Of a promise of a poetry of a history

The Dialogue of Lewis and Clark, a narrative poem by Robert Edson Lee, Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder: 1979.


From the title, The Dialogues of Lewis and Clark, a narrative poem, Robert Edson Lee offers a promise. Adventure and discovery. Culture clash. Linguistic innovations from the mere force of the material circumstance of such an event. The avant garde of the westward move. Even mere psychology, the tensions manifest within the group of 51 men who left St. Louis in 1803 to search out the mythical water-route to the Pacific, even this restricted view could have been revealing, could have been by its intrinsic qualities the avant garde of a poetic style. The hope that the poem would match at some point the promise is what attracted me to this “dialogue.” So what if that hope is denied? Why bother to review a book of poetry that disappoints at so many turns, why when there are so many fine poems to praise? Because this book purports to be a poetry of the “things themselves,” a poetry of our historical chronicle, and yet it twists and pulls at those things until the distortion becomes mixed and confused only to serve the pride of one man, the declared poet, instead of being left to be of service to us all.

Is it too unkind to speak disparagingly of this poet's pride? The man died in 1977, so says the blurb on the book jacket. I don’t have personal knowledge about him or his pride. But why is this such an un-satisfying book? What else but an exalted pride could refuse to be humble before the facts, refuse what the book promises: “that in American history we have first-hand narratives that almost burst into poetry because of their subject matter”?

Look at what little we get, to see the extent of the force lost and the magnitude of the deception. Here is a part of Lee’s rendering of what was “important” on the “28th of September 1804 Friday”:

Clark: I am very unwell for want of sleep.

Lewis: Write that down, too, and drink.

Clark: I am verry unwell for want of Sleep

Deturmined to Sleep to night

Then Lee attempts to add dramatic interest by constructing a dualism —a facile psychology— that demands that Clark be viewed as a fretful coward who is worried into drink: “I could not write down the fear./ They held my boat./ They said that I should not go on....” and given solace by Lewis: “Here, drink. So much for death.” But reading the actual journal entries shows in fact that there is poetry to be gathered but not through the ploy of a false psychology, a false drama. Here is a part of Clark’s entry for the 26th:

I saw & eat Pemitigon (pemmican) the Dog,

Ground potatoe made into a Kind

of homney ...

I saw a Spoon Made of a horn of an Animal

of the Sheep Kind


the spoon held 2 quarts


Then of the 27th:

I rose early after a bad night Sleep,

then the 28th:

I am verry unwell for want of Sleep

Deturmined to Sleep to night if possible


the Men Cooked & we rested well.


What Lee leaves out of Clark’s “dialogue” is more important than what he includes. Ordway’s diary record that Clark acted firmly with the Teton Sioux and with a coolness and fairness that characterized his dealings with the Indians during the journey. Rather than demean Clark to support the poet’s desire for a dramatic interest beyond the facts —facts which he appears afraid to allow to speak for themselves—it is more likely to conjecture that Clark’s trouble sleeping was do to eating the dog meat rather than a fear that needed to be overcome by drink. (Also see entry of Clark’s journal for “Friday the 3rd, January 1806”: “As for my own part I have not become reconciled to the taste of this animal as yet.” Lewis on the other hand, Lewis who Lee wants to be fastidious and literate and something of a dandy (something of a Lee?) relates that he likes the taste of dog preferring it to venison.) But Lee is as ready to distort the importance of Clark’s drinking as he is to twist any of the facts to fit his imposed duality. Why is it that these academic poets and critics think they have explained the phenomena by violating the material, restricting it to a dualism of their own making? Look at this description of his meeting with Lee from the forward by a young critic, Philip F. Gura:

Holding court in one of the suites of the elegant St. Francis Hotel, he had been the picture of urbanity....My visit to his home in Boulder would, I thought, reinforce my image of the civilized presence I had encountered in San Francisco. …I was in for an interesting surprise; when Lee met me at his door his appearance was transformed. Jeans and an open-necked Western shirt had replaced his tailored suit. Turquoise beads hung around his neck. And most amazing or all to a provincial New Englander, he was wearing tooled and sharply pointed cowboy boots!

Now it is easy to laugh at someone being surprised (even interestingly surprised) at cowboy boots, but it is his critical narrowness that interests me, a narrowness that is demonstrated again as he reflects on his “profundities”: “How could a pair of chaps hang in the same house with a Giacometti sketch or Frank Lloyd Wright wall paper?  Once again I found the explanation in Lewis and Clark.”

