Friday, March 28, 2008


Modern Ironists: John Berryman, Ted Hughes, Rochelle Owens, Edward Dorn
By Rochelle Ratner

Despite the many losses Americans Britains suffered during World War II, they were losses our country was proud to suffer. Not since that time has there been such popular agreement that our political leaders, and the decisions they made, had to be the right ones. Along with the downfall of the Hero came the involvement in personal and spiritual quests which could function as an alternative. It is only natural that this involvement would be reflected in the poetry, but what is surprising is how much of that poetry has an ironic cast to it. The ironic persona is the persona form which seems to be handled most frequently by the poets writing since the 1960s.

John Berryman and Ted Hughes present us with personae who ironically exorcise a private daemon. The identification between the poet and the persona is extreme. These writers add a new element: the primitive and dream states, as popularized by the teachings of Freud, Jung, and their descendants. In creating what amounts to an archetypal self the reader can laugh at, or with, one sees these writers trying desperately to laugh at themselves.

But even for Berryman and Hughes, the mere fact that it is ironic necessitates a socially conscious persona. While madness might exist in seclusion, irony cannot; it comes into play only when the madman is juxtaposed with his environment. The question is: who is mad, the persona or his surroundings? Berryman and Hughes opt for the persona. Rochelle Owens and Edward Dorn, playing the roles of social spokesmen, remain somewhat detached observers, locating their ironic figures in the outside world. The function of the poem remains similar, while the process differs.

The personae of Owens and Dorn might best be termed cultural collages. While they certainly display particular character traits, we recognize them not in themselves but because they are extreme embodiments of contemporary social traits. They represent the counter-culture of the Sixties and Seventies: Owens as New York pseudo-religious primitive socialite, Dorn as western hero par excellence. Since the speakers in their poems are secondary to the poem's cultural and political implications, they become more archetypal than the personae of Berryman or Hughes. But these personae, in taking on the structure of the masses, forfeit none of their distinctive aspects; if anything, they become more memorable. Collectively, the personae of Berryman, Hughes, Owens, and Dorn describe a time, a place, and a people at odds with themselves, obsessed with turning discontent into laughter.

John Berryman

John Berryman's Dream Songs is perhaps the most complex but also the most fascinating use of persona in the twentieth century. Because Berryman took great pains to hide his precise conception of the poem from the reader, we will look first at some of his critical writings for the insights they offer into his use of persona in general.

An article in his posthumous volume, The Freedom of the Poet is devoted to Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Quoting the third line, "Like a patient etherized upon a table", Berryman says: "With this line, modern poetry begins (John Berryman, The Freedom of the Poet, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p.270). In a section of an article on Don Quixote, appropriately entitled "Slapstick and the Supernatural", he says:
That there is no such person we may take to constitute our first insight, and what I mean by this will be clear later on. It is the role that is real -- a role, above all, aesthetic and theological; whereas in Dante or Shakespeare it is the persons who are real, all else subsidiary though important.

And in 1962, writing on Robert Lowell's poem, "Skunk Hour", Berryman makes a crucial distinction between autobiography and persona:
For convenience in exposition, with a poem so personal, I have been pretending that "I" is the poet, but of course the speaker can never be the actual writer, who is a person with an address, a Social Security number, debts, tastes, memories, expectations... The necessity for the artist of selection opens inevitably an abyss between his person and his persona. I only said that poetry is "very closely about" the person. The persona looks across at the person and then sets about its own work.

Irony, the satiric role, and the application of the role as it is set apart from its author are the three major elements which constitute Berryman's use of persona in the Dream Songs. But the first problem in discussing them is to arrive at a working definition for who "Henry" is. Berryman's own comments, more often than not, are intended to further confuse the issue. In the cover note to His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, he states:
The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof.

We read on convinced he is going to tell us something and we have somehow missed the point; we read it again. After several readings, we accept that Berryman has simply avoided the issue.

