Editorial note: The following pieces were originally published in Isthmus 2 (1973): 54–60, and are reprinted here — transcribed from their original typescripts — for the first time. Carl O. Sauer and James C. Malin are arguably the two most significant nonliterary influences on Irby’s writing, each of their names appearing eleven times in his The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006. To call them “nonliterary influences,” however, is misleading. Not only are their respective subjects — geography, and local (i.e., Kansas) history — important to Irby’s work, but also the methodology and broader philosophical approach that each scholar brought to bear on his field, as well as the melding of that approach with a distinct prose stylistics. Thus, we can recognize in the form, method, and theme of Irby’s pieces, traces of his subjects. Irby’s journalistic detail and close attention to the scene’s totality (the Bugs Bunny cartoon, for example, that Irby notices playing on the other side of the partition in Sauer’s hospital room) echo Sauer’s insistently empirical and historicized approach to research (e.g. encouraging other geographers to “get their boots muddy”), as well as his lean and descriptive prose, while Malin’s conviction that “local history is the foundation of all history” is evidenced by Irby’s choice to promptly record and publish such candid accounts of seemingly unremarkable events.
Born in Missouri, Carl Ortwin Sauer (1889–1975) received his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1915, and was professor at UC Berkeley from 1923 to 1957. Primarily concerned with what James Parsons describes as the “agency of humankind in using, modifying, and shaping the earth’s surface through time,” Sauer’s work, which he termed “culture history,” takes a phenomenological perspective, emphasizing process over positivism, and first-hand observation over moralist and theoretical evaluations. His numerous books are particularly interested in the prehistory culture of the American Southwest and Mexico, agricultural origins and dispersals, the discovery and exploration of the New World, land use and planning, and the destructive exploitation of natural resources. His influence is widely felt among twentieth-century geographers, such as Alfred W. Crosby Jr. and William Cronon, as well as early environmentalists, such as Rachel Carson, and a slew of mid-twentieth-century American poets, such as Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley (who first recommended Sauer’s work to Irby), Gary Snyder, and Charles Olson (who appointed Sauer, “my ace,” to the Black Mountain College Advisory Board). Bob Callahan, who introduced Irby to Sauer, and served as the latter’s executor, was the founder of the Turtle Island Foundation, which published a number of Sauer’s late works and, in the late ’70s, employed Irby to compile the index for Sauer’s posthumously published Seventeenth-Century North America. For further information on the relationship between Sauer’s work and mid-century poetry, see James Parsons’s essay “‘Mr. Sauer’ and the Writers,” published in Geographical Review 86, no. 1 (Jan 1996): 22–41.
Born in North Dakota, historian James C. Malin (1893–1979), whom Sauer refers to as “one of those prairie historians,” received his PhD in 1921 from the University of Kansas, where he worked as a professor for the rest of his life. Iconoclastic, eccentric, and fiercely independent, Malin is probably best known for The Grasslands of North America, his two-volume study of the intersection of ecology and history. Although Malin maintained a “defensive sensitivity to the image cast by his state in the rest of nation,” and the majority of his scholarship mines the particulars of his locality — from John Brown, to winter wheat, to the little known Emporia-based poet Eugene Ware — his interests were, by no means, confined to that area, as is evidenced by a number of his offbeat titles, such as Confounded Rot About Napoleon and Doctors, Devils and the Woman. In his retrospective essay “James Malin — An Appreciation” (Kansas Historical Quarterly 38, no. 4 [Winter 1972]), Robert Johanssen summarizes Malin’s four “principles in history,” which Malin elaborated in numerous essays on historiography: “1) change and variation in time and space; 2) recognition of an element of organization in all things; 3) continuity as a general principle, but subject to a partial interruption in varying degrees according to an unpredictable element of uncertainty arising out of the behavior of the particular; 4) individualism.” Michael Brodhead, who introduced Irby to Malin, attended the University of Kansas as both an undergraduate and masters student, and received his PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. After briefly managing the Kansas Collection at KU’s Spencer Research Library, Brodhead became a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and, subsequent to his career in academia, worked as an archivist in Washington, DC. His name also appears numerous times in Irby’s correspondence with Ed Dorn, a selection of which is included elsewhere in this special feature. — Kyle Waugh
January 20, 1973: A visit with Carl Sauer
Yesterday afternoon to visit Sauer with Bob Callahan — Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, construction on new wing incessant and deafening as we walked up — room 450, Sauer in bed reading newspaper, looked up, Hullo Callahan, exchanged a few comments about his illness, gall bladder operation (almost as an aside, brushing such matters aside as of no importance except as impediments to the real work — later: “get back to the office again — after 2 weeks of not living”) — “going home tomorrow” — Bob introduced me, I told him I was from Fort Scott, he said he didn’t know much about that aspect of — not much work on that era of — had studied a lot the Indians of that area but not with that later — I told where how when Fort Scott founded — silence (did he hear me? he showed signs of difficulty hearing sometimes — stern gaze, bright eyes, intense alive presence despite 83 years, skin hanging in creases — slow speech, many pauses, gazing usually off, up, into his subject/determination) — I said I knew Malin with whom I guessed he’d had some exchanges — he asked, “you were a student at the University of Kansas?” I said yes, undergraduate, he said, “yes, Malin … one of those prairie historians” — long silence — Callahan picked it up, told him Northern Mists paperback contract was signed, should be out March or April, Sauer very pleased, eyes even brighter, asked if cover would be kept, Bob said yes, Sauer said (the artist) had done a good job, he was glad it would be kept, had actually submitted 3 different covers from which that one had been picked — Bob assured him a good photo reproduction of the cover would be done — questions of distribution: Sauer: students’ll buy pb, but they are distributed well — Bob said (and I seconded) Book People (answer to “who’s distributing?”) were good outfit, C.O.S. apparently hadn’t heard of — mention of Donald Lathrop’s work — at Univ of Illinois? yes — anthropology or geography — anthropology — dept — “the geographer, the alligator … whatever the third is, that animal constellation he’s been working on, from his trips to the Upper Amazon” (later, Bob: jaguar the third term — like “The Politician, the Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant” of Sherlock Holmes’[s] unwritten cases) has this work been published? — no, you’ll just have to write Lathrop — Callahan: so-called primitive man must have been quite a geographer to get around as he did — extending senses of that: Chinese feng-shui, geomancy — Sauer: “we have a Korean graduate student here, named Ywon, Y–w–o–n, who’s working on geomancy, you might get in touch with him …” talked of how missionaries almost never get into anything of what is going on in the country around them, that barrier in them being almost a sine qua non for there being there, the exceptions proving the rule, etc. — Callahan asked of the French explorer, whose letters … Pleistocene lake named after … Lahontan, Sauer says [Louis–Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, 1666–c.1713], and tells long and rather detailed story of Lahontan here in the U.S. — career officer, intimate of Count de Frontenac, royal lieutenant to the colony of Newfoundland, which post he deserted and fled back to Europe, was disgraced and could never return to France — sole among his cohorts who had any sympathy with, insight into the Indians — wrote account of his travels, partly faked, and set of dialogues, including one (also made up?) with Huron chief, depicting nobility of high civilization of North American Indians (Callahan says later was influence on Rousseau and notion of the “noble savage”) — one of the few, Sauer emphasized, who had real insight [I thought of Jaime de Angulo, both nationally and personality] — “so much emphasis on this wrong notion of ‘evolutionary progress’ has held so many back for so long — even Teilhard suffered from it — every day we’re getting better, etc. — now Leakey’s son has found hominid skulls much much older than those his parents found and yet in terms of evolution — brow ridge, jaw, etc. — more advanced — I remember Prof. Le Gros Clark years ago, even before we’d more accurately dated those remains, saying that if Swanscombe Man were to walk down a London street today in modern dress, no one would notice him — it isn’t that man’s intellectual capacity was less then than now, that mistaken notion, but that he had less to work with” — went on to say, the real problem’s understanding people the way people think who think differently than we do (to which I added, even understanding the way we think!) — commented on Jaime de Angulo as one of the few capable men of imagination who could get with other people — “one of the few — and they wouldn’t pay any attention to him” — and Paul Radin — Bob quoted Nancy de Angulo, that Jaime and Radin would sit up arguing all night, never agreeing about anything, loving each other deeply — I mentioned The Trickster was back out in a paperback, at which Sauer smiled and his eyes glinted — spoke for a while on the “far too great emphasis on the economic motivation for man’s acts” — Callahan quoting: “imposing our sense of economics on ‘primitive’ man, which is an economics of an entirely different order” — Sauer especially speaking about horticultural development, domestication of plants — his last pronouncement was on this, then a long pause — Bob said we had to be getting on — he said, well, come again, pleasure to talk to you, next visit’ll be at 13 — Rose! — I gave him my Max Douglas poem, apologized a little in advance for my use of his statements, told him who Max was — “he lived in St. Joseph?” — I said yes — “never knew there were any poets there” — he said he didn’t know much about the younger poetry, but he did figure it was serious stuff “and not just show-off” — the room was shared with one other man, not visible on other side of screen but seemed to be Chinese from evidence of his wife and kids there visiting, and his voice — tv going on that side all the time we were there, volume turned down as the family left, from where I stood I couldn’t help noticing what was on from time to time — old pre-WWII b&w cartoons, then Bugs Bunny, about to be run over by train driven by fiendish villain, then film “breaks” in the cartoon, pause, then B.B. steps out front to explain projector gave way, “That’s All Folks!” — other patient answering nurse over intercom, yes, bring me a darvon — his kids, two girls, ages c. 3 and 5, playing with yo-yos as they left — talking with the greatest geographical mind of the 20th century, accompanied by Bugs Bunny! — not much reading material in evidence: few newspapers, Bob said later the Berkeley Gazette on Sauer’s lap when we came in was open to article on recent archaeological finds in Greece, with map — headlines on school board upset, city government problems — couple of magazines on night table, but covered up — one bottle of what looked like milk of magnesia or kaopectate — not Phillips — Sauer’s glasses off most of our visit — his arms usually behind his head, occasionally straight up into air, one or two times grabbed exercise bar on chains overhead — face lean, gray stubbly moustache, hair white — looking much as in Land and Life photo, but of course much older, almost 40 years — bright, almost fierce eyes and demeanor — not unpleasant, but intense, no bullshit — often simply said nothing in reply to statements (as about Malin after “prairie historian”, and Bob said he’d clammed up on Malin whenever he had mentioned him on previous visits), lapsed into silence — couldn’t tell if it was drugs/sedation (some, perhaps), or tiredness (certainly), or simply already thinking about another subject, reading to break out in a new direction — we were there only about 30–40 minutes
