AMIRI BARAKA & EDWARD DORN : THE COLLECTED LETTERS
Edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano
University of New Mexico Press. 248 pages. $59.95. ISBN 978-0-8263-5391-7
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Exchanges of letters between writers can offer insights into the characters of the people concerned as well as into their work. And they can additionally throw light on particular periods of literary activity. Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn began to establish themselves as poets and prose writers at a time when American literature was widening its scope and the “New American Writing,” as it was often referred to, was starting to attract attention. This didn’t necessarily mean that people like Baraka and Dorn suddenly found it easy to break into print, nor did it lead to their being able to support themselves from their writing. But it may be interesting at this point to say something about them. Not everyone will necessarily be familiar with Baraka’s books, nor with Dorn’s. Some background information may be useful.
Amiri Baraka, or Leroi Jones as he was called prior to his embracing black nationalism in the 1960s, was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, and grew up in what has been described as a stable, working-class household. He seems to have done well at school and won a scholarship to Howard University in Washington. But he soon rebelled against what he saw as its bourgeois educational ethics and left. He then joined the Air Force, though he was quickly discharged because he was suspected of communist tendencies. This was at a time when McCarthyism was rampant and any sort of deviant behaviour was suspect. It would appear that copies of Partisan Review were found in Jones’s locker. There’s a humorous side to this, Partisan Review being anti-communist and even probably supported by the CIA as part of its cultural programme. But the fact of it being an intellectual publication, and not given to the kind of populist anti-communism that Senator McCarthy and his supporters favoured, would probably have been enough for Jones to attract unfavourable attention. He soon moved to Greenwich Village and became involved in the “bohemian poetry, theatre, and music scene.” Over the years he established himself as a poet, editor, playwright, jazz critic, and political activist.
Edward Dorn was born in Illinois in 1929 and so grew up during the Depression, something that was reflected in a poem like “On the Debt My Mother Owed Sears Roebuck.” Dorn attended Black Mountain College in the 1950s and got acquainted with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, John Wieners, and others who would play a significant part in “The New American Writing” of the late-1950s and early-1960s. Dorn wrote prose as well as poetry, but was never able to earn a living from his writing alone. He took part-time teaching posts and in 1965 was offered a position as a Fulbright lecturer at Essex University where he remained until 1970. When he returned to the USA he still found it necessary to teach part-time while trying to develop his poetry. In 1977 he was offered a teaching position at the University of Colorado and stayed there until he died in 1999.
The initial contact between Jones (I’ll use the name he had during the main part of the time they corresponded) and Dorn was in 1959 when Jones was editing his little-magazine, Yugen, and wrote to Dorn to ask him to send some poems. Jones was publishing a wide selection of the new writers, including Beats like Kerouac, Corso, and Ginsberg, Black Mountaineers such as Fielding Dawson and Joel Oppenheimer, and Frank O’Hara who was linked to the New York School. Dorn was going to be in good company. There are notes about most of the people mentioned and it’s useful to have them. Kerouac and Ginsberg don’t need to be explained, but what about Max Finstein? Unless you’re a specialist with an interest in this period of American poetry it’s unlikely you’ll know anything about Finstein. His name does crop up here and there in the letters, not always in a complimentary way. But he’s not alone in that and I’ll say something later about how and why Jones and Dorn seem to feel it necessary to be derogatory about many other poets. And not just poets. Joyce Glassman (later known as Joyce Johnson) became a particular hate figure for Jones. Claudia Moreno Pisano says that Glassman “is the target of some of Jones’s more vicious misogynist vitriol,” probably because in her role as an editor at a commercial publisher she didn’t match up to his expectations of publication of Dorn’s work.
The exchange of letters became regular once the initial contact had been established. Both poets were experiencing financial problems and they often compare notes on how much, or more likely how little, they’re likely to be paid for a reading or whether or not the money can be raised to publish a small book. Publishing their poems in little magazines wasn’t ever going to bring in payments of any consequence, or even any payments at all, most magazines struggling to stay alive. Jones’s own magazine, Yugen, had folded after eight issues, and a mimeographed publication, The Floating Bear, that he’d started with Diane di Prima, didn’t pay contributors.
By 1961 Jones was becoming increasingly politicised and in September he wrote to Dorn to say that he’d been arrested and charged with “resisting arrest; inciting to riot; disorderly conduct.” He’d also attracted the attention of the right-wing Senator Eastland who described Jones as a “Beatnik poet, radical leftist racist agitator.” This led to an exchange of ideas about politics and to what degree poets should involve themselves in activism. Jones was obviously an advocate of poets getting involved, but Dorn had his doubts and tended to take the position that it was probably better to stay outside politics, at least in terms of the poet being caught up in direct action on the streets. He had a deep distrust of the State (any State, even a revolutionary one) and thought that they all should be treated with suspicion. As Jones became even more active and moved towards changing his name and abandoning his white friends and even his white wife and their children, they continued to disagree about political involvement. Claudia Moreno Pisano has an interesting quotation from Howard Brick’s Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s: “American thought and culture grew turbulent and rife with contention; the realm of ideas and arts became more subject to instability than the foundations of American social structure itself.”
