'We might say poetry'

Kenneth Irby, January 1985 (photo by David Levi Strauss).


Ken Irby’s poem beginning with the phrase “We might say poetry” is the first of the “Berkeley” sequence that makes up close to half of his book Catalpa, published in Lawrence, Kansas by John Moritz’s Tansy Press in 1977. It is not an entirely typical Irby poem — happily, there is no such thing. But it bears at least three of the features that we would not be wrong to associate with Ken’s work generally. First, it is a landscape poem — or, to put it in more current terms, it is a site-specific work; it bestows specificity on a particular locale, and in so doing it projects forth from its site a multilayered and emotionally complex geocultural vision. Second, it is notable for its intimacy of address; one feels one is sharing not only a moment but the affective memories, sensations, and feelings that characterize that moment. And third, it radiates love.

In advance of the publication in 2009 of The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, I composed a blurb for the back cover of the book. I spoke of the poetry’s “scope,” “gravitas,” and “emotional nobility.” I said that “It is not the fleetingness of life but the longevity of life’s effects that Irby’s poems make note of. The works unfold through the continuous remembering of persons and places loved and known — and known as loved.”

I still think this assessment holds true of his work generally, and of the poem beginning “We might say poetry” specifically. And the aptness of the assessment — that Irby’s poetry “unfolds through the continuous remembering of persons and places loved and known — and known as loved” — is not belied by the way that “We might say poetry” complicates its site, the contours of remembering, and the unrepresentable but determinative topology of friendship. The poem also undertakes something akin to time travel (but what poem doesn’t, really?) and, perhaps more to the point — or merely as an item of secondary, contingent interest — anthropological travel (or spiritual ethnography).[1]

You all have a copy of the poem, I think. Here it is:

      We might say poetry

as accumulation of specific

but instead we talked about the mind

’s a sixth sense, the Tibetans’

sense of it

                      West in the mist

Tamalpais’ top floated

the earth that was not connected

was ours clear up to the hillside

where Alexandra David-Neel spoke in Lowell

the scatterings of trees

on hills like our own hill


                            “the dovetailing

or interlacing of ridges

                                              no line on a map

can represent”

but the greenery of grass

is fence

 cutting even the heart away

 with the brightness of the day

SW towards Orinda[2]

As I said, this poem is the first of the sequence titled “Berkeley” in Ken’s book Catalpa. And the first nine lines of the twenty-two-line poem seem to situate the speaker and his comrades — the we who “talked about the mind / ’s a sixth sense” instead of about “poetry / as accumulation of specific” — in Berkeley. The hillside and the scattering of trees are familiar features of coastal northern California, and the mist and Mount Tamalpais specifically belong to the environs of Berkeley.

I’ve tried to figure out what time of day it is in the poem — or what time of day it was, since the first long stretch of the poem is cast in the narrative past tense (“we talked,” “Tamalpais’ top floated”), and when it shifts to the so-called present tense (“the greenery of grass / is fence”) what we get isn’t temporality but a state of things, a truth condition, discovered, or perhaps merely glimpsed, where conditions otherwise are fleeting.

And of course they are fleeting — this is a pastoral poem, of sorts, and conditions of the pastoral landscape (the so-called “natural world” as a site for social being) are always fleeting, ephemeral — conditions of light, color, aroma, tactility, and talk. These are temporary; they are also temporal. They comprise what Larry Eigner, in his poem “B,” calls “the constant ephemerals,” the elements of time itself. History. The ghosts of events. And the marks of history’s hand on the landscape. This, as I will explain in a minute, is a site of something of lasting negativity in the poem.

The poem inhabits some time-of-day.

The poet and his (or her — I don’t want to make unwarranted assumptions — but still — this isn’t a so-called “persona poem” — we can ascribe it to some version of a character named Kenneth Irby) — the poet and his companion or companions are looking West toward Mount Tamalpais, surrounded by mist. This is mist, rather than the autumnal hot-weather haze of Indian summer in Berkeley, but that doesn’t necessarily place the poet and friend or friends in a winter landscape. As Ken puts it in another poem in Catalpa, “Indian Summer in Berkeley means / the fogs come back in October.” The poet and his friends, then, could be part of an actual summer or a faux summer scene — the San Francisco Bay Area being famous (or infamous) for its summer fog — particularly noticeable (and delightful) in the mornings, until the fog begins to burn off around midday.

And, since near the very end of the poem there is mention of the “brightness of the day,” I’m guessing that the poem is “happening” at midday. And that the poet himself is in Berkeley. Mount Tamalpais does sit west of Berkeley; it is a notable, and peculiarly sacred, San Francisco Bay Area natural landmark, rising without particular drama but magisterially out of Marin County. The other notable, but for many negligible or even unknown, Bay Area “mountain” is Mount Diablo. Mount Tamalpais is patrician; Mount Diablo is working class. This is worth mentioning, since, though my social classification of Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo is not relevant to Irby’s poem, it is the case that, if one looks from Berkeley to Orinda, and if the weather is right and one’s elevation is sufficient, one will see Mount Diablo. Orinda lies midway on a direct line of sight from Berkeley to Mount Diablo. Due east.

 but the greenery of grass

 is fence

 cutting even the heart away

 with the brightness of the day

 SW towards Orinda


I really don’t know what to make of the reorientation that we find has taken place somewhere in the course of the poem such that our attention is directed “SW towards Orinda.” Orinda, as I said, lies almost directly due east of Berkeley.

But between the eighth and ninth lines of the poem a far more dramatic resituating has taken place. Or perhaps it’s between the seventh and eighth lines. Wherever it happens, it is the work of that sixth sense, the mind, in “the Tibetans’ / sense of it.”

There is important semantic, as well as geographical and temporal, slippage at this point in the poem. It may be “the mind [… in] the Tibetans’ sense of it” that sits “West in the mist.” Or it may be that “West in the mist / Tamalpais’ top floated.” Or it may be that “Tamalpais’ top floated / the earth.” All three are grammatically, though independently, correct; all three are said in the poem; all three are possibilities that the mind can accept the sense of. For the moment, it is the extension of the third that I want to follow: “Tamalpais’ top floated / the earth” and not only that: it is “the earth that was not connected.” It is, then, not Irby and his companion or companions — we — that have moved from Berkeley but the earth that has moved, while being still “ours clear up to the hillside / where Alexandra David-Neel spoke in Lowell.”

Alexandra David-Neel, the author of My Journey to Lhasa and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (to name the two of her books best known in America), was never in Lowell. Born in Paris in 1868, she died 101 years later; in the interim she lived in many places and visited even more, but she was never in the US or Canada. But if one types her name into the Google search engine, one finds in entry after entry with unnerving regularity (such that one is reminded that there is no originality to be found via Google) this sentence: “Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.”

It might be, then, through her books that she “spoke in Lowell” — which, as we all know, was Kerouac’s hometown.

Or it might be that the “Lowell” being named is not the working-class Massachusetts town but Ken Irby’s friend Lowell, who is present in many of the Berkeley poems: “I said to Lowell,” “Lowell went first down the path the last stretch,” “Lowell left a note,” etc. (260, 261, 308).

In Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel passes along a remark offered to her by a gomchen (Buddhist hermit): “A living being is an assemblage, not a unity.”[3]

And The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (a central and ancient text of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, which gained some popularity and influence in the English-speaking world — probably including Lowell — with its publication in an Oxford University Press paperback in 1954), posits that “Realization of the One Mind” comes about “through introspectively attaining understanding of the true nature of its macrocosmic aspect innate in man.”[4]

And — though I very much do not want to suggest that Ken Irby wrote this poem under the influence of Buddhist philosophy — “We might say poetry” does indeed have a macrocosmic aspect, and it does, in its quiet way, demonstrate a way in which “the one Mind,” might be a sensing faculty, capable of realization — capable, that is, of making manifest and real — temporal and spatial truths of the world that no hand on a clock face and “no line on a map can represent.”

This is, however, a realization that comes about not introspectively but socially.

And the affective aftermath of that realization is not bound to the poet’s ego; the truth of the emotions belongs not to the poet but to the situated occasion, to the landscape of extensive event. It is here that we can discern the ethical dimension of Irby’s art.

Ken Irby is in some ways an austere poet.

That statement may simply be an oblique way of describing the dignity of the man in and of the poems. He holds his feelings dear but at a distance — but it is the distance neither of irony nor of alienation.

Indeed, in a powerful and positive sense, Irby is a poet of non-alienation. His work homes in on its locales and on the sharing of them that makes them memorable, known in common. And his austerity — the distance of his feelings — gives us the measure of the capacious outreach of which proper sociality is capable.


In continuing to think about the temporal conditions of the poem, I have come to realize that the time of day in the poem is both a point of entry and a point of departure. The open landscape, the conversing companions, the midday light — not to mention the inclusive opening pronoun (“We”) — all invite us into the occasion. But they do so not through Whitmanesque prolixity and exuberance; the occasion blossoms in the light of its condensation. The poem is only twenty-two lines long, and the conversation and concomitant regarding of the landscape last only as long as “the brightness of the day” allows. The time within the poem is the duration of a glow.

And this is what produces a point of departure into the occasion’s afterglow, which is the time of the poem.

The poem’s temporal expansion is already articulated spatially, in the strong (and even, given that we may get all the way to Lowell in it, magically excessive) horizontality of the poem’s spatial landscape. Unimpeded (the hills are embedded and integral, not tossed up and demanding), the mind sweeps west to Mount Tamalpais (which has, finally, a more maternal than magisterial aspect in the distance as seen from Berkeley) and then floats back and drifts calmly, slowly, even languidly (albeit at the speed of thought) eastward across the continent to Massachusetts.

Conditions are, the poem says, “unpredictable.”

And yet, as I see it, the ultimate time of the poem is its future — or futurity as such, since the future I am referring to — the future of the poem — is now (though it will also be tomorrow).

I don’t mean by this that the poem has become, or will become, or should become, canonical. It may, but that is not my concern here. What I mean is that the time in the poem — those particular brightly present sunlit hours in Berkeley, lived and experienced and condensed through what Kierkegaard would call “formative activity” into a poem beginning “We might say poetry” — becomes the time of the poem: the expansion of the past present occasion into its future — which remains the occasion and event, still lived, in which a poet and a comrade or comrades sitting or walking in the Berkeley hills talk about poetry and the mind.[5]

The book in which the poem was originally published begins with a short text titled “In Place of a Preface.” It consists of slightly more than two pages of what one might call raw material — material akin to that which makes up what we now have of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project — etymological information related to the words “land,” “scape,” “landscape,” “plant,” and “place,” and a set of thirteen quotations from an assortment of pertinent texts, including this from Charles Olson: “By landscape I mean what ‘narrative’; scene; event; climax; crisis; hero; development; posture; all that meant — all the substantive of what we call literary” (250). Word and place are not strictly separable in the world of Ken Irby; both are occupied by occasion, friendship, affinity, and also crisis and the muted heroism that humans require of each other.

I don’t have time today to quote, nor even to situate the importance of, all thirteen of the citations offered “in place of a preface.” But in addition to the bit from Charles Olson that I just quoted, two others seem deftly pertinent to “We might say poetry.”

The first is from Edgar Anderson’s essay “The Considered Landscape”: “When we consider a landscape, what are we considering? Is it just what we see or is it something more — if so, what is that something more? What we see is a view, most certainly. When we talk about landscape, when we try to have a meeting of minds as to its various problems, there is more than the view itself. We are contemplating what is before us. The eye is seeing and the mind is perceiving. What we think, what we ask, what we investigate will depend upon how rich is the experience brought to bear on that contemplation. It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it” (250).

The second is from an essay by a University of Kansas historian, James C. Malin, who died in 1979, two years after Catalpa was published. The four quoted lines in the poem — forming a staggered quatrain — are from Malin’s book titled The Grassland of America: Prolegomena to its History: “the dovetailing / or interlacing of ridges / no line on a map / can represent.”[6] What Ken quotes in his “In Place of a Preface Text” is from another work by Malin, an essay titled “On the Nature of Local History”: “Every historical event must happen not anywhere, but in some particular place, at some point in space, in some locality or minimal unit of space in which its unique causal factors operate” (251).


The poem hints at the unrepresentability of poetry. Its opening gambit — its foray into offering an at least tentative description or definition of poetry, or of the saying of poetry — is truncated (and only obliquely returned to near the end of the poem, where our attention is directed to “the greenery of grass,” which is no sooner named than it becomes itself an instrument of truncation: it “is fence”).

“We might say poetry / as accumulation of specific,” but we don’t — at least not directly. The poet and his comrades talk instead “about the mind,” as a force that can be independent of the five perceiving senses, “a sixth sense.” Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the poem turns into mind, not as an engine of reason but as a seat of affective intensity and corporeal liberty.

Some kind of epistemology is at stake here, but the knowledge it bears is not principally rational. The knowledge belongs, rather, to the world of emotion. And it exists as the halo of event and occasion. Irby’s poem — and his poetry more generally — is emotional even as it emanates austerity; it is certainly not sentimental.

As Charles Altieri, in his Particulars of Rapture argues, emotions come attached to stories; they have a past and a future. They are, in this, different from sensation, mood, or feeling. “Emotions are affects involving the construction of attitudes that typically establish a particular cause and so situate the agent within a narrative and generate some kind of action or identification.”[7]

In the poem, I would argue, affect (or “we might say poetry”) — that which offers us, non-predatorily, a landscape that can be “ours clear up to the hillside” — is an emanation not of aesthetic feeling but of social emotion. This poem was born not in solitude but in company, and the poetics it realizes are a social poetics — a realization of lyric sociality, which far outdistances the lyric subjectivity that tends so tediously to inform conventional nature writing.