[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]
September 1, 1972: A visit with James C. Malin, Lawrence, Kansas
Yesterday afternoon to Malin’s with Michael Broadhead — ’30s white stucco modern, flat-roofed, strictly rectangular house, windows at corners, Bauhaus/Malin (he designed it himself) — tile floors, plainly furnished, curtains for doors between rooms downstairs — evidences of Malin’s work everywhere downstairs but the kitchen, the dining room become another study, table piled high with manuscripts and card files — three reproductions of The Last Scout in the living room — old van Beinum recording of Das Lied von der Erde standing on the music stand of the upright piano, also a Westminster Telemann, and Claudia Muzio arias — many old 78 albums visible — spiral stairwell to upstairs open in step-patterned cut above piano (so their daughter when a child could watch and listen from the stairs during their evening musicales, his wife told Hwa-di) — Mrs. Malin brought cookies and coffee, then left us after leaving a box of cookies (animals) for Linus — J.C.M. very slow, using cane, dressed as usual in his jump suit/coveralls — but not sick, ill-seeming, just slow — couldn’t always remember names he wanted to, or find photos, journals in the great stack next to his chair — talk of John Brown, his own John Brown book, recent controversies over that — he knew Oates’ book but had not read it — defended himself against attack from Smith College rabbi that he was racist and anti-semitic — said he was the first to give a fair account of the one Jew who rode with Brown — Wiener — spoke of St. Louis as key to materials of Jewry of the Great Plains and West, the Jewish community there very tightly organized, consistently outfitted “their young countrymen of whatever country” as salesmen, first with pack, then if they did well, a cart, and eventually a store — said no one had really investigated such matters at all — Michael noted that some work of this sort was now coming out of Santa Barbara (a journal), but that it was almost entirely California in focus — much talk in early part of our visit seemed to center on Malin’s various battles with critics — but he in good spirits, humorous resignment to detractors/misunderstanders evident — when asked about one recent (well-meaning but unimpressive) article on his work, he sighed, “I just don’t know what to say about that article” and continued looking for a book he had mentioned, without looking up — spoke of Gould Colman’s interview with him, the transcript deposited in the regional history library — Michael asked if it was restricted in access, Malin said yes, to keep curiosity seekers out, not serious scholars — though denied there was any really juicy material there — said he had materials for several scandalous articles that would be unpublishable, but he didn’t think he would write them — didn’t say about what of course — (all this re the recent piece in the Kansas Historical Quarterly on Lindley and J.C.M. flap in the ’30s) — mentioned he had several articles’ worth of material written or to be, on Ware — I asked him how he had gotten on to Ware in the first place — he had projected three grasslands regional studies: the first, on Kansas City, had been written, the other two never were: a), on fuel — coal mines at Leavenworth and in SE Kansas, Fort Scott a focus there, and in digging into Fort Scott matters, he got onto Ware; b) was to have been building materials and native architectural design of the plains — I asked him if Ware’s poems were still in print — he said, technically, no, but that he had some copies of the last (15th) edition (Putnam, 1939) the Ware family had turned over to him — I offered to purchase one, he said, no, he wouldn’t sell me one, but he would give me one (pristine, with dust jacket, and pasted on flyleaf, white label saying “Compliments of James C. Malin”) — some talk of the Western Historical Assoc. meeting in October in New Haven, the session there to be devoted to his work — he characterized the members’ publications as either buffs’ (American West magazine) or academic (Western Hist Assoc Journal), and said he belonged to neither — our great communications problem today, he said, though the current period is the greatest for expansion of man’s knowledge of any in man’s history, the problem is keeping up with it — we spoke for a while of the 1968 Pleistocene Great Plains symposium in Lawrence — he said he had only seen the Peter Wells paper, not the rest — thought that Wells showed that the prehistory and vegetational history of the Great Plains were much much more complex than we had ever thought — but also felt he may have overstated his case, “as we often do when we’re on to a new and important thing” — of Sauer: has more ideas than any of the younger ones working, but “a very disagreeable man” — Michael asked: in his work, or personally — Malin: “personally — if he likes you, fine, but he takes strange dislikes to people, then he can be very disagreeable indeed” — a little talk about William Allen White, his preface to Rhymes of Ironquill — won’t tell you anything about Ware, Michael said — J.C.M. agreed, wondered why White had been so famous when he had so little to say — just before we got up to leave, I gave him a copy of To Max Douglas, saying: perhaps this will amuse you — then the new Tansy with Don Byrd’s piece on him in it — then Michael gave him the recent Io with his piece on Coues in it — Malin seemed genuinely surprised and touched literary people, poets, knew and were interested in his work — “I hadn’t known at all — there’s such a communications problem,” he smiled — as he showed us to the door, he said: “the one thing that despite all his history and civilization homo sapiens still cannot determine satisfactorily, is quality” — as we walked away with Mrs Malin was next door chatting on the front stoop with younger neighbor lady — I remembered then I had asked him about the musical history of the region: SW, Kansas City jazz, ragtime, especially in connection with earlier migration routes — and he had said he could never investigate such matters, because he hated jazz, rock, etc. — Michael said: with which period of jazz does your dislike begin? — he answered: all of it — our visit perhaps an hour all told, slightly more
[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]
lobe of opalescent glass (417)
a rapid shadow from a slope of grass
<<Absents within the Line Conspire, and Sense
Things Distant doth unite>> (482)
- not least of all in title, The Intent On.
Herein an inner traffic, the seepages of worlds (547),
as the hyacinth smell
and the peeling
of the first air (560)
find setting. This is a work manifestly given over to the magics, the wildness of transmission: unreal, to have it so handy, to have such time immediate. Lines touch
and touch with touch the are they are (632),
true in their quiver:
Plotinus wrote: <<Often I reawaken from my body to myself: I come to be outside other things,
and inside myself.>>
which when I first read it I thought said: <<I come from being outside other things to being
which is the existence that is a call
there is a conviction that if you jump up and down off and on the curb long enough with your feet
held tightly together
others have been convinced that perfect immobility for the exact number of days or months - and
the number varies -
will turn your eyelids to emerald
and with emerald the immobility will be limitless vibration everywhere (576)
Which (i.e., fixity turned on its head) may figure the work, so resoundingly is Ken’s a time art, so orthogonal (as in that focal term continent (219, 551)) is the play, the mo(ve)ment, to bounds, to bindings. Emerald may be of the [Emerald] City (146, 159, 88, 307), our estuary (550), the magic lands stretching all the way to Here. How that here at once is and is not of my self is a particular notice of the work; & so I write to tell of my share in Ken’s place, his time, and present - or more precisely, of his in mine.
how far a country is college, how far a continent and many countries (551)
I was chickenshit, freshman, with formal value DICHTEN=CONDENSARE (cf. Pound’s ABCs of Reading) - what I know now, as against Irby’s range, for Inhibition. Counterpose more broadly the idiocy of […] composure (38) to the unintended, primordial, ever-recurring presence of Disturbance (295): it is a (Duncan-ian) binary I was only through Ken to perceive. The challenge of Ken’s work and personality - especially to one young, and laboring at disavowals - is how much comes in: the gauche, the ghosts, the rage of faults; a fluent switching from hightoned to home(l)y (and back again (549)) is signature:
we hear those steps’ color, carry those plastic buckets full of laundry, fresh
to be stored in the curves of driving, fast, the night returns, the honey braked
[…] that vast RV of waking to find out (524)
the big big cars, in among the stars
where you see bonechina butterflies in and out among the golden balls (445)
How (such is his accuracy, his reach) he befriends high school, ardent, awkward, prime -
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)
Here is an imagination not at variance with, but of the world. Diversity, he seems to argue: that the diversity is pure.
It may follow: A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry (H.D. Thoreau, cited at 95). But this consonance I seek between actuality and the poem is not easy (Robert Duncan, cited at 565), is demanding. The scales of relation Duncan undertook are in large measure, though differently, Irby’s own; to work that way is to bear, crucially, an element - and sometime severities - of discord. For there are holes.
It is very often the implied merit of a lyric poet to have sustained the myth of unitary being. Ken’s avowed affinity for the pastoral reflects perhaps an alternative strategy: not to disown that whole, but to pose or think it, more paradoxically, in terms of place. Holes we may know as the ache or indirection of the actual; holes even are how it closes round us, are its springs. And yet the fact, in all this sublimity of nothing, of distance; place a rapture, a hom(ecom)ing, of distances; distance ever in the work a relic, a production, of love (412, 452–53, 461, 475).
knowing you are there beyond whatever distance
Out of the light off the woodwork I see your figure (273)
the distance of love is one of the cracks in the year (455)
Just so is place intercalary, ecstasy of a beyond, inkling or word of
and other order, kids crying and hollering in the back seat,
get out to pee by the ocean, sand flats awash, a plover on -
& other order, as if it all
were all a new and never come to
meeting of each other, finding ourselves
suddenly among such people
we could love, could face
all shit and waste against us
into yet another order
of the closeness we had found (125)
- a layering of other and together we hear again in a longing so immense / it shot the wholly sensual through / with holes of an altogether other light (239), holes out of which place looms, Atlantean, (American,) an allure, a staging of saving prospects. Place is the place of wholes we know in the delights of longing come home, in an unscrolling of new and other order[s] (of […] closeness), where to write or be here at all (164) is to touch off orders further. And to go on.
To be very clear: the inclusiveness, the search and breadth, of Ken’s lines is a value, but one never strained or naïve, and amounts as well to never dismissing the difficulties. For a long time I was unable to understand difficulties (holes) as ever other than political. Ken’s resources - a profound care for and insight into people and scene(s) - were plain; but it was less clear to me just how they serve. My notion of the difficulties has deepened over time, exactly along with my feeling and respect for the fullness (the place) of Ken’s response.
The better to place, articulate, and frame that response, I want to look a little into two kinds of holes, holes of which any contemporary art would be a reckoning. Both haunt, i.e., trouble and impel, Ken’s work:
1. (The state of) violence, misuse (134), all shit and waste against us (125), the corruption of the earth (94).
