Celebrating Ed Dorn

Last month, I was honored to be asked to take part in a reading-slash-celebration of Edward Dorn’s life, and his Collected Poems (out now via Carcanet), held at the Graduate Center. Not only was it an unparalleled opportunity to share some of what has inspired my own work on Dorn’s poetics thus far, it truly ended up being a night of joyful community building, one that I hope bodes well for the future. There’s video of the event, below; I am reading in the last fifteen or so minutes, but I encourage you to watch the entire program.

After much debate (and more than a little anxiety over sharing the stage with such visiting luminaries as Jennifer Dorn, Ed Sanders, Amiri Baraka, and Anne Waldman), I decided to read two short segments from the third and final of Dorn’s 1981 Olson Memorial Lectures at SUNY Buffalo: one to set forth the most important ideas that run throughout the lectures I transcribed, and another to sort of express my appreciation for the event, to bring Dorn’s prescient words into the present moment in a manner expressing joy, rather than frustration or anger.

Edward Dorn: [Long pause] It’s raining outside but it’s not raining inside. [Pause] My final statement—trying to avoid the word “lecture”–will be on what. On what? The Eighties. That decade with no years. The decade that can only be referred to as “Eighties.” January twenty-seventh, Eighties. September twenty-first, Eighties. We’ve already noticed that there are no years in the Eighties. It’s going to be the first solid-state decade. But take heart, it makes dating very very simple.

But before I get started on all that, and what “Eighties” represents, I’m going to, like, backtrack, and try to bring forward a certain kind of statement and estimation that I really respect, which led up to the Eighties, and which I’m going to claim to a certain extent died in January 1970. Whether it died forever is always an open question, but for our time it died. And it has very much to do with the exhortation to “not forget the past,” as set forth in Olson’s last—what I call the “Last Will and Testament” but which is called, undoubtedly more rightly, the Last Lectures.

Don’t forget the past. Accept the new illiteracy as a foregone conclusion and a condition that now cannot be overcome and probably shouldn’t be. Accept it as a fact of the present. But don’t forget the past. It’s always been kind of assumed that literacy and the past were connected, somehow—but, and the hope would then be, could be expressed that the new illiteracy will have to fashion a means for remembering the past. Who knows? Maybe it could be oral. It’s possible. That would be the expectation. Although the oral so far hasn’t actually presented much evidence that it’s the hope. So anyway, in connection with those, you know, leading lines of thought, leading up to the Eighties of course, I’d like to read just a single paragraph of a work that is an oral work, actually, and from shortly after that time, actually–1971.

Maximus looks out to sea, he looks through the sea, down into the sea, out into the cosmos, we have the whole of Okeanos, we have the whole of the void, we have the whole of the circular curve. We have the whole of the condition of space. The circular curve is an important condition of the lyric, because the cosmos, in his sense, comprises the rearward time vector, back to the past, and all the space vectors extended until they go circular, that is to say, until you reach the ultimate curvature of the whole, so that they solve themselves as myth. That circular, the curving rhythm, the condition which you can finally reach to, is the condition of the cosmos where the cosmos becomes myth. That’s true about the scientific condition as well—that there’s no doubt at all that the limits of space and the limits, for example, of absolute temperatures, the curvature to which they attain, are all very closely isomorphic. So that at once the curvature is reached, the lyric concludes, [and] what takes over is the condition of myth.

Well that’s something more to think about than to hear, so you can be thinking about it. I’m thinking about it. I think about it all the time. Insofar as I could describe what happened later, I would just describe my travels, in a sense—like over the country, seeing what’s being done.

At the event a colleague of mine saw my writing in the corner of the cover of my Lost & Found pamphlet, and asked me what “working copy” meant. It’s the copy I do my work in, weaving in my own voice and ideas. After many failed efforts that have skewed too far in one direction or another, I finally have a balance between respecting Dorn’s voice and ideas, and respecting my own. Part of that comes from an engagement with the text in its physical manifestation; another, through verbalization and orality. For all the work I did on the Olson Lectures–lectures that were for the large part verbal improvisations, with a few notes and letters and artifacts to go on–I’d never read them aloud before this reading. So the video above also captures a moment in which my engagement with my source material changes, grows to a place of greater respect, and yes, love.

Well, anyway, that’s how the Eighties got born. We’re coming up on time. And, I think, what I have to add really is to say that this exchange actually has gone on in all the late night hours with not that small a fraction of the audience, actually, and so much has been covered that I, I feel that the lecture has been so two-way, and has rewarded me so much, again with being in Buffalo, and seeing everybody, that I want to thank you very very deeply, from the bottom of my heart.