It is the camaraderie and the occasion that make the place Irby and his friend or friends venture into a landscape. Beyond that, they don’t touch a thing, though their conversation touches on many things.

And this brings me to the “the greenery of grass” that intrudes suddenly upon the musings the poem remembers. Those shared musings of the conversing friends can be said to be, like “the scatterings of trees / on hills like our own hill,” “unpredictable,” “dovetailing / or interlacing” in ways that “no line on a map [nor line of poetry] / can represent.” But the “greenery of grass” is a line. With the burning off of the morning mist, what becomes visible is not entirely landscape proper but also the landscaped. It is greenery rather than greenness of grass that is seen — lawn, hedging. It is as if, for an instant, the poet relives the historical change brought about by the imposition of land enclosure, when vast areas of forest and meadow that had for “time immemorial” been the shared landscape of everyday life were privatized, bringing about the end of the commons.[8]

In the poem, the shock is muted — the privatization of land has become second nature. But nonetheless, the shock is registered, “cutting even the heart away.” This is one of the two central epistemological moments of the poem — and, though it comes at the end of the poem, it is, in fact, the first. It registers realization of loss and of the historical forces that caused it — call them early capitalism or human greed — and that have shrunk the horizons of possibility for the very kinds of comradeship that the poem takes as its original and creative terrain. In response, and retroactively, so to speak, the poem makes its assertion of camaraderie — insistence on the abiding truth of social subjectivity — and this establishes the second epistemological moment of the poem, as well as its ethical power.

This poem of Ken Irby’s has undeniable outward momentum. It is an account of thinking and talking into the distance, an ungrandiose — one might even say anti-grandiose — account of thought’s spatial and temporal sweep. But, after its last line, “We might say poetry” reaches back to what was in front of it, concerned certainly, rather than complacent, wanting to make sure that the humanity will last, and can find an answer to difficulties its own history throws at us.

For Ken Irby, in honor of  his seventy-fifth birthday, in celebration of his seventy-five years


Lawrence, Kansas, November 5, 2011



1. Thanks to Eric Falci for providing me with the term “spiritual ethnography.”

2. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 257. [Because “We might say poetry” appears on a single page, in-text citations have been left out of the main text. For all other references to The Intent On, page numbers are provided in parentheses. — Eds.]

3. Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: Claude Kendall, 1932), 59.

4. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, ed. and trans. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 12.

5. I would wager that they are sitting on a hillside above what is now the Clark Kerr residential campus of UC Berkeley but was then the School for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind.

6. “The Grasslands of North American” is also the title of the first poem in Catalpa; dedicated to the poet Bob Grenier, the second part of this two-part poem says “There must be in the juice / and flesh a same plain / as these, the same moving / wave as this grass // the body comes back to / only having heard as they say / only heard, by hearsay / and believed it” (253).

7. Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), 2.

8. My reading of the last lines of the poem is much indebted to conversation about their difficulty with Mica Lee Williams, Alex Taitague, and Jason Meierhenry, all at UC Berkeley.

Kenneth Lee Irby: a chronology

Kenneth Irby, self-portrait at sixteen.
October 18, 1936 Hears Duke Ellington’s band “from the womb” when parents Addison Craft and Dora Elizabeth Irby attend one of Ellington’s concerts at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.[1]
November 18, 1936

Born in Bowie, Texas, the second son of Addison Craft (physician) and Dora Elizabeth (nurse) Irby.

March 1940 Irby family moves to Fort Scott, Kansas.
1954–58 Attends University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, where he receives BA in history; invited to join Phi Beta Kappa Society; meets Edward Grier, professor of English and later acquaintance of Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, and other poets in the New American Poetry milieu.
Summers 1955–57 Visits Mexico City, where he stays with older brother James, who is working toward a master’s degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
1958–60 Attends graduate program in Far Eastern studies at Harvard University, where he begins to learn Chinese and Japanese, and receives MA.
March 1959 Meets Charles Olson in Grolier Bookstore, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
August 1960–August 1962 Drafted in the army; serves at Nevada Test Site, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Johnston Island.
December 1960 Meets Ed Dorn in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
July 9, 1962 Witnesses the detonation of a W49 thermonuclear warhead 250 miles overhead, from the deck of an aircraft carrier, as part of the Starfish Prime high altitude nuclear test, nineteen miles southwest of Johnston Island.[2]
1962–63 Briefly resumes graduate studies at Harvard before finally withdrawing from PhD program.
September 1962 Visits Charles Olson in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with Bob Grenier.
August 1963
Moves to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Summer/Fall 1963
Begins regularly writing book reviews for Kulchur.
Works as staff member, Sandia Corporation, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Roadrunner Poem is published by Duende Press, Placitas, New Mexico.
September 1964 Moves to San Francisco, California.
January 1965
Moves to Berkeley, California.
Summer 1965
Works as store manager, Duncan MacAndrew, merchant tailors. Kansas–New Mexico is published by Dialogue Press, Lawrence, Kansas. Movements/Sequences is published by Duende Press, Placitas, New Mexico.
Attends University of California, Berkeley, where he receives MLS.
The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream: Poems 1967 is published by Matter Books, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Works as duplicating machine operator, Institute of Traffic and Transportation Engineering, University of California, Berkeley.
Relation: Poems, 1965–66 is published by Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, California.
Works as lecturer (one year), then assistant professor (one year), Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.
1971 To Max Douglas is published by Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
September 1, 1972 Meets eccentric prairie historian James C. Malin in Lawrence, Kansas, introduced by mutual friend, Michael Brodhead.
January 20, 1973 Meets pioneering cultural geographer Carl O. Sauer at the Alta Bates Hospital, Berkeley, California, introduced by mutual friend Bob Callahan.
Summer 1973 Vort 3 appears, dedicated to the work of Irby and David Bromige, with contributions from Don Byrd and Robert Creeley, among others.
1973–74 Works as visiting professor, Copenhagen University.
1974 To Max Douglas, second enlarged edition (including “Jesus” and “Delius”), with an introduction by Edward Dorn, is published by Tansy-Peg Leg Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
1974–75 Receives Fulbright travel grant. Returns to Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, as assistant professor.
1976–77 Returns to Berkeley, California. Archipelago is published by Tuumba Press, Willits, California. In Excelsis Borealis is published by White Creek Press, Cambridge, New York. For the Snow Queen is published by Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas (issued as Tansy 1).
January 1977 Returns to Fort Scott, Kansas, to assist his mother in the sale of the Eddy St. house.
June 1977 Moves to Lawrence, Kansas, with his mother. Catalpa: Poems, 1968–1973 is published by Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
1978 From Some Etudes is published by Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas (issued as Tansy 9).
February 1979 Credences 7 appears, “In Celebration of Kenneth Irby,” containing essays and prose reflections by David Bromige, Robert Kelly, Paul Metcalf, and George Quasha, among many others.
1981 Orexis is published by Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York. Riding the Dog is published by Zelot Press, Greensburg, Pennsylvania (issued as The Zelot, no. 4).
1983 A Set is published by Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
1985 Works as lecturer in English, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
March 1986 Delivers three lectures on Walt Whitman, Poetics Program, New College, San Francisco, California.
Spring 1992 Notus 10 appears, half of the issue dedicated to an overview of Irby’s writing, including both new and previously published poems, as well as two new essays over his work by Stephen Ellis and Edward Schelb, respectively. Calls Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories is collaboratively published by Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York, and Tansy Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
1994 Antiphonal and Fall to Fall is published by Kavyayantra Press, Boulder, Colorado.
1997 Appointed associate professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
2001 Studies: Cuts, Shots, Takes — a notebook sequence, August–December 1999 is published by First Intensity Press, Lawrence, Kansas (issued as First Intensity Chapbooks no. 2). Ridge to Ridge: Poems 1990–2000 is published by Other Wind Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
2003 In Denmark: Poems 1973–74 is published in No: A journal of the Arts no. 2, New York, NY.
2009 The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 is published by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
2010 Irby receives the Memorial Shelley Award (corecipient, with Eileen Myles) from the Poetry Society of America.
2012 Promoted to full professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.



1. In the final lines of the poem beginning with the line “the Crystal Ballroom, Fargo, North Dakota,” Irby writes: “snow snow snow over Kansas / my unknown, my just before I was born country / my parents saw Ellington in Dallas in 1936 at the centennial / I heard him from the womb.” Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 331. For information on Ellington’s participation in the centennial festivities, see: Dreck Spurlock Wilson, African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865–1945 (New York and London: Taylor and Francis, 2004), 345, as well as A. H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington and His World (New York and Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2003), 202, 345. One can also view three short films of the exposition (not Ellington’s performance, unfortunately) on the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.

2. On the National Public Radio website, one can watch excerpts from the “Starfish Prime Test Interim Report by Commander JTF-8,” which include footage of the 1.4 megaton detonation, shot in Honolulu, almost 900 miles from the warhead’s launching point.

'Arise and unbuild it again'

Homing in on Irbyland

Kenneth Irby in Cambridge, 1962.

Knowledge, Duncan McNaughton reminds us, is all of what one’s love becomes capable of.

 Kenneth Irby, from the introduction to Patrick Doud’s The Man in Green


Over the past half-century, Kenneth Irby’s writing has serially explored the contours and sundry habitations of what he calls the “spiritual landscape” (94) of the North American continent, seeking out and attending its “Lords of the Soil” (319) and “sustainers of the spirit” (91), its “Rock Chalk dogs” (306), “dark gods” (214), “dwellers of the dream” (306), and “mute attendant spirits [who] in-dwell” (331) the objects of his everyday life.[1] Neither sentimental nor didactic, Irby’s poems are not content with a posturing of fictive subjectivities, or with a solipsistic confessionalism that posits distress as the measure of lyrical authenticity. Instead, his poems invest the quotidian with a luminescent majesty, taking “strength in very quiet great distances” (523), and making palpable “the temporary and altogether transitional affluence of life itself” (561) — a sense of “that endlessness of everyday / that is precisely eternity” (176). Because for Irby — and this point is perhaps most crucial in appreciating his work — the “spiritual landscape” is emphatically of this world, not an “illusory world” (95; 162); it is found, he explains, in “the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now” (934). Driven from the start by “the conviction that the landscape demands us, and reveals us” (94), Irby’s work has remained faithful to an investigation of this founding principle, a patent but enigmatic relation between bodies and landforms, wherefrom he sets off in “The Grasslands of North America,” one of his earliest published poems: “There must be in the juice / and flesh a same plain / as these, the same moving / wave as this grass // the body comes back to” (253–54). We find this demand renewed in his most recently published work: “though you think you’re there with people you know and love, and are” he writes in the prose poem “Visitations — Homage to Emerson,”

or how do you know they’re there and how do you know they

aren’t, never easily amazed, and by yourself, who is in there with

you, who do you keep true company with inside, not images but

known, or who is known except outside, and those you do not

know […] circumfused in air, into the dark time to come, […]

ricocheting trunk to trunk, leaf left to leaf to let go, you go find,

you go find, you go find[2]


In their desiderata and “reach” — a word that appears more than seventy times in Irby’s catalog — his poems do not attempt to transcend, but more intimately to come to know the particulars of the localities we inhabit, “here and now,” as both interface and index of the human interior.

While the voice of Irby’s poems is musically distinct — who among his contemporaries, for instance, would write something like, “who gazes at the bottled horsehair in the sun / to be eel” (634)? — and their register percipient, discursive, and meticulous, the method whereby Irby’s poetic practice attains its knowledge happens also to be the overarching desire of his body of work: to love (a word that appears 214 times in his collected poems). “Love’s reality is to love,” Irby writes in an early preface to Movements/Sequences, “not to understand or change, only to love” (29). This yearning for a “[l]ove that invades everything — till it is / part of the body, not its object” (64) is Irby’s signature orexis (a word he chose as the title for a 1981 book) and it has been highlighted by a number of his most attentive readers. In her illuminating and compassionate essay “‘We might say poetry …,’” included in this feature, Lyn Hejinian cites “radiat[ing] love” as one of “at least three” central features of Irby’s writing — for, “in a powerful and positive sense,” Hejinian writes, “Irby is a poet of non-alienation.” Along similar lines, in an essay for the 1979 special issue of Credences, “In Celebration of Kenneth Irby,” George Quasha likens Irby’s “hunger … for the further present” to a Deleuzian sense of “Desire” which “is not born of need or a lack, but is productive of its own object, makes more world.” Irby’s is “an art of the potential actual,” Quasha writes, “an art within the virtualities of the possibly so.”[3] At the other end of that decade, in a statement on Irby’s poetics for a special 1973 Kenneth Irby/David Bromige double feature of Vort, Robert Creeley announces that, “we will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it.”[4]

Thus, in the time since Irby’s first mimeographed book, The Roadrunner Poem, was published by Larry Goodell’s Placitas-based Duende Press in 1964, when Irby’s poems were beginning to appear in magazines such as Matter and Wild Dog, alongside his many book reviews — the majority of which appeared in Kulchur, and which are the focus of Matt Hofer’s essay included here (and the matter of its cento) — Irby has shared (another favorite term) his love, “flung out” in over twenty books of poems. Along with additional unpublished material, these publications comprise Irby’s master opus, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, published by North Atlantic Books in 2009. The following year, Irby received the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, placing him in the company of such luminaries as Marianne Moore, Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Michael Palmer, to name only a few.

