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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Edward Dorn's Blue Cowboy (A Poetry Comic by Nora Sawyer)



Nora Sawyer: Edward Dorn: Vaquero (a poetry comic), from Nora Sawyer, 8 February 2013


TC said...

In 1984, visiting a night school class I was teaching, Ed Dorn did a short, sweet reading. I requested "Vaquero", that small masterpiece of bold primary color and ambiguous tone. These were night school students mind you, not "Ph. D. candidates" or "English majors" (had MFA types even yet slouched as far as the PMLA convention to be born?) No, you couldn't fool them.

They loved that poem. They were not the first to have done so.

"Vaquero" was one of the first of Edward Dorn's poems to achieve a bit of general attention. A small breakthrough, from far out at the edge, where Ed was always living, in those years when he wrote it.

Back then, Robert Creeley promptly asked to publish it in the Black Mountain Review. When that publication crashed short of the runway, Ed's great editor Donald Allen placed the poem in the Evergreen Review, Summer 1958. Don Allen also included it in his 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. And Ed sagely put the poem at the head-end in his 1964 collection Hands Up!

For many poets then estranged from the literary centers, much as Ed had long been, "Vaquero" became a touchstone.

At a memorial tribute after Ed's death, the English poet Tom Raworth recited "Vaquero" from memory. TR recalled the poem's strong early impression, and credited it for influencing own decision, as a young man "stationed" out well beyond the center of anything (that signature Dorn isolation-station), to have a go at writing poetry.

I took the occasion of that aforementioned night-school classroom reading to try to poke a bit into the derivation of the poem.

"It was about a painting by my daughter," Ed said.

The poem was writ in in the last days of 1956. The poet -- never a cowboy, rather a son of the Illinois prairie -- was at the time an itinerant labourer with a small family, living in the Skagit Valley of Washington. A son and daughter, Fred and Chansonette, had come along when Ed married their mother, Helene Helmers Buck. The Dorn traveling entourage was thereafter joined by another son, Paul. The winter of 1956 was a meagre one for the family, with Helene very slowly convalescing from serious back surgery and Ed often out of work; but the woodstove-warmed thin-shoestring Christmas of that year was celebrated by the kids in rambunctious made-up-Western fashion, the younger children having been provided mail order cowboy gear in a gift package from Helene's ex-husband.

"I wish you could see our house," Helene wrote to him in a thank-you note. "There is an eternal cowboy on some arm of some chair forever vigilant -- and I am being run across by horses -- all day long."

"Vaquero" dates from that time.

After Ed's death in December 1999 I asked the family's elder son, Fred Buck, about the poem. Fred remembered it as "Ed's response to a crayon drawing of a cowboy done by Chan or Paul in Burlington [Washington]."

Helene held on to the drawing after she and Ed had separated in 1967. "I sent the drawing to Paul," she told me in 2000, "I am pretty sure it is his."

Paul, Helene said, kept on drawing cowboys when the family moved on to Santa Fe; one of his drawings would win the grand prize in the Rodeo de Santa Fe poster contest. "I still have the newspaper clip," she related. "He was a seven-year-old first grader... beating out all the other student contestants including high school entrants."

Ed sent the poem to his mentor Charles Olson upon writing it. Olson approvingly took the liberty of re-naming the poem "the Cowboy in Blue".

Olson took the poem as an expression of his student's characteristic resistant temperament, his "p.o'd" stance: "The p[iss] o[ff] makes you an eternal object (that you know) ... but it also defines objectively whatever it is that makes you p.o.'d... it's this... which you... exploit."

(Erm, whatever.)

TC said...

The Beyond the Pale Edward Dorn file:

Edward Dorn: After Ore / William Henry Jackson: Hydraulic Mining, Madison County, Montana, 1871

Edward Dorn: A Vague Love

Edward Dorn: Dark Ceiling

Edward Dorn: Goodbye to the Illinois

Edward Dorn: Hemlocks

Edward Dorn: In My Youth I Was a Tireless Dancer

Edward Dorn: Like a Message on Sunday

Edward Dorn: Notes from the Fields: An Exaltation of Larks, a Murder of Crows

Edward Dorn: On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck

Edward Dorn: The Air of June Sings

Edward Dorn: The Common Lot

Edward Dorn: The 6th

Edward Dorn: The Sundering U.P. Tracks / William Henry Jackson: Rock Cuts along the Union Pacific, 1869

Edward Dorn: Tribe

Wooden Boy said...

I love the dark on which this is all sketched out and Nora's hand writing out with those various weights each true line.

You'd have to worry about someone who couldn't love this poem.

TC said...

Yes, this definitely took a delicate hand.

Over the years I've thought often of posting this poem but could never quite sort the challenge of the graphics, Ekphrasis being the rule of the house and all.

Nora rode in to the rescue and solved that problem brilliantly, I think.

Nora said...

Wowza! Thanks, Tom! This adds so much.

And for sure, putting images to this poem was an intimidating prospect (the vividness of the rhetorical picture is what drew me in, but also made drawing seem redundant). Luckily, giving myself such a short deadline doesn't leave too much room for self doubt. Each week, I choose a poem, regret my choice, then get down to business once I realize I'm committed. And every week, I think, "That's it, Sawyer, you're finished."

P.S. For these drawings, I put my stylus aside and finger-painted on the iPad. So that delicate hand was literally a hand! Or at least a pinky.

Anonymous said...

thankyou for reminding me of this poem. and also thanks for the "bit of digging in"!

TC said...


Swell to hear from you, glad you like this one.


It's infinitely reassuring to know that hands-on artistry still lives and breathes in techno-world.

We are very grateful.

Anonymous said...

love the poem and the drawings!

TC said...

I especially love those fine embossed (well, embroidered?) cuffs.

Now that is care.

Tom Raworth said...

Thanks, Norma and Tom.

My memory has me (and of course we often both err) reading this poem in a magazine called Between Worlds sometime in autumn 1960. The magazine had the addresses of contributors instead of tedious bios and that was the way I first wrote to Ed then in Santa Fe and we began to correspond in December 1960. If anyone has library access to a copy of BW's first issue I'd be interested to meld myself with my memory. Too expensive to buy

Tom Raworth said...

My apologies Nora...... a slip of the Desmond finger there. T

Nora said...

No apologies necessary, Torm.

And now I'm determined to find Between Worlds. It looks like the Stanford University Libraries' copies are the closest to me.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Nora’s finger slings a pretty mean figure—wonderful melding of colorful words and paintings.

TC said...

When I began corresponding with Ed I was in England and he was in Pocatello. A bit earlier than that I had met Tom, and had begun visiting him and his family in Barnet, North London. That meant, for me, a hitchhiking junket through such cosmopolitan centres as Welwyn Garden City.

Tom was then a night telephone operator on the international line. I recall he would be on the phone for extended periods of time in the middle of the night with Ed, off there across the large darkness in the godforsaken empty spaces of the West.

Later on I had the chance to take in a few ground surveys of the American plains with Ed, very instructive trips those were.

Leading to a few side researches of my own from that same period (late 1970s), trying to learn to "read" the history of those once pristine places from the landforms (by then under direct assault from widespread "energy" development) and from the surviving (and endangered) life-form indicators, the flora and fauna which contained the dreaming memory of time -- in particular the prairie Grasses.

Marcia said...

Just love this! "Vaquero" and the images.

TC said...

Many thanks, Marcia.

Yesterday someone wrote wondering why "Vaquero" had been left out of the Norton Anthology of "Postmodern" Poetry.

Thinking a bit about that significant exclusion made me appreciate the true singularity of the poem just that much the more -- a thing I would not have considered possible.