2. As ever, with evil - or earth - the question of reality.
There is war; and there is not fought a war we are not lost in (119). Ken began alarmed:
so I was a “communist” and hated my nation
and came to poetry as a loss of childishness I thought (277, Notes II)
(vs. Rome? Rime.) The reference is to the beginning of the Korean War. He would have been 13.
virginity! aware virginity! aware and hip and aching
bent listening, the shuffle footed, the shuffle bifurcated
war I knew came home along the corridors of high school
landscape I would have to take
to ever come home
all was at war, but I was not a warrior (277)
- lines exceptional, out of step, in a number of ways:
(1) The wholes of The Intent On (whether Heraclitean – “War is the father of all and king of all…” (Kirk 245) - or otherwise) are apprehended as a rule by an expansive movement from here (on) out, not from out, in. The all […] at war, above, is different.
(2) Relatedly, gestures of repudiation or exception are rare, and the suggestion of a reality or whole separate from Ken himself does not recur.
(3) The personification of war, likewise, is unusual. Ken’s works pursue relational energies of which emblems are very rarely instrumental, energies conspicuous, often, in an activity or preponderance of prepositions. The lines above, on the other hand, describe a discrete sequence of alienating recognitions and imperatives, a conflict of states.
All factor in a brittleness of tone we might term mythological, reflecting the need to secure or codify one’s calling as calling, in the face of renewing strife (Berkeley ~1970). The lines propose a life’s work - poetry, and the taking of landscape - from, as it were, the other side of a method or world that work would grow to characterize and embody.
In other words, Notes II records tensions the resolution of which is another story, one of a conversion of lived time to (authorizing) powers of space, to room and permission, both within the work and without. It’s that story the idiosyncratic landscape I would have to take anticipates, with telling verbal ambivalence: take can be active, even martially so, in “Take that hill”, or passive, in “take a punch” (or both, in “Take a number”). The former seems the inflection, here; the message is reluctance to contend, in a world affording no alternative, no out. But to contend for landscape has meant always, for Ken, to be taken by it: The poetry of this mild littoral clime is marked by many turnings, distracted and multiplied attentions - but centrally, in my own case, by the conviction that the landscape demands us, and reveals us (94).
What has landscape to do with - or against - war? “The objects which exist together in the landscape exist in interrelation” (Sauer 25): herein, I think, lies a main sense of Ken’s redoubt: landscape as precisely that interrelation the social order disavows.
Land is consonance.
The capacity of air, for music or for color, for light; the sky uncrowded, unclouding; the volatility of dust (there, the small stone picked up without thinking is everything, the unattended stray memories, everything, in the throw of the vision, in the catch of us in the vision (335)); the angling, the (analog) mesh (low hold against thresh (468)), of roots; the hanging quiet, the deeptime of the scene; the cool; the dogs of mileage; the seen and the unseen; leaves in the heat an ulterior black (the disk of the plains, / that fired and was the sun (81)); the hungry corners; the waiting; the little hairs on objects; the songs in things; the activity, and rest; the effected inclusion: in all of it, a kind of liminal doctrine:
what counts: any of it: anyone.
- first values attested again and again in the plains arts, whether in Dorn’s “The most important thing for me is the possibility for everyone to be able to live in the world,” (Waugh 61), or Guthrie’s “This land was made for you and me,” or Ken’s Three Geographical Variations (for Ed Dorn):
is open beyond is open across the whole world
Looks past whatever salvations of individuals
realizing salvation is only to pass
into the space all people live in (134)
- a vision and a measure, an honesty, we are given sometimes to know in the land. And know thereby there is a place for it.
So it is that if I have any feel for some kernel of good or shot at good in the becoming - now or at any time - of my country, I owe it largely to times walking, out, in the discovery of the land, with friends, with Ken.
In a poem framed by Sauer’s “The thing to be known is the natural landscape. It becomes known through the totality of its forms,” Dorn writes of “a life of grand design wherein all men fit” — anxious, though, that the tricks of the scene be “propaedeutic,” benign:
areal is hopefully Ariel
It is an anxiety appropriate to Dorn and Irby’s common awareness of how much displacement is the native (f)act, an awareness the study of histories both human and natural consistently impressed on both. False fronts and dislocation would be increasingly thematic for Dorn as his express subject - the west - became more and more radically indistinguishable from the effects of capital in or on it, more undead. But there are senses past even all predations of the age in which questions of land, or of good, (reckonings of terrain or of evil), culminate in the question of reality, of what is. We argued place as:
(1) (fore)taste or remembrance of some sicker communion.
(2) relation to otherwise, a relation troubling (hole-ing) what closures that term, “reality,” might pretend to or presume.
In each, the unsettling projections of a plenitude (pleroma, plurality) we mistrust and don’t know:
Come to renew me
make clear my doubts
are a use of myself
open the cold house
the warmth I carry
beyond intention (268)
Thus in the confusions of the virtual is there a clearing, a freeing of inherent warmth, a disbanding or disarming of those discriminations we’d meant to see by. The sight at any moment / is as complete as the heart is (261); sight and heart - insight and reception - concur, confer in the formations of poetry, in the errancies of vision we are given to entertain:
To have a guest, and for this place, for this food and drink, and for this sharing, in
the orchard distinguish between marble and its watering
the lordly usage, that does not question when it comes the illusion itself but
recognizes and accepts it as illusion
for solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision, it drops its tears to take us
on for, not for our ability
so staring into the world in the river is reflected the world
and if the King and all his retinue pass in the mirror held up in the barbershop to show
your newcut hair, you do not need to turn around to see, until (537)
- yet let that hang; the lesson of all Ken’s writing is that the suspense is liveable, is it.
Impatience, anger - at mendacity, cheats, or just karmic - may upset the work; repeatedly Ken chides himself for the discipline of care / not kept (581, 633). It is a care for what care - what cool - the land demands (123).
The pastoral […] seemed to me particularly of two concerns: a calmness, a quietude of the whole being, derived from attentions and awareness; and a feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among - an ecological calm - poetry that feeds us (pascere), not just that tends the sheep. (93)
Flipside, foil to that poetic object is frustration, an edginess I don’t intend (265). Which happens. See [final exam] (536) for a sweet recuperation, crud to recrudescence. Patience, he writes, Anti-wrath (275); lapses only underscore a consistency of disposition, the cumulative fact that against the prescriptive, against the hunger to be right or pre-eminent, Ken has stood for: an endurance in love.
So it is very much the person of Ken Irby we come together to celebrate: the decision to be himself. Pound detected in Bartok’s string quartets (as in his own Cantos) “the record of a struggle,” and there is something of that here. Most explicitly in the early pages, where the irresolution, even despair (63, 64, 65, 66) is sometimes searing -
flubbed in attempts, almost
no heart to go on, but
relish the earth (72)
- Ken’s work is formed utterly and everywhere conscientious of those most exacting and uncertain questions of how to be, how to get along. The blood - the reality - in them: signalized in these poems, the accomplishment, simply, of his (or any) being.
I have denied all of these poems, in one way or another, at one time or another - and have also recognized that they are as much me, the forces through me, as any other act or notion of myself I have. The poems are survivals, then, as Walter Prescott Webb said of the Great Plains, The land itself is a survival. (93)
And that he reaches, arcs to us by light of that consubstantiality, comes on like radio out of the ’61 New Mexico night.
Dual to the range of the early work is a honed, later mood, close in focus, often long in line, intent / upon […] contours (234), surfaces, circuit:
a life into a few vegetables set in a half-shadowed deep window frame
black dirt gloss across flame orange carrots, ivory sprouted filaments from
upcurved fennel cardoon stalks
how long to sit there to be seen into the painting
how long the lemon cut before glazed over, and another
but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the short hall to
the feet, and through again (523)
So begins Ridge to Ridge (2001) - attentions fit for a differential geometer, to the tangent spaces, to the shapely passages of time. It is in deep rapport with The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream (1967):
We come downstairs into the currents of air and vegetation
that flow along the ground and circulate (176) 
Both are taken up with smell / and turn of air / and fall of light (48), a happiness of the senses. These (both) are poetries of home, of dwelling -
resonances given off, held in the old woodwork
that endlessness of everyday
that is precisely eternity (176)
- largely untroubled with the problem of reality noted above:
Looking quietly for the place
to go in by
and in the quiet, lasting miles to sea, hours
inland over the hills to the valley
realizing to be here is to
have entered the whole -
There is no illusory world, there is only the world (162)
- and recall <<To have a guest>> (above), of Ridge to Ridge: together: that there is a welcome that answers all.
I remember visiting Ken’s home for the first time, with Kyle Waugh, to view Ugetsu (VHS). I remember our early apprehension, mainly that we might bore him, something like that; there was/is a side to Ken like from another planet, fantastically impressive. In fact his home would be, very promptly, for both of us, one of the pleasantest places we knew to be, a sensational mixture of magnificent and down home, sufic-sufficient: in the is-ness of any of its space, its articles, some free reign, some infinity, something of
Let everything that happens in the world happen in this room as well (599)
How vividly it might be missed; I would write from Korea:
Pangs, one day, of heady recall: the steep mixed smells of your home, tablecloth worn to creases, the salad, the drink, the dark out your balcony, time drawing sweetly by - conversating… Ken, what an angel of friendship you are and have been - how much my way takes hints and shape from you - 
For this was the scene, for Kyle and me both, of the absolute lesson: of open talk, of stopping awhile, of company.
I remember, from Ugetsu, the crossing of the water. I remember that night we heard Ellington, and recall in particular Ken’s statement that if he could only take one body of music to the moon, he would take Debussy’s; I was impressed by something like its pragmatism. That night there was a moon. I recall - maybe from later - in the kitchen the olive oil spigot capped with a pencil eraser, cinched with a twisty-tie (recalling Olson’s paper clips, string: […] the blessing / that difficulties are (Maximus, Song 3)). Or next to it, on the newspaper, the nub of a pencil, for the crossword, and the short plink it will make if it rolls off onto the counter. All the artifacts, all that earth. All those nights, too soon in ending.
He would walk us out to the parking lot; he always has.
The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.
and from later, and then before:
To seek from enchantment, the demands of the actual life to reverify, the release of invention.
To leave good soup at the door for a birthday, and flowers. For there can never be too much delight, or the giving of it, tacit in compassion. (659-661)
the Nation can only come into being
but the City we may
Here & Now, as we read
these words (160)
Touching emerald also (along with Li Shang-Yin’s “the Walls of Emerald”, source for I have fetched phoenix papers (638)) are: the green crystal craze in my veins (66) - or grass, of course, Grasslands, plains.
In the migration routes to found the city, there is a gap - coming out of the dark North, a transverse plain (307)
So (all but) concludes The Easter Dream (304-7), arrival to in every way a clearing (305), pivotal to The Intent On, to Ken, to continent, and all our reflections here. It is an Opening in certain rhyme with Duncan’s Meadow. It touches as well the Nation as gap, as yet to be, as winter distances, blowout, as what stands between, in negative being, the city(s). And it is the passage from found to find.
