April 30, 1963

Kenneth Irby in Cambridge, 1962.

30 Apr [63][1]

Yr letter came at an appropriate time — I had just gotten back from NY, from seeing Blackburn & Robt Kelly & Roi Jones & Joel Oppenheimer (whom I hadn’t met before) — Kelly had given a reading on the 17th — at which was also Stan Brakhage[2] (who also gave a showing at Princeton that weekend I saw, & talked to him again afterwards — his movies are incredible things to me, the more and more I see them; & he is a very direct & open person — the audience sat after the flicks for 2 hrs or more asking questions & taking in what he was saying — unusual for Princeton types, but then, who knows). A good week in all, & then yr letter to cap it all off, esp. since I had been thinking re Olson just what you were saying there, that his movement formally is very much, totally, a dynamics of construction, not a preset pattern across the page or even out of saying. & not long before you had shown up in some crazy dream of mine, but with crewcut red hair, so god knows what that involved! Anyway, & again, the letter was very good to get — don’t worry abt writing back in answer to this till things clear for you — I’ll be deep in Japanese anyway from now on, trying to catch up & review & retrieve what can be retrieved from a pretty much lost semester. So, anyway, this to keep the lines humming, communications live, the contact there.

I had on getting back here, seminar paper due & no paper done, figured just to say hell completely & leave then & there, money being the only drawback (as always). But I talked the thing over with various sorts of professors, & agreed that in order to get the rest of my scholarship & collect the money for the course I’m grading, I should at least finish up — even if I flunk it’s no worse than leaving, & the money is there. So — the seminar is out of the way by arrangement, but Japanese & Chinese left. Onward & BANZAI & don’t give up, so, on.

That, then, & enough of all this shit of mine re this institution (yr attached bit on the back of the letter was, yes, to here! where the hell did you find it?). I’ve got, as I reckon you have, the flyer from CHANGE, with its very attractive photo of the editors & the fastest car on earth, & (by god, for me you’ll figure, a welcome & not-used-to sight, my name in any kind of print) me among the mentioned.[3] Which is nice of ’em & sustenance in the midst of rainy generally shitty cold spring (?) weather here (god, how much I go or lapse from the sheer presence or lack of the sunlight, but then).

Am, it happens as you ask, reading Fade Out,[4] along with Eastlake’s The Bronc People,[5] right now, so I’ll wait till I’ve finished to say anything. But it does take me along now.

There is a book of photographs I’ve seen you might like very much if the library there’s got it, or some book store (not likely I reckon that) — by Eliot Porter, of Glen Canyon, The Place Nobody Knew,[6] which are of any I’ve seen the finest color photographs as a group I’ve ever seen, I guess, & the quality of the reproductions superb. You probably know of him or know him personally since he has lived in Santa Fe a long time now. But god knows the book is a great one.

So. Here I sit & getting, by god yes, drunk, red wine & the rain & why not & hills hills hills in my mind, the ones you live on, stuck in my memory as gray as this rain because it was early morning when I woke up on the bus & saw them just before the sun, not Pocatello but Twin Falls, like them I guess; & the hills of my 2 yrs in the Army, Ft Riley, the Flint Hills of Kansas that Custer rode out of much as I did an early morning, going myself to the rifle ranges, he to idiocy of a kind he paid for by taking a lot of others with him, generic to army posts & the plains too — & Ft Leonard Wood in the Missouri red clay Ozarks, with pines & nothing but gravel all over the ground — & Albuq & the Sandias; & home of E. Kansas just as wet right now as here probably, long lines of cuesta hills stretching around Trading Post. […]

So, prominences / I no more know why they come & go behind the eyes than why, finally, I came to them, why I lived there around them at all; like Bob says

such geography of self and soul
brought to such limit of sight,

I cannot relieve it
nor leave it, …[7]

In the rain, & wot the hell wot the hell. The urge always to get to the top of the hill — is this the primary drive in mt climbing, the real climbing, that is the Mt Everest etch outfits? The cuestas of Linn County Kansas were like the mesas of the SW to me — how they came up out of the flat lands, farm lands there in Kansas, but the hills equally as the mesas, almost as if separate country. & my desire to get on top of either — that drove me 3 or 4 times to climb the ft path up the face of Sandia Crest, once 3 ft deep in snow with Anderson, the Arkansas type you met that NYr’s Eve in Santa Fe.[8] The urge that only is there when it is those prominences that rise from the plains, though; among the mts proper, in the Rockies, I have no drive to get to their tops. Who knows, or why it is so. Maybe the reactions of a plainsman to see his own country just a little better — when he sees mountains, they’re mts, whether in em or on em — just revel to be there (like Cousin Minnie Pearl used to say on the Grand Ole Oprey, “well sir, I’m just soh pleased (proud)? to be here”).

Or why drunk I’m going all over them now. Anyway.
                                                                                                 Have been reading Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River,[9] & am convinced he was much more interested in getting to the Indians there & tapping them, than the river & its canyons alone (or, yes, the geology too, I forget that) — the description is interesting cause he is in the midst of first describing, almost, yet he is not innocent to this kind of landscape at all, he’s been around the country elsewhere, so it doesn’t break in on him with complete ton of bricks. & the legends from the indians do turn him on. The worst thing is to realize that all of Glen Canyon as he saw it (& those photographs saw it) is now under god knows how much silt-laden water, backed up behind that damn dam who knows why we really need.

o well shit Ed I could go on & on, & I’m to other things if the wine don’t keep me off it, them.

               There’s a possibility I may do a review of The Sullen Art for Kulchur, but up in air.[10] Would like to try, though to review as a whole involves some effort. But why not try.

So, well, anyway. Glad you like the thing I sent you—little has been going—& one the Harvard Advocate was thinking of printing they now want me to change (how or why don’t know) & am pissed myself, if they don’t want it, don’t fuck with me over it, its not that great nor are they. Oh well. I hope things work for you—i.e. done with the least hang up. Roi said some of yr students were putting out a magazine, Wild Dog (as I remember?), & that’s very good.[11] Let me hear from you when things clear for you — & for sure I hope to see you all in NMex come summer, but will keep in touch all along. Bless you again for those saving letters — they’ve lifted me when I didn’t figure there was a lift going.

                 love to you all

                                                                        — Ken



1. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 30 April 1963, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

2. Stan Brakhage (1933–2003), experimental filmmaker, writer, and close friend and correspondent of Dorn.

3. Irby’s poem “For Thanksgiving 1962” (reprinted in this special issue) was published in Change 1 (1963): 13–14.

4. Douglas Woolf, Fade Out (New York: Grove Press, 1959).

5. William Eastlake, The Bronc People (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958).

6. Eliot Porter, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1963).

7. Creeley, from “The Mountains in the Desert,” collected first in Words (New York: Scribner, 1967).

8. Irby is referring to New Year’s Eve 1960, when, having just moved to Albuquerque for the army, he first met Dorn. See the introduction to these letters.

9. John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), geologist and explorer of the American West; explored the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in 1869.

10. See endnote 15 (“April 8, 1963”).

11. Early issues of Wild Dog — of which there are twenty-one issues in all, published between 1963 and 1966 — were coedited by Dorn, John Hoopes, and Drew Wagnon. See endnote 9 (“October 21, 1964”). For further information, see: Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (New York: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998), 152–153.

'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.