If Irby appeared on the New American scene half a decade too late for Don Allen’s seminal anthology, it’s perhaps tempting to say he was half a decade too early for the Language movement. But such a dyadic assessment conforms to the pressures of pat critical classification at the expense of a more nuanced reading of the work. For while Irby’s early writing (up to the mid-1970s, say) reflects the influence of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley (and his earliest work, some of which is reproduced here, recalls that of Robert Lowell and Wallace Stevens), the aural splendor of his writing from the late 1970s echoes the work of Louis Zukofsky, Robert Kelly, and José Lezama Lima. Note the “Etudes” section of Call Steps, for instance, which presents a “doughy” soundscape, studded with surreal curiosities (e.g., “face grave houndom into human hone” [462]), murky protean quatrains (e.g., “steps of the camp / mud element of trance / essence star of hippopotamus / walking the bottom of the river milk” [463]), and imaginal distillations, or sonic friezes, or whatever one wants to call something like this: “call snown draw      cold moon sawm / comb new leaver lean / so shadows dough” (464). That we find praise of (and publishers for) Irby’s work spread across otherwise exclusive “school” lines — for example, among Black Mountaineers, like Creeley, Dorn, and Paul Blackburn; among innovators of the Deep Image, like Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg; among a handful of early Language poets, like Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Robert Grenier; among once-Beats, like Anne Waldman and Joanne Kyger; among the otherwise difficult to categorize, like Gerrit Lansing, Chuck Stein, Paul Metcalf, Thomas Meyer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Ammiel Alcalay; and among a handful of so-called “avant-garde” poets of a younger generation, like Dale Smith, Cyrus Console, Monica Peck, and Ben Lerner — attests to the extraordinary mutability of his register.

With Irby’s collected works in hand, new ways his poems trace mutually constitutive relationships between morphologies of place and self are revealed, and a comprehensive look at the recursive and reflexive nature of his life in print becomes possible for the first time. It has been, up to this point, the geographical elements of Irby’s writing that have dominated much of the scholarly attention it has received, and to a certain extent this remains the case with many of the essays gathered here. For Irby’s poems are preoccupied with questions of orientation and direction, and among his chief influences and allies are geographers and other practitioners of the cultural landscape, like Carl O. Sauer, James C. Malin, Bob Callahan, Michael Brodhead, and Edgar Anderson. As the essays by Denise Low and Lyn Hejinian point out, place names litter Irby’s “site-specific” poems — the third section of Kansas–New Mexico, for example, lists the counties and townships one passes through traveling southwest across Kansas — and many of his books’ titles appropriate geographical terms: e.g., Archipelago; Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories; Ridge to Ridge; In Denmark; Riding the Dog; etc.

Scrolling over The Intent On, we find Irby’s line ranging from the tight “derringer” couplets of To Max Douglas — which recall, in form and theme, H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, as much as they do Olson’s breath-broken flow — to the multijointed, hyperextended utterance, full of hyphenated nomenclature (redolent of Navajo poetries) and syntactic involutions, which characterizes his more recent collections, such as Call Steps and Ridge to Ridge. On the whole, the line appears to have lengthened with age — note the oversized page of Call Steps, or the enormously oversized 35 x 44 centimeter dimensions of A Set — and though it’s in his 1977 collection Catalpa that we find “September,” the only short story Irby has ever published, his metrics expand into the prose poem more and more frequently in the work of the past decade. No matter the fluctuations in line or subject, however, Irby continues to weave his peculiar phrasing and lexicon into a vast “mycelium mat” (212) of recurring tropes and images. As signposts along Irby’s “discontinuous / dendritic narrative of a journey” (288), these details are invested with the plural significance familiar objects obtain through watchful and loving persistence — a homing effect that poet Cyrus Console (a former student of Irby’s) notes with regard to the seemingly cryptic aspects of Irby’s work: “All items in the richness of his routines,” Console observes, “in them, the work emits a special sense of company, even its recondite elements, even if they remain obscure, some are insistently so, they grow personal, demonstratively familiar.” So for all its hermetic reverberations, Irby’s poetry is also fundamentally concerned with the materiality of its language, with sharing a realm of awareness in which ideas are not just in, but also are, things. The elongation of Irby’s line is one indication of this interest, and while his early work enumerates locational data — attuned to the outdoor landscape’s areal particulars — his later work rigorously explores what Dale Smith calls the “self-imposed distances” of an indoor and “extraordinarily private” stanzaic space that is, Ben Friedlander writes, “at once expansive and compressed.”

In addition to the lengthening of Irby’s line, we can identify three formal tendencies that characterize its construction. First, Irby employs idiosyncratic (not arbitrary) punctuation, often making use of a Dickinsonian dash (particularly in his letters), and — as Low notes in her examination of the graphical elements in his work — his writing almost totally avoids the full stop. Second, Irby has a large, unconventional, often weird vocabulary, which includes a talismanic penchant for what poet Peter Longofono’s essay calls “word-smelting” — examples of which include, “densefulness” (534), “underfingernailfleshed” (428), “interinterventions” (531), “unthunder” (429), and so on — as well as the epical epithetic constructions we encounter in “In Memorium — Sam Thomas,” for example: “Sam Thomas, Instructor of the Night Mind, Missouri Traveler, and Conundrumist of terrible intelligence — Self Destroyer […] He Who Throws Dust Into His Own Eyes […] The Preacher, The Whisperer, the Voice of the Blind Lizard” (277). And third, one of the most recognizable features of Irby’s elegantly circuitous line, is its abundance of prepositions, and a preference for placing them at the ends of their phrases (as in the title of his collected poems), thus concocting hinges, swings and slides, interleaved ambiguities between the lines. Navigating these syntactical twists and turns is the poetical equivalent of ascending Magritte’s staircase in “Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word)” — painted the year of Irby’s birth — straight into a wall. But in doing so, one is alternately made aware of the pleasure in fluctuations of syntax alone — no longer as a means of conveyance, but an experience of its own duration. Whether Irby’s prepositions function as orientational markers, directives, or load-bearing beams — e.g., “finding a front porch down the road to get up on to out of the rain” — the dense syntactical patterns they construct require cat-like agility on the part of the reader to bolt and bounce around the stanzaic field:

Then take up the empery and the dominion and return them

as the rabbits at the salt lick take what is left for the deer

and the long stare back into the woods for the others

The water that is in the sky and the land and the hand

pass on in one direction West with the eagles

and with the spin of blackbirds back against the other

And you are the continuance and the impress and the delivery

and the indication, the in and the from and the pre and the to (548–49)


Thus with the lineal solder of conjunction, hyphen, and preposition, Irby administers a reading experience as rewarding as it is (and because it is) demanding, forcing the reader to find her own way through the musical thicket, which is an empowering allowance: “what in the path passes between the pather and the pathing, or in the reading,” Irby asks in “[Visitations],” and “who else, always another might, always the who else” (545).

In Irby’s work of the late 1970s and after, the investment in a grammatical disorientation so extreme its unpredictability attains an order of immediacy, commensurate with the actual, is paradoxically accomplished by interrupting the reading experience, emphasizing the poem’s mediated-ness. This interruption also bodies forth a peculiar form of presence, sometimes achieved through ludic, “concrete” effects. What occupies the “gap of remembrance” in the poem below, for instance, when the senses are scrambled into synesthesia?

 between what is seen (heard)

 and what is seen (heard)

 what is                (           )


 or didn’t never so much pay attention to as change back and forth with,

               someplace else (470)


Reminiscent of John Cage (cf. the preface of Irby’s Movements/Sequences: “as now the cars’ sounds out these windows …” [29]), this typographical riddle leaps off the page at its unwitting reader. Reimagining the poem as an interactive event (as Hejinian does), and reading (like writing) as a “formative activity,” Irby’s overhaul of readerly attention engineers a constantly renewable present in which “the time in the poem … becomes the time of the poem.” And these uroboric suspensions and reflexive cantilevers of syntax that dislocate the reader in one context — like “the driver” in “[Visitations],” who “thought he was going around and around himself in the dark” (545) — enchant her in another, with the fluvial grace of a line that compelled Ron Silliman to declaim Irby’s “ear” the finest among his contemporaries. In this way, Irby’s lyric envisions a new kind of polis founded and inhabited in the intimate distance of reading, as the opening poem of The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream announces: “of / Relation / & of that City / where all our meeting lies / As has been said: / the Nation can only come into being / but the City we may / found / Between us / Here & Now, as we read / these words” (159–60).

In “Homage,” the final poem in The Intent On, the vast body of Irby’s work comes rhizomatically to indwell the lyric’s ascetic compression. The poem is a kind of summary koan concluding the preceding volume’s compendious response to the call to “find the Secret History of your Self, wherein you live, which is more vast and great than any Shell or Strife you know” (305):

 You will not always walk in the rain

 on a May morning

 or see the iris in bloom

 before you give a final

 on a campus where you were young and took them

 longer ago than you will live after (672)


“Homage” quietly invokes the lived material gathered in the volume at the end of which it appears by negatively reinforcing its content and transporting the reader to a moment previous to its production. Within the poem’s six lines we encounter three versions of Irby in the voice of one — KU undergraduate, KU professor, and future anterior poet-speaker. And just as the “I” who utters the poem and the “you” to whom it speaks stand on either side of the selfsame, unenunciated antecedent, so the phantom “I” that cleaves intention into intent on also serves as the object of the title’s truncated predicate: intent on ... what? Intent on seeking out a self “lost on off / in those steep and wandering canyons,” a self momently retrieved in and through the lifelong practice of daily writing.

In its return to the familiar, “Homage” demonstrates a means to home — i.e., to return to after a long time away; to move toward with great accuracy and determination; to focus attention on. “To return / to the recognition / without remembering,” Irby writes in “[nostos • kuboå],” combining an instructive distance with the notion of a renewable, transitory, timeshare-self: “you have to become / a stranger / to have / a homecoming” (654). Here home, as a noun, is haunted by the trace of the passage that’s an essential component of its verb form, and it must first be set at a distance (from distancia, “to stand apart”), in order to be reinserted into a network of animate relations. Homecoming and homage — terms for desire’s systolic and diastolic motions in Irby’s writing — not only proffer ways of going home, but are also modes of inhabiting it: “home itself is an organ of perception” (568), Irby writes in Studies. And if poetry is, as it was for Olson, a personal form of public allegiance — a crossing-over of thresholds opposing individual to collective desire, or the company of the living to that of the dead — then we might say all of Irby’s poems are forms of homage. In its original, feudal usage, “homage” was related to the landscape’s hierarchical enclosure, and referred to the allegiance of a subject to an “artificial” lord, or landlord. But in Irby’s “Homage” we encounter an intrasubjective plurality, a form of what Hejinian calls “lyric sociality,” wherein the distance between “I” and “you” collapses into an omnipresence, an overmind.

Seeking a mode of “all attention,” Irby’s work inhabits an interrogatory dimension, where established facts lose traction, where certainty lies only in the shifting of relations, where distance is the impetus and guage of desire, where gaps are interstitial, and where “home” is, like love, a habitation, a form of dwelling, a place always in the making. Amid these Steinian waters, it’s the reader’s job to map her own relations: “so the word is passed on,” Irby writes in Call Steps, “and equally not known / till how much later, the thrill of recognizing can still be known” (423). While repetition and reflexivity facilitate the “thrill of recognizing” — a thrill shared outside conventional modes of sociality, but within language’s storehouse of experience — uncertainty forms the groundwork of Irby’s poetic logic. “[H]aving come to this meadow,” he writes in “Point Reyes Poem,” “there is only the uncertainty of all purpose” (138). In this way, Irby’s poetics of “non-alienation” closely resemble the “open form” poetics of Robert Duncan, which value process, inquiry, accumulation, dissonance, and the materiality of the poem’s “matter” over and above the abstraction of an authentic, or “true,” expressive “self,” lurking beneath the recto: “I read and write,” Duncan writes in his essay, “The ‘Self’ in Postmodern Poetry,” “gathering darkness, I would say, deepening the rift. Here, this matter of self must be seen not as undergoing change — the word itself is in question. But I work only in question; mine is a questionable work.”[5]

Irby’s “questionable work,” like Duncan’s, seeks the “transvaluation,” as opposed to the “overthrow” of this “matter,” lodged everywhere around us — in overheard speech, in non sequiturs and tangent associations, in fleeting physical sensations, whatever the poem brings, or is brought, to one’s awareness during its composition. The poet must learn to hear “the importance of whatever happens in the course of writing as revelation,” Duncan insists, “not from an unconscious, but from a spiritual world.”[6] Duncan’s notion of a “spiritual world” that assails the poem at the time of its making is also instructive for an understanding of the “spiritual landscape” Irby designates as the terrain of his own poetic endeavor. For Irby and Duncan both, the “spiritual” describes an amplified presentness, “here and now,” attained through writing as a process of selection and sensitization — an enhanced sense of being in, not outside, time, of being in the world, living with other things. One task of The Intent On, then, is to pursue vivifying lines of inquiry and relation, e.g.: “did Pike read Boehme?” (501) or, “What good does it do / to talk to the dead? — those who are / the removed from human communion, Duncan said” (194). In order to “stay fresh” at the door of one’s experience, as Olson encourages in his essay “Human Universe,” to tune into those radio waves Spicer described, “where [one] is responsible to more than [oneself],” the poet must remain in the grip of questions, a mode of intensified listening.[7] At this crossroads, we find Irby entreating: “Where do you go now?” This interrogative “yearning” compels much of his writing: “tonight I go home to Berkeley,” Irby confesses in “The Brief Connection,” “there is the question still of cause” (107). Thankfully, the question prefigures a mystery always running on beyond us, out into the margin, over onto the next line, there to reach to all the way back of “the Lore,” into the love itself, “till it is / part of the body, not its object”: “To make sure you never forget in your prosperity the misery and destitution that brought you here and those who shared it with you, the compassion that created you,” Irby writes in “[Notes],” “And when you have remembered and have restored, to disappear again” (660). Such is the rocking rhythm of Irby’s homing process, wherein “we are not at home if we are not at rest / going and coming in” (142).

