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).
The poetry of Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson
“It would not necessarily be the case that the poems of a native of another land would be composed of that land. But a Tennessean has no choice. O Jerusalem. O Appalachia.”
“Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.”
— Wallace Stevens
It is not surprising that readers of American poetry sometimes pair the names Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson. Although Irby and Johnson had little direct contact, they were born within a year of one another and grew up on opposite sides of the state of Kansas (Irby in the southeast, in Fort Scott; Johnson in the southwest, in Ashland). Both spent formative years in the “Oz” of the Bay Area, and both took the modernist legacy in self-consciously neo-Romantic directions. Neither Irby nor Johnson achieved the notoriety of some of their contemporaries, but both have been “rediscovered” and admired by a new generation of readers.
The biographical and stylistic similarities are most apparent early in their careers: upbringing in Kansas, stint in the army, stint at the University of Kansas, followed by several years of travel, and first major publications in the mid-60s. Those publications bear certain interesting resemblances, not least of all for the presence of “Kansas” (both idea and place) in them. Both Johnson and his critics have noted the influence of Charles Olson on early poems such as “Quivera” and “Circumstances, Of Circum Stances,” in their combination of local history and autobiography, as well as in the style of composition; and the same could be said of some of Irby’s work from the mid-60s, such as “The Roadrunner Poem” and “Kansas–New Mexico.” “Kansas,” has a certain mythology, or at least aura, surrounding it, and one suspects that neither poet could forbear from delving into it.
And clearly, the influence of Olson (and before and behind him, Ezra Pound) is obvious in the early work of both men. Take, for instance, this litany of flora and fauna from Irby’s early “Roadrunner Poem” (1964):
Nodding wild rye
Andropogon — Bison — Canis
Andropogon — Bouteloua — Bison — Antilocapra
Andropogon — Bulibilis — Bison — Antilocapra (12–13)
The Latin translated into English and fleshed out: the bluestem and grama grasses feed the bison and pronghorns, who in turn feed the wolves. These lines are followed by a paragraph from former University of Kansas history professor James C. Malin’s The Grasslands of North America, a canonical source text for Irby, which begins: “No line on a map can be drawn to represent in any realistic manner the actual conditions found in nature.” The scientific attention to detail, to naming, to change over time, and to sources all bespeak an Olson-influenced poetics — as does the open form, combining justified and indented stanzas, long lines, short lines, prose, lists, Latin and English — not to mention a certain concern for the relation of written lines to the actually-existing world.
Likewise, Johnson’s early poems strike an Olsonian chord in both style and material. “Indian Corn” begins:
Columbus, as the first Western eyes, called it
panic grass — Maize, of a ‘quaking’ ancestry, i.e., the
attempt, always, at classification. (38)
As Patrick Prichett points out: “The poem’s appeal to an overlooked historical detail that contains, seed-like, a parable about the advent of European perception on American shores; the pun on ‘panic’; the scholarly aside, couched in analytic language and overladen with commas … these are hallmarks of Olson’s allusive style that Johnson mimes with perfect fidelity.” Likewise, in the early “Kansas” poem, “Of Circumstance, The Circum Stances,” Johnson begins with local, family history, combined with personal recollection:
It is thus I break these furrows, for my grandfather, Henry Clay
Mayse, in his grave
on the hill above where I passed
this spring of 1961, west
one ocean at his head
& at his feet, another (VMG, 64)
The poem goes on to include a paragraph from Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux, and then interweaves that book with the poet’s own desire to connect with the native soil:
It was also a custom of
the Sioux women to save the navel cord
of the first-born
& in spite of a damnable
sense of form, that ‘rough skin bundle’ poems
kept in a turtle shaped buckskin
carapace of quills (67–68)
The passage ends with an expression of a desire for poems that likewise might be “built by hand / – that we might determine our own // intervals between / objects” (69). The juxtaposition of the present and the past, the autobiographical and the historical, in a more-or-less representational manner, characterizes Johnson’s first book, A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees (1964); in The Book of the Green Man (1967), written during a trip to England in 1962, Johnson likewise blends contemporary observation and English (and European) history.
That Olson would be a point of reference in the mid-1960s for two young poets interested in what we now call “The New American Poetry” is no surprise. But the similarities between Irby and Johnson were soon to become more attenuated. Johnson, having published two books of open-field poetry rich with local history and documentary sources combined with personal details, made a rather sudden and self-conscious break, both formally and thematically, in “The Different Musics,” a group of four longer poems written in 1966–67. The lineation and arrangement of the verse has changed. Rather than justifying the lines against the left margin or using the entire field via indented stanzas and dropped lines, as Johnson does earlier, now he has hit upon what was to be his preferred form for the next thirty years: lines centered on the page, meant to emulate the bilateral symmetry of natural forms, as well as the stability of an unwobbling spiritual pivot. In “Letters to Walt Whitman,” the poet asks:
But are these landscapes to be imagined,
or an actual
Kansas — the central, earthy prosaic core of us?