Searching for further illumination, there are John Haffendon's comments:
It may be important to know, for example, that on 6 April 1960 Berryman noted that, "'Mr. Bones' is Death, Henry's friend -- who at the end takes him offstage." The syntax here suggests that Mr. Bones, Death, and Henry's friend are all one and the same person, a tantalizing concept. It is also important to understand, however, that even this identification never solidified in the poet's mind, which did not take a schematic or catergorical turn. Pondering the problem, Berryman himself subscribed to the view that people are whole, unique beings, not to be explained, for example, in terms only of id, ego, and superego. What was important to the Dream Songs, his major work, was to dramatize the vicissitudes of the sense of identity. Henry may well be called the mid-century man en biscuit, but Henry is not a type. (John Haffenden, introduction to Henry's Fate, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.1977).

We have still not arrived at much of a definition. Despite Berryman's admiration for Eliot's "Prufrock", we must conclude that Henry is meant to be more of an individual than the satirical society figure which Eliot hoped to present. William Meredith comes closer to a definition when he describes Henry as an "imaginary madman", since:
He identifies himself easily and completely with every sort of person and situation, even some that are totally unsympathetic. He has the inability of the insane to distinguish between things that are merely alike, and it is this that charges his metaphors with so much force. They are no longer implied comparisons but terrible uncertainties of identity ("Henry Tasting All The Secret Bits of Life: “Berryman's 'Dream Songs'", Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 1965).

Earlier in the same article, Meredith stated that "the discovery of Henry's whole identity, by him and by us, comprises the plot of the poem.”

Increasingly as the poem progresses, the facts of Henry's life resemble the autobiographical facts of Berryman's life. And yet Henry is a caricature. He is a scapegoat or whipping boy, a figure Berryman could hold up before the crowd, thrusting upon him the ironies and punishments of his life. In the earlier poem "Homage To Mistress Bradstreet,” Berryman was searching for a figure to become his friend and ally; Henry undoubtedly continues to fulfill that need, here taking on the aspects of a child's imaginary playmate. He is the presence "out there", the ego as it sees itself in a funhouse mirror. Berryman "puts on" Henry the way Henry "puts on" blackface.

The projection of Henry "out there" also means that his life can embody elements not only from Berryman's life, but anything else the author wishes to bestow on him. Here we have one definition of the "dream" songs. And it is important that the reader approaching the text, like the narrator/dreamer, no longer distinguishes fact from fiction.

In the earlier "Homage To Mistress Bradstreet", syntax proved to be a constant problem. In the Dream Songs it is no less a problem, but it is also the essence of the poem itself. Writing about his work in 1965, Berryman stated:
A pronoun may seem a small matter, but she matters, he matters, it matters, they matter. Without this invention (if it is one -- Rimbaud's "Je est un autre" may have pointed my way, I have no idea now) I could not have written either of the two long poems that constitute the bulk of my work so far. If I were making a grandiose claim, I might pretend to know more about the administration of pronouns than any other living poet writing in English or American.

His use of the third person, or the quick switch from first to third person, is easily misread. There is no reason readers should find these changes difficult: one need only eavesdrop on a young child playing alone to realize how often he will address himself in the third person. Part of the satiric effect of the Dream Songs rests on Berryman's ability to display the child in himself so blatantly.

Berryman will not tell us Henry's life story, except as bits and pieces are revealed within the poems themselves, and even these often contradict each other. The Dream Songs are moments, snapshots in the life of the characters, which have no beginning or end. The only linkage is that of voice and character, which itself shifts from moment to moment, without any clear direction. Henry is simply a voice which usurps the stage and takes over. Look at the first poem:
Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, -- a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked.

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear and be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

Referring to this poem, Berryman has said that "the 'I', perhaps of the poet, disappears into Henry's first and third person (he talks to himself in the second person, too, about himself)". This is, it would seem, the only time in the entire cycle that the "I" begins as the poet. Berryman starts the poem then, extremely quickly, permits the persona to take center stage. The difficulty in reading stems from the fact that Berryman himself will not return, even for a dialogue. From here on out, anything which appears to be a dialogue is Henry talking to himself or some projection of himself, such as "Mr. Bones."

The middle stanza here ends: "I don't see how Henry, pried/open for all the world to see, survived." What is more, Berryman, throughout the rest of the cycle, will make no attempt to see. His work is only peripherally confessional; it is essential that Henry survives, but it is not important that he analyze why he survives.