And here it is a demand is made upon me: find the Secret History of your Self, wherein you live, which is more vast and great than any Shell or Strife you know.
- an Instruction absolute as any in the work (304-5).
Operative in a later, dreamt (Olsonic) extension is the telling, and the town.
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
of yourself (606)
Through all the work, Fort Scott - Ken Irby’s town - is key, in the cartographic sense (see, for example, A Set Series for Roy Gridley (61-68)). His Easter Dream is
of very deep connection with the old Home Town, a cathexis of awareness of mystery upon the first place.
It is part of the alley behind our house and down the block, South, almost to Sixth St, of the hedges and fences at night, playing in the summer, late […]
It was Fort Scott, and San Francisco, and Berkeley, and the whole of Northern California, wedded together. (304-5)
The recurrent fact of landscapes simultaneous or interior to each other - (cf. Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw / all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision (201) (or think of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS)) - is a main measure of our use of that term. To work here, landscape must accommodate the oneiric and the compound, all in keeping with the spirit of Sauer, for whom landscape was “an organic unit” and “not simply an actual scene” (Sauer 26). Common to Irby and Sauer is a phenomenology purged as far as possible of positivism(s), open as a (backalley) boy to all kinds of knowing. Basic to Ken’s epistemology are dreams; they are a part of the land he faces, and the writing is part of their action.
5. Not perhaps the formal value as such, but an inflection of it. How Ken’s poetics extend Pound’s (the ideogrammic concision of frog Ben Webster (429) comes now to mind): a large subject, and not mine here; but that Ken knew about Pound was, for me, I remember, primary. Ultimately it would only be for or by the lure of his teaching that I weathered college at all; Ken was to be my line to Cane, Ulysses, The Cantos, Spring and All, The Sound and the Fury, The Maximus Poems, Hart Crane, Ed Dorn, Mary Butts, H.D., Robert Duncan, Walt Whitman (& all they open to: Louis Zukofsky, Gerrit Lansing, Carl Sauer, Cabeza de Vaca, Irby himself…) - and that these works or bodies of work are as distinct in my mind as any other dozen is telling. Ken’s care, Ken’s nose, for process - for the individual energies of text, and student, and their arrival/mesh to each other - is unerring. More should be said of his teaching: that he is as unimpeachably good and conscientious a teacher as he is an anything else - poet, or dude, or home cook. If you were in his Am Lit class: remember his lesson on “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”? With field recordings of the mockingbird’s song (technical name: aria), and where I first heard “Casta Diva”, opera such as informed the work? But if you were, we might likely know each other: for so many, how he has made friends of us…
Who gazes at the bottled horsehair in the sun
to be eel (634)
1. the determining lacunae or incapacities of any system, be it arithmetic, space-time, period style, or a state.
2. the scene or sign of orders unrealized, undivulged.
3. the limits of composition.
4. we may picture as a twinkling - a thin rain or guesswork or fugue - or as some laminar extra, lining all.
5. are the beginning of distance, the end (apotheosis, last gasp/vowel) of rhyme.
6. The rapport of Being with itself is by way of holes.
7. It would all be hole were not that all holed, itself, to pieces, places…
as the way NE opens and the flame orange ball
rolls beyond the river, makes its hole
and stops, before the clearing (358)
10. A sociability driving and pervading his poems: for some one, some couple, or some birthday - how much are people their occasion. A care and intelligence about how people treat each other, in particular, is basic to both Ken and his work.
11. Exemplary of such development is the equation “To depict place in the American arts is to ask questions about allegiance, at times of danger as well as desire” (Ward, 213).* “Politics” is not the apparent point of these poems. Its ground, though, in the precise terms Ward names - i.e., the sustained and sustaining questions place frames of to what, and how, to be true; the very plains, and migrant’s, questions of what to hold to - is their most insistent dimension.
* (that proviso—“at times of danger as well as desire”—would be superlative for much of Irby’s lifetime, so institutional in/of the so-called “American century” have danger and desire been. So Sequence (107-111) incorporates first
American history is the only history
Local history is the only history
it is the
Let it come, let it come
the age of our desire
I have endured so long
I have forgotten everything (111)
Permit, then, a Rimbaldian emphasis: “To ask questions about allegiance” is not merely to deterritorialize; it is no less radically to reconceive and openly seek the ends, the stakes - the good - of living.)
this is the room the eyes start out from
birds fly through the look on out
as gnats and flies fly through the room here (140)
- or in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the short hall to the feet, and through again (523), quoted below.
15. - or “take a class.” Both in “take the cure” - and certainly there’s a leading sense of landscape as inoculant. Or take “take a picture”: registration idealized as so technically im-mediate (passive) it’s appropriation (active) (- or so I take it.) Take landscape sounds most of all, though, finally, like “take place” - i.e., simply, to happen.
As in your grasslands you are searching rightly for what a poem is to be in another “poem” - the winds, the grass, the plains will tell you (makers of a horizon you’ve known, I’ve only seen idly in passing) what I can’t about beginning and end of “form” - (Duncan, letter to Ken, p. 3)
- so may “poem” be read for “landscape” anywhere hereabouts.
17. For the true ones are known by their mark, and that I am not ever certain I can tell
O divine luminosities, o fiery tricksters, o other humans alive or gone on, when you come,
the taste that is real (545)
This paper had begun
Again and again we come into the world (and how much is Ken’s work the script of those returns); it is ever anew a problem of order: that it should, or should not, be so. Is it always - either way - virtual?
: that’s what I’d routinely felt, arriving to a world, breaking, in “the flux, between bells, of a campus hilltop: a commotion of bodies, and stone, and sky: a flourishing of prospective orders : it’s this matrix of virtuality I have firstly in mind.” That a productive dynamic of virtual and actual underwrites poems as well, Kyle would point out, with especial eye to Allen Grossman’s “Hart Crane and Poetry: A Consideration of Crane's Intense Poetics with Reference to ‘The Return’”. For our […] way is polysemous (261), and the issue of virtuality is in good part that of a vantage or language adequate to the sensible and conflicted plurality, the sheer number, we engage. My point, my experience, is simply that Ken, in his living, in the practice and feeling of his writing, continually heralds just such improbable adequation.
all references to this place
are to all places (151)
19. —i.e., there is no attempt to short-circuit that suspense; this is probably what I meant by an early notation “I think Ken’s was the first intelligence in which I detected no note of self-defeat.” Keats, and Olson after him, termed that same essential discretion “negative capability”.
Bound upon the wheel
as we are, the lama
said to Kim, be not
angry with the man, for he
has already repented, and you
have only a Red Mist
before your eyes. Let it
wash away in the River
that we all seek (148)
Kim’s Red Bull on a Green Field
but it does not remain to the eyes (422)
sweat rises […],
mist now at dark, drifts through the eucalyptus on the hills
east through Orinda, west along the bay,
what we have given back into nature
as taken - it is the anger yesterday (114)
anger is focus, regret such mist, each drop (537)
fog dreams, drop dreams, the fear of falling (482)
But the egg puts on the abyss, and the fear of falling is the fear of talking (548)
Talking with an old friend who does not talk much I talk too much. […]
I have no memory of anyone before I learned to talk. (279)
to talk to those now gone
is natural, to you especially
who hardly spoke at all while you were here
a golden silence toward the ocean
toward the coming sunset
to answer the heart? (196)
the red life out of the green life and back again (551)
21. Maybe an odd reference, if Olson - in “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself” – hadn’t made it first. Note moreover the basic device of differential geometry: an atlas, a set of local charts or maps smooth in their overlap (or dovetailing (13)); this the better to propose the intrinsic - as opposed to the derived, or induced. Further: in that math, a motivating question: how the light passes / from ridge to ridge (521; the line is H.D.’s, from “Evening”).
In “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself,” Olson argues a progress of poetics parallelling that of modern geometries. It doesn’t hurt to see poetry and math (“some art and science”) sometimes as co-operative: both bear out a power of writing (“Only formalization touches the real” (Lacan)); both net or divine truth(s) by a subjection of intuitive content to the hazards, to the trial, of form; in both an interaction - (immanent, e.g., in measure) - of local and global energies is structuring; Homer sang formulae; etc. (I am becoming a mathematician, but am no less Ken’s student, for that, and record the fact mainly to suggest what a diversity of promptings he is friend to.) Olson’s essay comes in here, though, for two core points: first, the movement therein proposed from (“quantity as”) “extensive” to “intensive” mirrors an essential impulse in Irby’s work. Second, Olson’s conclusion - particularly at “things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions” - is, for all of this, a grounding recognition. Note moreover the rhyme (“vibrations”) with Ken’s Plotinus wrote, quoted above; the figure, again, is of form.
I take care to be inclusive, to enforce the point made at the start, that matter offers perils wider than man if he doesn’t do what still today seems the hardest thing for him to do, outside of some art and science: to believe that things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions; but that they are so because the structures of the real are flexible, quanta do dissolve into vibrations, all does flow, and yet is there, to be made permanent, if the means are equal. (Olson 52)
Tondo stare straight down at the table where the company of a meal has been so shared the hospitality still hangs in the air its solid cube of warmth, exact as every detail on the tabletop
dirty the brocade tablecloth of the inheritance and worn through where kept at the table
edge too long, moved back only to fray another fissure
geology of hair, dirt, dandruff, litter, family and love, lees (534)
Tondo (a circular picture; a bas-relief overlooks the table in his main room) might be a disc, or an lp:
and what the landscape is of each old 78 played until worn out, and past
terrain made peneplain of ridge and groove ground down, too softly intricate beyond
facsimile to ever map or duplicate
but real imaginal as meetings with our certain dead or those unknown we scan for their
But this is land, and music’s land played out, and land intrinsicate, into what certain
Note the record groove, the line itself, as landscape (where hitherto “No line on a map can be drawn to represent …” (Malin, quoted at 13)); it is in fact an immanence of landscape these writings record. A vocabulary of expanse and aeon attaches to the fine, the accidental, the limit intensities of space; if landscape he had had to take / to ever come home, here that landscape is come home, is home, is the very grain of Being.
KW: Looking at this photo — a familiar view from Ken’s couch — gets me thinking of the small objects, totems, that fill his home. The left corner of the coffee table below, opposite the Martinique rum, is dedicated to such objects.