Or is the seen always winged, an eidolon only to us — & never
the certain capture
of great, golden, unembroidered
All is Oz.
The dusty cottonwoods, by the creek,
rustle an Emerald City.
And the mystic, immemorial city
is rooted in earth.
All is Oz & inextricable,
bound up in the unquenchable flames of double suns. (VMG, 97)
The desire for a sacramental presence of the transcendent in the immanent — and a declaration of same — will be a constant in the rest of Johnson’s work. While “the mystic, immemorial city” may be “rooted in earth,” the All is being subsumed into Oz, the cottonwoods into the Emerald City, and the double suns are decidedly symbolic ones. In a later interview, Johnson would recount that the Oz books offered solace and escape from the physically and culturally desolate western Kansas in which he lived. He goes on to declare that “writing to me is a means of making the world where anything is possible and in which the imagination lives.”
In the eponymous poem “The Different Musics,” dedicated to Robert Duncan, the scale seems to have decidedly tipped towards “Oz”:
And night comes opening its arms like smokes to enfold us:
Where their feet touch the earth
an encircling of plume, diaphanous featherings.
THE DANCE! THE DANCING OUTWARD!
A spreading effulgence!
A resplendent ‘hood’ of light!
A choric turbulence, to which the worlds keep time … (87–88)
The guiding Muse here is not so much Duncan as a particular version of Blake — or maybe a particularly ebullient mood of Whitman’s — and certainly the verse lacks grounding in an actual Kansas or anywhere else. That this shift should happen around the same time that Johnson discovered, and settled down in, San Francisco, is perhaps not insignificant. Johnson, who had the misfortune to grow up gay in Kansas, by his own account had been searching for Oz since childhood. When asked why so many writers and artists of his generation were born in Kansas, Johnson responded, “Everybody wanted to get to Oz and San Francisco is” (“Ronald Johnson” 550). If you find it and get a toehold there (geographically or ontologically), why move?
By the same token, he intended his opus, ARK, “to be without history,” a performative inversion of Ezra Pound’s project in the Cantos. ARK is to be, like the Facteur Cheval’s grand construction in Hauterives, a Palais Idéal. So in ARK, there is little of an actual Kansas, but rather a symbolic or tonal one. For the later Johnson, the most (or only?) important place in Kansas is St. Jacob’s Well, the “bottomless” spring near his hometown of Ashland, near the Oklahoma line. This large watering-hole on the dry plains, important to the Northern Cheyenne, as well as to early explorers, white settlers, and cattle drivers from Texas, becomes a mythopoetic constant in the poetry, even as its history is evacuated:
keel manifold, sped bones in colloquy steep wheatear
… if hell indeed rein time stood still
and paradise thus daily fall
on usual shoulders,
scrawl on my stone bois d’arc pulled off Great Plains
– Pegasus every point maximum surface –
ATTEMPTED THIS LADDER FOR ST. JACOB
ASTRADDLE BOTTOMLESS WELL
R. J. FECIT (ARK 65, “Windmill Spire,” np)
Kansas here becomes a fanciful (keeled) ark; the “arc” of bois d’arc becomes the curve of a limitless (metaphorical) horizon; and the buried allusion to Pound’s Canto XLV is written imaginatively (and ironically) on a ladder to heaven arising from a bottomless well (the name of the physical well literalized so as to make it metaphysical). In ARK 30, Johnson rewrites T. S. Eliot’s Weltschmerz (at the end of “The Hollow Men”) around the same “place”:
This is the way the word begins, the world begins,
… Around a center
no one can see the end of, at the Well of The Bottomless,
I have placed parallels of bright guardians (np)
Meanwhile, Irby’s interests in memory, travel, and natural history continued unabated (and even intensified) into the late 1960s and 1970s. The poems often treat the history of the places Irby lived in or passed through, and the roads inevitably lead back to or through Kansas. To Max Douglas (1971), and Catalpa (1977), for instance, are rich with history and geography, often straight from the sources (books or conversation), and almost always related to the poet’s own peregrinations. In To Max Douglas, we hear from Malin again, alongside Kansas political boss Cy Leland and newspaper poet Eugene C. Ware:
was all mastery
the closest poetry
stayed to that in Kansas
was Ironquill Ware
whose poetry ‘stinks’
said Malin, ‘yes, it stinks’
the smell was in my adolescent nose
I knew who lived in his old house
3 blocks on down my street
flapdoodle jingo verse, cut East to be
Commissioner of Pensions, wet
his wit flits yet above
some lunchcounter present
avatar of that high interview
the point is, exiles … (191)
The slide from regional history book to conversational anecdote with the historian to personal recollection to local history to a broader point about being a spiritual or cultural exile (and heading west, as Irby himself did), all show a poet who, unlike Johnson, has not finished extending and revising the Pound-Olson tradition and has not done with poems containing history.
