Homing in on Irbyland
Knowledge, Duncan McNaughton reminds us, is all of what one’s love becomes capable of.
— Kenneth Irby, from the introduction to Patrick Doud’s The Man in Green
Over the past half-century, Kenneth Irby’s writing has serially explored the contours and sundry habitations of what he calls the “spiritual landscape” (94) of the North American continent, seeking out and attending its “Lords of the Soil” (319) and “sustainers of the spirit” (91), its “Rock Chalk dogs” (306), “dark gods” (214), “dwellers of the dream” (306), and “mute attendant spirits [who] in-dwell” (331) the objects of his everyday life. Neither sentimental nor didactic, Irby’s poems are not content with a posturing of fictive subjectivities, or with a solipsistic confessionalism that posits distress as the measure of lyrical authenticity. Instead, his poems invest the quotidian with a luminescent majesty, taking “strength in very quiet great distances” (523), and making palpable “the temporary and altogether transitional affluence of life itself” (561) — a sense of “that endlessness of everyday / that is precisely eternity” (176). Because for Irby — and this point is perhaps most crucial in appreciating his work — the “spiritual landscape” is emphatically of this world, not an “illusory world” (95; 162); it is found, he explains, in “the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now” (93–4). Driven from the start by “the conviction that the landscape demands us, and reveals us” (94), Irby’s work has remained faithful to an investigation of this founding principle, a patent but enigmatic relation between bodies and landforms, wherefrom he sets off in “The Grasslands of North America,” one of his earliest published poems: “There must be in the juice / and flesh a same plain / as these, the same moving / wave as this grass // the body comes back to” (253–54). We find this demand renewed in his most recently published work: “though you think you’re there with people you know and love, and are” he writes in the prose poem “Visitations — Homage to Emerson,”
or how do you know they’re there and how do you know they
aren’t, never easily amazed, and by yourself, who is in there with
you, who do you keep true company with inside, not images but
known, or who is known except outside, and those you do not
know […] circumfused in air, into the dark time to come, […]
ricocheting trunk to trunk, leaf left to leaf to let go, you go find,
you go find, you go find
In their desiderata and “reach” — a word that appears more than seventy times in Irby’s catalog — his poems do not attempt to transcend, but more intimately to come to know the particulars of the localities we inhabit, “here and now,” as both interface and index of the human interior.
While the voice of Irby’s poems is musically distinct — who among his contemporaries, for instance, would write something like, “who gazes at the bottled horsehair in the sun / to be eel” (634)? — and their register percipient, discursive, and meticulous, the method whereby Irby’s poetic practice attains its knowledge happens also to be the overarching desire of his body of work: to love (a word that appears 214 times in his collected poems). “Love’s reality is to love,” Irby writes in an early preface to Movements/Sequences, “not to understand or change, only to love” (29). This yearning for a “[l]ove that invades everything — till it is / part of the body, not its object” (64) is Irby’s signature orexis (a word he chose as the title for a 1981 book) and it has been highlighted by a number of his most attentive readers. In her illuminating and compassionate essay “‘We might say poetry …,’” included in this feature, Lyn Hejinian cites “radiat[ing] love” as one of “at least three” central features of Irby’s writing — for, “in a powerful and positive sense,” Hejinian writes, “Irby is a poet of non-alienation.” Along similar lines, in an essay for the 1979 special issue of Credences, “In Celebration of Kenneth Irby,” George Quasha likens Irby’s “hunger … for the further present” to a Deleuzian sense of “Desire” which “is not born of need or a lack, but is productive of its own object, makes more world.” Irby’s is “an art of the potential actual,” Quasha writes, “an art within the virtualities of the possibly so.” At the other end of that decade, in a statement on Irby’s poetics for a special 1973 Kenneth Irby/David Bromige double feature of Vort, Robert Creeley announces that, “we will find a world only as [Irby] does, by loving it.”
Thus, in the time since Irby’s first mimeographed book, The Roadrunner Poem, was published by Larry Goodell’s Placitas-based Duende Press in 1964, when Irby’s poems were beginning to appear in magazines such as Matter and Wild Dog, alongside his many book reviews — the majority of which appeared in Kulchur, and which are the focus of Matt Hofer’s essay included here (and the matter of its cento) — Irby has shared (another favorite term) his love, “flung out” in over twenty books of poems. Along with additional unpublished material, these publications comprise Irby’s master opus, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, published by North Atlantic Books in 2009. The following year, Irby received the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, placing him in the company of such luminaries as Marianne Moore, Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Michael Palmer, to name only a few.
If Irby appeared on the New American scene half a decade too late for Don Allen’s seminal anthology, it’s perhaps tempting to say he was half a decade too early for the Language movement. But such a dyadic assessment conforms to the pressures of pat critical classification at the expense of a more nuanced reading of the work. For while Irby’s early writing (up to the mid-1970s, say) reflects the influence of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley (and his earliest work, some of which is reproduced here, recalls that of Robert Lowell and Wallace Stevens), the aural splendor of his writing from the late 1970s echoes the work of Louis Zukofsky, Robert Kelly, and José Lezama Lima. Note the “Etudes” section of Call Steps, for instance, which presents a “doughy” soundscape, studded with surreal curiosities (e.g., “face grave houndom into human hone” ), murky protean quatrains (e.g., “steps of the camp / mud element of trance / essence star of hippopotamus / walking the bottom of the river milk” ), and imaginal distillations, or sonic friezes, or whatever one wants to call something like this: “call snown draw cold moon sawm / comb new leaver lean / so shadows dough” (464). That we find praise of (and publishers for) Irby’s work spread across otherwise exclusive “school” lines — for example, among Black Mountaineers, like Creeley, Dorn, and Paul Blackburn; among innovators of the Deep Image, like Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg; among a handful of early Language poets, like Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Robert Grenier; among once-Beats, like Anne Waldman and Joanne Kyger; among the otherwise difficult to categorize, like Gerrit Lansing, Chuck Stein, Paul Metcalf, Thomas Meyer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Ammiel Alcalay; and among a handful of so-called “avant-garde” poets of a younger generation, like Dale Smith, Cyrus Console, Monica Peck, and Ben Lerner — attests to the extraordinary mutability of his register.
With Irby’s collected works in hand, new ways his poems trace mutually constitutive relationships between morphologies of place and self are revealed, and a comprehensive look at the recursive and reflexive nature of his life in print becomes possible for the first time. It has been, up to this point, the geographical elements of Irby’s writing that have dominated much of the scholarly attention it has received, and to a certain extent this remains the case with many of the essays gathered here. For Irby’s poems are preoccupied with questions of orientation and direction, and among his chief influences and allies are geographers and other practitioners of the cultural landscape, like Carl O. Sauer, James C. Malin, Bob Callahan, Michael Brodhead, and Edgar Anderson. As the essays by Denise Low and Lyn Hejinian point out, place names litter Irby’s “site-specific” poems — the third section of Kansas–New Mexico, for example, lists the counties and townships one passes through traveling southwest across Kansas — and many of his books’ titles appropriate geographical terms: e.g., Archipelago; Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories; Ridge to Ridge; In Denmark; Riding the Dog; etc.
Scrolling over The Intent On, we find Irby’s line ranging from the tight “derringer” couplets of To Max Douglas — which recall, in form and theme, H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, as much as they do Olson’s breath-broken flow — to the multijointed, hyperextended utterance, full of hyphenated nomenclature (redolent of Navajo poetries) and syntactic involutions, which characterizes his more recent collections, such as Call Steps and Ridge to Ridge. On the whole, the line appears to have lengthened with age — note the oversized page of Call Steps, or the enormously oversized 35 x 44 centimeter dimensions of A Set — and though it’s in his 1977 collection Catalpa that we find “September,” the only short story Irby has ever published, his metrics expand into the prose poem more and more frequently in the work of the past decade. No matter the fluctuations in line or subject, however, Irby continues to weave his peculiar phrasing and lexicon into a vast “mycelium mat” (212) of recurring tropes and images. As signposts along Irby’s “discontinuous / dendritic narrative of a journey” (288), these details are invested with the plural significance familiar objects obtain through watchful and loving persistence — a homing effect that poet Cyrus Console (a former student of Irby’s) notes with regard to the seemingly cryptic aspects of Irby’s work: “All items in the richness of his routines,” Console observes, “in them, the work emits a special sense of company, even its recondite elements, even if they remain obscure, some are insistently so, they grow personal, demonstratively familiar.” So for all its hermetic reverberations, Irby’s poetry is also fundamentally concerned with the materiality of its language, with sharing a realm of awareness in which ideas are not just in, but also are, things. The elongation of Irby’s line is one indication of this interest, and while his early work enumerates locational data — attuned to the outdoor landscape’s areal particulars — his later work rigorously explores what Dale Smith calls the “self-imposed distances” of an indoor and “extraordinarily private” stanzaic space that is, Ben Friedlander writes, “at once expansive and compressed.”
In addition to the lengthening of Irby’s line, we can identify three formal tendencies that characterize its construction. First, Irby employs idiosyncratic (not arbitrary) punctuation, often making use of a Dickinsonian dash (particularly in his letters), and — as Low notes in her examination of the graphical elements in his work — his writing almost totally avoids the full stop. Second, Irby has a large, unconventional, often weird vocabulary, which includes a talismanic penchant for what poet Peter Longofono’s essay calls “word-smelting” — examples of which include, “densefulness” (534), “underfingernailfleshed” (428), “interinterventions” (531), “unthunder” (429), and so on — as well as the epical epithetic constructions we encounter in “In Memorium — Sam Thomas,” for example: “Sam Thomas, Instructor of the Night Mind, Missouri Traveler, and Conundrumist of terrible intelligence — Self Destroyer […] He Who Throws Dust Into His Own Eyes […] The Preacher, The Whisperer, the Voice of the Blind Lizard” (277). And third, one of the most recognizable features of Irby’s elegantly circuitous line, is its abundance of prepositions, and a preference for placing them at the ends of their phrases (as in the title of his collected poems), thus concocting hinges, swings and slides, interleaved ambiguities between the lines. Navigating these syntactical twists and turns is the poetical equivalent of ascending Magritte’s staircase in “Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word)” — painted the year of Irby’s birth — straight into a wall. But in doing so, one is alternately made aware of the pleasure in fluctuations of syntax alone — no longer as a means of conveyance, but an experience of its own duration. Whether Irby’s prepositions function as orientational markers, directives, or load-bearing beams — e.g., “finding a front porch down the road to get up on to out of the rain” — the dense syntactical patterns they construct require cat-like agility on the part of the reader to bolt and bounce around the stanzaic field:
Then take up the empery and the dominion and return them
as the rabbits at the salt lick take what is left for the deer
and the long stare back into the woods for the others
The water that is in the sky and the land and the hand
pass on in one direction West with the eagles
and with the spin of blackbirds back against the other
And you are the continuance and the impress and the delivery
and the indication, the in and the from and the pre and the to (548–49)
Thus with the lineal solder of conjunction, hyphen, and preposition, Irby administers a reading experience as rewarding as it is (and because it is) demanding, forcing the reader to find her own way through the musical thicket, which is an empowering allowance: “what in the path passes between the pather and the pathing, or in the reading,” Irby asks in “[Visitations],” and “who else, always another might, always the who else” (545).
In Irby’s work of the late 1970s and after, the investment in a grammatical disorientation so extreme its unpredictability attains an order of immediacy, commensurate with the actual, is paradoxically accomplished by interrupting the reading experience, emphasizing the poem’s mediated-ness. This interruption also bodies forth a peculiar form of presence, sometimes achieved through ludic, “concrete” effects. What occupies the “gap of remembrance” in the poem below, for instance, when the senses are scrambled into synesthesia?
between what is seen (heard)
and what is seen (heard)
what is ( )
or didn’t never so much pay attention to as change back and forth with,
someplace else (470)
Reminiscent of John Cage (cf. the preface of Irby’s Movements/Sequences: “as now the cars’ sounds out these windows …” ), this typographical riddle leaps off the page at its unwitting reader. Reimagining the poem as an interactive event (as Hejinian does), and reading (like writing) as a “formative activity,” Irby’s overhaul of readerly attention engineers a constantly renewable present in which “the time in the poem … becomes the time of the poem.” And these uroboric suspensions and reflexive cantilevers of syntax that dislocate the reader in one context — like “the driver” in “[Visitations],” who “thought he was going around and around himself in the dark” (545) — enchant her in another, with the fluvial grace of a line that compelled Ron Silliman to declaim Irby’s “ear” the finest among his contemporaries. In this way, Irby’s lyric envisions a new kind of polis founded and inhabited in the intimate distance of reading, as the opening poem of The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream announces: “of / Relation / & of that City / where all our meeting lies / As has been said: / the Nation can only come into being / but the City we may / found / Between us / Here & Now, as we read / these words” (159–60).
In “Homage,” the final poem in The Intent On, the vast body of Irby’s work comes rhizomatically to indwell the lyric’s ascetic compression. The poem is a kind of summary koan concluding the preceding volume’s compendious response to the call to “find the Secret History of your Self, wherein you live, which is more vast and great than any Shell or Strife you know” (305):
You will not always walk in the rain
on a May morning
or see the iris in bloom
before you give a final
on a campus where you were young and took them
longer ago than you will live after (672)
“Homage” quietly invokes the lived material gathered in the volume at the end of which it appears by negatively reinforcing its content and transporting the reader to a moment previous to its production. Within the poem’s six lines we encounter three versions of Irby in the voice of one — KU undergraduate, KU professor, and future anterior poet-speaker. And just as the “I” who utters the poem and the “you” to whom it speaks stand on either side of the selfsame, unenunciated antecedent, so the phantom “I” that cleaves intention into intent on also serves as the object of the title’s truncated predicate: intent on ... what? Intent on seeking out a self “lost on off / in those steep and wandering canyons,” a self momently retrieved in and through the lifelong practice of daily writing.
In its return to the familiar, “Homage” demonstrates a means to home — i.e., to return to after a long time away; to move toward with great accuracy and determination; to focus attention on. “To return / to the recognition / without remembering,” Irby writes in “[nostos • kuboå],” combining an instructive distance with the notion of a renewable, transitory, timeshare-self: “you have to become / a stranger / to have / a homecoming” (654). Here home, as a noun, is haunted by the trace of the passage that’s an essential component of its verb form, and it must first be set at a distance (from distancia, “to stand apart”), in order to be reinserted into a network of animate relations. Homecoming and homage — terms for desire’s systolic and diastolic motions in Irby’s writing — not only proffer ways of going home, but are also modes of inhabiting it: “home itself is an organ of perception” (568), Irby writes in Studies. And if poetry is, as it was for Olson, a personal form of public allegiance — a crossing-over of thresholds opposing individual to collective desire, or the company of the living to that of the dead — then we might say all of Irby’s poems are forms of homage. In its original, feudal usage, “homage” was related to the landscape’s hierarchical enclosure, and referred to the allegiance of a subject to an “artificial” lord, or landlord. But in Irby’s “Homage” we encounter an intrasubjective plurality, a form of what Hejinian calls “lyric sociality,” wherein the distance between “I” and “you” collapses into an omnipresence, an overmind.
Seeking a mode of “all attention,” Irby’s work inhabits an interrogatory dimension, where established facts lose traction, where certainty lies only in the shifting of relations, where distance is the impetus and guage of desire, where gaps are interstitial, and where “home” is, like love, a habitation, a form of dwelling, a place always in the making. Amid these Steinian waters, it’s the reader’s job to map her own relations: “so the word is passed on,” Irby writes in Call Steps, “and equally not known / till how much later, the thrill of recognizing can still be known” (423). While repetition and reflexivity facilitate the “thrill of recognizing” — a thrill shared outside conventional modes of sociality, but within language’s storehouse of experience — uncertainty forms the groundwork of Irby’s poetic logic. “[H]aving come to this meadow,” he writes in “Point Reyes Poem,” “there is only the uncertainty of all purpose” (138). In this way, Irby’s poetics of “non-alienation” closely resemble the “open form” poetics of Robert Duncan, which value process, inquiry, accumulation, dissonance, and the materiality of the poem’s “matter” over and above the abstraction of an authentic, or “true,” expressive “self,” lurking beneath the recto: “I read and write,” Duncan writes in his essay, “The ‘Self’ in Postmodern Poetry,” “gathering darkness, I would say, deepening the rift. Here, this matter of self must be seen not as undergoing change — the word itself is in question. But I work only in question; mine is a questionable work.”