CC: Arrowheads from Kyle Eberle’s inheritance, Petoskey stone from you and Jackie, indistinct rock from Gloucester.
KW: Polished petrified wood. Agate egg from the Tallulah Gorge.
CC: Dried rhododendron receptacle. Cut-glass from turn of century, cameos of obscure relatives. Burr oak acorn.
KW: A few chestnuts, I think. Some gingko … berries? (Are they gingko berries?)
CC: Gingko nuts from Jeff Bergfalk? I’m trying to think what other rocks there are; maybe a, I can’t remember the name, museum gift shop stone with “clouded” or “night” in the name, black and grey. Antique marbles, there’s another. Do you think geology and geography are of a piece here?
KW: I think geology, the study, is always a component of geography, the writing. But the phenomenon of the rock’s shape, texture, flecked coloration, etc., is of greater significance to Ken than its classification. It seems to me the geographer in Ken has little interest in an unpopulated landscape: “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it.” Habitation and migration are modes of writing earth: the “areal landscape” (to borrow from Carl O. Sauer) is the ur-wiki, composed by occupation. (The rocks remind me of Novalis too, Ken roaming among the novices of Sais. “[T]he small stone picked up without thinking,” he writes in “Cahokia,” “means everything.”)
I also think of those chunks of pink quartzite (“Sioux Quartzite”) sprinkled throughout The Intent On that were pushed down from Minnesota to Kansas by a glacier 600,000 years ago. One of the larger boulders, standing on its end by the power plant near the bridge over the Kaw River (which follows the morainal line), bears a plaque memorializing the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company who founded Lawrence. The confluence of all those different kinds of movement at the continent’s vortical centrum is instructive of Ken’s sense of geography as a function of migration — tectonic, imperial, glacial, seasonal, vocational, nomadic, whatever.
CC: And then the totemic houseplants: Norfolk Island pine of many score years, “Christmas cactus” whose blooming is an annual event, I think there’s some kind of arum, a jack-in-the-pulpit?
KW: That sounds right. I can’t remember when, exactly, I took on the responsibility of taking care of Ken’s plants while he traveled east over the summer. I do remember being nervous about it, mainly because I was incapable of maintaining plants of my own at the time, but also because I’d read in Ken’s poems of the intersubjective exchanges between him and the plants I was to nurture — like the delicate Christmas cactus you mention. There were other complications too. It seemed, for example, that the number of pots in one back bedroom exceeded the number of plants, and the densely entangled vines make it difficult to determine in which pot the Joya, say, with its otherworldly inflorescence, begins. Sometimes I wondered if the pot I was watering had any plant in it at all, or if I weren’t perhaps watering the rug. The books, CDs, letters, records, etc. that a friend once said are “threatening to consume Ken’s apartment” represent one kind cultural growth, and the exotic, antediluvian flowering plants represent another — a sense of “culture” as a site or medium “for all manner of living growth.”
as often as I entered his house, I thought I was in the wilderness
Certainly the plants and the poems grow from a common soil:
midwinter days when the focus stays inside entirely, some yet again different than you’ve ever made it before dinner out of leftovers and bare, chance essentials — as the glue of the turning of the year begins to dry and crack, pages starting to loosen and fall out, the gin before dinner helps watch, without imitation, and the irritation increasingly an instant answer to its own pointlessness, by that quick anger and regret, to use, as by some new peccadillo — to slow, to enjoy, to thank for, the Christmas cactus blooming once again, the realizing it is closer to Jeffers’ birthday than Weinnacht, and from the morning, a book jacket fitting a depiction of the Globe Theater into the cursive script of the title without having to do with words or the letters or their shapes at all, which in any case were not to be remembered—the crucial words, it matters very much to look up, though no one dictionary for them can be found, the crucial words tenedos &/or tendeos &/or teneos are kept stretched very taut and resonant across the rest of the day, without ever yielding up exactly what they mean — I hold the tantra of the tendril’s tone — the hypotenuse of containment is the alternate sitar — thin, but tender — lean, but cherce — into the family of love, the lover’s home, the body of the lover, and the food, that protect the stretching forth to hold and keep, yet heavy with the rift of predictive judgement and its loss — what is meant beyond etymology, in the shifting and then lost d, the delta Δ where the seed and the eye appear and disappear in the history of the singular a-historical event, translated to the next dimension on, not quite totally out of the one before, the equilateral three in one in many more than three in one, the three hermits of the story who pray unceasingly, “You are three, we are three, have Mercy on us”
KW: Ken’s poems really capture the feel of his home; they’re structures of commensurate intrigue. And his home is one of the most inviting, comfortable, invigorating places I’ve ever been — a space set aside time, like Duncan’s “eternal pasture folded in all thought.” And you’re right, this sense of a nourishing substratum, of undergrowth inside and outside, interpenetrant—“[the] calm pasture of the mind” and “the carpet of grass” “carried in the back of the head” — is formally and thematically elaborated in a number of the poems:
What do you desire? And not just the carpet runner that comes into being under your feet out in the street and then into the yard as you approach the front door, nor the figurations in the carpet that are after all alive and rustle and run and jump around and bloom and fly, or the weaving itself that is still going on and talks to you as it throws the shuttle back and forth, and looks up at you and stops and explains the fabric up out of the ground, and the spindles of thread that whirl at the steps, set into song by the wool and the sheep that give the wool. And who is that at the door? The lore. Says, let you in.
In his preface for To Max Douglas, Ed Dorn wonders if this rhizomatic “rumination” (“the mind has aerial roots”) has something to do with what “it mean[s] to be from Kansas.” He links “the volition to movement” in that corridor with an image of the windswept “waving carpet of grass.” Ken delights in the prairie’s stormy weather, and the midcontinental grasslands are for him, as they were for Coronado, an oneiric transport as well. (Recently reading over a handful of letters from Ken to Dorn, I came across this: “I’ve found that what direction I sleep in makes a difference in my dreams — they’re sexier when I lie east-west — the N-S axis is very unrestful & headachey.”) Likewise, the polyvocal thicket that Jed Rasula describes in Ken’s work — the dense, matted “dendritic” journey of quotation (“lore” that “lets you in”) — also reveals how geographical processes inform Ken’s writing and living. If geography is the writing of the earth, then many of the poems in Relation and Catalpa are “geographical” in a very strict sense — like “Point Reyes Poem, 2,” for example, in which we read of poison oak as an intergenerational agent whose “infernal” messages, which “we share across 400 years” with the members of Sir Francis Drake’s New Albion expedition, are inscribed on “equal, heedless bodies.”
Anyway, all of these entanglements are constitutive of the synesthetic intensity of Ken’s living space. The odor of garlic and fennel mixing with the smell of aging paper mixing with Clifford Brown and Max Roach remixing Duke Jordan, etc. The interior of Ken’s home doesn’t really change, it accumulates layers, arboreal, like the Norfolk Pine that has grown exactly to the height of his living room ceiling. There’s a very palpable sense in his apartment of time passing — i.e., of measuring time (the calendar with a smattering of birthdays; the stack of books that offer an index of Ken’s recent attentions; the fact that he personalizes the fly-leaf of every book he owns, etc.) — and of time standing still (in the frayed shag carpet from the ’70s, say, or the dusty glass vases and paperweights of an earlier era, etc.). The Norfolk Pine is a measure, like the gifted rocks and the Thorpe Feidt paintings Ken returns with from Gloucester every summer, which signal the coming Fall semester — “the Bloody Grind,” as Ken calls it.
CC: The paintings — propped against piles of books in the dark — by no means neglected, quite to the contrary, but not displayed in the way an acquisitive nature would have them displayed.
KW: That’s true. You’re a man of few possessions, Cyrus, capable of carrying the bare minimum on your way. It seems to me that Ken lived a more peripatetic and, by necessity, ascetic life in his twenties and thirties. He makes that autobiographical statement, turning on Spinoza’s asceticism, in his poem “Notes”:
The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered, but the total lack of anything carried along.
Ken, now a full professor, carries no PhD, and no degree at all in the discipline he teaches, and yet he also subscribes to the Lawrence and Fort Scott newspapers, and often has a copy of the New York Times too. If questions about movies come up over dinner, we might consult “the Hound” (VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever), or the Leonard Maltin Guide, or Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, or all three. What do you make of this more recent, almost encyclopedic accumulation? And what does it have to do with his poem’s lengthening line?
CC: In Ken’s case the hoard of books and periodicals is a paradoxical form of nonattachment, because of the way he allows the printed matter (like the plants) to take over. He himself asserts no ownership of the domestic space. His space is populated by the people behind the print:
Dale Hawkins is dead, that day, the 24th, in Topeka, where he’d been a fireman, battalion chief, retired — a year older than me, I hadn’t ever known or didn’t remember — failed a grade? it could be, though not very likely — or rheumatic fever? some faint memory click of that? — but we were in the same grade all along? — I’d just a day or so before been thinking about him in grade school, wanting the recipe in an old chemistry handbook I had from my brother, for rose water, to make some for his mother — intense request, pleading, remonstrating, “come on man, you promised, it’s for my mom” — AA member, Little League, Boy Scouts, the Fort Scott Tribune’s obituary of last Friday tells — one more to earth o’ergiven of childhood’s friends — as birth month ends — the dark time of the year — and what tales of the dark time here? — first Christmas cactus buds just starting to open — Dale and Dale — and Dale Barney and all the taunts growing up because of Dale Evans — the far West side of town, Dale Hawkins, less money, Ab Wood, Jim Hegge, Carmen Lewis, Oop Hood, to my nearer West side, big house, doctor father — or Dale Barney’s East side, and railroad father — and the closeness with Dale Hawkins not kept up as we went on into high school — and he into the Navy after graduation, married in San Diego, and then Topeka and the fire brigade, children, grandchildren — those who can tell you about yourself when you were young, or you about them — fewer and fewer, one by one — the closed-in self, the expanded self —
KW: I like the idea of the people behind the print very much, a question of who’s on the other end of the line. There was a period when Ken lived with his mother in Lawrence. I think of that line from his poem written on Chuck Stein’s 60th birthday: “they call for my mother who’s dead, because her name’s still in the phonebook, and only use her first name / and I haven’t had it changed for mine because I’m still alive.” These lines suggest the fixity of an address — whether of the domicile or the utterance — sets one that much closer to death.