“Jed Smith and the Way,” in Catalpa, is a long poem that relates the trek of the Jedediah Smith party through the western US (1826–1830), by way of a similar road trip taken by the author. This work might today be called a “docupoem”: it narrates history, based on research and first-person testimony. For instance, Smith’s men, “a hard, rapacious, horny lot,” making their way through what is now the US Pacific northwest, stop to trade with a wary party of Kalliwakset. One of these is beaten by the “Yankees,” one of whom “missed a skinning knife and a hatchet”:
right then and there the Kalliwakset would have retaliated but one powerful chief
still voted for restraint
till he, fancying a ride on Harrison Rogers, Smith’s first clerk’s, choice steed
was ordered down at gunpoint after a circuit of the camp
and that, as Lord Buckley said, do it, and the Indians snapped (286)
The material here is documentary in the original sense of teaching (history, in this case). But the poem is equally about memory, and about the poet’s coming to terms with what might be called personal geography. “[T]his is the discontinuous / dendritic narrative of a journey / metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return” we read later (288), as the two historical journeys become a single one containing metaphorical and spiritual, as well as historical significance. Even “the country South of Philomath / looked Kansas,” leading, somewhat incongruously, to thoughts of:
The soul of another
of one dead, what lasts after
and makes us remember
where will I meet again
my dog Oscar, dead since summer 1944 (285)
The historical, biographical, geographical, metaphorical trip constitutes a plan “to yield home again, fresh again / drive into country and know this was the spot to take us in” which reminds him that “Kansas always promised and demanded there must be, it wasn’t, you must find, the plains / demand a lot that way” (282). The poem ends with the declaration (in quotes) that “‘you always / have to get there … / this is the Secret History / of the Continent’” (293). The secret personal history and ever-deferred homecoming seems to parallel the (collective, bloody) material history, which can never be subsumed into the former. The personal and historical, pastoral and epic, are never very far apart, and the thrill of discovery is never far removed from a feeling of exile from and gravitational pull of home, in every sense — a sense exacerbated by and exacerbating the itch or need to move.
Of course, one also finds the visionary mode in Irby’s work — the land transformed by the imagination or by its own indwelling glory or grace. “The Roadrunner Poem” ends:
where we do walk beside the opened fields
and the bloom of that intensity
blooms, is the flower
that is full of the earth
is full (24–5)
But even this passage begins “where were ploughed fields / but are now housing developments” (24). As Edward Schelb puts it, “Irby incessantly repeats metaphysical abstractions to embody them, to make them submit to the demands of a certain place”; he “resists the temptation to surrender the self into a visionary reality, into an ease of devotion beyond the flat regularity of the plains.” Irby makes this point clear in the introduction to “Relation”: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’ What plants grow in my backyard, 1614½ A Russell, Berkeley, California; and how am I aware of them …” (94).
Moreover, as Irby’s career progresses, the plains, in the poems, are often stained by blood. The story does not end with any decisive transcendence or transfiguration; it is as much about frustration, defeat, and violence. These things Johnson could not abide. But somehow, Irby seems determined to work through them. Johnson settles down into lines that are centered on the page, that are meant to imitate organic symmetry. Irby’s sensibility remains spatial — or as Olson says, each poem’s form is the extension (in the philosophical sense of manifesting in space) of its content, and not according to a blueprint determined beforehand. If Johnson conceived of ARK as a structure (or garden), Irby’s oeuvre is a trip (in more than one sense). For the former, natural forms and language can and do coincide; for the latter, that connection always eludes, always produces longing, produces long lines.