We must also take into account the formal structure of the Dream Songs: each poem consists of three stanzas of six lines each. Carried through over four hundred published poems, one would assume it would become more formula than form, but this is not the case. Berryman permits himself minor breaks in form -- most often extending the final stanza by a line or half a line begun center-page, but sometimes adding two or three lines, and he frequently permits a thought to carry over from one poem to the next. Given Henry's verbose nature, we should be grateful that he is not permitted to simply rant and rave endlessly.

"Many opinions and errors in the Songs are to be referred not to the character Henry, still less to the author, but to the title of the work", Berryman says on the acknowledgement page of the first volume, 77 Dream Songs. William Meredith explains this concept:
Berryman suggests that the unity of the work lies in its being the dream-autobiography of the central character. Whether this character calls himself I or he, Henry or Mr. Bones, his identity doesn't change. What does shift, with dreamlike uncertainty, is the relationship of the dreamer to his dream self.

In his Introduction to Henry's Fate, John Haffenden quotes Berryman introducing the songs when he read at Harvard in 1966: "Prepare to weep, ladies and gentlemen. Saul Bellow and I almost kill ourselves laughing about the Dream Songs and various chapters of his novels, but other people feel bad. Are you all ready to feel bad?"

This ability to be both humorous and tragic in the same breath, to laugh at what hurts most, is the essence of the Dream Songs. One has the sense that Berryman himself could laugh at the poems when he was with a friend, but was more likely to cry when he was alone. A key poem in terms of this is #145, which deals with the suicide of Berryman's father, perhaps the "irreversible loss" that Berryman thrust onto his definition of Henry. That the father himself could joke about it "as he threatened --// a powerful swimmer to take one of us along/ as company in the defeat sublime," gives us insight into Berryman's own ability to turn tragedy into humor, even strength. Henry is, throughout these poems, the eternal survivor, and perhaps the final irony rests in Berryman's suicide. Reading this poem in that perspective, Henry becomes the son that Berryman himself once was, left "to live on."

Berryman tells us in the preferatory note to His Toy, His Dream, His Rest that this volume completes the Dream Songs. But obviously it was not that easy to break away from the persona. The posthumous volume, Henry's Fate collects forty-five new Dream Songs, and editor John Haffenden tells us that there are several hundred others. Berryman claims the work is "finished", then continues to write on and on. He once described the process:
Once one has succeeded in any degree with a long poem... dread and fascination fight it out to exclude, on the whole, short poems thereafter, or so I have found it. I won't try to explain what I mean by a long poem, but let us suppose (1) a high and prolonged riskiness, (2) the construction of a world rather than the reliance upon one already existent which is available to a small poem, (3) problems of decorum most poets happily do not have to face.

The risks Berryman has taken in the Dream Songs -- in syntax, in subject, in sheer length -- are enormous. The poems constitute a world that continually engrosses the reader as the poems progress. Had Berryman not solved the problem of "decorum", such a world would not have been possible. Perhaps, in the end, the character of Henry was not meant to be understood. The final stanza of #366, near the end of His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (the final volume Berryman himself edited), gives the most significant insights into Henry that we will ever get, and ends with the shattering image evoking a peaceful death:
The pitcher dreams. He throws a heavy curve,
I took it in my stride & out I struck,
lonesome Henry.
These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
They are only meant to terrify & comfort.
Lilac was found in his hand.

Henry is what all personae aim for but few become, and it is owing not only to Berryman's mastery of craft, but to his genius of inspiration and the risks he was willing to take. He is the unknowable, the undefinable, yet the vividly present character. Whatever the hundreds of unpublished dream songs might someday reveal, Henry remains, for the time being, the most firmly established persona of the post-Freudian world.

Rochelle Owens

In her work in progress, The Joe Chronicles, Rochelle Owens creates primordial archetypes who are ironically innocent from knowledge of their own perversions. As one can see from reading her previous book of short poems in various personae, I Am The Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter, Owens views the primitive mind as directly opposing the highly political consciousness which informs much of her earlier work. Three volumes of The Joe Chronicles have been published thus far: The Joe 82 Creation Poems (1974), The Joe Chronicles, Part 2, and Shemuel (both 1979). In a prefatory note to the first volume, Owens says:
Written in four parts, The Joe 82 Creation Poems recreates the tragic, joyous, and complicated journey of a mystical consciousness through the world and time. Within its structure based on a "free" juxtaposition of events Wild Man and Wild Woman, the two personae who embody physical and spiritual nature, reveal the primordial and multitudinous levels of human experience.