It also seems to me that Ken intentionally lives on top of things — his flat-screen sits on top of the wooden cabinet of an antique television; stacks of cds frame his stereo; etc. One could view this habitation geologically, as a kind of stratification, or one could take George Carlin’s view, of the home as a mere storehouse for your shit, “while you go out and get more shit!” Both are encompassed by Ken’s sense of the “pastoral,” as the concern for “the precise landscape wherever we are. […] Given the amount of shit we live in, it is also manure for all manner of living growth.” It’s interesting that while Ken, as you aptly put it, “asserts no ownership ... of the domestic space” — in the most generous and inviting way — he also remains inseparable in my mind from the texture and wonder of its interior. I think of that “Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home ...” fabric he salvaged from a dumpster in Berkeley — or was it Lowell Levant who recovered that?
CC: I don’t remember, can’t visualize, the fabric.
KW: Here it is:
… and there’s Ken digging for Josquin or Aksel Schiøtz or Dexter Gordon’s “Homecoming” or who knows what. The red and blue design of that fabric produces the same minor visuals as the Vision® skateboard deck I had in middle school.
CC: And next to that chair the cameo chair, and the view out the balcony:
The quiet intricate interior forest of the Christmas cactus and its blossomings bends down
over the jade tree where the cameo chair seat looks out to the Northern world
what can be seen over the balcony boards, wood rush to meet, contemplation of the tops
of trees and roofs and the sky lines advancing and receding
If you lean forward far enough you can see almost in the back right corner one board with
a knobhole through it
the start of a needle down to thread and begin the sewing, the mending and the
and just barely visible over the edge straight ahead at the other end of the compound
the upper third of a balcony door and the room seen lit the night of the poet’s death and
known there was a sun in there through the dimension
through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare
stares into and through
and drew it, the red life, the thread drawn
The throw makes me think of Ronald Johnson’s
— a Topeka poet, one of the first of a very long list of writers and artists Ken introduced me to. “Also the author of The American Table,” you can be sure Ken noted, “an excellent cookbook.”
KW: I dig the Johnson. His categorizing that poem in particular as a “beam” is wonderfully suggestive of its spectral and structural qualities, of the poem as a self-sustaining ecosystem that you “can enter from any corner, like a field” (to quote another Topeka poet). Thinking of managing the hearth, of the peculiar chores each home calls for, and of working to live with the other objects of one’s environment, rather than trying to subjugate or overwhelm them — like what Creeley says, that we “will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it” — all of this echoes the themes of “Song 3,” as well, from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an obviously important text for Ken:
This morning of the small snow
I count the blessings, the leak in the faucet
which makes of the sink time, the drop
of the water on water as sweet
as the Seth Thomas
in the old kitchen
my father stood in his drawers to wind (always
he forgot the 30th day, as I don’t want to remember
a house these days
so much somebody else’s,
Or the plumbing,
that it doesn’t work, this I like, have even used paper clips
as well as string to hold the ball up. And flush it
with my hand
But that the car doesn’t, that no moving thing moves
without that song I’d void my ear of, the musickracket
of all ownership …
in my shoes, that’s all right, my fly
gaping, me out
at the elbows, the blessing
that difficulties are once more
“In the midst of plenty, walk
as close to
In the face of sweetness,
In the time of goodness,
go side, go
smashing, beat them, go as
(as near as you can
In the land of plenty, have
nothing to do with it
take the way of
your legs, go
Ken’s encounters with his own leaky faucet, for instance, or with the plastic bowl emptied weekly and repositioned on top of the tin of Washington State cheese in order to catch the drip in the back of the refrigerator, these inconveniences (so most people would think of them) are the poignant, “bless[ed],” rhythmic “difficulties” by which “the day is saved” for Ken; these are those “leftovers and bare, chance essentials” from the poem you cited above, to be dealt with, as with the daybooks to be cannibalized. In a way, it’s like whatever happens happens in Ken’s world, and he writes his way into and through it as love. The poison oak he “got at Reyes a week ago” is something that “we” — as “equal, heedless” humans — get to share! Here the mind encounters temporal/historical distance as proximal to its distance from the body and, as such, as constitutive of what Lyn Hejinian calls the “lyric sociality” in Ken’s work. There’s obviously a dose of fatalism in this “whatever happens, happens,” but my sense of it is much closer to the closing lines of Hejinian’s The Fatalist: “That’s what fate is: whatever’s happened / — time regained.” The will to regain — “the reciprocity of hospitality” — is the rub for Ken: Ken’s care for the reclamation of minutiae that most people pass over is intense, gemlike — such as his account of saving a wolf spider in “[a Nocturne of the day — James Huneker],” a poem that demonstrates his empathy, as well as what he’s done with Olson’s instruction:
In the middle of the day the smell of peanut butter and mayonnaise and jelly brought
out a small spider from under the chopping block and the blender
a puff of breath, a puff, and it rolled into a ball, recovered, and hurried back where it
had come from
bringing and receiving luck and renewal
The wolf spider, hunter of the night, trapped in the kitchen sink and its porcelain slick
took quite a while to rescue, since it hid much of the day in the garbage disposal and
kept trying to get back there
at last brought out with a big plastic spoon and set down between the icebox and the
sink counter, and away
saving, and the day saved, and again
You might own a pair of such great lichen screens
one of the rocks, one of what grows on them
dyed with their pigments, translucent, illuminant, through
and at the centers, they turn
Focusing on the uncommon care it takes to rescue the spider, I almost overlook the fact that Ken releases it in his kitchen a few feet away! What’s remarkable here is not that he avoids killing the spider — of course he does — but that, in his placing it out of harm’s way, he’s equally intent on minimizing the disturbance this intervention will otherwise create. Our current culture of gratuitous collateral damage and fearful excess — “the superstructure of filth,” as Amiri Baraka has put it, “[that] Americans call their way of life” — could learn a lot from the everyday values in The Intent On. It’s responsibility of use that confers value in Ken’s world, not possession; not how many shares one has, but how one shares.
KW: Yesterday you asked what I considered to be Ken’s task and I didn’t have a very good answer. I guess I’d say the task is to communicate, a word which derives from the Latin for “share,” another important term in his work. The desire to get across is present in his poems’ patchwork of quotations, in his epistolary habits, in his anecdotal pedagogy, in the way he talks of friends as ore (that personal lore, from OE lār, “instruction), and in the connections he facilitates among them — “these people you know are like gold,” I hear him saying, “only where you find them.” All of these associations convene, “commune,” under the roof of the host — from L. hospes (meaning both “host” and “guest”) and L. hostis (meaning “army,” in the sense here of containing multitudes). Ken is a consummate host, and the lessons he’s shared have considerable half-lives, if that makes any sense. Having moved away, I find them returning with greater intensity.
CC: Writing — to which Ken’s dedication is total, writing as sustenance — as subordinate to a higher task of keeping company (thinking of Creeley’s etymology com + pānis plus eucharistic idea of “host” as bread), the daybooks a form of communion with the day, the weather, the place, the flora and fauna, and the reading is a form of company with the like-minded, like-in-spirit.
Apropos of food and hospitality: Ken’s delight with the name and concept of “gravlax.” His anecdote of the first time — was this in Berkeley — that he bought (almost accidentally, and at an incredible bargain) a case of “good” wine.
KW: I think of his delight in the exaggerated mispronunciation of “feesh” (for “fish) and other signature cooking remarks — like his preference for letting a soup or sauce “muse on itself.” Ken is a superb cook, though I’ve never seen him look at a recipe or measure out anything in the kitchen.
CC: Catfish baked in the oven under a thick sprinkling of anise, oregano, and thyme, arborio rice flavored with drippings from the feesh, half an avocado with olive oil and balsamic vinegar pooled in the pit concavity, often asparagus or roasted red pepper … Divine sweet potato baked to deliquescence in foil, split, buttered, with parsley.
and now remember here: interior with a Norfolk Island pine as Christmas tree, until
and through it a garden in the wall where two figures suspended are confronted by an
angel whose back is to us
or is it at the balcony door where the curtains moiré the last sunlight of the year, and still,
the chalk, the little chalk, the oil, the wax of the little chalk
is cray the crayfish cray?
but that’s a mistaking out of OE crevise, OF crevice, OHG krebiz: edible crustacean
made to crayfish, crayfeesh, and craw- and -dad
but gerbh- and scratch and crab and crawl and graffiti and diagram and draw
KW: Succulent pork chops with the same herb sprinkling glazed with soy sauce and honey, blackened scallops, olive oil over everything, fresh mango slices on vanilla ice cream swimming in cognac for dessert. Not a gin drinker myself, I can’t speak to what Patrick Doud calls “the shimmer of Ken’s special gin apertif,” but you enjoyed the drink, once upon a time.
CC: What I remember above all about the drink was the viscosity of the cold gin. It doesn’t seem that the drink had anything in it other than gin (straight from the freezer, and the condensation froze white on the Sapphire bottle), lemon zest, and assorted olives. Ken introduced me to the oil-cured “Moroccan” olive, for example, and to the large green “Sicilian” and bright green “Castelvetrano.” The aperitif almost always contained a very small olive that seemed mostly pit — maybe that was an Arbequina. I drank so fast at Ken’s, that only the speed of my drinking could subdue the shame of my manners. I don’t know if it was that I had something to prove, or that I was taking out some unnameable aggression.
Yet anyone, however unlettered, would be welcome at Ken’s table.
KW: True, I don’t think lettered and unlettered are categories Ken’s hospitality recognizes. I guess the important thing for Ken is that one pays attention to how one goes about doing whatever it is one does. “Process is soul,” as the man “sd.”
CC: That seems right. What Ken seems to admire in a person is the faculty of taking an interest. And his conversation is characterized by singularly intense interest, attentiveness. One visible way his truly astonishing learning serves him is that it allows him to take active interest in his interlocutor, whether he/she’s a trucker or flautist or hydrologist or itinerant schizophrenic. But there are whole tracts of Ken’s learning that are obscure to us. I don’t mean literature we haven’t read — I mean whole fields.
KW: Like the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, or Scotch Heredom.
Dr Dee stood at the edge of Governor Winthrop’s Chinese garden, gauging the descent, catching sight through the rhododendrons of the rain-swollen stream
Here, he said to his
host, I am in intimate contact with that Far Ancient East which has been heretofore only a
matter of venerable report to me—among these exotic shrubberies, the traceries of these
paths afford us insight of the flow—this, I take to be patterned exact fixation of those
features, what one master of such lore once termed to me, fungh-shwaye, or water-winde,
which pierces the earth, and attracts from the heavens the mute attendant spirits to in-
So he spoke, stopped at the pond’s edge, leaning out over the water ...