Irby’s “questionable work,” like Duncan’s, seeks the “transvaluation,” as opposed to the “overthrow” of this “matter,” lodged everywhere around us — in overheard speech, in non sequiturs and tangent associations, in fleeting physical sensations, whatever the poem brings, or is brought, to one’s awareness during its composition. The poet must learn to hear “the importance of whatever happens in the course of writing as revelation,” Duncan insists, “not from an unconscious, but from a spiritual world.” Duncan’s notion of a “spiritual world” that assails the poem at the time of its making is also instructive for an understanding of the “spiritual landscape” Irby designates as the terrain of his own poetic endeavor. For Irby and Duncan both, the “spiritual” describes an amplified presentness, “here and now,” attained through writing as a process of selection and sensitization — an enhanced sense of being in, not outside, time, of being in the world, living with other things. One task of The Intent On, then, is to pursue vivifying lines of inquiry and relation, e.g.: “did Pike read Boehme?” (501) or, “What good does it do / to talk to the dead? — those who are / the removed from human communion, Duncan said” (194). In order to “stay fresh” at the door of one’s experience, as Olson encourages in his essay “Human Universe,” to tune into those radio waves Spicer described, “where [one] is responsible to more than [oneself],” the poet must remain in the grip of questions, a mode of intensified listening. At this crossroads, we find Irby entreating: “Where do you go now?” This interrogative “yearning” compels much of his writing: “tonight I go home to Berkeley,” Irby confesses in “The Brief Connection,” “there is the question still of cause” (107). Thankfully, the question prefigures a mystery always running on beyond us, out into the margin, over onto the next line, there to reach to all the way back of “the Lore,” into the love itself, “till it is / part of the body, not its object”: “To make sure you never forget in your prosperity the misery and destitution that brought you here and those who shared it with you, the compassion that created you,” Irby writes in “[Notes],” “And when you have remembered and have restored, to disappear again” (660). Such is the rocking rhythm of Irby’s homing process, wherein “we are not at home if we are not at rest / going and coming in” (142).
Irby’s actual home is Kansas, the “centrum pocket of the continent” (306) where his family settled when he was three — in Fort Scott, having moved north from Texas — and where he currently resides, in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, where he received a History BA in 1958, and where he returned to teach in 1985, first as a lecturer, and, as of 2012, a full professor (in spite of the fact he holds no PhD, nor any degree at all in his field of appointment). As the chronology included in this feature illustrates, in the two decades between 1958 and 1977, when he returned to Fort Scott to assist his mother in selling the family home, Irby travelled extensively throughout the North American and European continents, living for extended periods of time in Albuquerque, Boston, the Bay Area, and Copenhagen. But “no matter how far his body wanders,” Dorn notes in his introduction for To Max Douglas, “he never wanders. […] Irby has stayed with the materia” (184). Kansas — “forever at the heart of things” (207), forever in “the torrent of the boundary” (525) — remains always on the way to the other coast, always in the in-between, always “the who else.” This Janus condition — often represented in Irby’s poetry by the Chinese character “hsin 心 the heart / that is the mind, as the Zohar / also knows them one” (207) — becomes the model for a doubled cleaving that the work effects wherever its gaze alights. Take the closing lines of “Notes II,” for example, which recall the Korean War of Irby’s adolescence — “I watched that push toward Pusan / in maps in the Kansas City Times / hoping we’d be shoved shitfaced / into the sea.” Here, Irby sets the gauge of a lifelong pursuit to lovingly (i.e., not militantly) take a landscape, in order to ever have a home to return to: “war I knew came home along the corridors of high school,” he writes, “landscape I would have to take / to ever come home // all was at war, but I was not a warrior” (276–77). By the time the second edition of To Max Douglas was published in 1974, Irby had roamed to the “edge of the continent” and back again — all the way back to Scandinavia — and had, in the eyes of those peers he most respected, sufficiently taken his place. Indeed, so much so that Robert Duncan, for example, referred to Kansas as “Irbyland,” and Ed Dorn, in a 1971 poem entitled, “an œcological prophecy,” which plays on a John Wayne line from Red River (i.e. “gesturing / toward Texas says: // Someday thatll all be Beef!”), writes: “… Gestures / twrd Kansas / Someday thatll all be Kenneth Irby.” A decade later, when Dorn delivered the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures at SUNY Buffalo, he thanked “longtime associate and geographer, Ken Irby,” among a short list of persons, all of whom, save Irby, were in attendance.
It was Charles Olson, in Call Me Ishmael, who took “SPACE” to be the “first fact” confronting man in America, announcing that, “the fulcrum of America is the plains, half sea half land, […]. Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive.” In her essay in this feature, Denise Low argues that Irby has both dug in and mounted, that he wanders from his staked plains on a very long lead, treading a littoral circumference. For example, while the poems of Irby’s 1977 collection, Catalpa, are arranged according to their place of composition — namely, Berkeley or Boston — all motions “in the whirlpool of the continent” swirl back to Kansas, and along the heart-shaped arc of Catalpa Irby begins to turn “back / where he had begun” (like Ledyard, Escalante, Cabeza de Vaca, and other journeyers who haunt the book), to complete another of the “great / circles” that The Intent On cartographically inscribes (123). The fact that Kansas receives no section title in Catalpa is a strategic omission, for it occupies an absent-present “centrum” in the book — just as it does on the continent, where it forms the shallow basin that once cradled the late Cretaceous Western Interior Ocean, the decayed benthic fauna of which enriched its “breadbasket” fifteen feet of loam.
Whereas Berkeley and Boston are the endpoints of two of its transcontinental spokes, Kansas is the “fulcrum” of “the Great Wheel of the Plains / [that] turns under Fort Scott” (266), and it’s the mandrel of Catalpa in a literal sense, as well. Home to John Moritz’s Tansy Press, the town is the site of the book’s publication, and as such its name appears on the title page, anchoring an overarching, ventricular sense of place. In all, eight of Irby’s books have been published by Lawrence-based presses, six of those by Tansy, starting with the first edition of To Max Douglas, in 1971. Meanwhile, the covers of both To Max Douglas and Catalpa feature Lawrence-based artist Lee Chapman’s sunflower drawing, displayed on the homepage of this feature, which Irby has adopted as a kind of signature crest, including it on the title page of nearly every book since. Chapman is also the founder and editor of First Intensity, which, as a press, published Irby’s Studies in 1999, and as a (now defunct) journal of the same name, featured more of Irby’s writing than any other magazine to date.
A number of the essays gathered in this feature locate a shift in the attentions of Irby’s work that roughly coincides with his moving back to Fort Scott in 1977. This makes sense, in part, because there have been few critical assessments of Irby’s career since the late 1970s — but in those that do exist, this transition has been inadequately considered. “Some people have accused me of writing about a place in a poem only when I’m not there,” Irby told an interviewer in the mid-1980s, “which is something we’ve all experienced.” Posing as an analytical deduction, this accusation repeats a given of the work without bothering to engage it, and operates under an impoverished concept of place that overlooks important features of Irby’s “spiritual landscape.” It ignores the fact that longing, daydreaming, what-have-you, is as much a fact of its place of origin as any other felt quality that place possesses, and, therefore constitutes a specific and unique relation, that reveals as much about the context it reaches from (“here and now”), as the one it reaches to. This flexion is apparent in the boomeranging dedication of Studies, which hurls us wide from the ledge of Mount Oread, “After, from, and back to / the California friends // and all the friends” (564). As Joe Harrington’s essay keenly observes: “The personal and historical, pastoral and epic, are never very far apart[.]” Indeed, the focus on household minutiae in Studies, for example, is not a departure but an expansion of Irby’s “pastoral” condition. That our local histories, full of affinities, are the grist of our big History, welds pastoral to epic and forms one of the central convictions of The Intent On — a conviction earlier articulated by Kansas historian James C. Malin: “Every historical event must happen,” Malin argues, “not anywhere, but in some particular place, at some point in space, in some locality or minimal unit of space in which its unique causal factors operate. Thus, no matter how closely welded the much publicized one world may become, people will still live and have their being in local space.” S0, while it’s true the word “Kansas” disappears from Irby’s catalog in early 1977 — its final mention in a poem written on April 8, included in the “Heredom” section of Orexis, just three months after Irby returned to Fort Scott — this absence is only nominal, for the energy of the place has otherwise dissolved into the fiber of Irby’s pastoral attention, characterized by its “feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among — an ecological calm … [that] enacts a state of consciousness or awareness, eternally and recurringly common to human beings, every day, every life” (94).
That Irby’s unique practice of the poem appeals to a wide variety of readers and writers is demonstrated by the diverse group of contributors to this feature, all of whom agree, however, that his work deserves far more attention than it has received: from Dale Smith, whose essay treats Irby’s poetics of “homecoming,” and drawing on Kenneth Burke’s notion of a “qualitative progression of formal appeal,” explores the “problem of perspective” in Ridge to Ridge; to Joe Harrington, who compares Irby’s work with that of Ronald Johnson, another Kansas poet of his generation, locating a decisive shift in the scope of Irby’s “pastoral” gaze; to Andrew Schelling, who contemplates the function of that gaze in Catalpa, as well as in Irby’s abundant and endearing correspondence; to Lyn Hejinian, who identifies an “intimacy of address” and a “site-specific” orientation as two of the chief signatures running throughout Irby’s profoundly magnanimous oeuvre; to Pierre Joris, who tracks the nomadic impulses and “ghostings” of Old World literary traditions throughout Irby’s career, envisioning a transatlantic communion in the music of Delius and Duke Ellington “upwelling” between his musical lines; to Denise Low, who, drawing on her knowledge of Native American symbologies, catalogs the graphical elements in The Intent On, and extends her investigation into Irby’s notebooks and personalized flyleaf inscriptions; to Matt Hofer, who surveys Irby’s abundant book reviews and “evaluative criticism,” which, over the course of his career, have provided Irby a transformative space, Hofer argues, in which he’s sculpted and refined his own poetic sensibility, and sworn his aesthetic allegiances; to Robert Grenier, whose dynamic, polymorphous prose-poem/memoir celebrates, as it interrogates, the notion of friendship at the pith of Irby’s life and writing; to Aldon Nielsen, who focuses on Irby’s career (alongside David Bromige’s) at the moment of To Max Douglas, in the fissure that divides the waning organic lyricism of New American poetics, from the emergent, politically engineered assays of the Language poets; to Robert Bertholf, who provides a comprehensive overview of Irby’s career and the evolution of his poetics of ensoulment; and, finally, to Ben Friedlander, who identifies three central “principles” — accretion, crossing, and experience — through which Irby’s writing seeks to fuse artistic production with everyday activity, and who proposes a shift in Irby’s catalog from the exploitation of “narrative and thematic” attributes of the poem, to the exploration of “formalist” techniques for rendering the intrapersonal “complexities” exhibited in his more recent work.
In addition to these insightful and most welcome contributions to the slowly growing body of critical scholarship on Irby’s poetics, this feature also contains a number of other pieces that help to illuminate the larger impact of his career. Like the pieces mentioned above, a number of these additional items appear here for the first time. A group of Irby’s former students — Jeff Bergfalk, Cyrus Console, Peter Longofono, Monica Peck, and myself — have contributed reflections on him as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. The selection of Irby’s correspondence with Ed Dorn — modest as it is — nonetheless marks the first time a selection of Irby’s letters have been made available. Likewise, of the nineteen uncollected poems included in this feature, fourteen are first published here, and those remaining are reprinted for the first time since they initially appeared in various literary journals with relatively limited distribution in the 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, the detailed chronology of Irby’s life to this point is the first of its kind, and serves as a useful companion for The Intent On, while almost all of the photographs sprinkled throughout this feature (most of which come from Irby’s private collection), also appear here exclusively.
As a poet of exceptional ability and integrity, Irby has remained (to borrow a phrase from Donald Wesling, writing about Ed Dorn), “nomadic and marginal in the circumstances of personality and publishing.” Admirable as these qualities are, like Irby’s commitment to living in the marginal “centrum” of the continent, they have been accomplished at the expense of the broader readership that his work undoubtedly deserves. Writing at the tail end of the 1970s, Jed Rasula summarized “the problem of Irby’s reputation”:
He is probably the least anthologized significant poet around, for one thing.
The largest printing of one of his books was RELATION, with something
under 800. Probably his largest exposure was his repeated appearance in
CATERPILLAR. In certain respects his career is comparable to those of
his two closest (in temperament) contemporaries, Ed Dorn and Robert
Kelly — up to a point, that is.
To look back to 1965, from this faraway perspective, I find Irby the
more accomplished poet. He had three books out by then; Dorn had three;
Kelly a few more, but not much. All three had more or less laid their rails
by 1965 and were on the verge, or so it seemed, of large-scale work. The
next five or six years made that point abundantly clear, with Dorn’s NORTH
ATLANTIC TURBINE, GUNSLINGER I–II, BY THE SOUND, SOME
BUSINESS RECENTLY TRANSACTED IN THE WHITE WORLD and
numerous broadsides and pamphlets. Some of Kelly’s most remarkable
work was also published during the later sixties […] and in 1971 […]. And
what about Irby? Only THE FLOWER OF HAVING PASSED THROUGH
PARADISE IN A DREAM, not much to show. There was some catching up
in 1970 and 1971 with RELATION and TO MAX DOUGLAS, but I sense that
it was perhaps too late for any sense of continuity to develop between the
publications and thus sustain a real reading of Irby’s work. The early books
were never really “available,” and even now my writing of this essay was
hampered by my inability to get a copy of KANSAS–NEW MEXICO. I drag
all these material facts out here simply to show that, through whatever accident
of publishing history, Irby has for years been less well known than his immediate
contemporaries, and that the situation is not likely to be corrected for some time,
despite the presence now of CATALPA. […] So while Irby is not exactly a
“fugitive” poet, it remains difficult simply to sit down and read the 200 or so
existing pages of his work.
If North Atlantic’s 2009 publication of The Intent On remedies the core problem Rasula identifies — the unavailability of Irby’s books — then a critical valuation of this impressive collected body of work is now overdue. Working in that direction, this feature builds on the contributions of those journals that have dedicated past issues to Irby’s writing and to scholarship thereof: the 1973 Irby/Bromige double feature of Barry Alpert’s magazine, Vort, marked the first time that scholarship specifically addressing Irby’s work appeared in print (aside from books reviews), and was followed by Credences 7, “In Celebration of the Work of Kenneth Irby,” in 1979, and Notus 10, in 1992. Overall, the present feature not only intends to celebrate Irby’s ongoing yet underappreciated achievement as a poet and a teacher, and to introduce a larger audience to his writing, but also, by linking his achievement to the work of other poets — both forebears of the craft, like Whitman, and contemporaries in the field, like Ronald Johnson — and by proposing strategies and frameworks for comprehending and assessing his body of work, for mapping its trends and identifying its major shifts, this feature hopes to situate Irby’s remarkable career at the forefront of the “experimental” and lyrical traditions in post-WWII American poetry. Lastly, on this tragically misused continent, bombarded by a civilization that values overproduction and “the spotlessness of their records,” as Cyrus Console has written, “over that of their consciences,” Irby’s “strength in very quiet great distances,” his lovingly defiant kingdom of birdsong fandango garlic dream affection, and the “green crystal craze in [the] veins” (66), is a region from which we would benefit immensely by visiting more often. In the spirit of that generosity, then, let this feature be a guide for going there, “here and now.”