This first volume acts primarily to introduce the archetypes, usually from a third person perspective which at times enters their own words. Their innocence is presented from the first poem, "The First Footsong of Wild Man", which begins: "self knowledge / naturally / is to put a sword / in the / middle of yr heart". The next two poems, portraying Wild Man at Christmas, indirectly juxtapose the birth of this antichrist with that of the Savoir, a connection picked up at various times throughout the sequenceWild Man and Wild Woman continually question the nature of things around them in their attempt to arrive at definitions:
                                 O side by side wild man rocked
                      hisself & swallowed a fruit or a flower
           a thistle, clover & a vine, a this meat or that
fish, a that water & this wine, all the nature of
           nature            He SAW            in his trance

                                 it swirled
                                 in his spleen
                                 it whirled
                                 in his gut
                                 it skipped
                                 in his blood
                                 it whacked
                                 in his fat
                                 it shook in
                                 his lymph
                                 it stank in
                                 his piss
                                 it laughed
                                 in his grease
                                 it jumped in
                                 his pus
                                 it kissed his
                                 marrow &
                                 grimaced at
                                 his sorrow
                                 it sneered
                                 & howled
                                 at the origin
                                 of the world
& so on & so forth!
                                 where is the wealth?
               is it a moth? my body Act? my own
            strange light? my hair? my food
in my Holy Digestive Tract? my peacefulness?
                                 my snot? my sighs
                              my eyes? my spit?
                       my all things my
pure self?

Also an accomplished playwright, Owens shows her sense of action in the motion of the poems on the page. For her, the creation of a voice means that the voice must be free to wander about, with the persona's wild and impulsive character demonstrated in part by his mobility. Lines weave back and forth, for brief periods becoming regular, as in the end of the whirling dervish ceremony, where the speaker is centered on his own ground, the voice almost tender compared to the hard edged and often erotic images which began the poem. These tender moments show Owens at her best.

The final part of Book One brings an unexpected twist: the death of the Father, and the beginning of Knowledge. The innocence gone, this section approaches grief, albeit still from the primitive perspective. But it remains digression, not a thematic element; it will be picked up only slightly at the beginning of the second volume where the persona notes in the first poem "today/I Am A Man"(words each Jewish boy proclaims at his bar mitzvah) and later in the same poem: "Not for a while have you/Stopped Sucking/the tits of the Angel of Death".

Book One introduces "Wild Man" and "Wild Woman"; the next two volumes move the personae into a somewhat higher consciousness, as he is transformed into King Lugalannemundu in Book Two and she becomes Shemuel in Book Three, both personae molded on biblical archetypes. Here is the civilized world of pride and ownership, of man imitating God. In the first book, man merely followed nature; now there is a knowledge of mystic traditions. Owens is relating an esoteric shorthand that the reader could easily overlook, as in her continual use of the phrase Evil Yezer (her translation of the Hebrew yetzer hara, or evil impulse) which she says is "just killjoy Frightening us".

In the prefatory note to Shemuel, Owens says:
Imagination is the generator of the word as act/event. In Shemuel the journey begun in The Joe 82 Creation Poems and The Joe Chronicles, Part 2, continues to explore through patterns of force the conjunction of the old and the new, the spiritual and the physical.

These two figures are the archetypes made real, and it is natural that they would be more contemporary, and more politically aware, than their births predicted. They are reasoning creatures, even if their reasoning is at times more ironic than was their innocence.

In both books, individual lyrics mount to form a narrative whole through a careful repetition of images. Owens frequently avoids using sentences, grouping words in somewhat wild (but not random) juxtapositions. Phonetic (mock ancient) spellings and line breaks in the middle of words seem arbitrary and add to the confusion, but the voices of the personae transcend them.

King Lugalannemundu is from "a good class", linked at one point to the biblical King David, and in direct contrast to the working class Shemuel. He is a Christian boy or a prince from Guyana, born for the joys of this world; he loves carp and red beets. The poem is the breath in his throat. But above all this is a man, any man, in search of himself:
               I affirm God
or a Peacock with a mark
           Even birds sow Wild Oats
               in Public Schools
                          without Any snobbery
Sometimes I bounce
With High Praise, the best
clothes alter my course
one word Makes Me Poetical
the first line of My
Self is a Heavenly trumpet
to the atmosphere the
Strength of a ship lying
against peril the stomach
of earth Ripe & the last
punishment Single handed
a meat axe in the dark
like Shakespeare Hungry
for New words & the Same
old King Lugalannemundu
a good fellow a rhyming
hyena doing one thing &
Saying another.