Ken is a spirit of the threshold. He has guided us over many of them, and, as you say, it takes a long time for some of the lessons to accomplish this. Is there a corresponding sense in which Ken’s poems and his persona alike are hermetic, closed, remote, inaccessible? His connection to the source of the poems seems more mysterious than that of other poets.
KW: I’m not sure, maybe. For example, in his preface to Movements/Sequences, Ken writes: “Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain.”
Interesting that we’ve come back to the heap of stones on Ken’s table that we started with — that is, “hermetic” = Hermes = herma (Gr. “heap of stones”).
CC: But a sense in which the poems might be intended never to commune with another sensibility. Surely undecidability is part of all bodies of work, but I see that as a different thing from the cryptic — I guess I’m asking if Ken’s poems also do some work of encryption that other poems, other oeuvres do not.
KW: I read, in the distance they aesthetically, syntactically and intellectually construct, a form of Eros, and, as such, a gift — an open-ended Whitmanian proposal entreating the reader to collaborate in bridging that gap. I find the poems instructive in this sense, but not didactic. Both Gerrit Lansing and Jed Rasula have made this last point before me, or one close to it.
CC: All items in the richness of his routines — 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.
CC: I would like to hear an account of how Ken mediated your deep and abiding interest in Dorn. Surely Ken introduced you to his work? Dorn would be a good example, in your case, of the effect of Ken’s teaching. You wrote a 600pp master’s thesis on Dorn. The process put you in touch with many other writers and scholars, I mean intimate touch, connected to Dorn.
Would the Dorn project — all of it — have started for you at Ken’s table?
KW: Probably, but it’s hard to determine where a 600pp master’s thesis entitled News from Now/Here started. Somewhere in Call Steps Ken writes: “study is the gate of justice.” Ken illumined a path that gave me, as he said of the project, “a way in.” I learned a great deal at Ken’s table, mostly because Ken is an extraordinarily patient teacher. The process of my thesis project (and what it’s led to) is, most of all, an example of how Ken brings his students to a cognizance of what is, in front of and around them; he shows us a way to deal with that, whatever that happens to be. The lesson is portable.
CC: I’m curious about how Dorn figures in Ken’s conversation. It’s hard for me to understand why Dorn or Dorn’s work (on which I am no expert, and forgive me for putting it in these terms) should mean so much to Ken (whereas the meaning of Duncan and Creeley — Duncan’s spiritualism and Creeley’s mindfulness — seem essential to Ken’s work and presence).
KW: That’s a tough question for me to answer. I think Dorn was the only poet addressing the Poundian all-times-are-contemporaneous complex of the North American continent in a way that Ken felt it should be addressed, or maybe simply in the way that Ken felt it. Neither Duncan nor Creeley really offer a way to incorporate the kind of historical information that Dorn’s early, lyrical and elegiac narrative poems about Meriwether Lewis, or John Ledyard, gracefully animate. The lean, barbed, intermittently tender lyricism of Dorn’s first few books, in addition to his “Elizabethan” ear, clearly spoke to Ken, and Ken’s earlier poems frequently borrow from, and/or respond to, Dorn. They both hail from the same time zone too—the nation’s slowly deserted and desiccated agricultural core, where you and I also come from.
CC: So it goes without saying that we really became Ken’s students in his apartment.
KW: That seems right. There was his basement office in Wescoe Hall, too — the decommissioned parking garage into which KU has cast their Humanities — with Coleman Hawkins or Debussy trickling into the hall. It was a kind of gateway, a portal to a richer life.
KW: One of the first times I visited Ken’s office he asked if I’d read Mary Butts. Then he proceeded to read “Friendship’s Garland” aloud. In retrospect, the intense generosity of that spontaneous gesture spoke louder than the text. At the time I remember thinking I should have something interesting to say about the story, but was preoccupied with a dread at my own banality. I guess I was intimidated by Ken’s erudition, but in the larger struggle that that led me to — the struggle to take my interest in literature and the arts seriously, which was the struggle to take myself seriously — Ken’s deeply sympathetic wisdom made all the difference. He didn’t care that I hadn’t read the Butts, the point was to share it, to offer his time as a form of trust and gracious encouragement to his students. A few years after the Butts story, more than a decade ago now, Ken casually reminded me one evening: “The greatest mystery you will ever be involved with is yourself.” That affirmation, which again emphasized the value in paying attention to what I was doing, rather than what hadn’t yet “done,” is among the most useful things I’ve learned from Ken — or anyone. Did you have similar anxieties? And how did Ken influence your artistic development?
CC: I didn’t want him — still don’t — to find out how little I had read. I remember when he asked me if I had read Sarah Orne Jewett, whose “The White Heron” is (thanks to Ken) among my favorite short stories. “White Heron” is where I encountered the name “Sylvy.”
KW: Your daughter’s name. Wow! And that Jewett story speaks specifically to the virtues that characterize Cyrus Console. It shows Ken’s perspicacity that he knew to recommend it to you. This was around the same time — 1998? — when you and I first met, in what we then spoke of as “Irby’s” class, though we’ve been referring to him as “Ken” in this discussion. Had you read any of his books before you took his classes?
CC: I knew him first as my teacher, though, being in the class you mention, I probably went to look at his work in the KU library at about the same time. For me, coming to know the work and coming to think of him as a friend are part of the same process, one that must have begun officially when we continued to interact after that semester’s end. And “Ken” is the name of the friend, and the name that feels natural to this discussion, though “Irby” is how we have traditionally referred to him in the third person, probably an artifact of our having been nineteen years old. The dilemma is evidence of how large his presence is, how often his name comes up, how many times we have had occasion to say “Irby showed me this Odilon Redon catalogue ...” “Irby played me this Dagar Brothers CD ...” “Irby has these Thorpe Feidt paintings ...” “Did you hear Irby’s Lord Buckley record ...” “Remember how Irby met Neal Cassady? ..”
And he played music just as he declaimed Mary Butts — whole cloth, no apologies — and it would have been a real faux pas to treat it as “background music.”
KW: True. That makes me think of Ken’s story about meeting Borges, (through his brother, James) in a bar, and how Borges scolded someone who interrupted their conversation: “Silence! We speak of poetry, all else is darkness!” To neglect the music Ken offers would be more than a “faux pas” really, it would be a diminishment of the spirit of sharing on which friendship is founded for Ken; it would be “crapmusic,” musickracket. By the way, I can’t help but hear that Borges quote in Ken’s Robert Duncan voice, which is the voice of nearly everyone he imitates. Borges, Charles Laughton, Billie Holiday — they all sound like Duncan. And Ken’s version of Duncan sounds vaguely like the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live.
CC: It should be recorded that for these and perhaps other purposes Ken has a “Duncan voice.” But he also has the “hepcat” voice.
KW: True. I hear his hepcat voice from Lord Buckley’s “Jonah in the Belly of a Whale”: [sucking in a long drag] “What d‘you say fish?”
CC: I was going to say “The Nazz”.
KW: Ken’s wealth of experience, to which he has seemingly unrestricted access through storytelling, and his knowledge of the world out there — the natural world, say, not merely the literary anyway — are astounding. He’s capable of mobilizing all of these different knowledges in his teaching. Then there’s the “news” straight from the mailbox that he shares with his classes, no matter the subject of the course — letters from his brother, or Duncan McNaughton, or the catalogue for a Jess show, whatever. “Interdisciplinary” barely scratches the surface of Ken’s approach to teaching.
CC: I am thinking about all the times I rode my bicycle home from his apartment west of campus — I would cross the neighborhood where the professors lived (The Dept. of English, inscrutably, did not promote Ken from “Lecturer” until late in his teaching there) and then fly down the hill into the student ghetto, as it was called — and the buzzing of my mind, whether I have felt so excited before or since about poetry and the intellectual life of which poetry seemed the sublimest fruit.
The first image I have of Ken, I think I’ve got it now, he is in front of the poetry workshop, he’s mentioned Kerouac (and doubtless Creeley and Duncan and Olson, whose names would have been ciphers to me at the time) and now he mentions that in the middle of his graduate study at Harvard (Eastern Studies), he “came into possession of a large quantity of a certain ... substance.” And thereafter dropped out. And at that moment I felt I had discovered a real teacher. And I didn’t know this at the time but I would take leaves of absence from every degree program in which I ever enrolled, thinking at the time I was through for good — and each of these leaves involved large quantities etc. So in that moment when Ken — he would have started the first class by saying “I am here in my capacity as a poet, though my formal training is in … and Eastern Studies” — and then within a few minutes, after cataloguing some of the people important to his becoming a poet, he’s telling this story of dropping out — and suddenly — here is the point of what I’m trying to say — I saw someone like me, who was like me in some deep and abiding way — and this person had found a way to live. I saw a window to this dream, and that meeting gave me confidence to, you know, dedicate my life to reading and writing.
KW: That’s beautifully stated. My academic career has similar gaps, during the BA and the MA, and before the PhD, which I’m still working toward. I now attend the Graduate Center, CUNY, where I work with (among others) Ammiel Alcalay, who also considers his having dropped out of college as a valuable and formative experience. It’s funny that the first thing we’re looking for in a teacher is how they’ve denied or abandoned formal education.
CC: Funny but very true somehow. Ken is our teacher because no one else we encountered shared our particular alienation — from formal education and from the American Dream —
they kept asking, but what do yall do? o God, I said, I’ve tried everything, and
never any luck
— and Ken’s table, because extramural, is a figure for that alienation.
KW: Alienation really brought us together.
I have one more question for you, Cy. You were, without question (as Ken himself has said), the most accomplished writer in our undergraduate classes, and the first real poet I met who was my own age. I very much admired your poem about the mob of emus you didn’t see on I-70, and your “Keyboard Partita” and “Destruction of Woods” that Lee Chapman published in First Intensity, a magazine Ken introduced us to. That’s also where I first read Ben Lerner. In any case, if Ken demonstrated that it were possible for you to pursue the life you’ve now realized as an artist, can you talk about how his teaching, or his writing, or his take on your adolescent form of alienation, contributed to the particular shape that life has taken? or how it shaped the specific concerns of the work that life has produced?
