Patrick McGuinness suggests three places to start an enormous collection of Dorn's poetry
"You don't disappear. You reappear, dead," wrote Ed Dorn, who died in 1999 and emphatically reappears here: nearly 1,000 pages of poetry ranging over almost 50 years of work. Born in Illinois in 1929, Dorn grew up in rural poverty in what he described, in his 1969 autobiographical novel By the Sound, as "the basement stratum of society". He was associated with Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, writers who, like Dorn, took their early bearings from Charles Olson.
From 1965 to 1970 he lived in England, where, invited by the poet and critic Donald Davie, he taught in the English department at the University of Essex. His time in England was productive, and helped orientate his poetic interest – as exile often does – in the place he left behind. It also fostered lifelong friendships with poets on the experimental reaches of British poetry, notably JH Prynne, whose memorial tribute to Dorn appears as an afterword here, and with the small poetry presses he continued to publish with into the 1990s.
For the reader coming to Dorn for the first time, and faced with a book this long and this unusual, there are three good places to start, none of which is the beginning: the love poems of Nine Songs (1965), the first book of his psychedelic cowboy epic Gunslinger (1968), and the posthumously published Chemo Sabé (2001), in which the dying poet describes his cancer against the background of the Clinton impeachment and American foreign policy adventures.
Dorn's poetry is many things at once: rangy and compressed, rough and refined, metaphysical and crude, slangy and grandiloquent, subtle and hectoring. He has recesses of esoteric knowledge yet his poems are riddled with pop culture, buzzing with philosophy, history, high and low politics, theology and economics. In Nine Songs we can see how, for instance, his delicate, spare love poetry can sound both loosely contemporary and oddly Elizabethan in its compression and courtliness:
There are each time I talk of it
reflections of my love in her eyes
and there is nothing that fact can surprise
of all the elaboration of whatever syntax
it is within me to devise
can raise her lashes to me, mine
more than what was given of mine to hers.
Gunslinger is perhaps the strangest long poem of the last half-century: a quest myth wrapped around an acid-inspired western comic strip adventure in which a gunslinger, astride a drug-taking, talking horse called Levi-Strauss, searches for Howard Hughes ("they say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it. / I can't remember which"). Charles Olson had insisted, in the wake of Pound, that where Europe had history to make poetry with, America must take geography. Dorn's contribution to the Great American Long Poem – Pound's Cantos, WC Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus … – was Gunslinger, which appeared in five sections over six years. The American west was Dorn's imaginative home, and his poem is an extraordinary feat of imagination, humour, allusion and lyric invention. It takes the standard fare of a good if surreal western (brothel madams, saloon brawls and gunfights) and melds it with high philosophical riffs.
Here is the narrator congratulating the gunslinger on the speed of his draw: "You make the air dark / with the beauty of your speed, / Gunslinger, the air / separates and reunites as if lightning / had cut past / leaving behind a simple experience." The Slinger's reply is a fusion of Heidegger ("Digger", as in "Hey, Digger!" is one of the stoned horse's nicknames) and Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. Names are important in this poem, though not as important as having no name – as the Slinger says: "it is dangerous to be named / and makes you mortal".
The book is deep and allusive, but what carries us along, especially on first reading, is how graceful and absorbing Dorn's ideas are, how clever and amusing his dialogue and situations, and how he has made a world from something at once universal and culturally specific, bristling with the time and place it steps out of and moves beyond. It is a baffling and brilliant work. Asked if he is mortal, the Slinger replies: "I die […] which is not / the same as Mortality." Dorn is full of such moments.
Dorn's last book, Chemo Sabé, is a powerful poetic diary of his illness, in which he records his drug intake and his cancer's spread with a merciless attentiveness. Here, too, there is humour, as when he titles a poem "The Invasion of the 2nd Lumbar Region", and compares the spreading cancer with alien invasion, US bombing raids and media saturation. The drugs are different – the paradisal, perception-altering highs of Gunslinger are replaced by the pain-blunting products of Big Pharma. In "Chemo du Jour: The Impeachment on Decadron", Dorn gives us an extraordinary description of being injected with Decadron while watching "sweet Bill and Santa Monica" on his hospital TV. It is visionary, painful, angry poetry, but often funny, moving and savagely ironic. By the end, the poet's consolation is that death ("the relief of my singularity", as he so nobly puts it) will itself die by fire, as his body carries his tumour into the flames.
Dorn was a radical and a heretic, and his late poems are concerned with heretics and their persecution by states, governments and official religions. In a late reading in London, as he discussed Languedoc Variorum– a sequence which, with typical Dornian dual-time parallel vision, explores the suppression of the Cathars and Albigensians alongside today's religious turmoil – he was asked why he thought heretics were persecuted. His answer – that heretics are the only ones who really care about religion – gives us an insight into his humour, the breadth of his sympathy, and the integrity of his poetry. This book is enormous, but it is navigable and enriching in all sorts of ways: what you get from Dorn is not available anywhere else in poetry.
• Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is published by Seren.