I mentioned earlier that throughout the letters there are frequent derogatory references to other writers. Philip Lamantia is described as “the fastest longest more boringest talker in the East or West,” and Michael McClure as “the hugest egotist of us all.” There’s a reference to “hayseed Kerouac,” and Robert Creeley as “simple-minded about socio-political matters.” Max Finstein and Marc Schleifer (connected with the magazine, Kulchur) are attacked, with Schleifer said to be “the world’s worst poet.” And women in particular seem to have angered Jones. Denise Levertov, Diane di Prima, Joyce Glassman, and Lita Hornick (who financed Kulchur), just to mention the better-known names, come in for criticism, often of a nasty kind. Dorn sometimes joins in, but I had the feeling that his heart may not have been in it and he was just reacting in a way that Jones expected. Perhaps I’m wrong? There are other dismissals, of course, often of established and/or academic poets. I suppose this was inevitable and it happens as any new group of poets starts to fight for a place in the sun. I’m not sure that it adds anything to our knowledge of the poets, new or old, though literary historians may thrive on such material.
Dorn was mostly based in Pocatello, Idaho, during the years covered by the majority of the letters (roughly 1959 to 1965), whereas Jones was in New York and therefore in a position to meet a wide variety of poets. In a letter from March, 1963, Jones reports that several “Deep Imagists” had paid him a visit and names Rochelle Owens, George Economou, and Armand Schwerner. I can’t imagine that the Deep Image group will now mean much to many people, other than students of literary movements, but they were active for a time in the early 1960s. And as individuals the various poets carried on writing when the group label lost its relevance. I have to admit that I was never sure just what they represented in terms of their ideas about how to write poems. Jones’s brief report on their visit gives the impression that he wasn’t too keen on their work. It also gives him the opportunity to once again display his crude comments about one of the women in the group. Another letter, later in 1963, finds Jones sneering at Denise Levertov. The misogynistic strain in his thinking becomes so evident that the reader can’t help wondering just what his problem was.
Jones was by 1963 beginning to establish a reputation as a poet, critic, and editor. He edited an excellent prose anthology, The Moderns, which featured some of Dorn’s work alongside Kerouac, Burroughs, Creeley, and others, and his jazz study, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, was published to critical acclaim. His early poems, collected in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, showed him to be an adventurous and entertaining poet. Dorn, by contrast, was still largely limited to publishing in little magazines, though his collection, The Newly Fallen, had appeared in 1962. And that came about largely due to Jones’s interventions on his behalf. It wasn’t that Dorn’s work lacked substance or interest, but the fact of his being away from a major centre of literary activity like New York or San Francisco meant that he wasn’t in a position to make contacts and cultivate editors and publishers. He was lucky to have Jones as a friend who promoted his writing.
A letter in 1964 has Jones admitting to “Jew-baiting” while he was “on some powder and drinking my head off,” and it perhaps is an indicator of how he would later write poems in which contained what Kenneth Rexroth referred to as “vicious anti-Semitic doggerel.” In 1965 Jones announced that he would in future be known as Amiri Baraka and he began to distance himself from his white family and friends. The letters more or less come to a halt, partly because of Jones’s new involvements but also because it was in 1965 that Dorn decided to move to England and take up a position as a lecturer at Essex University. He remained there until 1970. Claudia Moreno Pisano mentions that Jones says that he and Dorn corresponded in the 1990s, but the letters haven’t yet come to light.
I’ve admittedly moved around the letters and selected certain areas of them for comment. And it may be that in doing so I’ve overlooked some of their more interesting passages. Leaving aside the tendencies to belittle other poets and to often denigrate women, they do provide a great deal of valuable material for literary scholars. Obviously, much of the information relates to personal matters, such as families and finances (always a problem), and to the whereabouts and activities of mutual friends and fellow-poets. But there are also references to little magazines and small-press publishers. Jones’s involvements with Yugen and The Floating Bear, are discussed, and Dorn’s little magazine, Wild Dog, is also referred to. Jones recommends Yowl, a magazine edited by George Montgomery, and suggests that Dorn send some prose to Second Coming. It seems to me that information like this is useful to an understanding of the period concerned. Little magazines played an essential role in the rise of the new writing. There is, incidentally, a letter from 1960 in which Dorn tells Jones that he’d sent a poem called “Pronouncement” to a Dr Gilbert Nieman in Puerto Rico but had heard nothing further about it. Nieman edited a magazine called Between Worlds from the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico and Dorn’s poem was published in the first issue which is dated Summer, 1960.
Claudia Moreno Pisano has provided informative notes about many of the people referred to by Jones and Dorn and she efficiently fills in the gaps between letters. There is in, addition, a useful bibliography. This is an essential book for anyone with an interest in Jones/Baraka and Dorn or the wider field of the development of the “New American Writing” of the 1950s and 1960s.