role not unlike that 
of the straight man who keeps asking questions that the answers to are 
more or less already understood by his companions. That is, until they 
discover that he is dead.

        I is dead, the poet said
        I has turned at the end of the row
        a truly inherent versus (56)

The question of what becomes of “I” is answered thusly:

           Life and Death
        are attributes of the Soul
        not of things. The Ego
        is costumed as the road manager
        of the soul, every time
        the soul plays a date in another town
        I goes ahead to set up
        the bleechers, or book the hall
        as they now have it,
        the phenomenon is reported by the phrase
        I got there ahead of myself
        I got there ahead of my I
        is the fact (57-8)

Keep in mind that these characters are riding in a stagecoach with a 
horse capable of speech and of rolling joints and that the six driverless 
horses have just stopped to pick up a hitchhiker named Kool Everything. 
Kool Everything is transporting a five-gallon can of LSD and the issue of 
what to do with I’s body lest it decompose in their laps gets resolved by 
pouring I full of the LSD.

        What then, if we make I
        a receptable of what
        Everything has,
        our gain will be two fold,
        we will have the thing
        we wish to keep
        as the container of the solution
        we wish to hold
        a gauge in other words
        in the form of man.
        It is a derangement of considerable antiquity. (60-1)

These characters are on a mission which is picking up momentum:

        Our mission is to encourage the Purity of the Head
        pray we dont lose track of our goal. (63)

In the middle of all this psychedelic riffraff, a trip conducted along 
the lines of many million others, with the constant breaking and entering 
of the conversation stream by individuals loaded down by their own 
weight, many very positive admonitions break thru. The “Purity of the 
Head” is a noble goal, or at least it ought to be in what is left of The 
Enlightenment. Dorn has composed a great poem in a time of colossal 
social stupidity that has been effectively disguised, if not entirely, by 
the media and their hand maidens in the university system. 

        there is a civil scar
        so cosmetic, one can’t see it. (146)

In order to get under this scar and see it for what it really is, “I” had 
to die.

        I carries the Broken Code
        the key to proprioception,
        is it possible he has become the pure Come
        of become, asked the Poet (66)

        Whats happening to my batch, Kool enquired

        Your batch is now The batch
        expropriation is accomplished
        we stand before an original moment
        in ontological history, the self, with one grab
        has aquired a capital S, mark the date
        the Gunslinger instructed,
        we’ll send a telegram to Parmenides. (67)

I returns later in “Book IIII” as the secretary to Parmenides. 
Meanwhile the readers are treated to a feast of “presysntactic 
metalinguistic urgency,” “terrific actualism,” an “ABSOLUTE LINGUATILT 
SURVEY SITE,” “a cherry pit/ emerging from the anus of George 
Washington,” and a “double hydrocarbon” hustling the future. The group of 
course is curious as to what I’s immersion in the batch was like.

        Like trying to read a newspaper
        from nothing but the ink poured into your ear
        First off,
        the lights go out on Thought
        and an increase in the thought of thought,
        plausibly flooded w/ darkness,
        in the shape of an ability
        to hear Evil praised, takes place
        than a stroll through various
        corner-the-greed programs
        where we encounter assorted disasters
        guaranteed to secure one’s comfort
        After that,
        an appropriate tightening down
        on all the débris left over
        from the Latest original question, yet

        How rich with regal spoils 
        It was all Data Redux
        caught in the ombrotrophic mire
        but I sure got my Mood elevated (159)

One of the apparent discomforts of the academy with Gunslinger is the 
fact that the anticipated final confrontation at four corners between the 
Mogollones and the Anythingarian Single Spacers controlled by Robart (the 
Gunslinger transmorgrification of the historical Howard Hughes) never 
takes place. What traditionalists must be reading as a dramatic letdown, 
no stage littered with dead bodies such as the murderous climax of Hamlet 
for example, seems in fact to be the escape of a peculiarly indomitable 
villainy. It is as if there were yet possible a sequel after the purity 
of the head was reestablished and maintained, where the wrecking ball 
transnational politics and economics has taken to The Enlightenment, the 
environment, and ordinary people world-wide, could finally be shutdown. 
The psychedelic heroes “...dont care who wins/ None of that bunch trusts 
us/ and if they werent so careless/ they’d trust us even less” [.]