First of all, thank you to Jacket2 for dedicating this special feature to the work of Kenneth Irby. This project was initiated by William Joseph Harris — whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with as a coeditor, and to whom I’m grateful for this opportunity — and it builds off of the Kenneth Irby Symposium that he organized at the University of Kansas, in November 2011, at which five of the essays included here (Friedlander, Harrington, Hejinian, Joris, and Low) were presented. Nor would this project have been possible without the generous assistance of Kenneth Irby, who, among other things, carefully proofread the transcriptions of his letters and early poems, and contributed numerous photographs from his personal archives. Very special thanks to each of the archival librarians (and their respective institutions) for their knowledge and assistance in dealing with the archival materials presented here, specifically: Melissa Watterworth Batt, curator of Alternative Press, Literary, and Natural History Collections, in the Department of Archival and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT); Elspeth Healey, in the Department of Special Collections at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas); and Polly Armstrong, Public Services manager, and Mattie Taormina, head of Public Services, in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries (Stanford, California). Many thanks to Jennifer Dunbar Dorn for the permission to reproduce the unpublished writing by Ed Dorn that appears in the introduction to the selection of Irby’s correspondence in this issue. For their insightful editorial comments and suggestions on a previous version of that introduction, and for their general energy and scholastic support, many kind thanks to professor Hildegard Hoeller and the members of her spring 2012 Theory and Practice in Literary Studies seminar: Brian Baaki, Hillel Broder, Nick Gamso, Meira Levinson, Madison Priest, and Justin Van Wormer. Thanks to Jackie Anderson of Colortek of Boston for providing an electronic version of Elsa Dorfman’s 1972 photograph of Irby, Robert Duncan, and Anne Waldman, and kind thanks to Ms. Dorfman for the permission to reproduce it here. Thanks also to Lee Chapman of First Intensity Press for allowing us to include her sunflower drawing, a trademark of Irby’s books since the early ’70s. Particularly big ups to Howard Graham, who generously took the time to scan and electronically transfer a huge selection of Irby’s photographs for this issue. Mucho respect and gratitude to Matt Hofer, who invited me to present a portion of my work on Irby as a member of a “New American Poetry and the West” panel at the Modernist Studies Association conference in October 2012, and likewise respect and thanks to fellow panel member Kaplan Harris and to the panel’s chair, Alan Golding. Much of the information provided in the notes to Irby’s correspondence that concerns small literary presses and the outermost fringe figures of the tiny magazine scene comes from the scholarly treasure, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (New York: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998), by Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips. I am also indebted, in a more general editorial way, to David Greetham’s lodestone volume, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994), and to Greetham himself, as well as to my experience in collaborating on the Lost & Found chapbook project under the leadership of Ammiel Alcalay at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Finally, the most special loving thanks to Jacquelin, sustainer of my spirit, who walks me through it.
1. Walking out
Kenneth Irby’s first pamphlet, The Roadrunner Poem, appeared as the fourth issue of the journal Duende in April 1964. Forty-five years later his Collected Poems (2009) appeared as a massive document of one poet’s engagement with the process of the poem and the poetics of its statement. More than a shadow falls between the early and the late appearances of Irby’s poetry. Like most collected poems, this volume defines a career in writing and, when set against the literary history of its time, punctuates its achievement by the influences it absorbs, the modes and fashions of contemporary poetry it either acknowledges or rejects; it registers a poetics of an articulate sensibility driven, or at least dedicated, to making language and poetic form define themselves. Publishing such a book is no simple matter. The book brings together into full public notice the poems the poet accepts. In asking for a fair reading it must acknowledge the risk of rejection, the intemperance of the literary world, while hoping for praise, understanding, and confirmation of the writing life of the poet.
The geography of Kansas and the Great Plains came into the early poetry as a dominant theme, as dominant as the poet’s various relationships with that geography. Many poems began by setting out the scenes, the lines of hill, fields of grass, rivers, and even mountain ranges of the landscape further west. Early explorers and travelers were as important as the streets and families of Fort Scott and Lawrence, Kansas. Irby’s high school days became a point of reference, as did a sense of finding home, more a fluid relationship with geography than a physical building. Relation: Poems 1965–1966 (1970) was the first collection and in it Irby expanded his themes under the directive “We have approached the fact of this land / as body as alive as our own” (118). He explores the relations with the land, with people, history, and his own memory; the attention to “modes of relation” (493) appears throughout the poems. He includes not only perceptions of his attunement with the landscape, but a recognition that the experiences of the early explorers of the West like John Wesley Powell and Clarence E. Dutton are inherent in the energy of the places they walked. In Relation and in To Max Douglas (1971/1974) with reiterations of historians and politicians of the plains, these ideas grow into a complex concept of geography found, for example, in James C. Malin’s book The Grasslands of North America. “Delius,” first published in the journal Io, in 1973, is a pivotal poem in the advancement of this collection. In this poem Irby includes multiple quotations from books about Delius, and cites other references as well, in an acknowledgment that a poem can take place in a field of information which also includes the perceiving poet, but without the interferences of an ego. Irby confirms his position in an actual and an imaginary landscape of his own making as he also confirms the processes of open form composition by quoting directly from the poems and essays of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan.
The following collection, Catalpa (1977), reviews ideas of geography by expanding the habitation westward to Berkeley and eastward to Medford, Massachusetts, and then subsequently further eastward to Denmark. In Denmark (No: a journal of the arts 2003) explores the need to come to terms with personal love and a new landscape. After In Excelsis Borealis (1976) and Archipelago (1976), Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Stations, Consistories (1992) contains poems written 1977–1979 and transforms the geography of the plains to the geography of the imagination. From the start, Irby is a poet with a visionary imagination whose poems insist on a pastoral setting — “Pastoral poetry poetry // that feeds us, pasture (258) — and that setting stimulates the impetus toward the moments of vision and then the memory of the vision. In a “Preface” to Relation, Irby mentions two concerns of pastoral: “a calmness, a quietude of the whole being, derived from all attentions and awareness; and a feeling of great closeness with the vegetation lived among — an ecological calm” (93). Compounding present seeing with later visionary memories pushes understanding into an essential concern of his evolving poetics. He wants to make poems “out of small irreducible sensual wholes” (429). In “Delius” he writes: “These are the duties to find a new vocabulary” (237). Finding the fitting language to express the visions of “irreducible sensual wholes” transforms the poems into meditations about the process of poetry itself, and the inclusive necessity to live a full physical life attuned to the process of recurring points of energetic seeing. Fifteen years separate Catalpa from Call Steps and now seven years separate Call Steps from the next large collection, Ridge to Ridge: Poems 1990–2000 (2001). Again the processes of meditation and finding the language of the imagination pervade these poems as they propose parables as a means of expressing what is certainly without form or substance. The process of the poetry in an open celebration of creative seeing appears in poem after poem, each trying to articulate the things seen. Studies: Cuts, Shots, Takes (2001) begins another cycle of discovering, uncovering the fitting language. A quotation from Robert Duncan — “But this consonance I seek between actuality and the poem is not easy” (565) — leads these “etudes of massive block sonority” (567) from proposal to proposal of a solution to “consonance” in one unterminated study after another. The poems in this section are shorter than the untitled pieces in Ridge to Ridge and follow one after another without a considered narrative; if there is a possible cohesion, that would come from the imbedded process of claiming consonance in the flow of words. Then a section of “Uncollected: 1964–2006” concludes this volume by filling in the record of the cycle, and presumably introducing the poetry of the next cycle.
In a review of Catalpa, Thomas Meyer recognized in Irby’s poetry of vision elements of Gnosticism, which he traced through Zwingli, Luther, Valentinus, Emerson, and Thoreau with references to Pound and Yeats. The poetry of vision, including Irby’s poetry, is part of contemporary American writing. Edward Schelb in another review wrote: “In my mind, Irby remains one of the essential visionary and religious poets of my time, with Gnostic madness and nonsense and paradoxes combined with — above all — a most remarkable generosity of spirit. …” Visionary moments and the process of finding the means to express those moments occupy a major part of Irby’s poems. His is not a denominational vision nor religious in any institutional sense, but it is a perception of the holy. He calls it divinity. At one point he quotes Cicero, “there is in mankind a certain faculty of divinization” (493). Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, calls such perceptions of divinity the numen, an uncanny awareness of the presence of the holy in ordinary events and objects. This view of the presence gives clarity to the idea without limiting the discussions by conventional issues and terms.
The journey to the vision of home extends from high school through the whole volume. The defining experience appears early in the book:
There is nothing, then, that does not
contain the divine —
in us, from us, into the
only to find
to know it’s there
Pencil lead broken off under the fingernail
trying to clean it, I
looked up and saw the whole green tree
out the classroom window,
moving the green crystal craze in my veins
I felt, was there, but
could not ever see till then — (66)
This experience of the light of a divine presence itself becomes a presence in the poems, a powerful memory and a point of reference. Though expressed in “the green crystal craze” here, the point of vision occurs as a moment like many such moments of seeing throughout the poems:
So the sight at any moment
is complete, needs nothing more
to come into being
the whole centered, as pleasure
is full not in extension
but in being (163)
And later in the same poem, “Looking quietly for the place,” the sense of fullness of life itself expands to an attunement, a revelation of relation to the forces of the world.
easy to think
this moment that the revelation comes
is where the entrance is
when to be here at all is to
have entered the whole world whole (164)
Such perceptions are not minor events, but an “insight of the flow” (331) “mere flow” (331) of life itself. “So there the heart quickens, seeing images of its inner secrets, it had guessed before”(305). The “unattended stray memories, everything, in the throw of the vision, in the catch of us in the vision” (335), which arrive as momentary and fleeing points of light, the numen, without substantial form, obligate the poet to make “allegiances to the clarity” (430), or a clear and telling means stating them in words. The moments are accompanied by light and movement in or out, across and back, East to West or back again but the flow they enact resists visual statement and so inspires both fear and longing — “for solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision” (537). Despite the many associations Irby cites with other poets, he knows that using the language and experience of others moves the momentary experience into the language of others, away from him, so he remains dedicated to generating his own instances of perceiving the visionary numen in the sounds of words.
The idea of the holy numen runs through this present volume, as one poem has it — “through the double reinforcing veils of waking and of dream” (535) — and, as another insists, divine sense of vision permeates the entire collection “through the leaves and branches into and through the dimension, through what stare stares into and through” (551). Geography, landscape, and vision are the most important themes, but, in addition, there are several other key ideas that make up the complex poetics. The early explorers and travelers in the American West, and then the later historians of the people and geography, all contribute to the energy of the place which generates into the present. The relationship with the landscape and with other people, human love, its loss and fulfillment, inform the poems. High school experiences, the search for “home,” and the search for self appear intermittently along with some favorite figures like the wheel, birds — mainly crows and jays — and the movement of spirit “through” a landscape or human meeting. The statement of the poems changes into the process of the poem finding the terms of its own articulation. Final termination of a poem or the conclusive stopping of meditation disappear; in the course of accumulation the poems achieve a process of parables which initiate open forms of expression.
Even while giving a quick overview of Irby’s collection, including coverage of his proposal of an open-ended poetry of parables and process, this essay does not pretend to offer a full discussion of the poems. That is a project for a book-length study. Instead, this essay is more a review and introduction to The Intent On than it is an extended study of the whole volume. The following discussion of some recurring elements and figures of Irby’s poetry borrows Irby’s subtitle “Running Lights” from Call Steps. And this discussion focuses on key terms that provide entrances into the poetry as well as a way of relating parts of the whole collection. The third section, “Applications,” attempts reading three poems, again, as a way of opening passages into the collected poems.
2. Running lights
In “The Roadrunner Poem,” the speaker likens himself to the roadrunner, a figure searching for home, love, self-identity, and a clear relationship with the landscape. The runner seeks self-identity in terms of the plateaus in the distance, the ploughed fields and cottonwoods nearby, and he understands that a human has a place in the landscape:
The land is incomplete
without someone to live
into it. There
it is — in and out
the juice and sluice of energy
from letting nothing be gone
from it (9)
The human’s place in the landscape is interactive, “in and out” or in a later passage “cross and recross”
Where the body parts or thrusts
to be within itself
O where they cross and recross,
the whole journey into the moon
into the plateaus where only
water rushes that we loose, see, find, go on
to those streams
to drink? Who lives
in the moon? (17)
His journey is toward the earth, the forest and mountains beyond “the Pan American highway” (23), but also through the landscape to the moon, or the life of the imagination. The poem concludes that the landscape is the habitation of the self interacting with the earth, but the goal is the illuminated light of the imagination.
that is full of the earth
is full (25)
Irby’s references to the features of the landscape appear in almost every poem, but in the poem “Bandelier” he expands his meaning:
here, this tight canyon
like our own muscles
flexed and relaxing,
the space, the gush
of water and the mountains behind us,
we carry in us.
If we feel home
in these ruins
of Bandelier — the body
does not lie
its ease here — not all
the energy of those
Pueblos of 1250
is lost — (35–36)
The canyon contains some of the energetic presence of previous inhabitants, almost like a residual event, and that energy projects into the present to become part of the energy inherent in a particular place where events took place and people lived.
The poem “Kansas-New Mexico,” after citing an epigraph from Walter Prescott Webb, “the land itself is a survival,” reviews “the disk of the plains” (82) and recites lists of its towns and counties to reinforce the immediacy of the current occupation at the same time that previous events resonate in present events:
Let the plains
take us home. Let the earth
be where we
The reverence for the land demonstrated by setting a poem in specific geographical features expands in the rehearsals of previous events and people who lived within the scope of the poem “To Max Douglas.” E. W. Howe wrote portraits of life on the plains in The Story of a Country Town. “Ironquill Ware,” Eugene Ware, a late-nineteenth-century poet, wrote extensively about Kansas and its people. The land holds “traces / of Lewis and Clark” (189), as well as the schemes of the political boss Cy Leland, and the violent life and times of John Brown remain fresh in memory. The poem also mentions Jed Smith, who will be a subject of a later poem, and Carl Sauer, who, as a historian of the geography, recognized the inherent influence of previous people and activities in a given place. The poem cites Freud as well in a passage that defines the vision of the land:
as well as Kansas and New Mexico, all at once, as Freud saw
all the ages of Rome superimposed in one vision
as on the palm, or heart beat
springs across the belly pit of the Basin West (201)
Max Douglas as a poet, and then Irby, inherits the energetic residue of all the previous ages, action and people of the Great Plains and these forces are operative in the actions of people in contemporary Kansas, so the past superimposes itself on the present.
In the poem “Relation,” Irby lists Clarence E. Dutton, F. V. Hayden, and John Wesley Powell (among others), all geologists and explorers of the inter-mountain West, and later Cabeza de Vaca and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, both Spanish explorers of the Southwest, and the poem makes the point that the efforts of these men adhere in the geography they studied and explored, not so much as the lore of the land but as part of the projected energy of a spiritual life in particular places. In other poems like “Point Reyes Poem” the climatic conditions and the paths and the hills and the landscape come directly into the Sunday walk as if the walker were experiencing the same effect as an earlier expedition into unknown territories. The poem “Moon” pushes toward the visionary awareness of the land: “We have approached the fact of this land / as body as alive as our own” (118), which is confirmed in “Placitas Poem”:
all mountains and all around
grown luminous behind the clouds and shadows, light
beneath and in all landscapes seen, whatever size —
down to these stones under the feet, leaves and samaras (135)
Irby begins Catalpa with several definitions of the word “landscape” and a listing of scholars and their essays and books about the Great Plains, including Edgar Anderson, “The Considered Landscape”; Charles Olson, “Letter to Elaine Feinstein”; Carl Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape”; and James C. Malin, “On the Nature of Local History.” In other places he mentions Dale Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West and Josiah Gregg, The Commerce of the Prairies; Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail; Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains; and James C. Malin, The Grasslands of North America. Features of the landscape and ideas of geography appear in almost every poem of Catalpa. In To Max Douglas and Catalpa, Irby moves closer to Carl Sauer’s ideas of “cultural geography,” not simply features of landscape but a container of various cultural and historical events.
The thing to be known is the natural landscape. It becomes known through the totality of its forms. These forms are thought of not for and by themselves, as a soil specialist would regard soils, for example, but in relation to one another and in their place in the landscape, each landscape being a definite combination of form values.
Human societies and events of travel, discovery, and founding communities interact with the features of the land to create the cultural geography of the place. In later poems, Irby modifies this concept to include his imagined landscapes, and (as in “Delius”) the ones he creates by superimposing the forms of one place onto the forms of another place.
In Catalpa, after the supplication of the opening poem, “The Grasslands of North America” confirms the relations between the forces of people and the land:
There must be in the juice
and flesh a same plain
as these, the same moving
wave as this grass
the body comes back to
only having heard as they
only heard, by hearsay
and believed it (253–54)
Irby has taken “a long journey across the land” (274) to California, a landscape very different from the uncompromising flatness of the plains, so the poems are full of references to fog, mountains, forests, and vistas, even references to the Spanish Governor Gaspar de Portolá (272) and the great British sailor Sir Francis Drake (259). “Jed Smith and the Way,” a central poem, chronicles a driving trip from Berkeley north through California to Eugene, Oregon and back again. Part of the trip follows approximately the same routes — or at least analogous routes — Smith took in his trip north in the nineteenth century, but Smith’s journey as well as his death by Indians on the Santa Fe Trail are part of the modern trip, inherent in the movement forward. The old trip inhabits the modern trip and is part of the places, towns passed through and rivers crossed. In another section of Catalpa, Irby takes his sensibility of the plains eastward to Medford, Massachusetts, and so the poems struggle with the geography in the movement from Chicago to Boston. Governor Winthrop has a place now as does Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the coast of New England, and both exert the same kind of presence as a reappearance of Albert Pike, a Confederate General and a strong supporter of the Masonic Scottish Rite.
