– January 7, 2014
The biographical facts are simple and easily told. Alfred Dorn was the only child of an Austrian father and an Alsatian-German mother, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the teens of the last century.
Dorn was raised and educated in New York, a city where he spent all of his life. His primary residence was in Flushing, a section of Queens County with deep roots in the Dutch colonial past. Like myself, Dorn remembered when all of Queens was still considered part of the geographical whole called “Long Island,” and local mail was still addressed in that way. Queens remained partially rural in those days, with stretches of uncleared forest, and even some small farms. Going “into the city” meant only one thing: a trip to Manhattan.
And go to Manhattan he did—Dorn attended The Dwight School on Park Avenue, and then did his undergraduate work at New York University. He remained at the latter college to complete his Ph.D. studies in Renaissance English literature before embarking on the career of a teacher, scholar, and poet. As a graduate student in the late 1940s and early 50s, Dorn was immersed in the then vital artistic and literary life of Greenwich Village and the Washington Square environs of N.Y.U. He studied and wrote, and served as an editor and consultant for several small publications. Most prominent among them was The New Orlando Poetry Series, which he helped to organize and edit, and which always included some of his own work. Dorn also labored strenuously to publish (and publicize) Joseph Tusiani’s powerful multi-volume anthology of Italian poetry in translation. Dorn’s first two books, Flamenco Dancer and Wine in Stone, appeared in 1959. Today they are collector’s items.
Dorn demonstrated even then, as a young man, the innate generosity and helpfulness that marked him as a nurturer of poetic talent. He never refused to read someone’s manuscript, or to offer genuine suggestions and commentary. He was naturally congenial and gregarious, almost to the point of whimsicality. Like one of the ebullient and rosy-cheeked characters from Dickens’ Pickwick Club, Dorn was of another time—comical, facetious, profoundly verbal, a natural wit and conversationalist, and amiable right down to his marrow. Sometimes, with his flamboyance, high dramatic style, and punctiliousness in dress, he put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz as portrayed by Frank Morgan in the movie, though Dorn had no falsity or humbug about him. He was well read and erudite, and had a connoisseur’s taste in painting, classical music, and the fine arts in general.
He could talk on most any subject with an ease that was both assuring and welcoming to his interlocutors—I recall one evening in the early 1990s when the after-dinner conversation at his magnificently appointed home in Flushing touched on the paintings of Archimboldo, the making of the atomic bomb, the music of Bizet’s Carmen, Doctor Johnson’s trip to the Hebrides, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, the proper use of the ablative case, and—I kid you not—whether it was possible to top-load a round into the chamber of a U.S. Army .45. There was certainly even more than the above listing contains, but that’s all I can recall after so many years.
One never felt more kindly treated and intellectually stimulated than in his home, where a long dinner and even longer round of coffee and drinks seemed to go by all too quickly. The unfailing courtesy, the high level of discussion, the sheer breadth of Dorn’s interests and enthusiasms—all of this made one think “This is what Plato’s symposia must have been like; or the conversations at Castiglione’s Urbino.” You wanted it to go on and on.
And Dorn brought these qualities to his work as a teacher. The little seminars and workshops that he held in the 1980s and 90s served to resuscitate formal poetry at a time when one would have been hard pressed to find anyone in academia who would have deigned to devote attention to it. For what was a purely nominal fee, Dorn labored to bring the techniques and examples of formal poetry to the attention of private students, and more than a few practitioners of the New Formalism owe their skill to his efforts, and to the no-fee contests that he personally sponsored and financed. But like many who give selflessly and generously of themselves, Dorn’s only reward was the satisfaction of seeing others produce good work. Never bitter or resentful, he continued as an advisor and mentor, even when ignored or slighted by those who went on to become more well known and honored than himself. His treatment at the hands of the West Chester mafia was nothing short of shameful.
Apart from a long and distinguished teaching career, Dorn served for a time as Vice President of The Poetry Society of America, and for several decades as the Director of The World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets. There was an irrepressible energy about the man—I recall his seventieth birthday celebration in 1999, held at a Long Island restaurant, where he was the undisputed life of the party. He dominated whatever table he sat at, and seemed as vibrant as a new bridegroom.
His publication record is of a fugitive kind; apart from the two 1959 volumes, there were three others published by Arthur Mortensen at Somers Rocks Press and Pivot Press: Voices from Rooms, From Cells to Mindspace, and Claire and Christmas Village. A small limited edition of his e-book, Visions and Vistas, was published by The New Formalist Press in 2005. Other than this, Dorn’s work appeared haphazardly in small magazines, many of them of limited circulation and now gone with the wind. I spent years scouring the internet book search services to dredge up copies of these forgotten magazines in order to save many Dorn poems from oblivion.
The death of his beloved wife Anita in 2005 devastated Dorn, and a long decline and withdrawal from the world began in that year. Despite the efforts of old friends and teaching colleagues, he grew less and less inclined to go out, or even to get dressed and leave his bedroom. Slowly he became what was unthinkable for those of us who knew him in the past—silent and unresponsive. When death came finally, he was but a shell of the talented and energetic poet who had almost single-handedly served as a standard bearer for traditional verse, when po-biz hucksters and on-the-make careerists despised it as passé.
But rather than remember him that way, I prefer to picture Alfred Dorn as he was in 1985, when we first met. I see him in his meticulously tailored suit, carefully dapper with a carnation in his lapel, or perhaps even a cameo, with that magnificent moustache and wavy hair, leaning on one of his elegant walking sticks—all six feet two of him, as svelte and chic as a Parisian boulevardier in the Jardin des Tuileries, or as a dandy in Oscar Wilde’s London. He’ll be quoting a passage from his beloved Milton or Donne; or talking animatedly about Inigo Jones and masques; or laying down the law about French vintages. We will not see his like again, not in this deracinated and culturally degraded world.
I cannot thank him enough, or repay the debt I owe him. Next to my grandfather, he was my principal lodestar in the art of poetry. All I can do here is quote from the wonderful James Russell Lowell poem “Aladdin,” the piece that in 1939, when Dorn was a mere ten years old, set him on the path of versecraft:
When I was a beggarly boy
And lived in a cellar damp,
I had not a friend nor a toy,
But I had Aladdin’s lamp;
When I could not sleep for the cold,
I had fire enough in my brain,
And builded, with roofs of gold,
My beautiful castles in Spain!
Alfred, dear friend, you built castle after castle for us—all of them golden, all of them beautiful. Sleep well, and may the earth rest lightly upon you.