Irby’s actual home is Kansas, the “centrum pocket of the continent” (306) where his family settled when he was three — in Fort Scott, having moved north from Texas — and where he currently resides, in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, where he received a History BA in 1958, and where he returned to teach in 1985, first as a lecturer, and, as of 2012, a full professor (in spite of the fact he holds no PhD, nor any degree at all in his field of appointment). As the chronology included in this feature illustrates, in the two decades between 1958 and 1977, when he returned to Fort Scott to assist his mother in selling the family home, Irby travelled extensively throughout the North American and European continents, living for extended periods of time in Albuquerque, Boston, the Bay Area, and Copenhagen. But “no matter how far his body wanders,” Dorn notes in his introduction for To Max Douglas, “he never wanders. […] Irby has stayed with the materia” (184). Kansas — “forever at the heart of things” (207), forever in “the torrent of the boundary” (525) — remains always on the way to the other coast, always in the in-between, always “the who else.” This Janus condition — often represented in Irby’s poetry by the Chinese character “hsin  心 the heart / that is the mind, as the Zohar / also knows them one” (207) — becomes the model for a doubled cleaving that the work effects wherever its gaze alights. Take the closing lines of “Notes II,” for example, which recall the Korean War of Irby’s adolescence — “I watched that push toward Pusan / in maps in the Kansas City Times / hoping we’d be shoved shitfaced / into the sea.” Here, Irby sets the gauge of a lifelong pursuit to lovingly (i.e., not militantly) take a landscape, in order to ever have a home to return to: “war I knew came home along the corridors of high school,” he writes, “landscape I would have to take / to ever come home // all was at war, but I was not a warrior” (276–77). By the time the second edition of To Max Douglas was published in 1974, Irby had roamed to the “edge of the continent” and back again — all the way back to Scandinavia — and had, in the eyes of those peers he most respected, sufficiently taken his place. Indeed, so much so that Robert Duncan, for example, referred to Kansas as “Irbyland,” and Ed Dorn, in a 1971 poem entitled, “an œcological prophecy,” which plays on a John Wayne line from Red River (i.e. “gesturing / toward Texas says: // Someday thatll all be Beef!”), writes: “… Gestures / twrd Kansas / Someday thatll all be Kenneth Irby.”[8] A decade later, when Dorn delivered the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures at SUNY Buffalo, he thanked “longtime associate and geographer, Ken Irby,” among a short list of persons, all of whom, save Irby, were in attendance.[9]

It was Charles Olson, in Call Me Ishmael, who took “SPACE” to be the “first fact” confronting man in America, announcing that, “the fulcrum of America is the plains, half sea half land, […]. Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive.”[10] In her essay in this feature, Denise Low argues that Irby has both dug in and mounted, that he wanders from his staked plains on a very long lead, treading a littoral circumference. For example, while the poems of Irby’s 1977 collection, Catalpa, are arranged according to their place of composition — namely, Berkeley or Boston — all motions “in the whirlpool of the continent” swirl back to Kansas, and along the heart-shaped arc of Catalpa Irby begins to turn “back / where he had begun” (like Ledyard, Escalante, Cabeza de Vaca, and other journeyers who haunt the book), to complete another of the “great / circles” that The Intent On cartographically inscribes (123). The fact that Kansas receives no section title in Catalpa is a strategic omission, for it occupies an absent-present “centrum” in the book — just as it does on the continent, where it forms the shallow basin that once cradled the late Cretaceous Western Interior Ocean, the decayed benthic fauna of which enriched its “breadbasket” fifteen feet of loam. 

Whereas Berkeley and Boston are the endpoints of two of its transcontinental spokes, Kansas is the “fulcrum” of “the Great Wheel of the Plains / [that] turns under Fort Scott” (266), and it’s the mandrel of Catalpa in a literal sense, as well. Home to John Moritz’s Tansy Press, the town is the site of the book’s publication, and as such its name appears on the title page, anchoring an overarching, ventricular sense of place. In all, eight of Irby’s books have been published by Lawrence-based presses, six of those by Tansy, starting with the first edition of To Max Douglas, in 1971. Meanwhile, the covers of both To Max Douglas and Catalpa feature Lawrence-based artist Lee Chapman’s sunflower drawing, displayed on the homepage of this feature, which Irby has adopted as a kind of signature crest, including it on the title page of nearly every book since. Chapman is also the founder and editor of First Intensity, which, as a press, published Irby’s Studies in 1999, and as a (now defunct) journal of the same name, featured more of Irby’s writing than any other magazine to date.

A number of the essays gathered in this feature locate a shift in the attentions of Irby’s work that roughly coincides with his moving back to Fort Scott in 1977. This makes sense, in part, because there have been few critical assessments of Irby’s career since the late 1970s — but in those that do exist, this transition has been inadequately considered. “Some people have accused me of writing about a place in a poem only when I’m not there,” Irby told an interviewer in the mid-1980s, “which is something we’ve all experienced.” Posing as an analytical deduction, this accusation repeats a given of the work without bothering to engage it, and operates under an impoverished concept of place that overlooks important features of Irby’s “spiritual landscape.” It ignores the fact that longing, daydreaming, what-have-you, is as much a fact of its place of origin as any other felt quality that place possesses, and, therefore constitutes a specific and unique relation, that reveals as much about the context it reaches from (“here and now”), as the one it reaches to. This flexion is apparent in the boomeranging dedication of Studies, which hurls us wide from the ledge of Mount Oread, “After, from, and back to / the California friends // and all the friends” (564). As Joe Harrington’s essay keenly observes: “The personal and historical, pastoral and epic, are never very far apart[.]” Indeed, the focus on household minutiae in Studies, for example, is not a departure but an expansion of Irby’s “pastoral” condition. That our local histories, full of affinities, are the grist of our big History, welds pastoral to epic and forms one of the central convictions of The Intent On — a conviction earlier articulated by Kansas historian James C. Malin: “Every historical event must happen,” Malin argues, “not anywhere, but in some particular place, at some point in space, in some locality or minimal unit of space in which its unique causal factors operate. Thus, no matter how closely welded the much publicized one world may become, people will still live and have their being in local space.”[11] S0, while it’s true the word “Kansas” disappears from Irby’s catalog in early 1977 — its final mention in a poem written on April 8, included in the “Heredom” section of Orexis, just three months after Irby returned to Fort Scott — this absence is only nominal, for the energy of the place has otherwise dissolved into the fiber of Irby’s pastoral attention, characterized by its “feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among — an ecological calm … [that] enacts a state of consciousness or awareness, eternally and recurringly common to human beings, every day, every life” (94).

That Irby’s unique practice of the poem appeals to a wide variety of readers and writers is demonstrated by the diverse group of contributors to this feature, all of whom agree, however, that his work deserves far more attention than it has received: from Dale Smith, whose essay treats Irby’s poetics of “homecoming,” and drawing on Kenneth Burke’s notion of a “qualitative progression of formal appeal,” explores the “problem of perspective” in Ridge to Ridge; to Joe Harrington, who compares Irby’s work with that of Ronald Johnson, another Kansas poet of his generation, locating a decisive shift in the scope of Irby’s “pastoral” gaze; to Andrew Schelling, who contemplates the function of that gaze in Catalpa, as well as in Irby’s abundant and endearing correspondence; to Lyn Hejinian, who identifies an “intimacy of address” and a “site-specific” orientation as two of the chief signatures running throughout Irby’s profoundly magnanimous oeuvre; to Pierre Joris, who tracks the nomadic impulses and “ghostings” of Old World literary traditions throughout Irby’s career, envisioning a transatlantic communion in the music of Delius and Duke Ellington “upwelling” between his musical lines; to Denise Low, who, drawing on her knowledge of Native American symbologies, catalogs the graphical elements in The Intent On, and extends her investigation into Irby’s notebooks and personalized flyleaf inscriptions; to Matt Hofer, who surveys Irby’s abundant book reviews and “evaluative criticism,” which, over the course of his career, have provided Irby a transformative space, Hofer argues, in which he’s sculpted and refined his own poetic sensibility, and sworn his aesthetic allegiances; to Robert Grenier, whose dynamic, polymorphous prose-poem/memoir celebrates, as it interrogates, the notion of friendship at the pith of Irby’s life and writing; to Aldon Nielsen, who focuses on Irby’s career (alongside David Bromige’s) at the moment of To Max Douglas, in the fissure that divides the waning organic lyricism of New American poetics, from the emergent, politically engineered assays of the Language poets; to Robert Bertholf, who provides a comprehensive overview of Irby’s career and the evolution of his poetics of ensoulment; and, finally, to Ben Friedlander, who identifies three central “principles” — accretion, crossing, and experience — through which Irby’s writing seeks to fuse artistic production with everyday activity, and who proposes a shift in Irby’s catalog from the exploitation of “narrative and thematic” attributes of the poem, to the exploration of “formalist” techniques for rendering the intrapersonal “complexities” exhibited in his more recent work. 

In addition to these insightful and most welcome contributions to the slowly growing body of critical scholarship on Irby’s poetics, this feature also contains a number of other pieces that help to illuminate the larger impact of his career. Like the pieces mentioned above, a number of these additional items appear here for the first time. A group of Irby’s former students — Jeff Bergfalk, Cyrus Console, Peter Longofono, Monica Peck, and myself — have contributed reflections on him as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. The selection of Irby’s correspondence with Ed Dorn — modest as it is — nonetheless marks the first time a selection of Irby’s letters have been made available. Likewise, of the nineteen uncollected poems included in this feature, fourteen are first published here, and those remaining are reprinted for the first time since they initially appeared in various literary journals with relatively limited distribution in the 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, the detailed chronology of Irby’s life to this point is the first of its kind, and serves as a useful companion for The Intent On, while almost all of the photographs sprinkled throughout this feature (most of which come from Irby’s private collection), also appear here exclusively.

As a poet of exceptional ability and integrity, Irby has remained (to borrow a phrase from Donald Wesling, writing about Ed Dorn), “nomadic and marginal in the circumstances of personality and publishing.” Admirable as these qualities are, like Irby’s commitment to living in the marginal “centrum” of the continent, they have been accomplished at the expense of the broader readership that his work undoubtedly deserves. Writing at the tail end of the 1970s, Jed Rasula summarized “the problem of Irby’s reputation”:

 He is probably the least anthologized significant poet around, for one thing.

 The largest printing of one of his books was RELATION, with something

 under 800. Probably his largest exposure was his repeated appearance in

 CATERPILLAR. In certain respects his career is comparable to those of

 his two closest (in temperament) contemporaries, Ed Dorn and Robert

 Kelly — up to a point, that is.


 To look back to 1965, from this faraway perspective, I find Irby the

 more accomplished poet. He had three books out by then; Dorn had three;

 Kelly a few more, but not much. All three had more or less laid their rails

 by 1965 and were on the verge, or so it seemed, of large-scale work. The

 next five or six years made that point abundantly clear, with Dorn’s NORTH



 numerous broadsides and pamphlets. Some of Kelly’s most remarkable

 work was also published during the later sixties […] and in 1971 […]. And


 PARADISE IN A DREAM, not much to show. There was some catching up

 in 1970 and 1971 with RELATION and TO MAX DOUGLAS, but I sense that

 it was perhaps too late for any sense of continuity to develop between the

 publications and thus sustain a real reading of Irby’s work. The early books

 were never really “available,” and even now my writing of this essay was

 hampered by my inability to get a copy of KANSAS–NEW MEXICO. I drag

 all these material facts out here simply to show that, through whatever accident

 of publishing history, Irby has for years been less well known than his immediate

contemporaries, and that the situation is not likely to be corrected for some time,

 despite the presence now of CATALPA. […] So while Irby is not exactly a

 “fugitive” poet, it remains difficult simply to sit down and read the 200 or so

 existing pages of his work.[12]


If North Atlantic’s 2009 publication of The Intent On remedies the core problem Rasula identifies — the unavailability of Irby’s books — then a critical valuation of this impressive collected body of work is now overdue. Working in that direction, this feature builds on the contributions of those journals that have dedicated past issues to Irby’s writing and to scholarship thereof: the 1973 Irby/Bromige double feature of Barry Alpert’s magazine, Vort, marked the first time that scholarship specifically addressing Irby’s work appeared in print (aside from books reviews), and was followed by Credences 7, “In Celebration of the Work of Kenneth Irby,” in 1979, and Notus 10, in 1992. Overall, the present feature not only intends to celebrate Irby’s ongoing yet underappreciated achievement as a poet and a teacher, and to introduce a larger audience to his writing, but also, by linking his achievement to the work of other poets — both forebears of the craft, like Whitman, and contemporaries in the field, like Ronald Johnson — and by proposing strategies and frameworks for comprehending and assessing his body of work, for mapping its trends and identifying its major shifts, this feature hopes to situate Irby’s remarkable career at the forefront of the “experimental” and lyrical traditions in post-WWII American poetry. Lastly, on this tragically misused continent, bombarded by a civilization that values overproduction and “the spotlessness of their records,” as Cyrus Console has written, “over that of their consciences,” Irby’s “strength in very quiet great distances,” his lovingly defiant kingdom of birdsong fandango garlic dream affection, and the “green crystal craze in [the] veins” (66), is a region from which we would benefit immensely by visiting more often. In the spirit of that generosity, then, let this feature be a guide for going there, “here and now.”



1. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009). All references to this text are in parenthetical citation within the article text.

2. Kenneth Irby, “Visitations — Homage to Emerson,” Golden Handcuffs Review 1, no. 12 (2009–2010): 147–49.

3. George Quasha, “Brief, Enigmatized Reflections on Irby After Circumambulating CATALPA in a Long, Recorded, Suppressed Conversation,” Credences 7 (1979): 118–20.

4. Robert Creeley, “A Note for Ken Irby,” Vort 3 (1973): 77–78, and later, in The Collected Prose of Robert Creeley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 274–75.

5. Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties: Essays by Robert Duncan (New York: New Directions, 1985), 226.

6. Ibid., 227.

7. Charles Olson, The Collected Prose of Charles Olson, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 162.

8. Edward Dorn, “an oecological prophecy,” Io 16, “Earth Geography Booklet 4: Anima Mundi” (1972–1973).

9. See Edward Dorn, “The Olson Memorial Lectures,” ed. Lindsey Freer, Lost and Found Series III (2012).

10. Olson, The Collected Prose, 17.

11. James C. Malin, “On the Nature of Local History,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 40, no. 4 (1957), 227–30.

12. Rasula, Credences, 7, 54.


First of all, thank you to Jacket2 for dedicating this special feature to the work of Kenneth Irby. This project was initiated by William Joseph Harris — whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with as a coeditor, and to whom I’m grateful for this opportunity — and it builds off of the Kenneth Irby Symposium that he organized at the University of Kansas, in November 2011, at which five of the essays included here (Friedlander, Harrington, Hejinian, Joris, and Low) were presented. Nor would this project have been possible without the generous assistance of Kenneth Irby, who, among other things, carefully proofread the transcriptions of his letters and early poems, and contributed numerous photographs from his personal archives. Very special thanks to each of the archival librarians (and their respective institutions) for their knowledge and assistance in dealing with the archival materials presented here, specifically: Melissa Watterworth Batt, curator of Alternative Press, Literary, and Natural History Collections, in the Department of Archival and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT); Elspeth Healey, in the Department of Special Collections at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas); and Polly Armstrong, Public Services manager, and Mattie Taormina, head of Public Services, in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries (Stanford, California). Many thanks to Jennifer Dunbar Dorn for the permission to reproduce the unpublished writing by Ed Dorn that appears in the introduction to the selection of Irby’s correspondence in this issue. For their insightful editorial comments and suggestions on a previous version of that introduction, and for their general energy and scholastic support, many kind thanks to professor Hildegard Hoeller and the members of her spring 2012 Theory and Practice in Literary Studies seminar: Brian Baaki, Hillel Broder, Nick Gamso, Meira Levinson, Madison Priest, and Justin Van Wormer. Thanks to Jackie Anderson of Colortek of Boston for providing an electronic version of Elsa Dorfman’s 1972 photograph of Irby, Robert Duncan, and Anne Waldman, and kind thanks to Ms. Dorfman for the permission to reproduce it here. Thanks also to Lee Chapman of First Intensity Press for allowing us to include her sunflower drawing, a trademark of Irby’s books since the early ’70s. Particularly big ups to Howard Graham, who generously took the time to scan and electronically transfer a huge selection of Irby’s photographs for this issue. Mucho respect and gratitude to Matt Hofer, who invited me to present a portion of my work on Irby as a member of a “New American Poetry and the West” panel at the Modernist Studies Association conference in October 2012, and likewise respect and thanks to fellow panel member Kaplan Harris and to the panel’s chair, Alan Golding. Much of the information provided in the notes to Irby’s correspondence that concerns small literary presses and the outermost fringe figures of the tiny magazine scene comes from the scholarly treasure, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (New York: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998), by Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips. I am also indebted, in a more general editorial way, to David Greetham’s lodestone volume, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), and to Greetham himself, as well as to my experience in collaborating on the Lost & Found chapbook project under the leadership of Ammiel Alcalay at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Finally, the most special loving thanks to Jacquelin, sustainer of my spirit, who walks me through it.

On Kenneth Irby's 'The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006'

1. Walking out

Kenneth Irby’s first pamphlet, The Roadrunner Poem, appeared as the fourth issue of the journal Duende in April 1964. Forty-five years later his Collected Poems (2009) appeared as a massive document of one poet’s engagement with the process of the poem and the poetics of its statement. More than a shadow falls between the early and the late appearances of Irby’s poetry. Like most collected poems, this volume defines a career in writing and, when set against the literary history of its time, punctuates its achievement by the influences it absorbs, the modes and fashions of contemporary poetry it either acknowledges or rejects; it registers a poetics of an articulate sensibility driven, or at least dedicated, to making language and poetic form define themselves. Publishing such a book is no simple matter. The book brings together into full public notice the poems the poet accepts. In asking for a fair reading it must acknowledge the risk of rejection, the intemperance of the literary world, while hoping for praise, understanding, and confirmation of the writing life of the poet.

The geography of Kansas and the Great Plains came into the early poetry as a dominant theme, as dominant as the poet’s various relationships with that geography. Many poems began by setting out the scenes, the lines of hill, fields of grass, rivers, and even mountain ranges of the landscape further west. Early explorers and travelers were as important as the streets and families of Fort Scott and Lawrence, Kansas. Irby’s high school days became a point of reference, as did a sense of finding home, more a fluid relationship with geography than a physical building. Relation: Poems 1965–1966 (1970) was the first collection and in it Irby expanded his themes under the directive “We have approached the fact of this land / as body as alive as our own” (118).[1] He explores the relations with the land, with people, history, and his own memory; the attention to “modes of relation” (493) appears throughout the poems. He includes not only perceptions of his attunement with the landscape, but a recognition that the experiences of the early explorers of the West like John Wesley Powell and Clarence E. Dutton are inherent in the energy of the places they walked. In Relation and in To Max Douglas (1971/1974) with reiterations of historians and politicians of the plains, these ideas grow into a complex concept of geography found, for example, in James C. Malin’s book The Grasslands of North America.[2] “Delius,” first published in the journal Io, in 1973, is a pivotal poem in the advancement of this collection. In this poem Irby includes multiple quotations from books about Delius, and cites other references as well, in an acknowledgment that a poem can take place in a field of information which also includes the perceiving poet, but without the interferences of an ego. Irby confirms his position in an actual and an imaginary landscape of his own making as he also confirms the processes of open form composition by quoting directly from the poems and essays of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan.

The following collection, Catalpa (1977), reviews ideas of geography by expanding the habitation westward to Berkeley and eastward to Medford, Massachusetts, and then subsequently further eastward to Denmark. In Denmark (No: a journal of the arts 2003) explores the need to come to terms with personal love and a new landscape. After In Excelsis Borealis (1976) and Archipelago (1976), Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories (1992) contains poems written 1977–1979 and transforms the geography of the plains to the geography of the imagination. From the start, Irby is a poet with a visionary imagination whose poems insist on a pastoral setting — “Pastoral poetry poetry // that feeds us, pasture (258) — and that setting stimulates the impetus toward the moments of vision and then the memory of the vision. In a “Preface” to Relation, Irby mentions two concerns of pastoral: “a calmness, a quietude of the whole being, derived from all attentions and awareness; and a feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among — an ecological calm” (93). Compounding present seeing with later visionary memories pushes understanding into an essential concern of his evolving poetics. He wants to make poems out of small irreducible sensual wholes” (429). In “Delius” he writes: “These are the duties to find a new vocabulary” (237). Finding the fitting language to express the visions of “irreducible sensual wholes” transforms the poems into meditations about the process of poetry itself, and the inclusive necessity to live a full physical life attuned to the process of recurring points of energetic seeing. Fifteen years separate Catalpa from Call Steps and now seven years separate Call Steps from the next large collection, Ridge to Ridge: Poems 1990–2000 (2001). Again the processes of meditation and finding the language of the imagination pervade these poems as they propose parables as a means of expressing what is certainly without form or substance. The process of the poetry in an open celebration of creative seeing appears in poem after poem, each trying to articulate the things seen. Studies: Cuts, Shots, Takes (2001) begins another cycle of discovering, uncovering the fitting language. A quotation from Robert Duncan — “But this consonance I seek between actuality and the poem is not easy” (565) — leads these “etudes of massive block sonority” (567) from proposal to proposal of a solution to “consonance” in one unterminated study after another. The poems in this section are shorter than the untitled pieces in Ridge to Ridge and follow one after another without a considered narrative; if there is a possible cohesion, that would come from the imbedded process of claiming consonance in the flow of words. Then a section of “Uncollected: 1964–2006” concludes this volume by filling in the record of the cycle, and presumably introducing the poetry of the next cycle.

In a review of Catalpa, Thomas Meyer recognized in Irby’s poetry of vision elements of Gnosticism, which he traced through Zwingli, Luther, Valentinus, Emerson, and Thoreau with references to Pound and Yeats. The poetry of vision, including Irby’s poetry, is part of contemporary American writing.[3] Edward Schelb in another review wrote: “In my mind, Irby remains one of the essential visionary and religious poets of my time, with Gnostic madness and nonsense and paradoxes combined with — above all — a most remarkable generosity of spirit. …”[4] Visionary moments and the process of finding the means to express those moments occupy a major part of Irby’s poems. His is not a denominational vision nor religious in any institutional sense, but it is a perception of the holy. He calls it divinity. At one point he quotes Cicero, “there is in mankind a certain faculty of divinization” (493). Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, calls such perceptions of divinity the numen, an uncanny awareness of the presence of the holy in ordinary events and objects.[5] This view of the presence gives clarity to the idea without limiting the discussions by conventional issues and terms.

The journey to the vision of home extends from high school through the whole volume. The defining experience appears early in the book:

There is nothing, then, that does not

contain the divine —

in us, from us, into the



only to find

      it, only

to know it’s there

 Pencil lead broken off under the fingernail

        trying to clean it, I

 looked up and saw the whole green tree

        out the classroom window,

 moving the green crystal craze in my veins

        I felt, was there, but

 could not ever see till then — (66)


This experience of the light of a divine presence itself becomes a presence in the poems, a powerful memory and a point of reference. Though expressed in “the green crystal craze” here, the point of vision occurs as a moment like many such moments of seeing throughout the poems:

So the sight at any moment

is complete, needs nothing more

to come into being

the whole centered, as pleasure

is full not in extension

but in being (163)


And later in the same poem, “Looking quietly for the place,” the sense of fullness of life itself expands to an attunement, a revelation of relation to the forces of the world.

easy to think
moment that the revelation comes
is where the entrance is
when to be here at all is to
have entered the whole world whole (164)

Such perceptions are not minor events, but an “insight of the flow” (331) “mere flow” (331) of life itself. “So there the heart quickens, seeing images of its inner secrets, it had guessed before”(305). The “unattended stray memories, everything, in the throw of the vision, in the catch of us in the vision” (335), which arrive as momentary and fleeing points of light, the numen, without substantial form, obligate the poet to make “allegiances to the clarity” (430), or a clear and telling means stating them in words. The moments are accompanied by light and movement in or out, across and back, East to West or back again but the flow they enact resists visual statement and so inspires both fear and longing — “for solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision” (537). Despite the many associations Irby cites with other poets, he knows that using the language and experience of others moves the momentary experience into the language of others, away from him, so he remains dedicated to generating his own instances of perceiving the visionary numen in the sounds of words.

The idea of the holy numen runs through this present volume, as one poem has it — “through the double reinforcing veils of waking and of dream” (535) — and, as another insists, divine sense of vision permeates the entire collection “through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare stares into and through” (551). Geography, landscape, and vision are the most important themes, but, in addition, there are several other key ideas that make up the complex poetics. The early explorers and travelers in the American West, and then the later historians of the people and geography, all contribute to the energy of the place which generates into the present. The relationship with the landscape and with other people, human love, its loss and fulfillment, inform the poems. High school experiences, the search for “home,” and the search for self appear intermittently along with some favorite figures like the wheel, birds — mainly crows and jays — and the movement of spirit “through” a landscape or human meeting. The statement of the poems changes into the process of the poem finding the terms of its own articulation. Final termination of a poem or the conclusive stopping of meditation disappear; in the course of accumulation the poems achieve a process of parables which initiate open forms of expression.

Even while giving a quick overview of Irby’s collection, including coverage of his proposal of an open-ended poetry of parables and process, this essay does not pretend to offer a full discussion of the poems. That is a project for a book-length study. Instead, this essay is more a review and introduction to The Intent On than it is an extended study of the whole volume. The following discussion of some recurring elements and figures of Irby’s poetry borrows Irby’s subtitle “Running Lights” from Call Steps. And this discussion focuses on key terms that provide entrances into the poetry as well as a way of relating parts of the whole collection. The third section, “Applications,” attempts reading three poems, again, as a way of opening passages into the collected poems.

2. Running lights

In “The Roadrunner Poem,” the speaker likens himself to the roadrunner, a figure searching for home, love, self-identity, and a clear relationship with the landscape. The runner seeks self-identity in terms of the plateaus in the distance, the ploughed fields and cottonwoods nearby, and he understands that a human has a place in the landscape:

The land is incomplete

without someone to live

into it. There

it is — in and out

the juice and sluice of energy

from letting nothing be gone

from it (9)


The human’s place in the landscape is interactive, “in and out” or in a later passage “cross and recross”

Where the body parts or thrusts

to be within itself

O where they cross and recross,

the whole journey into the moon

into the plateaus where only

water rushes that we loose, see, find, go on


Who comes

to those streams

to drink? Who lives

in the moon? (17)


His journey is toward the earth, the forest and mountains beyond “the Pan American highway” (23), but also through the landscape to the moon, or the life of the imagination. The poem concludes that the landscape is the habitation of the self interacting with the earth, but the goal is the illuminated light of the imagination.