Through Catalpa, Irby has firmly established the presence of landscape and geography, but that presence in the poems following — In Denmark, Call Steps, A Set and Ridge to Ridge — becomes more a metaphor in the process of meditation than a sustained demonstration of geographical features. He confronts the new European landscape by viewing it with the memory of the American scenes, even as he celebrates human love, and in the later poems landscape becomes metaphor in the parables trying to define a visionary experience and trying to find a vocabulary of that visionary experience. The sustaining sense of geography and of the relations with the land are subsumed into the developing poetics so that they become intertextual references.
Irby is as much a traveler, “travelling, travelling” (545) — walking, driving a car, riding a bus — as the traveling geologists and historians he lists or cites in poems. He borrows a title from Bashō, “The Journey Itself is Home” (102) to specify “home” as a recurring figure of this collection. To Max Douglas begins with a hike. Home is not only a place but a state of attunement of the body’s energy with the land’s energy, as he remarks:
If we feel home
in these ruins
of Bandelier — the body
does not lie
its ease here — not all
the energy of those
Pueblos of 1250
is lost — (35–36)
In other places, he confirms this view of home as a state of attunement, rest, peace:
We are not at home if we are not at rest
going and coming in —
home is the bed’s
stead, where the rest takes place
all the circulations, out and in
that lead to sleep at last and back, to calm (142)
And in still another poem he asserts the centrality of the idea of home, “the search for home always” (283): it can appear “In the house of friends, on the Northern coast of California, in the grip of the elements, altogether alive” (299). Home is at times a visionary event, “the only place where you can go both out and in // power is stored is home // but every particle” (398). “The calling home, and being called inside, can concentrate” (538) both the desire of the journey and the peace fitting smoothly into the energy of a place or the dynamics of a human situation:
we are this household of
what the body holds of
and gives back
your dream of the trees and pasture
out past the balcony, straight on into
the distance past the door
set with chairs and sofas
having come home to (175)
Finding home becomes the sense of living into life and being fulfilled spiritually and physically:
so dance accumulate, alveolate home deep
in the earth their heart listens
this is their bliss, in this delight the
share in the light (490)
The journey to the vision of home extends from high school through the whole volume. The defining experience appears early in the book. “War I knew came home along the corridors of high school” (277), a time of loneliness, “like the ache of high school graduation night unsatisfied” (345), but also a recurring memory of visionary seeing — “The society of ordinary / high school days, never left, will it? (417).
These recurring figures of the poems are as closely attached to the landscape, the Great Plains, as the “the Great Wheel of the Plains” that “turns under Fort Scott” (226). The wheel is related to the Mayan wheel of time. It also appears in “the great wheel of gulls over Christianshaven” (370) or “roulette on an upturned wagon wheel” (453), or the wheel of fate “upon the wheel we are, but the binding / is together” (167), but its essential function positions the plains of Kansas as the center of the world, turning the “wheel under the plains” (332):
From the Plains
have always demanded of us, You
Male and Female Great
Springers and Great
Shielded Shafted and Helmeted
Swingers of the Center
Wheel of Earth — (347–48)
Or in the following lines:
in the Land of the Hermetic Learning
the Spirit Journey Dances
on the Wheel of the Plains (323)
Two other figures repeated less often, however, occur in the poem — paradise and crows. Beginning with the pamphlet and poem titled, “The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream” (157, 165), paradise appears as a special place of vision in the land, but also as a song title in a memory of high school:
“A Stranger in Paradise”
out of Polovetsia
out of highschool
a return to my uncharted Central (231)
Paradise is a special place of vision, not the home garden plot — “the walk not to the paradise but the old home gardens garden” (567). And that special place of vision appears in scattered passages in this collection:
passed through the fair of worldly
fair and wondrous things
and made the Walk
to the Paradise Gardens (231)
Like the theme of paradise, crows appear now and then especially as keepers of the sacred law, almost a bird of the visionary secrets:
to be most dignity and testament
crows take the crows take the over
to teach us insufficiency (524)
Their powers are praised — “what can be known of the heart any more than of the colloquy of the crows in the field out the window” (527). “Crow calls” (551) come in contrast to the shrill call of the “Canada jays” (135) — “a bluejay shrieks to-be, insatiate, in the next tree” (536).
While the themes of geography and vision, the figures of home, high school, the wheel, paradise, and crows as well as certain key words like “line,” “direction,” and “through” recur throughout this collected poems, Irby’s poetics are also based on ideas of form and the relationship of information inherent in the poem to the internal movement of thematic and formal elements. Sorting out the internal workings of a poem is every bit as important as knowing what the poem says.
Irby’s tribute to the music of Delius was published first in Io (1973). “Delius” is a poem with sections numbered 1–8, like other early poems — “The Roadrunner Poem” with thirteen sections, “Kansas–New Mexico” with six sections, and “Solstice Set” with seven sections. The later poems in sections are not always numbered, so the series in “Etudes,” A Set, and the poems in Ridge to Ridge are parts of a continuous meditation without being numbered as such. The same is true of the eight untitled and one titled poem in “Heredom.” While the numbers give a direction to the early poems, the later series can be entered at any point without the direction of numbers and without violating narrative. In “Delius,” as in the later series, there is no sustained plot or narrative, other than the insistence on finding a means of writing out what has been perceived. Each of the eight poems takes advice from stories outside the poem and each gives a version or a portion of the meditation without adding to a plot or a narrative. The numbered sections provide breaks but not rhetorical connections between them.
Section 1, as a way to explain a dream about Delius’s song, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” tells stories from Delius’s fourth opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, where the song appears. The song from the musical Kismet, “A Stranger in Paradise,” comes to mind as a song from high school days, as old perhaps as a Russian “Polovetsia” dance tune. In remembering the opera, the section mentions Sali and Vreli, Romeo and Juliet, meeting the dark Fiddler who warns them not to cultivate a field; the whole scene moves from a church resembling those in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The young lovers are fully enthralled with one another in preparation in their “ache of savored regret,” to love one another or perish. The section ends with a quotation of Delius’s response to “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring”: “This is the most heartbreaking music in the world” (232).
Section 2 is a commentary on the first section, mainly to the “sensualist” (232), Delius, who risks sentimentality in the opera of young love, trapping “the pain of parting / the endlessness of the moment of leaving / this world, this only world” (232). The section ends, again with a quotation, this one from the program notes for Delius’s composition, Requiem; “human life is like a day in the existence of the world” (233).
The third section takes a different tack to explain why Delius is so haunting in another area of the “sentient,” “beyond his music” (233). Irby imposes one landscape on another, here the landscape Delius walked in Norway during summer visits onto the landscape of the Coast Range of California. Delius’s remarks about his walking in the mountains were recorded by Eric William Fenby, a British composer who helped Delius with his writing when Delius’s health would not allow him to work. Fenby later published a book, Delius as I Knew Him:
but it would be the younger man
who hiked each summer over Norway
untiring on the trails of the Coast Range
in August and the hills gone golden brown
closest to the genius
of the region (233)
With the juxtaposition established, the next part of the section (separated by a small emblem) quotes Walt Whitman about his difficulty in finding what he wanted to say, and so inserts him into the imaginary landscape of Norway/Coast Range inside the conversation at Delius’s house at Grez-sur-Loing in France. The following part lists quotations by Delius about overcoming the difficulties of writing music, about the necessary persistence of composition at the piano, even with “his too long fingers” (235), according to Fenby’s account. The next part begins “lost in the night music of the Loing / or in the redwoods at Hendy” (Hendy Woods, Mendocino County, California) or in the joining of the imaginary geography, then with a report from Philip Haseltine (aka Peter Warlock, British collector and composer of songs) that Delius said California would be better for D. H. Lawrence “than Florida” (235). With references to the song “Hy Brasil” and then the Irish Islands, the poem joins Norway and Mendocino, where, in this imagined landscape, Delius (who in his old age was crippled by syphilis) was carried to a mountain “exactly at the moment of sunset” (235). The next two parts again quote Delius’s views about finding his means to write music first at “Sloane Grove” in Florida and then in France. The poems superimpose the cottage at Solano Grove on a cabin of a friend, Lowell Levant, in the Coast Range, and end with an incomplete statement: “the direct line in whose gaps” (236). The next part is another quotation from Delius, via Fenby. “A sense of flow is the main theme” (236), while the final part reports that Arthur Hutchings, in Delius: A Critical Biography, joins Delius’s choral composition, Song of the High Hills, with a section from Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart called “The Hill Pantheist” as if the two “confluences of an English contemplation” (236) were the figure of an explorer sailing “South” “to the furthest reaches of the continents” (236). The section finds relations between actual and imagined landscapes, and marshals several quotations from Delius as well as Whitman into the meditation about the impulse to create whether in words or in music.
Section 4 directs the poem and provides the informing statement for the entire collection. In “The Roadrunner Poem” Irby quotes a passage from The Grasslands of North America: “No line on a map can be drawn to represent in any realistic manner the actual conditions in nature” (13). The word “line” recurs in the poems to specify the means of depicting imaginary and actual events. For Malin, depiction is incomplete and so a version of a physical event. Many poems touch on this theme; the previous sections of “Delius” have made observations about the difficulty of writing poetry and music, but this section lists eight “duties to find a new vocabulary” (237) to express the momentary visions, which, since high school, have appeared in Irby’s writing. The first, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern” (237), comes from the final line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” and demands a change of life in order to fulfill life. Four quotations follow about seeing the “gap between the world,” the “twilight,” about the attraction to the “voluptuous longing for the beyond,” about seeking “vision with aggressive and adventuresome masculinity,” and about challenging “the limits of expressibility” (237). Despite being in quotation marks, these directives are probably Irby’s commands of accountability to himself in the manner of Robert Duncan’s “Imaginary Instruction” from his “The Venice Poem” quoted in Irby’s poem “[‘the Heron of Oblivion’]” (441). These directives are meant to find a new vocabulary to express the visions seen, and not to use the expressions of others. These directives are then followed by three more quotations by Delius reported by Fenby. The new theory of writing, of depiction, will emerge with profound relations with Delius’s authority in composition.
Without a proper transition, the fifth section (in nine parts), begins with the lines:
This is the golden beech
in the last dream of morning (237)
The “golden beech” is a structure made up by the imagination combining the “West Coast biome” (237) with dream matter, combining summer and “the winter rains.” As another version of the meditation to find a new vocabulary of the visionary experience, the second part introduces the story of the sheepherder Vanamee from Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus, who loses his lover and suffers severe loneliness. Vanamee drives his sheep along some of the same routes taken by Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, mentioned earlier, in the poem “Relation,” who in 1776 made a trip from Santa Fe to California and back. Vanamee experiences “ravaging voices, wordless at the top of the mountain” (238). Those voices are then compared with “Delian choruses,” which are then described as attempts to “join cosmology and continental geography.” Vanamee is imagined as “hearing voices” (238) in the same landscape described by Edward Abbey in his book Desert Solitaire. Delius combined with Vanamee in an imagined landscape described by Abbey; still both search for the fitting vocabulary — Vanamee with “stern aloofness” (238) and Delius in a Fenby quotation, “a continued reaching out of himself” (239). Richard Jefferies, through his autobiography The Story of My Heart, now enters the pattern of joining and condensing. Jefferies in his description of English landscapes, like Delius in his music and Vanamee in his sheepherding, was:
possessed by a longing so immense
it shot the wholly sensual through
with holes of an altogether other light (239)
The immense longing helps explain Vanamee’s trips “South into Mexico with the sheep” and then “the Great Circle back to California” (239) — “A great / circle without touching California” (123) from “Relation” — as well as Delius’s move to Solano Grove south of Jacksonville and Arthur Conan Doyle’s references to St. Augustine in his story “Five Orange Pips.” Similar travels appear in John Buchan’s espionage novels: “crossing and recrossing / the natural mystery” which then contrast with Charles Olson’s withdrawal from the journey in “Maximus of Gloucester,” “my balls rich as Buddha’s.” The journey is nonetheless still “burgeoning” (239). After another reference to Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart — “we are murdered by our ancestors” (239) — “their [Delius and Vanamee in sexual matters] feet joined is some instant // triskelion wheeling beyond longing” (240) again go past (“wheeling” like the Great Wheel of the Plains) the “longing” that initially motivated them into a medium of perception without a vocabulary. The next part consists of five quotations again from Jefferies about the mystery, the immensity of the imaginative effort and the following search for a spiritual meaning beyond physical existence and beyond immortality. As in other sections of the poem, the quotations are brought into the poem as part of the process of infusing the poem with a body of information. This practice led Jed Rasula to call Irby “a sort of angel of the quote.” The section ends with a single quotation as yet unidentified: “I have always loved the far, wide distance” (240).
Even after all the examples of journeys and joining of them, the search goes on. In section 5, Irby has joined and combined the work of people, attempting to find one in the other or to find a common longing in the necessity to create. In this section, he cites Percy Grainger’s remark that “he heard in Ellington likenesses to Delius” (241). The connections were already established. In the second part, he maintains that Ellington actually “really liked to hear / his own music” (241), but the poem speculates on Ellington’s posthumous album Reminiscing in Tempo (1975), and finds influences of Delius’s compositions in Florida and examples of the early influence of Grieg and of the German romantic composers on Delius to make “as melted / pot as America ever said it wanted” (241). Then the poem shifts around to find a “dance band sweetness in Delius, or perhaps a reference in Ferde Grofe’s ‘On the Trail’ (a section of Grand Canyon Suite) in Koanga” (242) (an opera by Delius) to “renounce” the idea of Bix Beiderbecke playing one of Ellington’s solo piano compositions, “In the Dark,” and then playing songs he had performed to great acclaim on his cornet. Such an evening at Delius’s house at Grez would be something like Hart Crane, after the death of Harry Crosby (publisher of the first edition of The Bridge), reading his own poem The Bridge “pilgrimaging on his way to the Mediterranean” (242) where Melville travelled, not with Hart Crane, but always with the presence of Whitman around.
Section 7 offers another joining, this time of Delius and the geography of the Coast Range. His struggles with syphilis are thought of in terms of crossing the Coast Range so that his accomplishment in music and following his longing rearrange “the felt directioned lines of force” (242), an actual accomplishment but fulfilling neither the idea of the “Old World” nor European principles of order and achievement nor “Atlantean,” ideal accomplishment in an ancient manner.
Section 4 begins with the directives, or duties, “to find a new vocabulary” (237), and section 8 near its ending quotes that statement as “to find a new vocabulary” (243). The meditation in this final section is again located in the Coast Range, and in highly metaphorical, and even dense language, stretches for the new language of the visionary experience. The poem seeks the “Western Ridge” (243), the California coast whose mythologies of belief, the cosmology, have been decreated — “bloodred in the sky as the Spider woman of the North and South.” The desire for such stories has not faded but sustains itself:
what man has matured as a creature of, ice
the Climatology of Attention is not the Extension of Empire
an Elephant palm we might say, nursing its dying with a nuzzling trunk to reach
Deneb in the Swan over Bolinas the umbrella of the unquenchable reach (243)
The densely packed lines could be saying something like: the study of man in the various ice ages is not the same as the American desire to extend its empire through to the Pacific Ocean, but that desire for empire could be something like a humanized, dying Elephant palm trying to reach the stars, which appear as the star Deneb in the constellation Swan (Cygnus) forming an umbrella over Bolinas. Even such desires lose their way for “that barely remembered home,” a visionary attunement with the landscape. The “Leader of the Wind” shows a magical sign for entry into visionary wonder on “a painted hand” (243), a sign similar to one in To Max Douglas, “as on the palm” (201), or “the palm of the hand held up to the setting sun” (333) in “of the Sons of Morning.” However, the “wind that holds Direction” — “felt directions of force” (366) in a later poem, “ROBERT: ‘where we only once’” — withholds the keys to the language. The direction will be found not by scrutiny of physical fact, “the mound underfoot,” but in “the starry horizon.” The poem ends by quoting the final line of Richard Jefferies’s essay “On the Downs”: “the soul knows itself, and would live its own life” (243).