King Lugalannemundu is a sexual deviant, "making woo" with animals, men, and all sorts of women, but even in these deviations he emerges as the ironic innocent. In the final third of the book, he falls in love with a Greek woman at the supermarket, who turns out to be Demeter. The last four poems are in her voice, and she chooses to end on the triumphant note of having deceived this believing king.

It is perhaps Demeter in another incarnation, the wise working class woman (in Book Two she was the broom maker's wife), who speaks as Shemuel in Book Three. Presenting an even more marked contrast between the biblical period and the present day, Shemuel is the queen and temple prostitute whose shrine is Woolworth's The book's refrains are "he hit her & she hit him", depicting the violence of the working class, and the plight of the brutalized, often pregnant, woman. Shemuel, though, is far from defenseless.

It is only in this third volume that we learn who "Joe" is he is G. I. Joe, the American hero. An appropriate irony, considering the brutality which forms the structure of this book, and the whole concept of Wild Man and Wild Woman made real. Descendant of the Hebrews, they live in modern America (New York City) side by side with the idol worshipping men from Uz and the children of Ishmael. In describing the city without God, and in attempting to warn the people to change their ways, Shemuel becomes the prophet.

So we see that Owens, despite the extended persona, could not avoid the political for long. While many of the poems in this volume are in the third person, it is the poems directly from Shemuel's lips which stand out for their lyric qualities. All in all, Shemuel's voice emerges much stronger than did King Lugalannemundu's in Book Two, perhaps because Shemuel is the latter of the two books, or because the female voice has forced Owens to speak more directly in a rhythm approaching her own voice.

The Joe Chronicles are far from completed, and they have increasingly opened themselves to the influences of the current time. Owens herself has physically left New York City, but the movement through time and history which her personae have already established should permit them a parallel mobility. It will be interesting to see how they (or their descendants as King Lugalannemundu and Shemuel are descendants of Wild Man and Wild Woman) will reflect our times, and establish themselves in their preordained roles, as the volumes continue.

Edward Dorn

While the strength of Owens' work resides in her ability to capture the details of the present time, it is possible to become too susceptible to those details. Such is the case in the work of Edward Dorn. During the same period when Ted Hughes, an English poet using Americans as his models, went to all extremes to follow the dictates of the persona he had created, Dorn, an American poet living in England, was making an effort to break down the premise on which persona is built. Gunslinger bears a stronger resemblance to farce than any of the other poems we will examine. Georg M. Gugelberger has called Dorn's style "Chaucerian". His characters are:
humorous constructs derived from reality but instantly de-realized via figurization. The figurization, however, allows us to draw conclusions which then re-relate to reality. It is a kind of modern allegory, but again, spoofed. (American Book Review).

The entire poem is a parody of the Ideal American, the Gunslinger, riding off into the sunset, guitar in hand, now and then breaking into song. The form gives Dorn the opportunity to "play poet", combining middle English with cliches of the Old West and catchwords from the Sixties drug culture. It resembles the novel form which Leslie Fiedler terms the "new Western":
After the achievement of Hemingway and West, it is possible for young writers to treat the oldest American myth of the encounter between Whites and Indians as farce: to replace nostalgia with parody, sentimentality with mockery, polite female masochism with gross male sadism. Yet in the decades immediately following the publication of Torrents of Spring and The Day of the Locust, neither the reading public nor the critics seemed to know what to do with them; and they remained, therefore, without real consequence until the Sixties -- when, suddenly, we could no longer abide the prim Protestant versions of Pocahontas, or the grave and serious face of the Virginian as played by Gary Cooper.