The moment
that is full of the earth

is full (25)

Irby’s references to the features of the landscape appear in almost every poem, but in the poem “Bandelier” he expands his meaning:

here, this tight canyon

like our own muscles

flexed and relaxing,

the space, the gush

of water and the mountains behind us,

we carry in us.


If we feel home

in these ruins

of Bandelier — the body

does not lie

its ease here — not all

the energy of those

Pueblos of 1250

is lost — (35–36)


The canyon contains some of the energetic presence of previous inhabitants, almost like a residual event, and that energy projects into the present to become part of the energy inherent in a particular place where events took place and people lived.[6]

The poem “Kansas-New Mexico,” after citing an epigraph from Walter Prescott Webb, “the land itself is a survival,” reviews “the disk of the plains” (82) and recites lists of its towns and counties to reinforce the immediacy of the current occupation at the same time that previous events resonate in present events:

Let the plains

take us home. Let the earth

be where we

belong (85)


The reverence for the land demonstrated by setting a poem in specific geographical features expands in the rehearsals of previous events and people who lived within the scope of the poem “To Max Douglas.” E. W. Howe wrote portraits of life on the plains in The Story of a Country Town. “Ironquill Ware,” Eugene Ware, a late-nineteenth-century poet, wrote extensively about Kansas and its people. The land holds “traces / of Lewis and Clark” (189), as well as the schemes of the political boss Cy Leland, and the violent life and times of John Brown remain fresh in memory. The poem also mentions Jed Smith, who will be a subject of a later poem, and Carl Sauer, who, as a historian of the geography, recognized the inherent influence of previous people and activities in a given place. The poem cites Freud as well in a passage that defines the vision of the land:

as well as Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw
all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision

as on the palm, or heart beat
springs across the belly pit of the Basin West (201)

Max Douglas as a poet, and then Irby, inherits the energetic residue of all the previous ages, action and people of the Great Plains and these forces are operative in the actions of people in contemporary Kansas, so the past superimposes itself on the present.[7]

In the poem “Relation,” Irby lists Clarence E. Dutton, F. V. Hayden, and John Wesley Powell (among others), all geologists and explorers of the inter-mountain West, and later Cabeza de Vaca and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, both Spanish explorers of the Southwest, and the poem makes the point that the efforts of these men adhere in the geography they studied and explored, not so much as the lore of the land but as part of the projected energy of a spiritual life in particular places. In other poems like “Point Reyes Poem” the climatic conditions and the paths and the hills and the landscape come directly into the Sunday walk as if the walker were experiencing the same effect as an earlier expedition into unknown territories. The poem “Moon” pushes toward the visionary awareness of the land: “We have approached the fact of this land / as body as alive as our own” (118), which is confirmed in “Placitas Poem”:

                                              all mountains and all around

grown luminous behind the clouds and shadows, light

beneath and in all landscapes seen, whatever size —

down to these stones under the feet, leaves and samaras (135)


Irby begins Catalpa with several definitions of the word “landscape” and a listing of scholars and their essays and books about the Great Plains, including Edgar Anderson, “The Considered Landscape”; Charles Olson, “Letter to Elaine Feinstein”; Carl Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape”; and James C. Malin, “On the Nature of Local History.” In other places he mentions Dale Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West and Josiah Gregg, The Commerce of the Prairies; Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail; Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains; and James C. Malin, The Grasslands of North America. Features of the landscape and ideas of geography appear in almost every poem of Catalpa. In To Max Douglas and Catalpa, Irby moves closer to Carl Sauer’s ideas of “cultural geography,” not simply features of landscape but a container of various cultural and historical events.

The thing to be known is the natural landscape. It becomes known through the totality of its forms. These forms are thought of not for and by themselves, as a soil specialist would regard soils, for example, but in relation to one another and in their place in the landscape, each landscape being a definite combination of form values.[8]

Human societies and events of travel, discovery, and founding communities interact with the features of the land to create the cultural geography of the place. In later poems, Irby modifies this concept to include his imagined landscapes, and (as in “Delius”) the ones he creates by superimposing the forms of one place onto the forms of another place.[9]

In Catalpa, after the supplication of the opening poem, “The Grasslands of North America” confirms the relations between the forces of people and the land:

There must be in the juice

and flesh a same plain

as these, the same moving

wave as this grass

 the body comes back to

 only having heard as they

 only heard, by hearsay

 and believed it (253–54)


Irby has taken “a long journey across the land” (274) to California, a landscape very different from the uncompromising flatness of the plains, so the poems are full of references to fog, mountains, forests, and vistas, even references to the Spanish Governor Gaspar de Portolá (272) and the great British sailor Sir Francis Drake (259). “Jed Smith and the Way,” a central poem, chronicles a driving trip from Berkeley north through California to Eugene, Oregon and back again. Part of the trip follows approximately the same routes — or at least analogous routes —  Smith took in his trip north in the nineteenth century, but Smith’s journey as well as his death by Indians on the Santa Fe Trail are part of the modern trip, inherent in the movement forward. The old trip inhabits the modern trip and is part of the places, towns passed through and rivers crossed. In another section of Catalpa, Irby takes his sensibility of the plains eastward to Medford, Massachusetts, and so the poems struggle with the geography in the movement from Chicago to Boston. Governor Winthrop has a place now as does Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the coast of New England, and both exert the same kind of presence as a reappearance of Albert Pike, a Confederate General and a strong supporter of the Masonic Scottish Rite.[10]

Through Catalpa, Irby has firmly established the presence of landscape and geography, but that presence in the poems following — In Denmark, Call Steps, A Set and Ridge to Ridge — becomes more a metaphor in the process of meditation than a sustained demonstration of geographical features. He confronts the new European landscape by viewing it with the memory of the American scenes, even as he celebrates human love, and in the later poems landscape becomes metaphor in the parables trying to define a visionary experience and trying to find a vocabulary of that visionary experience.[11] The sustaining sense of geography and of the relations with the land are subsumed into the developing poetics so that they become intertextual references.

Irby is as much a traveler, “travelling, travelling” (545) — walking, driving a car, riding a bus — as the traveling geologists and historians he lists or cites in poems. He borrows a title from Bashō, “The Journey Itself is Home” (102) to specify “home” as a recurring figure of this collection. To Max Douglas begins with a hike. Home is not only a place but a state of attunement of the body’s energy with the land’s energy, as he remarks:

 If we feel home

 in these ruins

 of Bandelier — the body

 does not lie

 its ease here — not all

 the energy of those

 Pueblos of 1250

 is lost — (35–36)


In other places, he confirms this view of home as a state of attunement, rest, peace:

 We are not at home if we are not at rest

 going and coming in —

                                            home is the bed’s

 stead, where the rest takes place

 all the circulations, out and in

 that lead to sleep at last and back, to calm (142)


And in still another poem he asserts the centrality of the idea of home, “the search for home always” (283): it can appear “In the house of friends, on the Northern coast of California, in the grip of the elements, altogether alive” (299). Home is at times a visionary event, “the only place where you can go both out and in // power is stored is home // but every particle” (398). “The calling home, and being called inside, can concentrate” (538) both the desire of the journey and the peace fitting smoothly into the energy of a place or the dynamics of a human situation:

we are this household of

what the body holds of
and gives back

your dream of the trees and pasture
out past the balcony, straight on into
the distance past the door
set with chairs and sofas
having come home to (175)

Finding home becomes the sense of living into life and being fulfilled spiritually and physically:

 so dance accumulate, alveolate home deep

     in the earth their heart listens

 this is their bliss, in this delight the


 share in the light (490)


The journey to the vision of home extends from high school through the whole volume. The defining experience appears early in the book. “War I knew came home along the corridors of high school” (277), a time of loneliness, “like the ache of high school graduation night unsatisfied” (345), but also a recurring memory of visionary seeing — “The society of ordinary / high school days, never left, will it? (417).[12]

These recurring figures of the poems are as closely attached to the landscape, the Great Plains, as the “the Great Wheel of the Plains” that “turns under Fort Scott” (226). The wheel is related to the Mayan wheel of time. It also appears in “the great wheel of gulls over Christianshaven” (370) or “roulette on an upturned wagon wheel” (453), or the wheel of fate “upon the wheel we are, but the binding / is together” (167), but its essential function positions the plains of Kansas as the center of the world, turning the “wheel under the plains” (332):

 From the Plains

 have always demanded of us, You

 Male and Female Great

 Springers and Great

 Shielded Shafted and Helmeted

 Swingers of the Center

 Wheel of Earth — (347–48)


Or in the following lines:

 in the Land of the Hermetic Learning

 the Spirit Journey Dances

 on the Wheel of the Plains (323)


Two other figures repeated less often, however, occur in the poem — paradise and crows. Beginning with the pamphlet and poem titled, “The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream” (157, 165), paradise appears as a special place of vision in the land, but also as a song title in a memory of high school:

 “A Stranger in Paradise”

 out of Polovetsia

 out of highschool

 a return to my uncharted Central (231)


Paradise is a special place of vision, not the home garden plot — “the walk not to the paradise but the old home gardens garden” (567). And that special place of vision appears in scattered passages in this collection:

passed through the fair of worldly

 fair and wondrous things

 and made the Walk

 to the Paradise Gardens (231)


Like the theme of paradise, crows appear now and then especially as keepers of the sacred law, almost a bird of the visionary secrets:

 to be most dignity and testament

 crows take the crows take the over

 to teach us insufficiency (524)


Their powers are praised — “what can be known of the heart any more than of the colloquy of the crows in the field out the window” (527). “Crow calls” (551) come in contrast to the shrill call of the “Canada jays” (135) — “a bluejay shrieks to-be, insatiate, in the next tree” (536).

While the themes of geography and vision, the figures of home, high school, the wheel, paradise, and crows as well as certain key words like “line,” “direction,” and “through” recur throughout this collected poems, Irby’s poetics are also based on ideas of form and the relationship of information inherent in the poem to the internal movement of thematic and formal elements. Sorting out the internal workings of a poem is every bit as important as knowing what the poem says.

3. Applications

Irby’s tribute to the music of Delius was published first in Io (1973). “Delius” is a poem with sections numbered 1–8, like other early poems — “The Roadrunner Poem” with thirteen sections, “Kansas–New Mexico” with six sections, and “Solstice Set” with seven sections. The later poems in sections are not always numbered, so the series in “Etudes,” A Set, and the poems in Ridge to Ridge are parts of a continuous meditation without being numbered as such. The same is true of the eight untitled and one titled poem in “Heredom.” While the numbers give a direction to the early poems, the later series can be entered at any point without the direction of numbers and without violating narrative. In “Delius,” as in the later series, there is no sustained plot or narrative, other than the insistence on finding a means of writing out what has been perceived. Each of the eight poems takes advice from stories outside the poem and each gives a version or a portion of the meditation without adding to a plot or a narrative. The numbered sections provide breaks but not rhetorical connections between them.

Section 1, as a way to explain a dream about Delius’s song, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” tells stories from Delius’s fourth opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, where the song appears. The song from the musical Kismet, “A Stranger in Paradise,” comes to mind as a song from high school days, as old perhaps as a Russian “Polovetsia” dance tune. In remembering the opera, the section mentions Sali and Vreli, Romeo and Juliet, meeting the dark Fiddler who warns them not to cultivate a field; the whole scene moves from a church resembling those in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The young lovers are fully enthralled with one another in preparation in their “ache of savored regret,” to love one another or perish. The section ends with a quotation of Delius’s response to “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring”: This is the most heartbreaking music in the world” (232).

Section 2 is a commentary on the first section, mainly to the “sensualist” (232), Delius, who risks sentimentality in the opera of young love, trapping “the pain of parting / the endlessness of the moment of leaving / this world, this only world (232). The section ends, again with a quotation, this one from the program notes for Delius’s composition, Requiem; “human life is like a day in the existence of the world” (233).

The third section takes a different tack to explain why Delius is so haunting in another area of the “sentient,” “beyond his music” (233). Irby imposes one landscape on another, here the landscape Delius walked in Norway during summer visits onto the landscape of the Coast Range of California. Delius’s remarks about his walking in the mountains were recorded by Eric William Fenby, a British composer who helped Delius with his writing when Delius’s health would not allow him to work. Fenby later published a book, Delius as I Knew Him:[13]

 but it would be the younger man

 who hiked each summer over Norway

 untiring on the trails of the Coast Range

 in August and the hills gone golden brown

 closest to the genius

 of the region (233)


With the juxtaposition established, the next part of the section (separated by a small emblem) quotes Walt Whitman about his difficulty in finding what he wanted to say, and so inserts him into the imaginary landscape of Norway/Coast Range inside the conversation at Delius’s house at Grez-sur-Loing in France. The following part lists quotations by Delius about overcoming the difficulties of writing music, about the necessary persistence of composition at the piano, even with “his too long fingers” (235), according to Fenby’s account. The next part begins “lost in the night music of the Loing / or in the redwoods at Hendy” (Hendy Woods, Mendocino County, California) or in the joining of the imaginary geography, then with a report from Philip Haseltine (aka Peter Warlock, British collector and composer of songs) that Delius said California would be better for D. H. Lawrence “than Florida” (235). With references to the song “Hy Brasil” and then the Irish Islands, the poem joins Norway and Mendocino, where, in this imagined landscape, Delius (who in his old age was crippled by syphilis) was carried to a mountain “exactly at the moment of sunset” (235). The next two parts again quote Delius’s views about finding his means to write music first at “Sloane Grove” in Florida and then in France. The poems superimpose the cottage at Solano Grove on a cabin of a friend, Lowell Levant, in the Coast Range, and end with an incomplete statement: “the direct line in whose gaps” (236).[14] The next part is another quotation from Delius, via Fenby. “A sense of flow is the main theme” (236), while the final part reports that Arthur Hutchings, in Delius: A Critical Biography, joins Delius’s choral composition, Song of the High Hills, with a section from Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart called “The Hill Pantheist” as if the two “confluences of an English contemplation” (236) were the figure of an explorer sailing “South” “to the furthest reaches of the continents” (236).[15] The section finds relations between actual and imagined landscapes, and marshals several quotations from Delius as well as Whitman into the meditation about the impulse to create whether in words or in music.