“Delius” is a complicated, highly referential poem. After taking up Delius as a sensualist in his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, the second section shifts to Delius’s Requiem. Other sections follow this pattern of depiction, a stop, and then another version starting in the next section without formal transitions. The poem imposes the landscape of Delius’s Norway onto the Coast Range of California, “as if on Tamalpais, exactly / coincident with that peak in Norway” (235), in an imaginary act bringing Delius closer to home. The poem then establishes Delius’s authority by giving him a voice in the poem with directions quoted from Fenby’s Delius as I Knew Him and references to Arthur Hutchings’s Delius: A Critical Biography, and Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart. The individual meditations in this poem occur surrounded by rich information which enters the poem and stretches the range and depth of its statement. The fourth section lists quotations without connections in separated lines, but these enter the poem with ease based on the previous series of quotations and references. The directives for a new language clarify the directions of the meditations. So the quick shift to Vanamee in Frank Norris’s novel Octopus is not startling; the concluding quotations from Jefferies’s book present it as another version of the same meditation trying to uncover a new language attuned to the landscape of California. Finding relations, or unearthing one frame of reference inherent in another, pushes the meditation, then Percy Grainger finding Delius in Duke Ellington leads to another stretch of Delius’s authority in the history of jazz, with associations with Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, and Walt Whitman. With Delius’s story imposed on the geography of the Coast Range, a shift takes place “widely rearranging the felt directioned lines of force” (242) of both the landscape and imaginative actions that invented that landscape. The shift then appears in the process of the poem in its final section seeking through a series of dense metaphors to exact the activity of a new language instead of trying to put the vision forward as a clear visual image. The sensualist power of Delius will “live its own life” (243) in the process of language articulating itself.
The process of language clarifying itself repeats in many poems, but especially in the poems in the section of Call Steps entitled “Heredom,” a subsection of Orexis. New aspects of Irby’s poetics reveal themselves. The poems tell stories, perhaps parables, construct imaginary scenes and events to demonstrate the process of the mind seeking ways of articulating the visionary experiences or aspects of the visionary experience. Familiar themes also appear in the poems as do new ways of importing referential materials into the poems. “Heredom,” for example, is the title of a journal devoted to research in the Masonic Scottish Rite. The first poem contains the lines:
gathered, the branch of acacia
fused through with green swirled
Egyptian thorn milk waters
raised, itself, of the lost and gathered body of mastery
or all the high school years again, unslept, reviewing the annual faces over and over
till they run green in the movies after the eyes are closed
and still as distant as they were in person (417)
The title of Ezra Pound’s essay “I gather the Limbs of Osiris” lies underneath the first four lines and so the story of Osiris and Isis becomes a parable about gathering the parts of the poem and bringing them back together. And that act of magic and of recovery of “high school days, never left” (417) appears in the final three lines which reenact a version of the first vision in high school from the early poem “A Set for Roy Gridley”:
Pencil lead broken off under the fingernail
trying to clean it, I
looked up and saw the whole green tree
out the classroom window
moving the green crystal craze in my veins
I felt, was there, but
could not ever see till then — (66)
The memory of the early experience remains active, informing the contemporary view with the past perceptions within the duality of “releasing and attracting” (417). This version tells an imaginary story of regaining the action of the memory as an aspect of the poetics of finding the new vocabulary. While the poem relates itself to a previous poem, it relies on the process of seeing and remembering, not a casual plot. The enactment of the process allows the poem to simply stop without the generous consideration of the unities or a sustained narrative inside the poem or among the following poems. The so-called fragment then becomes a valuable unit of poetic composition.
A similar process appears in the poem beginning “from the Camp the cries of burnt Templars.” The poem starts out as if a speaker were telling an old story of the Templars, another connection with the Masonic information about the cries rising over the tents of the “tengu,” Japanese spirits of the fields and forests. It begins in a fanciful way, not with realistic depictions, and then continues, as if the speaker were talking to his audience:
you’ve probably caught sight of the Camp at times
coming unexpectedly into a clearing and looking up
the quick flags
thinking a fairy ring of mushrooms
or Kim’s Red Bull on a Green Field (422)
The camp becomes the camp of Kim’s father’s regiment in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, identified by the Red Bull on the Green Field of its flag. The scene of the camp fades and returns as a vision does in its momentary appearance, which then leads to the speculation that has something to do with “an old high school friend,” which turns then into more explanation about the camp from the speaker, “it is said” that the troops move around, but then that scene changes into a speculation about a golf shot, not to a hole on a green but “to any hole in the hand / or the eye” (423), and then the concluding lines:
The Camp if it is a camp rotates slowly on its axis
not the Grand Commander or the Mill of Heavens or the Transparency of the Tree
or all the Years of Reunion Rituals
that are the pole of the body (423)
The speaker again questions the nature of the camp, or whether it is even a camp at all, but certainly it is not the Commander of the Scottish Rite, nor the Mills of Heaven which are said to grind finely but slowly, not the transparency of the world ash tree, nor the years of high school reunions, and then inserts a positive assertion about the reunion which is the support of “the body.” The poem, then, proposes a series of images of what has been seen, complete with some characteristics, and rejects them as explanations of the vision moment, “discrete moments” (29), as an inadequate vocabulary borrowed from sources other than the speaker himself. Then the meditation stops without coming to an enlightening conclusion, or a passage on to the next poem.
The poems from Ridge to Ridge continue Irby’s progress to contain and then project the process of visions in a new vocabulary. The poem beginning “a life into a few vegetables” (523) starts with a series of precisely described scenes. The first is a view of vegetables in a setting for a still-life painting which fades, “but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the short hall to the feet, and through again” (523). The words might be informed through and through by a spiritual awareness but they do not contain the scene, so another scene arrives of rocks and spray, which stops with a question of how “far away do you have to be to see, to be able to hear / the poem” (523). This additional loss of perception is punctuated by rain dripping “on the balcony behind the back.” There is a “gap left” between the actual scene and the articulation of the scene. In the third poem after this one he writes “to measuring, across the gap” (526) and “body clasping body across the gap” (527), finding the medium of attunement between the seen thing and the stated thing has the same relationship to finding meaning in the physical attunement between lovers. In the poem’s series of scenes, the next is quoted from the Spanish poem “Romance del Conde Amaldos.” A sailor sings from a ship, and quiets the waves, but refuses to give the secret of his song to those who don’t follow him. A gap separates the scene and the containment of the scene in words. The final scene of staring at a “hanging scroll one long wet Sunday afternoon” in a shelter but this one first recoding the “gap,” “the soul is elsewhere,” concludes with the lines:
here there is a butterfly in the knowing of that shelter that would return to change
but being there together
ascent by ink and in the black ground black hidden metallic lusters up out of
each stroke of the pen (524)
An act of the imagination, “a butterfly,” ascends “up out of / each stroke of the pen.” The gap is measured, overcome not in the substance of what gets written about the hanging, the rain and the shelter, but in the process of writing about what is seen.
The poems in Ridge to Ridge, covering the years 1990 to 2000, achieve a process of poetry as an enactment of the mind seeking its own articulation in words that answer, at least partially, the plea from A Set to “the impulse, the sudden absolute necessity to speak, beyond articulation, beyond speech itself” (513). The necessity to articulate the “discrete moments” (29) of vision moves insistently through the poems. These late poems cling to the activity of language forming itself in place of either a prophetic stance or a dogmatic position. The disappearance of what Charles Olson called the “lyrical interference” of a controlling ego releases the poems to make themselves in a huge field of information and authority in which the poet is an equal and participating agent. Predeterminations of formal structures also disappear so the poems are free to move into the lines and rhythms they create themselves. The variety of line lengths and forms of expression should and does indicate that the sounds of words and accumulation of the stories they tell measure out the forms the poems take. The poems do have common concerns, like the forces of geography, multiple relations with the landscape, history, memory, and circles of friends. The transformation of the concepts of the geography of the plains to the concepts of cultural geography found in the work of Malin and Sauer brought a major shift in Irby’s poetry. It allowed him to make up an imagined geography by imposing one set of forms on another and then reacting to its existence as if it were actually physical. The imagined geography helped to move the poems toward the process of thought. Beyond a fixed idea of geography he could imagine new places for his favorite themes. The themes recur like the wheel of the plains and the cry of the crows as elements assisting the impulse to find that vocabulary of expression to contain and even project those fleeting moments when the numen arrives and then disappears. Stephen Ellis comes to a similar conclusion when he notices that Irby embraces process and “no sense of closure”:
Irby’s poetics are, again, the result of an exchange, in the give and take of all relations, as cycles of resurrection rise and are resolved in, further senses of giving and of interplay, i.e., there is no sense of closure in the work, except as each piece leads into the next; the one consistent thing is a sense of ecstasy and accuracy combined that borders on distortion, a tearing away from old orders to new ones.
The appearance is itself a process of tearing down old orders and ideas to embrace new ones, and by choosing a related process of finding the vocabulary of vision, the poems come closer to expression than using a visual image. The poems can be considered fragments, and they might be as fragmentary as the vision itself, but they are reliable enactments of the perceptions.
Irby’s poems begin before the publication of most of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems and before the publication of Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches (1964) and Bending the Bow (1968) but the thinking of both poets appears in Irby’s poetics. This is not a situation of straight borrowing, but Irby reading out what relates to his poetics in Olson’s and Duncan’s and then adapting it for his use. The concepts of open forms, the poem achieving its form from the inside and not from predetermined standards, the fragment as a viable medium, and the positing of a group of poems in a series without a sustaining narrative are essential aspects of Irby’s poetics. So is the situation of conceiving the poem as taking place in a field of information. Irby would have found such a situation in The Maximus Poems but also in Robert Kelly’s The Common Shore and in Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward. Cultivating poetry with accompanying information was a feature of Io, a magazine where Irby and many poets published, along with Alcheringa, edited by Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg. Irby managed his own procedures of bringing information into the poem as part of the activity of conceiving the poem, not as awkward footnotes.
The principles of poetics mentioned here place Irby’s poetry in the direct line of modern poetry from Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Kelly. Other poets, like Irby, not on the center stage of the literary world, arrived at similar concepts of serial form; they include Theodore Enslin, John Taggart, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, and Nathanial Mackey. In the 1980s and 1990s Language Poetry seized center stage. Lyn Hejinian published Irby’s pamphlet Archipelago (1976) from her Tuumba Press but that connection was based on writing, not ideology. The ideology came later with essays and poems by Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman, but Irby was not part of that movement, and even declined invitations to write about that group in the 1980s. Ridge to Ridge: Poems 1990–2000, the period when Language Poetry held the loudest microphone, came forward with a proposition of a serial, visionary poetics to participate in a group of poets who have asserted major and consequential accomplishments in contemporary literary history. Some of Irby’s early poems appeared in Io, and now Richard Grossinger, Io’s editor, returns with his North Atlantic Press to publish Irby’s The Intent On. The great wheel of the plains turns again.
5. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
6. In an interview, Kenneth Irby mentions Adolph Bandelier’s book The Delight Makers, about the canyon which is now part of a state park bearing Bandelier’s name. See Barry Alpert, “Ken Irby — An Interview,” Vort 3 (Summer 1973): 57.
7. The reference to Freud also confirms the place of Carl Sauer in Irby’s thinking. Sauer wrote in his article “Recent Developments in Cultural Geography,” to make the point that cultural landscapes are made up of “the forms superimposed on the physical landscape” (2, 209).
9. Irby would have also found this idea of “cultural geography” in the writings of James C. Malin, for example, in The Grasslands of North America: “Treated in its own right, the history of a geographical area includes a consideration of all that has been present or is present within the bounds chosen. Proper subjects of study, from this point of view of geographical area, are its geological history, its ecological history, and the history of human culture since the beginning of occupance by primitive men — in the case of the Western United States, some 10,000 years since man reached the Folsom cultural level. The term culture, as used here, is that of the archaeologist and anthropologist and denotes the sum total of a way of life” (471).
10. Albert Pike, born in Boston, later served as a General in the Confederate Army. Before the Civil War, he was elected Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, and after the war he retained that title in a career as a lawyer and writer; he published the book Morals and Dogma of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in 1871. Irby celebrates Pike in his poem “Homage to Albert Pike” (343), and his later poem “from The Camp the cries of the burnt Templars” refers to the Templars as well as to “the grand Commander” (422–23). Heredom is the title of a publication of the Scottish Rite Research Society; the name appears as a subsection of the book Call Steps, and later as a title of a poem (440), just before a reference to “the old degree” (441), another reference to the rituals of the Scottish Rite. The poem “[Reunion]” refers to “(Knight Rose Croix),” an advanced degree of the Scottish Rite; the poem also contains the lines “did Pike read Boehme? / out of the fire of Wrath and Civil War” (500–01), which is a quotation from Pike’s book Morals and Dogmas (above). I would guess there are many more references to Freemasonry and the Scottish Rite in Irby’s collection.
11. In his very perceptive essay, Edward Schelb calls the same stories I call parables “allegory” (1). He may be right. In a strict literary sense an allegory posits a one-to-one relationship between image and idea. Or, Good Works equals good works. I associate parables with the stories Wallace Stevens tells, of Canon Aspirin, for example, as possible ways of understanding an interaction between imagination and reality. In any event, Irby’s parables have the same propositional nature as Stevens’s.
12. In an article, Peter Bertollette cites Henry Corbin’s books Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth and Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism in support of a very useful comment about Irby’s idea of home: Irby’s use of homeplace and “the heartland” “fits in with Corbin’s notion that the home is an organ of perception, where the heart lies, a place to be planted in, and shoot forth from.” See Peter Bertollette, “Ken Irby,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 28, and Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran, trans. Nancy Pearson, Bollingen Series XCI:2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). Don Byrd also adds a fine perception about Irby’s idea of home: “To make a play stay put by knowing what its uses is what Irby means by making a home.” Don Byrd, “Ken Irby and the Missouri-Kansas Border,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 9.
14. The idea of a “gap” is familiar to readers of the poetry of George Oppen, who thought the gaps between words and between the sounds of words contain rhythms and meanings that reinforce the actual words of the poem. Irby uses the word “gap” as a space between a physical landscape and an imagined one. In another reference to Oppen’s poems, to the title Discrete Series, Irby writes about “discrete moments” of vision in his own poems. He continues sounding very much like Oppen: “Thus in the sequences as they piece by piece go and return, quietnesses, the pauses, the spaces between, are toward regeneration too” (29).
18. Dale Smith mentioned that the reference to “Climatology of Attention” might be a reference to Henry Corbin’s discussion of the “Eighth Climate” in his Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. (Dale Smith, email to the author, 21 April 2011). Corbin writes: “The Eighth Climate is the mundus archetypus (’ãlam al-mithãl), the world of Images and archetypical Forms. Actually, the only universe that possesses dimensions and extent is the one that is divided into eight climates. Seven of them are the seven geographical climates with dimensions and extent which are perceptible to the senses. The eighth climate is the one whose dimensions and extent can only be grasped by the imaginative perception” (126–27). That Corbin’s discussion has a geographical basis provides another correspondence which would make more feasible a reading that says that the study of the various climates of perception is not the same as studying the extension of empire. With that noted, it might be permissible to quote “the mountains surrounding our universe” are “formed entirely of emerald, like the reflection which produces the color green” (Corbin 74) and relate the color green to Irby’s high school vision of “the green tree” and “the green crystal craze in my veins” (66). In addition, Irby’s ideas of paradise could contain more than the spirit of Kansas and Christianity. Corbin could add: “The way of seeing the Earth and the way of seeing the soul are the same thing, the vision in which the soul perceives itself; this can be its paradise, and it can be its hell” (82). See also Peter Bertollette’s comments above.
19. Richard Jefferies, “On the Downs.”
24. Robert Duncan’s poetic thinking with quotations from his prose and poems, especially his ideas of the numen, and the search for a fitting language, appears more than other poets to inform Irby’s poetics, including the unacknowledged, italicized quotation from Duncan’s “Go, My Songs, Even as You Came to Me”: “& would it be body to / make zealous liberalities a gift taken from” (477). Duncan, Groundwork: Before the War (New York: New Directions, 1984), 122. In the preface to Movements / Sequences Irby quotes Duncan’s statement about “‘the dwelling of the imagination in the speech,’” and then continues: “I would follow Duncan in what he shows me of that process, as best I can” (29).
25. While Irby mentions only a few contemporary poets, he was as aware of the various writing scenes as he was aware of the company of poets he thought part of his poetic geography. A partial list of the poets mentioned in this collection includes: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedich Hölderlin, Walter de La Mare, Virgil, Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Grenier, Thomas Meyer, Jonathan Williams, Gerrit Lansing, Robert Kelly, Larry Goodell, Thoreau, S. T. Coleridge, Dante, Thomas Vaughan, Ezra Pound, Paul Metcalf, John Moritz, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Eugene Ware, Gérard de Nerval, Harry Martinson, Johannes Bobrowski, HD, Lao Tzu, Gunnar Ekelöf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Louis Zukofsky, Frederico Garciá Lorca, Edward Dorn, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Richard Lovelace, and Ron Loewinsohn.