Dorn was born in 1929; he grew up in a small Illinois town and attended a one-room schoolhouse. From his earliest poems, there is a sense of his identity as Western American Man, grown directly out of a cowboy and Indian heritage. It is easiest to see in his second book, published in 1964: its title is HandsUp! and one is immediately in the presence of all the old Westerns. A few poem titles from that collection are also indicative: "Wagon Wheels", "Home on the Range, February, 1962", or "The Tepee At Tomah". Educated at Black Mountain College, Dorn strove for casual speech in his poems, and he achieved a gentle humor by portraying man in natural situations. Many of his earlier poems were long, thematic sequences whose development was linear.

Gunslinger is longer than any of his previous work, and the humorous aspect is more emphatic than it had formerly been, but it is easy to view the poem as a natural outgrowth from where his entire body of work was headed. In fact, the first 105 lines of Book I appeared in a previous book, The North Atlantic Turbine, as a poem called "An Idle Visitation". Only later did it become clear to Dorn that this was the beginning of a longer work.

The main cast of characters exhibits both the farcical nature of the poem and Dorn's effective use of naming as the mainstay of that farce. We start out with I, the Gunslinger, Lil, and the Stoned, Talking Horse (whose real name is Claude Levi-Strauss, and who loves playing poker). We are on our way to Vegas, or to Boston, to find a Texan named Hughes, Howard, who has not been seen since 1833. In Book II the main characters are joined by The Poet and Kool Everything. Into this grouping others enter and leave, to be spoken about before and after, and they keep trying to "define" the principals, who must never permit themselves to be defined. Consider this, when The Drifter enters:
Yea! You! You're a horse
aincha? I mean you!
and, "looking around", Horseface!


The Stoned Horse said Slowly
not looking up
from his rolling and planning
Stranger you got a pliable lip
you might get yourself described
if you stay on.

Come on!
Who's the horse, I mean who's
horse is that, we can't have
No Horse! in here.
It ain't proper
and I think I'm gonna
put a halter on you!

Uh uh, the Gunslinger breathed.
Anybody know the muthafucka
the Stoned Horse inquired
of the general air.
Hey, hear that the stranger gasped
that's even a negra horse!

With all the different voices coming in and out of the poem, we tend to forget the preferatory note on the first page of Book I: "The curtain might rise/anywhere on a single speaker". It is our attempt to be rational which insists that each speaker in a poem must have a bodily form, but Dorn intends Gunslinger to move beyond this purely rational state; in so doing, he stands our previous conception of persona on its head. In response to an interviewer who complained that it was often difficult to delineate the various voices in the poem, Dorn said:
All of the voices can be coming from inside the same person. Psychology is made up of voices. All the voices in the world can be conceived as inside the same essential voice. I mean voice is in many languages, but there's only one Voice. The other characters in Gunslinger occupy peripheral and frontierlike positions, but the I (I mean the ego) and the Persona are often very close together. In some idealizations, they are seen as merging. Or if they don't merge, they can cure each other. After all, one of the tasks of the I is to participate in the world without loss of identity, which is one of the fears of I. I fears that loss. I]. (Bolinas, Ca. Four Seasons Foundation, Writing 38, 1980).

Dorn uses the death of "I" as an opportunity to establish some of the most poetic philosophy which the poem contains:
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 bleachers, 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
which not a few anxious mortals
misread as intuition. The Tibetans
have a treatise on that subjection.
Yet the sad fact is I is
part of the thing
and can never leave it.
This alone constitutes
the reality of ghosts.
Therefore I is not dead.

Imagine that, Lil said
patting I's stiff knee.

And again, as Gugelberger has stated, "The slow process of ego-elimination makes the Slinger the center of the book... He is less precisely described than the "I", as indicated by the double spelling of his name (linger/Zlinger), his eternal age, and the associations a Gunslinger necessarily will evoke from the reader.”There have been so many voices that we tend to forget who said what, but we realize now that the Gunslinger himself has not said much, our view of him came more from the way I and Lil have described him or related to him. He is also the easiest character for us to follow. "I" will call up various associations depending on the I of the person reading; Lil is the stereotyped western Lady/Madam, a view which comes from her own descriptions of her life, not always the way others see her. All the characters in the poem vie with the Gunslinger for attention, while he remains in the background saying little. Still, he is the focal point in relation to which all the other characters define themselves, including and especially the Horse. Dorn aimed, as he has said in interviews, for a collective voice, and this collective voice is represented by the Gunslinger, in the way that Tiresias, the blind seer, unites all the figures in Eliot's "The Wasteland".