Section 4 directs the poem and provides the informing statement for the entire collection. In “The Roadrunner Poem” Irby quotes a passage from The Grasslands of North America: “No line on a map can be drawn to represent in any realistic manner the actual conditions in nature” (13). The word “line” recurs in the poems to specify the means of depicting imaginary and actual events. For Malin, depiction is incomplete and so a version of a physical event. Many poems touch on this theme; the previous sections of “Delius” have made observations about the difficulty of writing poetry and music, but this section lists eight “duties to find a new vocabulary” (237) to express the momentary visions, which, since high school, have appeared in Irby’s writing. The first, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern” (237), comes from the final line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” and demands a change of life in order to fulfill life. Four quotations follow about seeing the “gap between the world,” the “twilight,” about the attraction to the “voluptuous longing for the beyond,” about seeking “vision with aggressive and adventuresome masculinity,” and about challenging “the limits of expressibility” (237). Despite being in quotation marks, these directives are probably Irby’s commands of accountability to himself in the manner of Robert Duncan’s “Imaginary Instruction” from his “The Venice Poem” quoted in Irby’s poem “[‘the Heron of Oblivion’]” (441). These directives are meant to find a new vocabulary to express the visions seen, and not to use the expressions of others. These directives are then followed by three more quotations by Delius reported by Fenby. The new theory of writing, of depiction, will emerge with profound relations with Delius’s authority in composition.

Without a proper transition, the fifth section (in nine parts), begins with the lines:

This is the golden beech
in the last dream of morning (237)

The “golden beech” is a structure made up by the imagination combining the “West Coast biome” (237) with dream matter, combining summer and “the winter rains.” As another version of the meditation to find a new vocabulary of the visionary experience, the second part introduces the story of the sheepherder Vanamee from Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus, who loses his lover and suffers severe loneliness. Vanamee drives his sheep along some of the same routes taken by Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, mentioned earlier, in the poem “Relation,” who in 1776 made a trip from Santa Fe to California and back. Vanamee experiences “ravaging voices, wordless at the top of the mountain” (238). Those voices are then compared with “Delian choruses,” which are then described as attempts to “join cosmology and continental geography.” Vanamee is imagined as “hearing voices” (238) in the same landscape described by Edward Abbey in his book Desert Solitaire. Delius combined with Vanamee in an imagined landscape described by Abbey; still both search for the fitting vocabulary — Vanamee with “stern aloofness” (238) and Delius in a Fenby quotation, “a continued reaching out of himself” (239). Richard Jefferies, through his autobiography The Story of My Heart, now enters the pattern of joining and condensing. Jefferies in his description of English landscapes, like Delius in his music and Vanamee in his sheepherding, was:

possessed by a longing so immense
it shot the wholly sensual through
with holes of an altogether other light (239)

The immense longing helps explain Vanamee’s trips “South into Mexico with the sheep” and then “the Great Circle back to California” (239) — “A great / circle without touching California” (123) from “Relation” — as well as Delius’s move to Solano Grove south of Jacksonville and Arthur Conan Doyle’s references to St. Augustine in his story “Five Orange Pips.” Similar travels appear in John Buchan’s espionage novels: “crossing and recrossing / the natural mystery” which then contrast with Charles Olson’s withdrawal from the journey in “Maximus of Gloucester,” “my balls rich as Buddha’s.”[16] The journey is nonetheless still “burgeoning” (239). After another reference to Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart — “we are murdered by our ancestors” (239) — “their [Delius and Vanamee in sexual matters] feet joined is some instant // triskelion wheeling beyond longing” (240) again go past (“wheeling” like the Great Wheel of the Plains) the “longing” that initially motivated them into a medium of perception without a vocabulary. The next part consists of five quotations again from Jefferies about the mystery, the immensity of the imaginative effort and the following search for a spiritual meaning beyond physical existence and beyond immortality. As in other sections of the poem, the quotations are brought into the poem as part of the process of infusing the poem with a body of information. This practice led Jed Rasula to call Irby “a sort of angel of the quote.”[17] The section ends with a single quotation as yet unidentified: “I have always loved the far, wide distance” (240).

Even after all the examples of journeys and joining of them, the search goes on. In section 5, Irby has joined and combined the work of people, attempting to find one in the other or to find a common longing in the necessity to create. In this section, he cites Percy Grainger’s remark that “he heard in Ellington likenesses to Delius” (241). The connections were already established. In the second part, he maintains that Ellington actually “really liked to hear / his own music” (241), but the poem speculates on Ellington’s posthumous album Reminiscing in Tempo (1975), and finds influences of Delius’s compositions in Florida and examples of the early influence of Grieg and of the German romantic composers on Delius to make “as melted / pot as America ever said it wanted” (241). Then the poem shifts around to find a “dance band sweetness in Delius, or perhaps a reference in Ferde Grofe’s ‘On the Trail’ (a section of Grand Canyon Suite) in Koanga” (242) (an opera by Delius) to “renounce” the idea of Bix Beiderbecke playing one of Ellington’s solo piano compositions, “In the Dark,” and then playing songs he had performed to great acclaim on his cornet. Such an evening at Delius’s house at Grez would be something like Hart Crane, after the death of Harry Crosby (publisher of the first edition of The Bridge), reading his own poem The Bridge “pilgrimaging on his way to the Mediterranean” (242) where Melville travelled, not with Hart Crane, but always with the presence of Whitman around.

Section 7 offers another joining, this time of Delius and the geography of the Coast Range. His struggles with syphilis are thought of in terms of crossing the Coast Range so that his accomplishment in music and following his longing rearrange “the felt directioned lines of force” (242), an actual accomplishment but fulfilling neither the idea of the “Old World” nor European principles of order and achievement nor “Atlantean,” ideal accomplishment in an ancient manner.

Section 4 begins with the directives, or duties, “to find a new vocabulary” (237), and section 8 near its ending quotes that statement as “to find a new vocabulary” (243). The meditation in this final section is again located in the Coast Range, and in highly metaphorical, and even dense language, stretches for the new language of the visionary experience. The poem seeks the “Western Ridge” (243), the California coast whose mythologies of belief, the cosmology, have been decreated — “bloodred in the sky as the Spider woman of the North and South.” The desire for such stories has not faded but sustains itself:

 what man has matured as a creature of, ice

 the Climatology of Attention is not the Extension of Empire

 an Elephant palm we might say, nursing its dying with a nuzzling trunk to reach

          the stars

 Deneb in the Swan over Bolinas the umbrella of the unquenchable reach (243)


The densely packed lines could be saying something like: the study of man in the various ice ages is not the same as the American desire to extend its empire through to the Pacific Ocean,[18] but that desire for empire could be something like a humanized, dying Elephant palm trying to reach the stars, which appear as the star Deneb in the constellation Swan (Cygnus) forming an umbrella over Bolinas. Even such desires lose their way for “that barely remembered home,” a visionary attunement with the landscape. The “Leader of the Wind” shows a magical sign for entry into visionary wonder on “a painted hand” (243), a sign similar to one in To Max Douglas, “as on the palm” (201), or “the palm of the hand held up to the setting sun” (333) in “of the Sons of Morning.” However, the “wind that holds Direction” — “felt directions of force” (366) in a later poem, “ROBERT: ‘where we only once’” — withholds the keys to the language. The direction will be found not by scrutiny of physical fact, “the mound underfoot,” but in “the starry horizon.” The poem ends by quoting the final line of Richard Jefferies’s essay “On the Downs”: “the soul knows itself, and would live its own life” (243).[19]

“Delius” is a complicated, highly referential poem. After taking up Delius as a sensualist in his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, the second section shifts to Delius’s Requiem. Other sections follow this pattern of depiction, a stop, and then another version starting in the next section without formal transitions. The poem imposes the landscape of Delius’s Norway onto the Coast Range of California, “as if on Tamalpais, exactly / coincident with that peak in Norway” (235), in an imaginary act bringing Delius closer to home. The poem then establishes Delius’s authority by giving him a voice in the poem with directions quoted from Fenby’s Delius as I Knew Him and references to Arthur Hutchings’s Delius: A Critical Biography, and Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart. The individual meditations in this poem occur surrounded by rich information which enters the poem and stretches the range and depth of its statement. The fourth section lists quotations without connections in separated lines, but these enter the poem with ease based on the previous series of quotations and references. The directives for a new language clarify the directions of the meditations. So the quick shift to Vanamee in Frank Norris’s novel Octopus is not startling; the concluding quotations from Jefferies’s book present it as another version of the same meditation trying to uncover a new language attuned to the landscape of California. Finding relations, or unearthing one frame of reference inherent in another, pushes the meditation, then Percy Grainger finding Delius in Duke Ellington leads to another stretch of Delius’s authority in the history of jazz, with associations with Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, and Walt Whitman. With Delius’s story imposed on the geography of the Coast Range, a shift takes place “widely rearranging the felt directioned lines of force” (242) of both the landscape and imaginative actions that invented that landscape. The shift then appears in the process of the poem in its final section seeking through a series of dense metaphors to exact the activity of a new language instead of trying to put the vision forward as a clear visual image. The sensualist power of Delius will “live its own life” (243) in the process of language articulating itself.

The process of language clarifying itself repeats in many poems, but especially in the poems in the section of Call Steps entitled “Heredom,” a subsection of Orexis. New aspects of Irby’s poetics reveal themselves. The poems tell stories, perhaps parables, construct imaginary scenes and events to demonstrate the process of the mind seeking ways of articulating the visionary experiences or aspects of the visionary experience. Familiar themes also appear in the poems as do new ways of importing referential materials into the poems. “Heredom,” for example, is the title of a journal devoted to research in the Masonic Scottish Rite. The first poem contains the lines:

gathered, the branch of acacia

            fused through with green swirled

                     Egyptian thorn milk waters

 raised, itself, of the lost and gathered body of mastery

 or all the high school years again, unslept, reviewing the annual faces over and over

           till they run green in the movies after the eyes are closed

                     and still as distant as they were in person (417)


The title of Ezra Pound’s essay “I gather the Limbs of Osiris” lies underneath the first four lines and so the story of Osiris and Isis becomes a parable about gathering the parts of the poem and bringing them back together.[20] And that act of magic and of recovery of “high school days, never left” (417) appears in the final three lines which reenact a version of the first vision in high school from the early poem “A Set for Roy Gridley”:

 Pencil lead broken off under the fingernail

         trying to clean it, I

 looked up and saw the whole green tree

         out the classroom window

 moving the green crystal craze in my veins

         I felt, was there, but

 could not ever see till then — (66)


The memory of the early experience remains active, informing the contemporary view with the past perceptions within the duality of “releasing and attracting” (417). This version tells an imaginary story of regaining the action of the memory as an aspect of the poetics of finding the new vocabulary. While the poem relates itself to a previous poem, it relies on the process of seeing and remembering, not a casual plot. The enactment of the process allows the poem to simply stop without the generous consideration of the unities or a sustained narrative inside the poem or among the following poems. The so-called fragment then becomes a valuable unit of poetic composition.

A similar process appears in the poem beginning “from the Camp the cries of burnt Templars.” The poem starts out as if a speaker were telling an old story of the Templars, another connection with the Masonic information about the cries rising over the tents of the “tengu,” Japanese spirits of the fields and forests. It begins in a fanciful way, not with realistic depictions, and then continues, as if the speaker were talking to his audience:

you’ve probably caught sight of the Camp at times

 coming unexpectedly into a clearing and looking up

      the quick flags

 thinking a fairy ring of mushrooms

       or Kim’s Red Bull on a Green Field (422)


The camp becomes the camp of Kim’s father’s regiment in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, identified by the Red Bull on the Green Field of its flag. The scene of the camp fades and returns as a vision does in its momentary appearance, which then leads to the speculation that has something to do with “an old high school friend,” which turns then into more explanation about the camp from the speaker, “it is said” that the troops move around, but then that scene changes into a speculation about a golf shot, not to a hole on a green but “to any hole in the hand / or the eye” (423), and then the concluding lines:

The Camp if it is a camp rotates slowly on its axis

        not the Grand Commander or the Mill of Heavens or the Transparency of the Tree

     or all the Years of Reunion Rituals

 that are the pole of the body (423)


The speaker again questions the nature of the camp, or whether it is even a camp at all, but certainly it is not the Commander of the Scottish Rite, nor the Mills of Heaven which are said to grind finely but slowly,[21] not the transparency of the world ash tree, nor the years of high school reunions, and then inserts a positive assertion about the reunion which is the support of “the body.” The poem, then, proposes a series of images of what has been seen, complete with some characteristics, and rejects them as explanations of the vision moment, “discrete moments” (29), as an inadequate vocabulary borrowed from sources other than the speaker himself. Then the meditation stops without coming to an enlightening conclusion, or a passage on to the next poem.