Kenneth Irby has chosen to forge his reputation as a poet rather than an expounder of poetic theory or practice; he is not, in the narrow sense, a poet-critic. He has, however, published some acute and telling evaluative criticism, and those reviews, notes, and introductions frequently do illuminate his own thought. This is because strong evaluative criticism tends to produce insights that are inflected and informed by what a critic already knows, cares about, and shares (or doesn’t) with a subject. The best of it cannot — as certainly Irby’s does not — satisfy itself with descriptions of poems in a poet’s own terms. This, then, suggests that the baseline value of the best evaluative criticism is augmented by the process through which a critic, in the act of reflecting on the text, reveals personal interests, ideas, and ambitions too. To some extent such revelation is an inevitable side effect of producing that sort of textual critique. Across nearly fifty years of Irby’s engagements with some of his most significant contemporaries as well as the younger poets to whom he responds, this effect becomes powerfully present. When repositioned from side to center, it tells us a lot.
Irby knows a lot. Charles Stein, George Quasha, and Robert Kelly have admired his poems for their “vast range of referentiality” as well as their “insidious and pervasive music.” This appetite for knowledge also extends into the informal criticism of everyday life, about which, says Kelly, “It’s very difficult to have a conversation with [Irby] in which he doesn’t know a little bit more than you do, or has a few more bibliographical references you hadn’t considered” (126). In reaction to the difficulty of addressing work of this nature, Kelly fantasizes about the virtues of demonstration by direct example, of wishing to “read into the record page after page of Irby’s work, excerpted, repeated, accepted, the work that instructs and nourishes me. Deictic, in my paradise visions, replaces critique” (ibid.). This may help explain why poets promote and circulate Irby’s work more than critics or teachers do. Although he is not well served by anthologists, he is, and has been, a poet’s poet.
Irby is a poet of knowledge, but his masterful work with the long line rarely resembles explicitly pedagogical forms. If there is little overt resemblance here to either Ezra Pound’s ideogrammic approach or Charles Olson’s field poetics, Irby’s poems, like theirs, are replete with data. Yet in the absence of expository demonstration pieces, his position on the art of poetry is organized and clarified in response to the writing that most matters to him, and intensifications of repetition across those responses further indicate where special influence or insight lies. This is often made straightforwardly evident, set off by such phrases as “what works for me as a means whereby I may work as well” (of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom; see no. 6, below) or “for my own senses and uses of the work” (of Robert Duncan’s Ground Work; see no. 14, below). When reviews, notes, or introductions permit elaboration and become critically substantive, they can form, in Irby’s terms, both records of “kinship” and repositories of concepts (e.g., “space,” “place,” “home,” “tradition,” “flow,” etc.).
By his own account Irby began writing major literary reviews almost by accident. The conditions were as he says “fortuitous” (V: 54). At Robert Creeley’s instigation, the young poet wrote to Kelly, whom he then met after a reading, after which he also met Stan Brakhage, Paul Blackburn, and Lita Hornick. At the party that followed the reading Blackburn and Hornick, who had officially taken over as editor of the journal Kulchur, were discussing who could review David Ossman’s The Sullen Art, a collection of interviews that included conversations with several of the poets who would otherwise have been perhaps ideally suited to review the volume. Suddenly Blackburn, as Irby recalls, “turned and said well you’d review it. You were talking about you had read it — why don’t you review it” (54–55). So, Irby reviewed it, and eight more, too.
Thinking back on his work as a reviewer, Irby posits that the “critical enterprise” of evaluation can have a deep connection to the discoveries that advance the new writing a poet is doing at the time. He says, for himself, “that’s what a review is for,” and goes on to discuss how “sometimes I pushed it a little hard to try to say in some obviously literal fashion exactly, literally physically, where I was at the time I was writing the review” (V: 55). This reflective process, which is often unambiguously cast as a real poet writing at a particular time from a particular place, characterizes many of the remarkable reviews that he published in the pages of Kulchur, Poetry, Caterpillar (although these are mostly too brief to be useful in this regard), Parnassus, Conjunctions, and Sulfur. It is further extended in his notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward and, for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley, his own Kansas–New Mexico (published in Credences 5/6 and 7, respectively). This work began in the early 1960s and continued, albeit at a diminishing pace, into the mid-1990s. To Barry Alpert’s observant question, “What prompted you to write reviews? You write more than a number of your contemporaries,” Irby responded, with characteristic directness and humility, “People ask me, mainly” (54).
Reviews can be tricky to write and just as tricky to contract. Too often, affiliations result in puff pieces, antipathies in scorched earth. Irby’s reviews avoid these extremes. So do his introductions to Denis Mahoney’s Black Pig (1994) and Patrick Doud’s The Man in Green (1996). In the process of elucidating Mahoney’s and Doud’s work a cloud of telling references starts to coalesce. Below I reproduce select passages from each of these introductions, but the roster warrants being listed entirely, since — as Irby reflects in his extensive “notes” on Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward — “[t]he point in mentioning other writers is not ‘influences’ but kinships, sources, like spirits, shared gnosis, what keeps the Tradition Active” (see no. 10, below). The tradition being articulated in these instances includes: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Butts, Garth Fowden, Gerschom Scholem, Andrei Tarkovsky, “the American spine line of Whitman, Williams, Pound, Hart Crane, Olson, Duncan (and McClure),” Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Kelly for Mahoney; Northrop Frye, Michel de Certeau, Harold Bloom, the Pogues, Carl Carmer, Federico Garcia Lorca, Giorgio Morandi, and Duncan McNaughton for Doud; José Lezama Lima, William Butler Yeats, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Gerrit Lansing, and Walt Whitman for both. These, presumably, are among the figures whose work Irby keeps within reach, rarely making it back to the shelves — at least not for very long. In “Unpacking My Library” Walter Benjamin recalls with pleasure Anatole France’s riposte to “a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And have you read all these books, Mr. France?’ ‘Not one tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” What matters in confronting Irby’s library from afar is less the fine china than the everyday dishware, so to speak — the texts Irby thinks with. This is, of course, a serious matter for critics, and not a trivial one for general readers.
Although eclecticism may well be part of the point of Irby’s lists, they are, I find, a good deal less eclectic than they initially appear to be. The figures and texts Irby references, while aptly chosen for the volumes they introduce, are associative rather than integral. That is to say, while they surely do matter for Mahoney and Doud, and serve to facilitate an understanding of and appreciation for their poems, they also hold recognizable significance for Irby as well. Indisputably incomplete, such a catalog of thinkers and artists nevertheless recommends itself as a partial yet coherent intellectual and aesthetic genealogy in much the same manner as Irby’s “In Place of a Preface” — a collection of thirteen epigraphs supplemented only by dictionary definitions of keywords — which replaced an expected but never delivered introduction for his own Catalpa (1977). To provide context for his own poems Irby cites incisive but thematically ranging passages by Edgar Anderson, Charles Olson, Carl Sauer (twice), H. A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, Alexander von Humboldt, Oakes Ames, James C. Malin, Karol Syzmanowski, Arthur Darby Nock, Osip Mandelstam, Bashō, and his brother James E. Irby, from an introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’s Otras inquisiciones. (The translations of Syzmanowski, Mandelstam, and Bashō, by the way, are each Irby’s.) These lists, taken together, offer the impression of looking at a private library and knowing precisely which books are being most frequently consulted, remembered, and synthesized. Like the man said, “There digge!”
In the pages that follow I pursue Kelly’s so-called paradise visions and indulge in the deictic, making direct reference from Irby’s body of evaluative criticism. The opportunity to present a cento of the most useful quotations (that is, “useful” for future work, whether scholarly or pedagogical) from these reviews, notes, and introductions is a clear advantage of an online venue. The goal of providing this frame is to provoke new engagements with Irby’s poems for critics, teachers, and readers. I had originally thought to gloss each passage, but that practice finally seems to me to risk circumscribing interpretation, which in turn limits use. A bare cento not only stands on its own, but stands to reason, for context, for illumination. Here it is.
A Kenneth Irby cento
NB: In the passages below I have (silently) corrected all obvious typographic or printers’ errors and also proposed emendations of likely errors within square brackets. Ellipses mark the absence of any excerpted material.
1) From “The Unacknowledged Legislators,” review of The Sullen Art by David Ossman, Kulchur 11 (Autumn 1963).
“The choice of title for these interviews is, I think, unfortunate, whatever Mr. Ossman’s justifications. For one thing, two interviews — which, sight unseen, would promise to be more than just interesting — have been omitted as a result of differences over the title: those of Robert Duncan and Cid Corman. […] But furthermore, even accepting Mr. Ossman’s etymological rationalization — ‘“sullen” comes from Latin solus — alone. These poets, and all poets, despite their contacts with the world, are ultimately alone. One creates, after all, by one’s self’ — it is difficult to see in what way poetry is any more a ‘sullen’ art than is painting or, goodness knows, music, or for that matter any other human activity that requires, finally, the individual to exercise his own talents and vision as he alone sees them — and that could involve business as well as art. That the poet — as almost every one of the present interviews would show — is particularly more, much more directly connected in his act of creation with the world of other people and things around him, is undeniably the case.”
“… it is good that the concern should be directed [by Kelly] now to things, to the poet’s vision, after so much time has been spent in recent years on technique. It is too easy simply to say, easily as it comes out, and often, that one writes of what is around one, people or things — which amounts to a truism. Where is the poet? What is he saying? Where does that statement lead us?”
“… it seems to me that Ginsberg’s urge ‘Why not be enthusiastic? Why not be unspeakably enthusiastic?’ and his call, ‘Right — here — now — in action! So I call for a union of consciousness, and I prophesy a new Messiah!’ are much more needed cues than all the cautious circumspection of ‘No one is interested in the ‘I’ of the poem, unless that ‘I’ is projected through a mask.’ The problem is just as importantly where is the poet, what is happening to all of us as living beings — and if you’re a poet, the more, what do you do with your poetry?”
“I don’t think I have elsewhere ever read a more direct and lucid account [than Dorn’s] of what the political concern is for a poet today, who is not simply a propagandist or overt spokesman for some cause. […] ‘I think we have to face, finally, that there has to be some hope for something actionable to come out of all this.’ And the area of politics, not of specific issues but of the ‘fantasy of politics’ as Dorn puts it, is of importance, not only simply as the subject, the concern, because we are in it, but because it is finally ‘valuable in terms of the writing and getting poetry further on a footing of meaning for a large mass of people. And I like that.’ For too long has that kind of concern been missing from poetics discussions among intelligent men.”
2) From review of Ed Sanders, “Poem from Jail,” Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964).
“I very much like the vitality of the poem, but I think that is finally irrelevant to speak of — we do not read poems for their ‘vitality’: a quantity hanging large and palpable in the air all by itself. As, finally, I come to the conclusion that we do not read PFJ for any information on or commentary about, the bomb, or the effects of the bomb, or banning the bomb. It is a personal fantasy which starts from that very general and by now vague theme, of banning, of ramming it back down the throats or up the asses of whoever purveys it. It is not a sentiment I disagree with at all, but alone it tells me very little, and the poem does not enlarge upon it expect in the spread of personal symbols of the writer. I mean, I have heard goddamn enough of the very trite phrases of
let us blame
& those in charge
& the profiteers
& the hidden
men in the
because by now I want to know who they are, specifically, and what blame, specifically, and what — if you’re offering anything — to do against them. I mean, specifics, all along the way.”
“… perhaps what I feel is simply that the author doesn’t ever seem willing to take responsibility for, or be committed to everything that he says, all the effects of the poem which he produces. I feel it simply from the poem itself, since I have no other source or knowledge — and it is all I can rightly work from.”
“It is almost dark now, and the mountain to the east sits up with all the light that is left, gathered to it. The cottonwoods in the front yard are almost bare. A friend writes that his wife is pregnant, their first child. A week ago Kennedy was assassinated. A few days before that I was 27. A terrible age that comes to seem, so little done. And where we are taken, what news takes us way past where we thought to be or could help, more and more brings all the necessity of action and value to ourselves: but using that is not inward and downward into that darkness, but admitting and using that, out, toward those mountains there, that light, that land, these springing cottonwoods, the people there that we can talk to, the love.”
3) from review of R. Buckminster Fuller, Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964).
“Fuller is right, for himself, in concluding on p. 177 that industrialization (which he always capitalizes) is a religion: or more accurately, that, for himself, it has that primal, all-answering set of values: and he need look no further for same.
That I do not assume. I do not believe that, with the building of more toilets, and better, automobiles, highways, supermarkets, aerosol bombs, and electric fans, we are engaged in that work and moving steadily in that direction, which is the summation of man as an entity on this earth. Which is not to say I deny all such products’ existence, a foolish thing to try, nor willy-nilly condemn them — but that the questions of who and what and where we are, are constant, never to be avoided, and so damned easy to avoid or never even raise, behind the welter and proliferation of our great industrialization.”
“Mr. Fuller is a very famous and respected man, and I have no desire here to impugn his integrity or sincerity, nor question his many accomplishments. Simply that my reading of his book gives me a set of values, or rather a lack of them, that seems to have brought us to a greater and greater problem, not solved it. It seems of no particular value to go into the form of the book, whether it is ‘poetry’ or not, as I first intended: the residue of his ‘statement’ chokes that off in me and makes it seem completely irrelevant.”
4) from review of Her Body Against Time by Robert Kelly, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964).
“In conversation with Eckermann on January 29, 1826, Göethe said of the poet:
as long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new … [ellipses in original]
It is that movement into the world that is so strong a breath out of this book that I don’t know finally how to separate the poems and the earth they mingle part of.”
“Almost more than any book of poems I know, this is a whole, the poems are movements that only flow together: the book must be read and gone into, not a poem here, there. It is as if Kelly knew he could not force the flow of his perceptions each time into one poem, but let them come and go as they would, flow to the top, bubble, subside, so that by the end of the book they are all there, the facets in all their accurate multiplicity but no single poem begins even to give them all.”
“‘Beauty,’ wrote Christopher Caudwell, ‘is the knowledge of oneself as a part of other selves in a real world, and reflects the growth in richness and complexity of their relations.’”
5) from review of The World of the Lie by Ron Loewinsohn, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964).
“I don’t come to the title of this present book, The World of the Lie, easily, simply I guess because I don’t think the plurality of worlds, the each one of each of us, is a lie, or more to the point, the lie. Or that, perceiving that what may motivate the person across from us is not our own, there is any lack, lie, or despair. Conrad said, ‘We live, as we dream — alone.’ Which is not finally a closure on breaking down those obstacles to the other ‘worlds’ across from us. They are there; they can be bridged. […] The ‘worlds’ can be linked and maybe there is where the ‘lie’ really is? Yes! I suddenly can see that: that the lie is to say we cannot cross the street sometime and see each other. Come into the real world, says Olson; there we are real men.”
“My own inclination in the world is away from static, one-at-a-time, presentations or inclusions — so I wish that Loewinsohn might give us the flow of his days, his world or worlds, where all the objects that impinge might be given together, with as much intelligence and self-awareness as the individual movements are here given. And not that he has[n’t] given the flow at all — but that more, more often, I, in my own movement on my way, would wish that he would, I guess I mean, challenge even the basis of each one of those perceptions and record all the doubts and uncertainties: where is he taken, where are we taken with him?”
“It is easy — more or less wandering, as above, in parallels or discontinuities of terms, personal predilections and impositions, whatever — to forget where the tremendous focus of this book lies: in its dogged specificity, that it will never be vague, that is will never try to trick us, make us dupes to a wily or deceitful confidence. I don’t know how I could forget that even for a minute in writing here, when so much shit, straight from what Burroughs calls the ‘greased and nameless asshole,’ is given us, every look we take around us, as great shit. That’s the lie, the world of the lie, for real. In this now, this minute, when most of us don’t even know where we live, the coördinates of directness and perception of our surroundings are almost as important a thing as we can have.”
6) from review of Bottom: On Shakespeare by Louis Zukofsky, Kulchur 16 (Winter 1964–65).
“What we are given here, what works for me as a means whereby I may work as well, is a delineation of a whole of western thought, wherever articulated, to make clear, to work with what is tangible, seen, what we are, are in, where find ourselves — certainties? That may be touched (however so — ears see, eyes hear, hearts touch, as Bottom says): as against a growing sense in our own time (comes home to me most clearly in the work of physics of nuclear weapons I have just quit) of the impinging of forces no amount of love or reason or right sight, sight at all, may bring out for us to see or sense here, to us (what Christopher Caudwell saw 25 years ago in his Crisis of Physics comes back to me finally, drawn from these sources, as part of an entire tradition). That fundamental: where the sight may work.”