As it is, Robart on what is described as “Not exactly an ordinary 
cow,” (196) is headed if not for the border, perhaps “it’s a naked 
singularity/ he must be headed for Siberia!” (196). Gunslinger by this 
time employs more and more Spanish in its lines as well as such new 
characters as Taco Desoxin, among others, who show up where “we also kick 
the perpendiculars outa right anglos” (167) and things on the 
confrontation plane are described as “It’s like Brutalidad, 
quarks/.../holding a hatful of dinosaur piss” (194). It is typical of the 
timelessness of this poem that just when you think your totally in outer 
space, “dinosaur piss,” or in the case of this week’s (7-20-1998) 
newspapers, it’s dinosaur shit, that has been unwrapped and is now being 
mined for its DNA.

        Oh no, Zlinger, Lil trembled
        must you leave now, we’ve just hit the Top
        and you belong to us (198)

The last strophe in the poem is in unitalicized Spanish, the language 
that much of the rest of the history of the American West is now slowly 
being re-written in. One of Gunslinger’s gentle admonitions is “Do not 
deny in the new vanity/ the old, original dust” (193). I think what’s 
really frying the academic bunnies is a reluctance to admit that they and 
their progeny will have to learn Gunslinger well enough to one day teach 
it as the preeminent example of American Realism. 

        Entrapment is this society’s
        Sole activity, I whispered
        and Only laughter
        can blow it to rags(155)
And if that won’t drive you to reach for your stash of drugs in this 
multifaceted pharmaceutical catastrophe, what will? What elevates 
Gunslinger into an echelon above The Cantos [the beak of Pound’s ego 
problem] and The Maximus Poems [still strungout on the poet’s 
considerable ego] is the process of putting “I” into suspended animation 
for most of the poem resulted in the “ego” function being dispersed into 
many other characters. Pound and Olson compose largely in a monotone from 
a single enlightened perspective and the result too often is monotonous 
political cant, however righteous, and not poetry. The salubrious effect 
of Dorn’s inspiredly different approach is the delivery of the poetry 
from many competing perspectives, much as in a great Shakespeare play 
with its many talking heads as contrasted with the dreadfully dull 
Miltonic sappiness of Paradise Lost. Get back and read the poem and have 
your state elevated. Get into the new era. Take Dorn and Elmborg with 
you. They can save you a ton of time.

The Sagetrieb special Dorn issue is like six small books in one 
including a facsimile reprint tipin of Bean News, the psychedelic 
newspaper that followed the action of Dorn and his acolytes. The other 
five parts in aesthetic order are a forty page spread of recent Dorn 
poems, great essays on the work by Peter Michelson and Burton Hatlen, the 
annotations to Gunslinger by Stephen Fredman and Grant Jenkins, and an 
essay by Grant Jenkins. We’re absent the space and time to adequately 
treat the depth and complexity of all the ideas generated by the essays, 
but I will try to describe the work and recommend it be taken seriously.

“The Denver Landing 11 Aug 1993” is a top drawer satire on what could 
be called the Pope’s rowboat ride to Denver and the filthy “counter 
reformation.” This poem could be drop shipped whole into The Temple’s 
aborted sequence on “The Rest of the Reformation” as it is loaded with 
primary reasons. In “Aboard the Tan Am With Odin, a Dog of Judgment” Dorn 
demonstrates he knows how to get inside a metaphor and extend it every 
laterally. Here we find:

        Business is a form of terror¾you leave the victim,
        the customer, even the mere low-end shopper wasted,
        drained of cash and will and shackled to the future¾

Dorn’s commitment to the work is also clearly restated: “The sheer 
writing of the poem must be our shelter.”

        Odin ran his tongue over his impressive teeth
        and observed: from the minute that species
        stood up and walked the planet was doomed.

The poem “Jerusalem” from the series “Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of 
Heresy and Heretics” employs effectively on the page, a hypertext style 
of the poem per se on the top of the page, the middle of each page is 
given to “Subtexts & Nazdaks” and the bottom is a sendup on the stock 
tickers at the bottom of the TV screen, all three sections separated one 
from the other by a string of paragraph signs and a religious club 
symbol. Shall we wait around in the gutters for the moment when “the 
Living shall Email the Dead.” This is high grade poetry from a master 
poet still at the peak of his powers.