The poems from Ridge to Ridge continue Irby’s progress to contain and then project the process of visions in a new vocabulary. The poem beginning “a life into a few vegetables” (523) starts with a series of precisely described scenes. The first is a view of vegetables in a setting for a still-life painting which fades, “but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the short hall to the feet, and through again” (523). The words might be informed through and through by a spiritual awareness but they do not contain the scene, so another scene arrives of rocks and spray, which stops with a question of how “far away do you have to be to see, to be able to hear / the poem” (523). This additional loss of perception is punctuated by rain dripping “on the balcony behind the back.” There is a “gap left” between the actual scene and the articulation of the scene. In the third poem after this one he writes “to measuring, across the gap” (526) and “body clasping body across the gap” (527), finding the medium of attunement between the seen thing and the stated thing has the same relationship to finding meaning in the physical attunement between lovers. In the poem’s series of scenes, the next is quoted from the Spanish poem “Romance del Conde Amaldos.” A sailor sings from a ship, and quiets the waves, but refuses to give the secret of his song to those who don’t follow him. A gap separates the scene and the containment of the scene in words. The final scene of staring at a “hanging scroll    one long wet Sunday afternoon” in a shelter but this one first recoding the “gap,” “the soul is elsewhere,” concludes with the lines:

 here there is a butterfly in the knowing of that shelter that would return to change

       but being there together

 ascent by ink    and in the black ground black    hidden metallic lusters up out of

       each stroke of the pen (524)


An act of the imagination, “a butterfly,” ascends “up out of / each stroke of the pen.” The gap is measured, overcome not in the substance of what gets written about the hanging, the rain and the shelter, but in the process of writing about what is seen.

The poems in Ridge to Ridge, covering the years 1990 to 2000, achieve a process of poetry as an enactment of the mind seeking its own articulation in words that answer, at least partially, the plea from A Set to “the impulse, the sudden absolute necessity to speak, beyond articulation, beyond speech itself” (513). The necessity to articulate the “discrete moments” (29) of vision moves insistently through the poems. These late poems cling to the activity of language forming itself in place of either a prophetic stance or a dogmatic position. The disappearance of what Charles Olson called the “lyrical interference”[22] of a controlling ego releases the poems to make themselves in a huge field of information and authority in which the poet is an equal and participating agent. Predeterminations of formal structures also disappear so the poems are free to move into the lines and rhythms they create themselves. The variety of line lengths and forms of expression should and does indicate that the sounds of words and accumulation of the stories they tell measure out the forms the poems take. The poems do have common concerns, like the forces of geography, multiple relations with the landscape, history, memory, and circles of friends. The transformation of the concepts of the geography of the plains to the concepts of cultural geography found in the work of Malin and Sauer brought a major shift in Irby’s poetry. It allowed him to make up an imagined geography by imposing one set of forms on another and then reacting to its existence as if it were actually physical. The imagined geography helped to move the poems toward the process of thought. Beyond a fixed idea of geography he could imagine new places for his favorite themes. The themes recur like the wheel of the plains and the cry of the crows as elements assisting the impulse to find that vocabulary of expression to contain and even project those fleeting moments when the numen arrives and then disappears. Stephen Ellis comes to a similar conclusion when he notices that Irby embraces process and “no sense of closure”:

Irby’s poetics are, again, the result of an exchange, in the give and take of all relations, as cycles of resurrection rise and are resolved in, further senses of giving and of interplay, i.e., there is no sense of closure in the work, except as each piece leads into the next; the one consistent thing is a sense of ecstasy and accuracy combined that borders on distortion, a tearing away from old orders to new ones.[23]

The appearance is itself a process of tearing down old orders and ideas to embrace new ones, and by choosing a related process of finding the vocabulary of vision, the poems come closer to expression than using a visual image. The poems can be considered fragments, and they might be as fragmentary as the vision itself, but they are reliable enactments of the perceptions.

Irby’s poems begin before the publication of most of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems and before the publication of Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968) but the thinking of both poets appears in Irby’s poetics.[24] This is not a situation of straight borrowing, but Irby reading out what relates to his poetics in Olson’s and Duncan’s and then adapting it for his use. The concepts of open forms, the poem achieving its form from the inside and not from predetermined standards, the fragment as a viable medium, and the positing of a group of poems in a series without a sustaining narrative are essential aspects of Irby’s poetics. So is the situation of conceiving the poem as taking place in a field of information. Irby would have found such a situation in The Maximus Poems but also in Robert Kelly’s The Common Shore and in Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward. Cultivating poetry with accompanying information was a feature of Io, a magazine where Irby and many poets published, along with Alcheringa, edited by Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg. Irby managed his own procedures of bringing information into the poem as part of the activity of conceiving the poem, not as awkward footnotes.

The principles of poetics mentioned here place Irby’s poetry in the direct line of modern poetry from Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Kelly. Other poets, like Irby, not on the center stage of the literary world, arrived at similar concepts of serial form; they include Theodore Enslin, John Taggart, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, and Nathanial Mackey. In the 1980s and 1990s Language Poetry seized center stage. Lyn Hejinian published Irby’s pamphlet Archipelago (1976) from her Tuumba Press but that connection was based on writing, not ideology.[25] The ideology came later with essays and poems by Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman, but Irby was not part of that movement, and even declined invitations to write about that group in the 1980s. Ridge to Ridge: Poems 1990–2000, the period when Language Poetry held the loudest microphone, came forward with a proposition of a serial, visionary poetics to participate in a group of poets who have asserted major and consequential accomplishments in contemporary literary history. Some of Irby’s early poems appeared in Io, and now Richard Grossinger, Io’s editor, returns with his North Atlantic Press to publish Irby’s The Intent On. The great wheel of the plains turns again.



1. [All quotations from Irby’s The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009) are cited with page numbers in parentheses in the main text. — Eds.]

2. James C. Malin, The Grasslands of North America: Prolegomena to Its History with Addenda and Postscript (Lawrence, KS: Malin, 1947; Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1967).

3. Thomas Meyer, “Our Neglected Study: Irby’s Catalpa Considered Obliquely,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 29–38.

4. Edward Schelb, “‘Race of readiness before o’ertaken’: The Allegorical and Pastoral Art of Kenneth Irby,” Notus 10 (Spring 1992): 2, 214.

5. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).

6. In an interview, Kenneth Irby mentions Adolph Bandelier’s book The Delight Makers, about the canyon which is now part of a state park bearing Bandelier’s name. See Barry Alpert, “Ken Irby — An Interview,” Vort 3 (Summer 1973): 57.

7. The reference to Freud also confirms the place of Carl Sauer in Irby’s thinking. Sauer wrote in his article “Recent Developments in Cultural Geography,” to make the point that cultural landscapes are made up of “the forms superimposed on the physical landscape” (2, 209).

8. Carl Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape,” in Land and Life: A Selection of Writings from Carl Ortwin Sauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 337.

9. Irby would have also found this idea of “cultural geography” in the writings of James C. Malin, for example, in The Grasslands of North America: “Treated in its own right, the history of a geographical area includes a consideration of all that has been present or is present within the bounds chosen. Proper subjects of study, from this point of view of geographical area, are its geological history, its ecological history, and the history of human culture since the beginning of occupance by primitive men — in the case of the Western United States, some 10,000 years since man reached the Folsom cultural level. The term culture, as used here, is that of the archaeologist and anthropologist and denotes the sum total of a way of life” (471).

10. Albert Pike, born in Boston, later served as a General in the Confederate Army. Before the Civil War, he was elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, and after the war he retained that title in a career as a lawyer and writer; he published the book Morals and Dogma of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1871. Irby celebrates Pike in his poem “Homage to Albert Pike” (343), and his later poem “from The Camp the cries of the burnt Templars” refers to the Templars as well as to “the grand Commander” (422–23). Heredom is the title of a publication of the Scottish Rite Research Society; the name appears as a subsection of the book Call Steps, and later as a title of a poem (440), just before a reference to “the old degree” (441), another reference to the rituals of the Scottish Rite. The poem “[Reunion]” refers to “(Knight Rose Croix),” an advanced degree of the Scottish Rite; the poem also contains the lines “did Pike read Boehme? / out of the fire of Wrath and Civil War” (500–01), which is a quotation from Pike’s book Morals and Dogmas (above). I would guess there are many more references to Freemasonry and the Scottish Rite in Irby’s collection.

11. In his very perceptive essay, Edward Schelb calls the same stories I call parables “allegory” (1). He may be right. In a strict literary sense an allegory posits a one-to-one relationship between image and idea. Or, Good Works equals good works. I associate parables with the stories Wallace Stevens tells, of Canon Aspirin, for example, as possible ways of understanding an interaction between imagination and reality. In any event, Irby’s parables have the same propositional nature as Stevens’s.

12. In an article, Peter Bertollette cites Henry Corbin’s books Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth and Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism in support of a very useful comment about Irby’s idea of home: Irby’s use of homeplace and “the heartland” “fits in with Corbin’s notion that the home is an organ of perception, where the heart lies, a place to be planted in, and shoot forth from.” See Peter Bertollette, “Ken Irby,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 28, and Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran, trans. Nancy Pearson, Bollingen Series XCI:2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). Don Byrd also adds a fine perception about Irby’s idea of home: “To make a play stay put by knowing what its uses is what Irby means by making a home.” Don Byrd, “Ken Irby and the Missouri-Kansas Border,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 9.

13. Eric Fenby, Delius as I Knew Him (London: Bell, 1936).

14. The idea of a “gap” is familiar to readers of the poetry of George Oppen, who thought the gaps between words and between the sounds of words contain rhythms and meanings that reinforce the actual words of the poem. Irby uses the word “gap” as a space between a physical landscape and an imagined one. In another reference to Oppen’s poems, to the title Discrete Series, Irby writes about “discrete moments” of vision in his own poems. He continues sounding very much like Oppen: “Thus in the sequences as they piece by piece go and return, quietnesses, the pauses, the spaces between, are toward regeneration too” (29).

15. Arthur Hutchings, Delius: A Critical Biography (London: Macmillan, 1948); Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography (London: Constable, 1947).

16. Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, ed. George Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 473.

17. Jed Rasula, “On Ken Irby,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 44.

18. Dale Smith mentioned that the reference to “Climatology of Attention” might be a reference to Henry Corbin’s discussion of the “Eighth Climate” in his Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. (Dale Smith, email to the author, 21 April 2011). Corbin writes: “The Eighth Climate is the mundus archetypus (’ãlam al-mithãl), the world of Images and archetypical Forms. Actually, the only universe that possesses dimensions and extent is the one that is divided into eight climates. Seven of them are the seven geographical climates with dimensions and extent which are perceptible to the senses. The eighth climate is the one whose dimensions and extent can only be grasped by the imaginative perception” (126–27).  That Corbin’s discussion has a geographical basis provides another correspondence which would make more feasible a reading that says that the study of the various climates of perception is not the same as studying the extension of empire. With that noted, it might be permissible to quote “the mountains surrounding our universe” are “formed entirely of emerald, like the reflection which produces the color green” (Corbin 74) and relate the color green to Irby’s high school vision of “the green tree” and “the green crystal craze in my veins” (66). In addition, Irby’s ideas of paradise could contain more than the spirit of Kansas and Christianity. Corbin could add: “The way of seeing the Earth and the way of seeing the soul are the same thing, the vision in which the soul perceives itself; this can be its paradise, and it can be its hell” (82). See also Peter Bertollette’s comments above.

19. Richard Jefferies, “On the Downs.”

20. Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909–1965, ed. William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

21. I suspect this could also be a reference to Giorgio De Santillana’s book Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on the Myth and Frame of Time, which was a much-read book of the period.

22. Charles Olson, Collected Prose, eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 247.

23. Stephen Ellis, “Observations On, and Ruminations Over, Kenneth Irby’s Call Steps,” Lift 14 (April 1994): 2, 21.

24. Robert Duncan’s poetic thinking with quotations from his prose and poems, especially his ideas of the numen, and the search for a fitting language, appears more than other poets to inform Irby’s poetics, including the unacknowledged, italicized quotation from Duncan’s “Go, My Songs, Even as You Came to Me”: “& would it be body to / make zealous liberalities a gift taken from” (477). Duncan, Groundwork: Before the War (New York: New Directions, 1984), 122. In the preface to Movements / Sequences Irby quotes Duncan’s statement about “‘the dwelling of the imagination in the speech,’” and then continues: “I would follow Duncan in what he shows me of that process, as best I can” (29).

25. While Irby mentions only a few contemporary poets, he was as aware of the various writing scenes as he was aware of the company of poets he thought part of his poetic geography. A partial list of the poets mentioned in this collection includes: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedich Hölderlin, Walter de La Mare, Virgil, Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Grenier, Thomas Meyer, Jonathan Williams, Gerrit Lansing, Robert Kelly, Larry Goodell, Thoreau, S. T. Coleridge, Dante, Thomas Vaughan, Ezra Pound, Paul Metcalf, John Moritz, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Eugene Ware, Gérard de Nerval, Harry Martinson, Johannes Bobrowski, HD, Lao Tzu, Gunnar Ekelöf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Louis Zukofsky, Frederico Garciá Lorca, Edward Dorn, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Richard Lovelace, and Ron Loewinsohn.