CC: I met you and Ken both about the time of transition from childhood/adolescence (which I regard effectively as having been lived by another person) into adulthood, the sentient part of my life, one dominating affect of which has been, for good or ill, “this isn’t quite right; I didn’t sign up for this.” I don’t know how articulate or detailed this sense was at the time of the poems you mention, but it was the sense of this not being what I signed up for, of realizing there never was a sign-up sheet anywhere — I mean, it was out of that inarticulate feeling that the poems you mention arose. And Ken’s teaching on this point is deep. You say “The hell is this?” and he says yes “but what do you do with it?”
if I can be the young man who went with that expedition long before I ever knew him
and was their navigator with as much certainty as his own life was not
if only for one long evening finding him lifting himself to be someone more
haven’t I kept that yearning since before I was born and his
Cyrus Console and Kyle Waugh
Kansas City–Brooklyn, July 2012
Cyrus Console and Kenneth Irby, Lawrence, KS, August 2012 (photo by C. Console).
Kenneth Irby and Kyle Waugh, Gloucester, MA, July 2012 (photo by J. Zammuto).
9. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 13 January 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs, Connecticut.
22. See Hejinian’s essay, “‘We might say poetry’,” in this same Jacket 2 special feature.
I have had the peculiar luck of never actually taking a class taught by Ken Irby. In my final semester of undergraduate study, I felt I needed some individual guidance to balance the terrifying prospect of my first graduate-level workshop. I needn’t have worried on that account, but fortune brought us together nevertheless — he as an independent study arbiter, myself as a weekly visitor with maybe an extra page to show for my efforts. That’s how we formally met, but it’s not where I first heard of Irby. That would have been through Cyrus Console and (indirectly) Ben Lerner. These being two fellows whose work I continue to admire immensely, and whose attentions to the man gave me a mental construct before I ever set eyes on him. I vividly remember Cyrus reading a few of his “rainbow” acrostics at a hastily arranged reading in one of Solidarity’s bookstores in Lawrence. His work is definitely a poetic landmark for me, so his mention of Ken in passing did not escape my notice. This was reinforced a few months later at an art/music/writing exhibit in Topeka (yes, they have those), at which I happened to browse through a copy of No edited by Ben Lerner. Here was another fresh poetic hero of mine, another Kansan singing his praise and — importantly — dedicating a generous portion of that particular issue to the work itself. I admit that I don’t recall anything else about the night, having read through a good deal of the performance, completely oblivious. I was overwhelmed in a way that reminded me of the first time I tried to listen to Ornette Coleman; this accomplished actual thought on page, disciplined and un-equally there. It was hard for me the way sound and proximity carried the stakes (presumed to carry the stakes, I took it, wrongly). So I had a good deal to think about, and needed to, before walking into his office. It sweated books, migratory piles of them. I always seemed to catch him a bit off guard — but no matter, I would sit and wait for whatever came. Usually music, usually jazz. He helped me come to terms with that, too, come to think of it. And he was just as likely to be playing indigenous Peruvian chants as the Kronos Quartet; he gave all of his attention to the sound, easily swapping genres depending on the mood. There were times we didn’t get down to poetry at all because we just chatted through the allotted time. He had the professorial streak, to be sure. If he wasn’t dredging up an esoteric quote from memory, he would string a thought together from an amalgam of photographs, anecdotes, even knick-knacks he had lying about. Amiri Baraka, Robert Duncan (first I had ever hear of him), and of course Charles Olson. His casual familiarity with the terms of American Poetics — resources, personalities, contingencies, genius — astounded me. I was cowed most of the time, and usually curse my younger self for handing him such indulgent garbage, but then he had such discernment. He never gave me a program and the attentions he paid to my work were of a different lens entirely. The man looked at things better, harder, odder. He could point out the blueprint, giving me the impression that a viable poetic direction might be blueprinting as-is. Here again, the action of thought depicted. Where I wanted to make a metaphysical cardhouse, I learned from Irby to take into account the situational aspects of cardhouse-making. The way to accomplish this came clear with further reading: sound cues, the irresistible conveyance of the turn-of-phrase, or vowel coloration, or what have you. Take this example, from Etudes:
call snown draw cold moon sawm
comb new leaver lean
so shadows dough
I will always be grateful for his guidance in word-smelting. The whole prospect is thrilling — its inherent draw demonstrated for posterity in Irby’s oeuvre. I would teach it even if this were the only reason.
I’m on the phone with Ken Irby. He’s watching Cat People on TV. He’s narrating bits of the picture:
A Siamese cat has just come out of a box. It doesn’t like her, you see, because she is a cat person.
I search Cat People on the Internet to get a visual. Buried among the millions of YouTube cute cat videos, Jane Randolph swims alone in a hotel pool. Shadows move in catlike shapes above her. A loud purring is heard. Randolph screams. Help arrives. She discovers her robe has been clawed “to ribbons.” She begins to sense all is not as it seems.
I’ve called Ken, because I have to write this article.
I want to write about you, I say, but it keeps getting personal. I can’t write anything academic here.
How can it not be personal? he says. How can anything you write not be personal? I keep telling my students that, and they don’t hear that very much, it seems.
I want to write about how he read his students’ poetry with genuine respect. He didn’t question our aesthetic or give any credence to our self-doubts. He trusted us. He listened to the work and attended it with generosity. Often, he would just urge us to do more of whatever we were doing: writing, painting, or lucid dreaming.
I want to write about having dinner at Ken’s apartment in a blizzard. It must have been ten years ago. I was visiting family in Kansas and I’d borrowed my mom’s car and spun it out into a snowy ditch on Highway 10, the two-lane highway that connects Lawrence to Kansas City.
The tires were buried in soft snow. It was evening. The sky was darkening. No cell phone. Nothing to do but try to dig out around the tires and shove cardboard under them to give them traction. All I had to dig with was a plastic CD case. So, I’m digging in this dark snowy ditch for twenty minutes and a tow truck comes out of nowhere. This friendly tow-truck driver tows me out for free. He wouldn’t take any money, which was a good thing, because I didn’t have any.
I get to Ken’s apartment, probably two hours late. He was worried. The TV played some PBS dance special with the sound off. The food was kept warm in the oven. I sat on the old brocade settee that was his mother’s. The tree that’s been growing in his living room for decades welcomed me. And, behind it, the paintings by Thorpe. Out the balcony window, snow billowed. He brought me a dry pair of socks and a glass of calvados. We talked for hours about friends and family, poetry, painting, and music.
I left long after midnight. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Standing by my mother’s car for a moment, I looked up at the clear, cold Kansas night sky, expansive and silent. My heart burned with love for life.
I felt deeply reassured, in spite of the desolate drive back to Kansas City in the dark, to the old home place with inquisition pope prints and a life-size crown of thorns by the door, reassured that whatever it is I am doing with my life, it has meaning. Reassurance borne from Ken’s generous hospitality: dear friend and ally.
I remember Ken telling me once, There’s never any harm in knowing what you are doing; the more you know what you are doing, the more you can do whatever it is you intend to do.
I think that advice has stayed with me, because now it’s so helpful. What am I doing? I ask myself this all the time in my work. It helps. I try to ask fearlessly. What am I doing? I ask and then take notes.
Ken loves dreams. I love dreams. We talk about dreams: what they are and where they come from. Once, Ken had a student who was always extremely late to class so that finally Ken asked him why and the student apologized and said, I’m sorry, professor, I want to come to class, but I keep having the most interesting dreams, so that I just can’t wake up.
I learned from Ken that I was my own key. This information actively contradicted much that I was being taught at the time. I was to make my work, through awareness and dream, observation and research, and through paying attention to EVERYTHING.
Ken helped me recognize that desire, actually, was enough of a reason to want to write and that making work was all I needed to do to feel satisfied.
When I was nineteen, I met Ken and wasn’t taking my work seriously at all.
Larry Eigner had died and there was a memorial reading at a bookstore in downtown Lawrence. I’d come across Eigner’s work, because I was an assistant at KU’s archive. I loved his use of the page and that he wrote about squirrels.
Six people showed up to that reading: Ken Irby, Judy Roitmen, John Moritz, Wayne Props, Lee Chapman, and me. I was the audience. So what happened was a conversation that was a crash course in poetics. Moritz read Eigner’s work from Hall’s New American Poetry anthology, Roitman talked about Leslie Scalapino’s Way, and Ken talked about Eigner. I realized that I’d found the conversation I’d been looking for; only, I hadn’t known I was looking. (It was so Dorothy.)
As an adjunct lecturer at KU, Ken was relegated to teaching beginning composition courses. He wasn’t allowed to teach any upper level undergrad courses, graduate seminars, or independent study courses. This was a strange situation for those of us who wanted to study with him. I couldn’t study poetry with Ken without a weird bureaucratic scenario involving a faculty member agreeing to oversee the independent study. It was odd.
Why do you want to study with him, one professor scoffed. His poetry doesn’t make any sense!
(This was before a letter writing campaign and department-wide vote secured Ken a tenure-track position, when he was in his fifties and the author of more than twenty books.)
In spite of the red tape, a tenured faculty member allowed me to take an independent study with Ken. Every Friday we had a four-hour conversation. My brain burns just thinking about it. We read and discussed poets and works that to this day remain tremendously important to me, including Gertrude Stein, H.D., Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan. What was so particularly helpful about those conversations is that they really were conversations. There was no set “objective.” We would talk and, wherever the conversation went, that’s where it went. If something came up, such as “scrying,” we would talk about it without any particular goal. What evolved from that, I think, for me, was an appreciation for the expansiveness of writing. That anything and everything goes into poetry. That poetry is reality. That nothing is excluded from poetry, not even “nothing.”
Readers of Ken’s work will notice this expansiveness. That web of connectivity — what could be called love — remarks on the structure of the universe itself, what also could be called love. If love is the activity of connecting one to an/other, thereby dissolving the subject/object confusion, then the drawing of connections via poetry is also love. And so, I would argue that Ken Irby writes love poetry.
Ken asks about “the West” and I tell him about the Occupy movement, which has been so much in the foreground this past week, what with the cops tearing down the Occupy Oakland tents and destroying encampments. We talk about the subsequent marches that resulted in dozens of arrests, injuries, and the hospitalization of Scott Olsen.
There’s an Occupy Lawrence, he says. They’ve set up tents in South Park. Police brutality is nothing new in Oakland. Rexroth used to say that whenever he went to Oakland, he always felt like he needed to show the police a passport.
Then he launches into a story about when he first moved out to Berkeley and how Robert Duncan loaned him a manuscript of The H.D. Book and Ken somehow ended up reading it in Golden Gate Park. I wonder where he read it? Hippie Hill? Stow Lake? And I think about those days when I was nineteen, sitting in his office for hours talking about Andrew Lang’s scrying or Maria Callas or, just, anything! And, that when I think about what a mentor is “supposed” to do, it’s teaching what it means to live a good life, a life full of love. And, what’s amazing about Ken Irby, is he does just that.