Peter Michelson’s essay, “Edward Dorn, Inside the Outskirts,” is 
exceptionally good on Dorn’s methods, preoccupations and results. 
Michelson is right on a hundred and fifty points and only mistaken on 
only one or two. He reminds us that Dorn’s preoccupation is with rational 
attention, mentions the Rexroth effect on Dorn and suggests that it may 
be even more pervasive than the Olson effect, correctly locates the great 
poetry in the repartee, and points out the purposes of the various 
philosophers subsumed into the text and backgrounding of Gunslinger. 
Michelson rightly dismisses the noise that Epstein and Gioia throw into 
the arena, but he is mistaken in the phrase “practitioners of public 
poetry,” even though his examples, Ginsberg, Dorn, Rich, and Baraka, are 
as well known as we can make them. There is no such thing as public 
poetry in the United States. I’ve lived and worked my entire life among 
the public. Only the merest, infinitismially small number of them have 
even the faintest idea what poetry is and they are not apt to be induced 
to learn. Dorn in a poem entitled “Dismissal,” speaking of Ezra Pound:

          He was detained not because
        he was the Greatest Poet,
        they couldn’t have known that anyway
        nor would they have given a hoot
        far from it.

The public can tell you the names of Pound and Ginsberg but they haven’t 
read more than two lines of the work. Poetry is public in the same sense 
that the judgments of the superior courts of Okanogan County are public; 
you can find them if you have to but nobody knows ahead of time what they 
are. That poetry is intensely debated among those people who seek their 
sacred paths within a six-foot radius of university English departments 
doesn’t make the work public.

Burton Hatlen’s “Toward a Common Ground: Versions of Place in the 
Poetry of Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, and Theodore Enslin,” is a high 
quality piece of criticism. He nails several of the essential Olson 
limitations, some of which can be found in Olson’s preoccupation with 
Jung, and the pathological degeneration of Olson’s mythos regarding the 
relationships between male and female, man and woman. “The explanation 
lies, I think, in Olson’s increasing tendency simply to collapse the 
personal, the local, and the historical.” It could also be the 
degenerative effects of a Catholic propadeuticism.

Hatlen under the influence of much classical backgrounding, 
persistently insists that Gunslinger is a mock-epic, a term he may not 
find pejorative, but it is. He claims “...the effect is to dissolve all 
epic certainties in a corrosive bath of irony.” I’m willing to 
acknowledge the poem giving us a bath in corrosive irony, but if ever a 
culture deserved to be linguistically eviscerated, this is it. I’ve read 
enough epics to know that certainty is not one of the things they left me 
with. Gunslinger, referred to above as an example of realism, leaves you 
on the street alone in a vicious system at the mercy of such friends and 
other arrangements as you can make. This truth, being the truth, is the 
most useful kind of certainty. I’ll take Hatlen on Enslin at face value. 
Hatlen admits that what he misses in Dorn and Enslin is “a sense of the 
possibility of a politics that might allow us to act within a public 
scene, in our historical moment.” Could anyone possibly be getting or 
ever require such a sense of politics from a close reading of 
Shakespeare? Hatlen seems in fact to be lamenting the absence of Olson’s 
most crippling limitation: the notion that there could ever be a politics 
that would resemble a solution.

The “Annotations” to Gunslinger are by turns, instructive, amusing, 
irrelevant and obvious. They’ll be most useful to people completely in 
the dark. Jenkins’ “Ethics of Excess” apparently written while he was a 
student, (it is well known what being a student can do to de-arrange a 
mind) is confused and too heavily laden with extraneous references to be 
of much use. To have his ideas taken seriously they will need to be 
detoxified, as in a book length Chomskian treatment where the juice would 
probably not be worth the squeeze. “Dorn breaks a great, unwritten rule 
of narrative: consistent character names.” I thought consistency was the 
hemoglobin of bleeding harts. Inconsistent character names do not 
diminish the work of Dostoevsky. It’s only a typo, but reference is made 
in Jenkins’ essay to Dr. Flamboyant’s “Turning Machine.”  It’s cited more 
accurately if incompletely in the “Annotations” at page 135, line 20 as a 
“Turing Machine,” so at least the double entendre on “tour” is 
maintained. A turning machine sounds like a railroad roundhouse or a 
rotisserie rather than a model for computer simulation. In his Coda, 
Jenkins writes, “I cannot end this essay without qualifying or unsaying 
some of my statements about the ethic in Gunslinger.” “Unsay?” Isn’t that 
why Dorn referred to Universities, among other places, as natural centers 
of double talk.    

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