“The movement of the thought within each part and section, letter and subject, I find as that of the parts of ‘A’: a flow, no static pulses. Those who have read ‘A’-12 will know that, as the literal life and thought of the man who wrote it, there is no place to stop (not even at the ‘end’).”
“BOTTOM is one of the major poetic works of our time — no less so than the same author’s ‘A’ — and equally as ‘A’-17, is not a mere assemblage of quotations and commentaries, but is a created whole — and of it, its whole articulation must be dealt with.”
7) from review of The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones, Kulchur 17 (Spring 1965).
“These poems are as direct an example as I know of what Olson’s injunction (out of Dahlberg) — ‘ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’ — means in practice; in one practice, at any rate. And it is that honoring of all directions, and that extreme care and sharpness of perception, registration, that most draw me back and again, even though I have to struggle often to go into the thickets there, do not always easily create my own one-to-one terms out of, do not always ‘understand’ (or stand-under, as Zukofsky has said); which problems are particulars of particular moments, never any sense of distrust of what, in whole, is being given me: there is such honesty in that, what is given, that I could never distrust.”
“The two long poems, ‘A Poem for Willie Best’ and ‘Crow Jane,’ are major American poetry, major I underline: major poetry anywhere. As sequences, as forms of the sequence, they concern me more right now than anyone since Olson, Duncan, or Parker Tyler. As commentaries on, emergencies from, the specific social rots of racism and special starvations our beautiful land and 1964 give us, I think one is a simple loser to ignore them or the energies in them. A lot more has to be said about either of those observations. Which becomes the process by which we and Jones go on: that is, there is a great deal here, in these poems, I do not agree with, do not like, don’t go along with at all, as why shouldn’t there be; but the basis — the intelligence, directness, at times great clarity — upon which all concerns are here presented, worked out, the permissiveness of that to disagreement, is what most matters, is what most matters to me, now, this December of 1964 and literally a continent away from Jones and his New York.”
8) from review of Ace of Pentacles by John Wieners, Kulchur 19 (Autumn 1965).
“William Carlos Williams said, writing in 1957 of Louis Zukofsky, ‘The music of poets varies with the sensitivity of their ears.’ Wieners’ ears must be very sensitive, very beautifully and acutely sensitive indeed. Of these 52 poems, I would say a third are great lyric poems. Elegiac. Pointed to a survival that is not merely surviving, but prevailing. ‘The poet strives to know the terms of his defeat, not to escape them or be cured of them,’ Duncan has said. In the face of the ripping apart of a person these poems give evidence of, there are the poems, more in their fact of testimony, even than they seem. The hold on reality, the objects [that] surround us, is so direct that even the terms of uncertainty, of anguish, are made certain: from which to transcend.”
“I would say the 7 parts of ‘A Series’ demand the attention of any poet working today: that the experience given has been made indelible; that the music is of a grace few ever reach; that the care with rimes — not just of sounds — is scrupulous.”
9) from “The World Dances between Our Eyes” [review essay on six contemporary poets], Poetry 105 (March 1965).
“It is mid-November; here in San Francisco it becomes the time of year the earth is most close, green finally with the beginning of the winter rain, and at this point, clear days: that the look[s] go directly, out toward, hopefully into, with, the objects of the earth. The clear view, as I turn off Bush Street, toward the Presidio, in any direction across the Bay. Until there is no place, no thing at all in out sight we do not close with, we do not want to see or have, in us. A man cannot help working from a sense of that — turning to or away from it, refreshed from, or blunting, imposing upon: the objects of the world, the world, the earth itself. And the form of that work becomes finally as Robert Duncan has said in his book on H.D.: it is the form of the poet’s experience itself that we find in the form of his work; the world made in the poem is created to make room for the poet.”
10) from review of Places to Go by Joanne Kyger, Caterpillar 15/16 (April/June 1971).
“If it were certain the edge of relation would be as dull as Clarence King said California’s weather was. But there is a lot to be said for small, infrequent doses, to keep irritability in sight. The dialectic of boredom and nervous excitement is pitched most finely in the kitchen, as a place to go, preparatory to starting out for those higher and wider regions. …”
11) from “Some Notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward,” Credences 5/6 (March 1978).
“The point in mentioning other writers is not ‘influences’ but kinships, sources, like spirits, shared gnosis, what keeps the Tradition Active. The more obvious connections among recent Western poets would include the Vaughans, Blake, Novalis, Hölderlin, Nerval, Whitman, Hopkins, Yeats, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Crane, Olson, Duncan, Spicer, Kelly a scattered, insufficient, mere beginning of a list.”
“One might more valuably speak of a tradition of what could be called American pastoral elegiac, ‘All is of Holy Garden and Wild, the Walk,’ not ever restricted to the rural, but ‘the blest vacant mind,’ ‘coursing black savannahs, cruising broken cities’ … to trace a line that might include, among so many others, Freneau, Bryant, Emerson, Thoreau, Whittier, Whitman, Melville, Tuckerman, Timrod, Stickney, Vaughn Moody, Robinson, Hartley, Phelps Putnam.”
“Nor should it be neglected to speak of a line, indeed a tradition, of great gay Boston poets: Wheelwright, Blake, Jonas, Wieners (and Blaser and Spicer for a while), in this connection. Or like close connection with a younger generation of poets of the farout, occult, ecstatic, revelatory, new life in everyday: Stein, Bialy, Grossinger, Quasha, Meyer. Again, short lists and insufficient, but to lead on.”
“A number of ‘key words’ recur throughout the book, valuable to trace as threads in the fabric. As, among others: lion, apple, rock, gate, cat — and all the various verbs (shoot, burst, explode, etc.) of the constant urge to full act, live it up — not profligacy (necessarily) but whole intensity: is the necessary drill — ‘Express the grape / the angel said’ — ‘don’t languish in the clover / but make song’.”
12) from “A Note on Kansas–New Mexico for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley,” Credences 7 (February 1979).
“The poem is concerned primarily with movement, travel from place to place — the trip itself, from Fort Scott to Albuquerque in August 1963, being the take-off point — as anyone brought up on the plains must be concerned — and with settling, finding home (‘the home of my mind’ Ed Dorn put it) (as I feel now that the town I grew up in demanded, as part of its whole nature, legacy, satisfaction at all, that one leave it in order to ever come to know it, have it, live with it) (oneself).”
“I was very much aware of the breaking of the poem into parts, however, for the pauses and the spaces between sections are as important as the sections of the poem themselves, for what emerges. But mostly, I was simply working by feel into my leaving Kansas, my moving to Albuquerque, my loneliness, lack of sense of connection to that new place as a settled ‘home,’ my mother’s sickness, my honor and relish of what possible life might be on the land — going wherever I was taken, to find out what I really felt, was up to. As Duncan says in his Voice of America talk, ‘We do not understand all that we render up to understanding.’ That seems crucial to me, here or anywhere.”
“And I did try to sing, even though my singing voice often is but a slightly heightened version of my speaking one, and with attendant breaks and cracks. And like almost everything I’ve ever written, the poem is about the land, the plains, ‘this vast shaggy continent of ours’: the very marrow and resonance of me.”
“Also, consider the senses of time in this poem: (1) how long it takes to read the whole thing, and any given section; (2) how much time elapses in the motion of any section (or is it ‘timeless’?); (3) the time span covered by the whole poem — except for the 1953 reference, it’s either August or November 63 (actually closer to 4 than the 3 months the poem calls it, but no matter there).”
“One can wander here as in a woods or thicket. Not so grand a forest as Olson or Duncan, nor so finely garned [sic] a one as Creeley, but a forest nonetheless. A lot could be said also about the grammatical or syntactical ambiguities herein (terms courtesy of Larry Goodell, not Empson)?”
13) from “‘america’s largest openair museum,’” review of Elite/Elate Poems and Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, Parnassus 8 (Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1980).
“Boris Pasternak used to insist that life in order to be life continually has to exceed itself. It would seem that we in Spectator America have come to expect, demand even, that a poet in order to be a poet always has to do something else.”
“… each section is provided with prefacing and/or concluding commentaries and/or notes, making an immediately engaging and variously revealing tapestry of setting: place, circumstance, history, method, identification, theoretical rationale, companions of the spirit. It must be said that Williams’ talents are displayed as amply in these settings, and in the titles of the poems, as in any other aspect of his art. In fact, he has an absolute, unexcelled genius for titles (which I, for one, envy unreservedly).”
“Many people have objected that poems in order to be true poems have to be ‘in one’s own words’ (own by intensity, presumably — one does wonder how any word can be actually owned). Williams, while certainly continuing to say things himself, affirms a tradition of finding one’s voice ‘outside,’ in which the emphasis is on operations of precise attention, selection, and placement, rather than ‘inspiration’ or vatic seizure. (Williams has often said that he makes poems out rather than up — thus providing a perfect reply to the question: ‘is that a real poem or did you make that up?’)”
“For the existence and development of such an art as his, the creative role of the reader is crucial. … But even more important is the creation of the context in which it is claimed: this is a poem — the surround that very exactly determines how the precise selection is to be viewed.”
“Williams’ is a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses, intention in abeyance except to be ‘scrupulous to the momentary actual,’ in Kelly’s words; and of the exact sudden light flash of wit, image, world-play, revelation — not a meditative poetry, concerned with turning thoughts over and over. It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, ‘a bathing in the visible world’ — and of Ravel’s sites auriculaires.”
14) from review of Ground Work: Before the War by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 7 (1985).
“There is no better way to gain a momentum into the book at hand, particularly if the opening pages are found daunting, than to (re)read all of its predecessor. But Duncan has set the notes he has at the beginning of Ground Work as its immediate true introduction because in fact what especially marks this work, what has come to the fore in the progress of writing it and the poetry that has followed, is a much more intensely complex prosodic awareness, consubstantial with its like notation (‘the articulation of the total sound of the poem,’ exactly, where the poem has come to process, make with a greater and greater complex of input). Duncan here is at the height of his technical powers, and of his tekhne I would for my own senses and uses of the work cite just three out of many possible instances: the long line …; the remarkable counterpoint of voices and texts …; the kept tension. …”
“To date I know of no serious extended study of Duncan’s work not ultimately in Duncan’s own terms, such is the scope, erudition, and intelligence of his writing on poetry. So far no one has read his work as well as he has, or anew. There is Olson’s ‘Against Wisdom as Such,’ certainly, but by now that has been so closely attended and responded to by Duncan it’s become virtually an integral part of his own work. The true heirs of part of his writing and theory at least … are the Language poets, though for a variety of reasons this is never alluded to, nor have they carried their doctrinal and theoretical (as distinct from poetry politics) differences with him into print.”
“And yet Duncan’s work yearns for, calls out for differing, not negating but demanding reading, of like serious reach — as in Blake’s ‘Opposition is true Friendship,’ not that the contraries be dissolved, but realized. But that is another life’s work!”
“These great Romantic (of the Romance of the Forms) ‘propositions of evocation,’ to use Gerrit Lansing’s term, these vatic hymns of the psychocosmology of everyday life, provoke me to consider again the following essential statements, offered that the poetry be considered then also in their light. From Thoreau: ‘A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry.’ From Stevens: ‘we think we have long since outlived the ideal. The truth is that we are constantly outliving it and yet the ideal itself remains alive with an enormous life.’ From Yuri Tynyanov: ‘The reader who sees only solidified bodies in this culture demands that the poet see better than he does.’ ‘There is another danger: to see one’s own works as solidified bodies — to fall captive to one’s own verse culture.’ In that tension the poet makes his profession: ‘I enact my being here / / for the sake of / / speculation in the nature of man.’”
15) from review of Ground Work II: In the Dark by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 12 (1988).
“The matter, the deep matter at the heart here is vision. Vision, not what one would want or decide to see, but what one is given and cannot avoid seeing — what, as Duncan would say, you don’t get not to see, to experience.”
“Poetry, the poet has told us, is not the repository of dead things but the place where eternal things emerge. … What the social, the political, the civic/civil world has surrendered from itself, has given up on, goes then into the realm of the imagination. There is only one place for these visions of what has been thought possible, of what has come to be seen as lost in the actual world, to come true — Christendom for Dante, Kings for Shakespeare, Democracy for Duncan and us all — not just as survivors of history and of being disowned in the public realm, but as regulators and accusers of what is happening. It took Kings to betray Kings, Kings being Kings, and the idea of Kings. So as participants in Democracy our eternal yearnings are for the nature of what we have betrayed.”
16) from “Some Notes on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers and Michele J. Leggott’s Reading Zukofsky’s ‘80 Flowers,’” Sulfur 34 (Spring 1994).
“Years ago after reviewing Bottom, I wrote to Zukofsky and asked why there was no Marx in that book, and he replied that he was no more a Marxist, after all, than he was a Spinozaist — but there is more to it than that, and what became of Marx in the work. What is the nature of authority in Zukofsky? Where does he leave off and why; what does he settle for, is satisfied with? What is the nature of the personal canon Zukofsky affirms and how does it change — how is it ‘privileged’ as reference and source? What are particulars?”
“Inevitably … we come back to what is in fact the first experience of the poetry and what Zukofsky clearly particularly focused on: the sound, its unpredictable diversity and novelty, the extraordinary vocabulary, the open flux of syntax, and the pleasure, the delight to be had from all of that (and the great humor in it). Even without other study that is primary and will have its impact (‘Its art was beyond me yet somehow available in my sounding the poem,’ Duncan said.) But no matter if we determine we are going to read only for the sound and juxtapositions and not pay any attention to what is ‘said’ or ‘meant,’ the poems won’t let us (nor do they satisfy equally throughout on that score), but keep drawing us (and resisting us) into their undertow, and into all the complexity of Zukofsky’s world. As Levi-Strauss says, words do not become non-referential.”
“To conclude, let these speak:
we forgot that we were not performing the chief moral obligation of humanity,
which is to protect the works of love.
● ● ●
Mystery, to use that admirable English word meaning all information relating to the theory and practice of a craft, which we borrowed from the Old French mestier, and by carelessness amounting to genius confused in spelling with the word we derive from the Greek for occult.
— Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
treasures of potentially useful variability deserve careful study.
— Edgar Anderson, Plants, Man and Life
the study of the scope of poetry is poetry, and requires all the reasons of poetry for its pursuit.
— Laura Riding, Preface to her 1938 Collected Poems”
17) from introduction to Black Pig by Denis Mahoney (Mystic, CT: Hozomeen Press, 1994).
“In Mary Butts’s two booklet-length essays of the early 1930s, Warning to Hikers and Traps for Unbelievers, she affirmed a belief in rites and sacraments as dramatic, a sort of play drawn from recurring universal natural events, ‘about the health and ill-health of the soul.’ What is at stake there is also what is at stake in this poetry.”
“But it also needs to be stressed here what depth and intensity of literary awareness and kinship, all lightly worn, is present in this work. It certainly, and consciously so, is out of a tradition of lyric epic and of the page as territory and field, adventure, discovery, cosmology, the measure of paper — ‘placement becomes central to my entire being,’ Denis has written in a letter. … And the self as multiple, multiply situated and articulated, self-questioning, self-reflexive, self-outward.”
18) from introduction to The Man in Green by Patrick Doud (Lawrence, KS: First Intensity Press, 1996).
“Two propositions return as I read here. The initial statement of Lezama Lima’s 1957 La expresión americana: ‘Sólo lo difícil es estimulante.’ And Robert Duncan in ‘Transgressing the Real Passages 27’ of a decade later: ‘For now in my mind the young men of my time / have withdrawn allegiance from this world, from public things.’ This is certainly difficult work, very (and stimulating), in meaning, in what Lezama called visión historica, a difficulty not so much, not just, not so simply in the images themselves, nor in the thinking, nor in the allusions, but more in what we might call the matrix the poetry assumes, takes on, takes much of its strength from its certainty of, that it is there, that it is significant, that it can be dealt with; and the extreme condensation of expression, told slant.”
“Work of displacement and of description. Displacement of direct bodily proprioceptive experience and immediate reactive emotion … and all that landscape, just in and of itself, into the making of another, middle, in-between realm, a mythic body, landscape, city. …”
“A poetry which ‘haunts the suburbs of the body.’ And a part then of the central tradition of the American lyric epic, at least from Whitman on (Crane especially) — and that fundamentally American religious conviction Harold Bloom has analyzed, the beyond-the-soul seed-of-light real self, not part of but anterior to the created universe, alone with a resurrected but not yet ascended savior, the great yearning for that, at the same time that the emptiness, the missing, the absence is profoundly known, exile in the land of birth.”