Dorn had every intention of writing a topical poem which would satirize the culture he saw around him. In the late Sixties, when Gunslinger was begun, that culture was best expressed by its use of drugs. Fiedler relates the new Western to psychadelics: "But the real opposite of nostalgic is psychadelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating, which means that, insofar as the New Western is truly New, it, too, must be psychedelic.“ Psychadelics, he reminds us, were introduced to whites by the Indians.

Instead of a plot, Dorn gives us the semblance of a plot; rather than an actual journey, the poem is constructed to give the impression that the characters are on a journey, while all the while they go nowhere. As Fiedler again points out:
Once the debunking has begun, there is no end; everything is turned into the kind of joke on history that we play in return for the joke history has played on us: the Graduate Student's Revenge.

We might be initially put off by this aimlessness, but on close examination we realize that these fumbling characters are intended to reflect the lost searchers with whom anyone attempting an alternative lifestyle during the Sixties was all too familiar. Drugs themselves become personifications, as the horse becomes Horse or La Bella Donna becomes Dona Bella. Gugelberger says:
This "Purity of the Head" turns out to be the essential goal of this quest. The salvation is represented by Kool Everything and the "autotheistic chemical" he brings along. The analysis of the American Dream (everything that is associated with Howard Hughes) requires a new dream, arrived at through drugs. It is at this point that the typical Western (acquisition of material goods) is replaced by a new Western based on drugs.

Undoubtedly Dorn succeeded in creating the ironic epic he intended. Because of its reliance on that which is overly topical, such as the capturing of drug-induced speech, the poem might not be readily intelligible to future readers. As Fiedler reminds us:
When it depends chiefly on satire, however, the New Western converts the stereotypes of the kitsch Western not into myth, or even anti-myth, but only into anti-stereotype: Pop Art on its lowest level

Dorn attempted to capture in poetry what The Beatles or The Rolling Stones captured in music, but we must also remember how little time it takes for popular songs to fade from the charts. One can rightfully say that a poet such as Robert Creeley, who has achieved more critical acclaim than Dorn, will face the same problem of not being understood by later generations. But then Creeley has not attempted a work equal in scope to Dorn's Gunslinger.

Gunslinger is archetypal in its western American base; the irony, which owes its implications to the drug culture, is not. The words will endure as farce, but much of their cultural relevance will be lost.

The form therefore remains valid, while the function has already begun to fade.


The irony of a persona can be achieved through animism, archetype, the projection of a loser-figure, or viewing the life of an ordinary man or woman -- and any combination of these. The one feature all these personae have in common is that their own images of themselves differ from the way in which others see them.

Because irony is dependent on the context of the statement, stylistic versatility is more important to the ironic persona than it elsewhere. The poet must not only show the words, but present them in a fluctuating context. None of these books would have been possible without such versatility. Part of the irony always comes from the poet's ability to use the familiar, and often the cliche, in a new way. The idea behind these personae may often be trivial, and that very triviality provides the base of the irony. While such poetry always runs the risk of becoming simply farce, these writers have for the most part avoided that occurrence.

The writing of Owens and Dorn is not only topical, it is the most experimental of any poets we shall discuss. Widening a single voice to include the portrait of an entire social strata has necessitated personae who could assume gigantic embodiments; the only reason they do not buckle under the weight is that the form of the poem is also in constant fluctuation according to the momentary needs of the speaker. Because all the observations must continually return to the comic (the exaggerated, the pun) still another burden is placed on the language. These personae are distinguished by the fact that they have no strong viewpoints. Indeed, if they had, they would lose their facility to mock society as a whole.


This essay was written in 1984 as part of a still unpublished book of criticism entitled Speaking In Tongues: A Study of Persona in American, Canadian and British Poetry. In the late 1970s and mid 1980s, when Speaking in Tongues was written, Rochelle Ratner's own poetry was immersed in the world of personification, most importantly the unicorn figure in Quarry (New Rivers Press, 1978) and the mermaid figure in Combing the Waves (Hanging Loose Press, 1979). Her most recent poetry books are Balancing Acts (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006), Beggars at the Wall (Ikon, 2006), Leads (Otoliths, 2007), and the e-book Toast Soldiers (Vida Loca Books, 2007). More information can be found on her website:

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