I take the space to show up this man’s shallow observations only because they are adequate to aptly reflect the shallow concerns of the poem: “It suddenly became clear: to Lee, Lewis and Clark were two parts making one whole.” He poses Lewis as the man of thought, forgetting, if he ever knew it, that Captain Lewis had been of service in putting down the populist Whiskey Rebellion; and Clark, the “rough and ready” man of action, is not given credit for the straight forward, unembellished reporting that makes his journals often more appealing than those of Lewis. Anyone who has read the journals should be struck by the differences between the two men, but to leap from those differences to the assertion that “They were two parts of an American mind divided between treasured dream and harsh reality” is to succumb to the very worst of academic abstraction and reductionism.

But this critic Gura and the poet Lee are dangerous, dangerous because their very lack of depth, lack of respect for the materials, lack of humility, and lack of intellect, deflect the push of so much good work being done recently, work that is using as its focus the materials themselves. If we are confused and if we are convince by such mediocrity as Lee and Gura exhibit then we have not learned any lessons from the political mediocrities of a Nixon and a Ford and a Carter. Imagine a series of poems —a long narrative poem, even a dialogue about Vietnam. Try to imagine that this dialogue is purporting to remain true to “the spirit of the place.” And in this poem there is not one reference to the facts: that the United Stated dropped 14.5 million tons of bombs, sterilized with napalm and defoliants 8 million acres of land, killed 1.5 million farm animals, turned a major world city into a moral sewer —360,000 people mutilated, 1/2 million prostitutes, 1/2 million drug addicts, 10 percent of old Saigon suffering venereal disease. Would a simple dualistic psychology suffice? And yet the opening of the West —the intrusion into Louisiana Territory in 1803 by the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery was a momentous for the future of the world and as destructive (despite the good and honorable intentions of both men) of the native population as was US aggression in Vietnam. We are hoping that the poem can be “equal to the real itself” and we are given mere artifice.

Lee confines his narrative to the two principal actors, Lewis and Clark. And yet even these two are not enlivened, but become shadows to the two sides of an abstraction of the poet. The 49 other men are given no credit. We do learn the titillating tidbit of gossip that York, Clark’s black servant, had his penis frostbitten but there is no poetry in this but mere macho satisfaction for the poet projecting a “tough” attitude, the poem as publicity for the Marboro Man. Dwewyer is mentioned and others are mentioned but usually only when they are punished for various infractions. But Patrick Gass and John Ordway, they and their journals, are neglected. George Drouillard’s indispensable skills are slighted. William Braton’s smithing and hunting knowledge are not mentioned. All the strengths and all the complexities of a group of men in bond are reduced to a facile dualism attached to the “great man” theory of historical change.

We do have a poetry of “things.” We have a poetry of our native materials. But Lee is not capable of seeing this. He has altered Lewis’ and Clark’s own words and thus destroyed the poetry that is there:

Today I killed an elk.

York killed a buck.

The crew in the boat killed

Two buffalo in the river.

The hunters on shore also killed

Four deer with black tails.

Is this awkward, hesitant verse (verse because each line begins with a capital!) any better than the expurgating, censoring mind that denies the words as they are? Instead, for instance, of this attempt by Lee to make Clark’s observations lewd “The women’s breasts are large/ And hang down very low”—we could have had Lewis’ acute mix of curiosity and descriptive powers together with his real speech that reminds us often of Whitman. Here is an extract from Lewis’ journal without changing and “improving” the words as given:

Wednesday March 19th 1806

 the vest is always formed in the manner first discribed

of their robes and covers the body from the armpits

to the waist, and is confined behind,

and destitute of straps over the shoulder

to keep it up


when this vest is woarn

the breast of the women

is concealed. but without it 

which is almost always the case, they are



and from the habit of remaining loose

and unsuspended

grow to great length


particularly in aged women

in many of whom I have seen the bubby reach

as low as the waist....


the whole being of sufficient thickness

when she stoops

or places herself in many other attitudes,

this battery of Venus

is not altogether impervious

to the inquisitive and penetrating eye

of the amorite


As disappointing as Lee’s attempt at trying to versify, a greater disappointment is his inability to see that it is not for the poet to tinker with the materials and thereby improve them somehow into poetry, as if poetry thus handled and man-handled had some automatic claim to higher value than the material itself coming directly out of the lives of these working men. Lee’s method is not better than that seen in popular historical novels exhibited in drugstore bookracks. The materials themselves will speak, they can even speak of an epic dimension. We have examples of this, how hard it is, and how rewarded we can be when it happens: Boer’s Varmit Q, Taylor’s Girty, Metcalf’s Apalache. Lee’s Dialogues belong to another class —a deviant class disguised as purveyor of haute culture—that alters our history through neglect of essentials and through distortion that attempts to pass as “judicious editing and emendation.” A poetry of history is possible but this academic weakness is not a model to guide by except as a way to avoid, and for that it is instructive. But it is not history, and it is not poetry.