Irby’s literary reviews, introductions, and selected notes
Introduction to The Man in Green by Patrick Doud (Lawrence, KS: First Intensity Press, 1996), 8–9.
Introduction to Black Pig by Denis Mahoney (Mystic, CT: Hozomeen Press, 1994), i–v.
“Some Notes on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers and Michele J. Leggott’s Reading Zukofsky’s ‘80 Flowers,’” Sulfur 34 (Spring 1994): 234–49.
Review of Ground Work II: In the Dark by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 12 (1988): 281–88.
Review of Ground Work: Before the War by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 7 (1985): 261–67.
“‘america’s largest openair museum,’” review of Elite/Elate Poems and Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, Parnassus 8 (Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1980): 307–28.
“A Note on Kansas–New Mexico for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 56–61.
“Some Notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward,” Credences 5/6 (March 1978): 128–57.
Review of Places To Go by Joanne Kyger, Caterpillar 15/16 (April/June 1971): 279–80.
Review of Our Word: Guerrilla Poems from Latin America, trans. Edward Dorn and Gordon Brotherston, Caterpillar 10 (January 1970): 241–42.
Review of Seaweed by Armand Schwerner, Caterpillar 8/9 (October 1969): 144.
Review of Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity by Ann Charters, Caterpillar 8/9 (October 1969): 56.
Review of Ace of Pentacles by John Wieners, Kulchur 19 (Autumn 1965): 103–4.
“The World Dances between Our Eyes,” reviews of The Unknowing Dance by Chad Walsh, Tactics of Survival by George Hitchcock, The Vulnerable Island by Carol Berge, The Very Thing That Happens by Russell Edson, Interchange by Jack Hirschman, and Round Dances by Robert Kelly, Poetry (Chicago) 105 (March 1965): 414–20.
Review of The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones, Kulchur 17 (Spring 1965): 86–90.
Review of Bottom: On Shakespeare by Louis Zukofsky, Kulchur 16 (Winter 1964-65): 98–103.
Review of The World of the Lie by Ron Loewinsohn, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964): 99–102.
Review of Her Body Against Time by Robert Kelly, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964): 95–99; rpt. Vort 5 (Summer 1974): 73–76.
Review of Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialism by R. Buckminster Fuller, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964): 89–91.
Review of Poem from Jail by Ed Sanders, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964): 87–89.
“The Unacknowledged Legislators,” review of The Sullen Art by David Ossman, Kulchur 11 (Autumn 1963): 83–85.
2. Barry Alpert, “Ken Irby: An Interview,” Vort 3 (Summer 1973): 54; hereafter abbreviated V. The biographical information cited here is derived from interviews conducted by Alpert for Vort and Lee Bartlett for Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).
4. I adapted this list from “Kenneth Irby: A Bibliography,” available at the Electronic Poetry Center.
“The way the land falls away is the first fact.” This sentence, falling off into the deep space of allusion, sounds the depths of the nearly quarter century that separates it from the “FIRST FACT” opening Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael; from the “central fact” of Olson’s opening musings on space, which themselves call to mind such predecessor sentences as “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” Olson writes. “I spell it large because it comes large here,” projecting, as it were, Olson’s aesthetics onto the very ground of the American people; or, more likely, suggesting that our grounding organically produces our poetics. I take my opening sentence from David Bromige’s 1973 volume Birds of the West, published by the Canadian Coach House Press. Bromige’s sentence is the opening to an afterword titled “Proofs,” a title to be taken, I take it, in both the sense of page or photo proofs to be examined for correction and the sort of proofs one learns to produce in a course in logic. There was ample reason for Bromige to sound such a Black Mountainish note by way of self-explanation. Though English by birth, this Canadian citizen poet had veritably come of age with the poetics of the New American Poetry, had, in fact, both encountered Creeley and Duncan as a student at the university of British Columbia (where he also saw Kenneth Patchen read to jazz accompaniment) and been in the audience at the riotous Berkeley poetry conference in the summer of 1965, audible on tape recordings of the event putting questions to Jack Spicer. Over the years, though, Bromige was slowly to pull away from the imperatives of projective verse in the pursuit of further projections, keener demarcations. These moves can be seen in their incipience already in his “Proofs,” in the way that it is no longer space that he takes as first fact, but the manner of the land’s falling away (also an echo of Olson’s Maximus), a phenomenological grasping of first fact, signaled here by the wordplay, by the carefully measured juxtaposition of “way” and “away” — “the way the land falls away.” This increasingly became Bromige’s way, as can be read in the title of his later book Red Hats, a title unpacking itself out of the letters of an earlier title, borne by the book Threads, and heralding what might be seen at the time as a breaking away of a later postmodern from the stances of its earlier instances. I take the way of this falling away towards a poetics differing from itself as central fact in one move from the sixties to the seventies, a mode of tectonic shift scraping the New American Poetry up against a newer still.
And if I might do so without sounding too much like one of the now old New Historicists, I would trace this way of falling away to a hillside in Sonoma County, California:
We hiked the long late Sunday afternoon
the Bloomfield downs of South Sonoma
David said, did you know
Max Douglas is dead, of an overdose
I was just about to ask you about him
anyway I said
The speaker of these lines is poet Kenneth Irby; their “David” is David Bromige; the subject of their hiking converse is Max Douglas, the title figure of Irby’s long poem “To Max Douglas” and, until his death, one of the more promising new lights among later generation Black Mountaineers. These lines from “To Max Douglas” seem to propose as much a periodization of poetries as to announce the elegiac subject of the poem. Douglas had blown in off the plains around Saint Joseph and Lawrence, had studied with Ed Dorn, had attended a poetry workshop one summer in San Diego, and was now dead with the new decade at twenty from an overdose of heroin just months after visiting Bromige in Northern California, just ten months after the death of Charles Olson. Ed Dorn, in his introduction to Irby’s poem, had called Douglas a “child of the crossing” and credited him with having “in his short life” been “able to modify Olson’s procedures to fit his own situation.” Those left behind had only to continue modifying Olson’s procedures to fit their own situation to find themselves passing well beyond the parameters of Olson’s projection, walking into fields where some earlier fellows of Black Mountain were loath to follow, however fallow those fields.
Irby had only met Max Douglas one time, at David Bromige’s house. Since Irby had to depart for Oregon the next morning, the poets were unable to continue their talk “of Dorn, of Ratzel and Sauer,” and yet Douglas seems to have made a lasting impression on the older poet, and not simply because the two of them both faced “out / to reach the Great Plains in the back of the head.” Douglas seemed to have had such an effect on many, the combination of his winning personality and his sheer talent even then evident on first meeting. He had already published two chapbooks, had appeared in significant journals, and was in correspondence with John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, Bromige’s own primary publisher at the time, regarding a possible book publication. In 1969, Douglas had included an encouraging letter from Martin with the portfolio of his work submitted along with his application to the University of Kansas, where he was to major in American Humanities and study creative writing with Dorn. We can judge something of Douglas’s effect on those with whom he worked by Dorn’s own last judgment of him, delivered in his prefatory comments to Irby’s poem. Dorn singled out “his hunger for the power of language.”
Following Douglas’s death, there were a few tentative motions towards a posthumous publication of his work. In his introduction to the 1978 Collected Poems of Max Douglas, Chris Wienert, whose White Dot Press eventually did bring out the volume with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, summarizes those earlier efforts:
A book was first considered by John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, who had corresponded with Max and was in the process of gathering papers Max sent to him. Clayton Eshelman, who earlier published Douglas in Caterpillar magazine, was asked to edit a selection of poems from this material, which he did faithfully, completing a manuscript in October 1973. This Selected Poems was never published despite Eshelman’s endeavors outside Black Sparrow to see it happen. Lack of funds seems to have played a large part in this …
The difficulties of raising funds for the publication of an almost entirely unknown poet are not hard to imagine. The book finally came about as a result of the Eastward migration of Andrea Wyatt, who, in addition to her own poetry, had edited the Larry Eigner Selected Poems. Wyatt, in the course of a reading at Washington, DC’s Folio Books, where she also worked at the time, turned from her own poetry to read a selection by Douglas. Chris Wienert, in the audience that evening, was sufficiently taken by the work that he borrowed Douglas’s papers from Wyatt, and subsequently used his NEA grant to publish the book. The volume appeared to little notice and has been seldom cited since. (Though I note that Doug Lang, associated with Andrea Wyatt during the Folio Bookshop years, has placed an overview of Douglas and his book on his blog, and somehow this book nobody has much read is now listed at prices of $166 on Internet sales sites.) White Dot Press itself seems to have vanished after publishing this volume, one book by Andrea Wyatt, Wienert’s own collection and a chapbook by Warren Wigatow, a poet and former student of Robert Kelly who worked at the Second Story Books store that followed Folio into the same Dupont Circle space.
The Douglas Collected strongly resembles its projectivist brethren in both structure and thematics; there is a great deal of geography and history in lines that start out strongly reminiscent of Creeley and then, after several experiments with lineation, seem to strike a more characteristic individual mode. A late poem such as “The Word” really does wear its genealogy on its surface:
There is no one follows the news
like I do. It is,
the small town, etc.
& that is your availability.
Something obscure, you would say.
But if this reads a bit too much like its progenitors, it also reads remarkably well for a poet who had not yet reached the age of twenty when he wrote it. In his sequence on the James Gang and Charlie Ford, in his lyric explorations of a plains consciousness, even in a premonitory poem arising from the news coverage of Thomas Eagleton in the years prior to his dalliance with George McGovern, Douglas showed an avidity for the news that stays news and, as Dorn remarked, a positive hunger for the power of language. He was, at twenty, wedded to the philosophical assumptions of projective verse, as witnessed by his emphasis on “self-possession” on self-location, on “the umbilicus– / as Center of Universe,” as attested by his copying into his notes the following passage from Charles Olson: “I am more and more persuaded that the revolution I am responsible for is this one, of the identity of a person and his expression (that these are not separable).”
Irby spotted something of continental significance in the younger poet and in his journey. The elder artist knew that for someone like Douglas:
to reach from that, your
St. Joe to present Lawrence
is a cut as far
and continental as the reach
He saw Douglas as someone “in the whirlpool of the continent,” recollecting the Midwest’s proclivity for tornadic disruptions while recognizing the younger man’s placement in the eye of the swirling forces of change that were even then shaking the nation, a generational difference signaled in Douglas’s signing of one late letter to John Martin, “Workingman’s Dead, Max.” Those continental traversals, too, in Irby’s view, were what linked his own art to Douglas’s and to that of other post-Olson poets. Irby likened his own Oregon trip to Douglas’s imminent return across the vast reaches to Kansas:
the line of that journey
and the poem of that line
are eternal, are what this still is getting at
the line of continent
Kelly’s Common Shore, Grenier’s
icebox door shots out the windshield.
At the same time, there is that generational apartness. Irby keeps putting apostrophic questions to the now-gone younger man; wonders “Which way did you come West / Missouri Max” and “O Maxie / what did you do // to be so sad?” Bromige, too, seems to have picked up on that core sadness. Irby’s poem remembers Bromige reporting that he had cried on Douglas’s return West, thinking of the drive without a soul to talk to “all the way back to St. Joe.” Then, too, I have always wondered if we are not, given these constant references in the poem to “Max,” to read the poem as a sort of elegy to the poetics of Maximus, following the death by excess of this younger Max, a figure of an incipient farther out, son of the figure of outward.
That reading arises as well from the fact that the poem itself sees Max as a coming difference, placed precisely at the trembling crossroads of an earlier aesthetic:
The Berkeley climate of exotica
these almost 50 years. Kroeber’s
their houses just across the street from one another
Grenier at one end
Bromige at the other
Max in between …
In California, Irby feels deeply the central fact “That this edge of the continent is / a hinge,” as he also feels Douglas to be a flitting sign of a changed circumstance. While few at the time would have described the place to look for the new poetics as lodged somewhere between Grenier and Bromige, Irby at least does see, in looking at this trio of poets in converse, that there’s something happening here and that it may no longer be the sixties.
What had been the common shore of projective verse was no longer simply a place of adaptation; whole plates were breaking away beneath our feet and new paths were, in the words of one later Bromige parody, a matter of following in uneven steps. Looking to the title of such a book as The Harbormaster of Hong Kong we might rightly be put in mind of Olsonian obsessions with geography, obsessions shared by Irby and Douglas, but such mindfulness is shaken by the discovery that there never was such a harbormaster. And what are we to make of Bromige’s insistence that the title had as much to do with a punning reading of Habermas as with any fanciful relation to Hong Kong, which is, as a character in a recent commercial reminds us, “in China”?
Olson, too, had his playful side, but he remained committed to that revolution that identified the inseparability of person and expression. Irby to some extent and Bromige for sure were no longer so sure of that. Bromige published a book titled My Poetry constructed largely of sentences appropriated from previous reviews of his books. Gary Sullivan has written of My Poetry that it “seems in retrospect to be the book that finally shook North American Poetry from the burnt-out hull of ’70s self-absorption into the radical deconstruction of the ’80s (assuming, of course that you buy into that particular art-historical narrative).” Sullivan’s closing qualification is odd on many counts, seemingly asserting a truth that is only true if you already believe it, and it’s hard to credit that a book read by so few was able to shake all of North American poetry. But, while his chronology may be off by a decade, Sullivan is right that Bromige’s work was radically deconstructing something in the assumptions of the self at the heart of projective verse, something still clung to in many quarters on both the left and the right of American verse culture. In Birds of the West Bromige’s meditations on pronouns find “we is more fitting somehow / than the I, of course it’s the one alone who writes / except the words are talking.” Further, for Bromige the Olsonian insistence, shared with Ginsberg, on the measure of a man’s breath, gave way upon reflection to a differing duration, one that sees the subject as inseparable from syntax:
Much like a sentence I proceed. I term this duration. Thus measure, metric, stem from the periodicity these various processes instruct one in.
If, as Creeley exclaimed, he could not truly know the poem until it was there, under his hand in the process of its own making, Bromige and others who had come of age with the radical New American Poetries were increasingly making the same exclamation with regard to the self:
The subject of that sentence
That opens with a shout
Is difficult to find but anyone
Might find oneself the object
And while there was never any lack of interest in the structures and strictures of linguistics among the Black Mountain poets, many were, like Bromige (though perhaps with less of his characteristic irony) following the linguistic turn in philosophy with its consequent implications for thinking, not so much of the mirror stage, but of thinking, that most intimate colloquy of the self:
A sentence shows the words the way to go
Although a sentence needs the help of words
It holds their sense within its keeping
The first sentences we learn we learn as whole
Most likely when we’re in our parents’ keeping
Then as we grow they’re built up out of parts
But a sentence is imperfect
In what sense is a sentence so
In the sense that language is
That these lines occur in a poem titled “Protestant Poem” give them the air of theses nailed to a church door. That many of their words are appropriated openly from Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge is a typically Bromige twist, underscoring that maturation process of sentential acquisition as it raises questions about just how personal anything termed personal knowledge may be. This additionally points to just how radical the newer directions of Bromige’s poetry of the early seventies would be, though any number of past poets had made a virtue of creative appropriation (again, that deep space of allusion increasingly known at the time as intertextuality). Following Bob Grenier’s recent example in Sentences (though Grenier’s collected box would not appear for some time yet), Bromige had wanted the “corners” that make up the title sequences of his book Tight Corners & What’s around Them to be published as unbound pieces that could be reshuffled. (That John Martin would not agree to this relatively expensive procedure caused some strain in his relationship with Bromige in the coming years.) What made the attempted gesture radical was not its newness — after all, the British novelist B. S. Johnson had just published his fiction The Unfortunates as loose signatures gathered together in a box in 1969 — it was what happened in those Tight Corners: “A sentence, as the expression of a complete thought, is not natural & does not exist in nature. Is not natural & does not exist in nature.”
It is impossible to know if Max Douglas, following the death of Olson, might have pursued the paths that brought Kenneth Irby and David Bromige to ever more characteristically seventies explorations of the power of language and the nature of the subject, paths Dorn, and more vehemently Tom Clark, were to refuse. It is hard to say that a later, relatively little-read book such as Bromige’s My Poetry veritably “shook North American Poetry from the burnt-out hull of … self-absorption into … radical deconstruction.” Bromige and Irby, standing in the fields of Sonoma, were part of a continental drift, one that would not have been possible without the radical poetics of mid-century America, but one that was falling away on the hinge work of new sentences.
18. Gary Sullivan, “My David Bromige,” Jacket (May 2003).