However, from the 1980s on, the historical mode is less pronounced in Irby’s work — at least in the form of the grand continental sweep or the “deep mapping” of Kansas. This fact is unsurprising if one considers that Irby moved back to Kansas in the late 1970s, to the college town of Lawrence (where he still resides). “Some people have accused me of writing about a place in a poem only when I’m not there,” Irby would say in an interview, “which is something we’ve all experienced. Thomas Wolfe can only get impassioned about the United States when he’s in Europe.” And if one needs to go away to write about home, then a literal homecoming might have the opposite effect. The later poems are still about Kansas; but the Kansas of plants in backyards, the dead squirrel at the curb, or the students in the apartment complex, taking out the laundry. The poetry seems more interested in the micro rather than macro, when compared to the earlier work, as in this passage from 1999’s Studies:
leaving behind an old pair of wornout levis in the grass by the road, been there a
long long while
pockets empty but for a few odds and ends
a marble or two, a couple of pebbles, some smashed links of a chain, a nut, a foreign coin
(how did it get left?), faded matted ticket stubs
all that it mattered to life to keep always along (572)
For Johnson, “Everywhere is Oz.” For Irby, “you have to become / a stranger / to have / a homecoming” (654) — which is why one first experiences the algia for the nostos. And only thus does one experience any numinous, utopian, or transmogrified reality — via one’s immanent, temporal, quotidian, local existence. Ronald Johnson is always seeking to return to The Garden. Kenneth Irby returns to an actual Kansas containing (among other things):
patchouli from Mark and Janice’s garden, and a big freezer bag of herbs, four
plum tomatoes, one quite ripe goldenyellow globe, a couple of jalapeños (569)
Meanwhile, the balance of Irby’s poetic explorations shifts from transcontinental journeys through the layered history of North America to explorations of dreamscape, of symbol, of syntax. Kansas, in the form of Fort Scott, is explored occasionally as Memory is explored. The poet has read the books, made the journeys and chronicled them. And all of these are brought to bear in a central point. The form of the poems steadies into long lines — lines that could go on forever. Odysseus returns to Ithaca and goes further instead of farther.
But Johnson also returned to Kansas — and to the geographical specifics of the place — later in his career. The poet’s cancer, HIV, and economic marginality compelled him to “go home again” — this time to live with his father in Topeka. The remarkable poem written on the journey eastward in 1993, “Road Side: Desert to Prairie,” returns the poet to the actual Kansas by the side of the road — with all its detritus intact (“a hubcap (Mercury) / cast onto asphalt,” “blue high / heeled shoe”) — not ideal palaces or enchanted wells. When the Johnsons near Ashland, the poet seems to see Kansas as sadder and more physical than it has ever been:
a quivering cottonwood,
the wind unceasing woven
silk frieze of grasses,
meadowlark loft fencepost
the red, red bluffs of home,
white towers based in mirage
flat as infinity,
jet trails X gigantic ghost
— sickle moon in immense blown dome,
to vanishing point. (np)
Indeed, these (left-justified) lines are not out of place next to Johnson’s early work — or Irby’s, for that matter. The road sense of loss and the strangeness of “home” is palpable, and conveyed via particulars of the landscape.
In his last years, in Topeka, Johnson wrote The Shrubberies, the little poems that, in my view, rival anything in ARK for their precision and emotional force. That power comes from the poet’s honest, receptive account of the world around him — not The Garden this time, but a garden — specifically, the botanical garden adjoining the historic Ward-Meade House, where the poet worked in his final years. Kansas history, plants, weather, make their way back into even these short verses:
desk cleared for planting
first coneflowers, a large
pink daisy with a bronze
center in the shape of hive
as well native of Kansas
knives into green air (14)
ferry long gone
Santa Fe Trail
all lost! (38)
One approaches the Ward-Meade House, the grand home built by one of Topeka’s prosperous early settlers, via “Old Prairie Town,” a “town” composed of relocated historic buildings from western Kansas’s cowboy past. They remind me of the young Johnson, asking:
When was it I came to know …
how the stark vertical courthouse
had its relation to people, those builders
of frontier facades
for saloons & of farmhouses
opposition to horizontal prairie? (VGM 65)
If you continue past the historical horizontal facades, past the grand architecture of the palatial house, one arrives in the gardens, where Johnson was a gardener (literally, this time). It is as though the walk from the parking lot to the far end of the park were a physical map of his poetic career. There is even a plaque to Johnson inside this locus amoenus; but standing next to it, one is never unaware of the sounds of Interstate 70 hurrying near, just below.
For both Irby and Johnson, there is a Kansas of the land, and there is a Kansas of the mind — though the ratio of each is quite different for each poet. Irby shares Johnson’s romantic tendency to look, if not see, into the heart of things, but what he finds, in Kansas or anywhere else, is always provisional — as often interrogative as declarative — as though the speaker of the poem — the “poet” — is saying “can it really be thus? — and if so, what is one to make of it?” Reconciling the natural world to the human, and the historical to the autobiographical, is never an easy task for him, whether in Kansas, New Mexico, California, or anywhere else. Johnson’s mind and words, by contrast, can transform anyplace into Oz (or at least Ozymandias). But he has to destroy the actually existing Ashland, Kansas, where he grew up (in ARK 47), in order to save it for his Vision.
This difference might be accounted for by the people/places distinction that Stevens famously delineated. While both poets begin their writing careers by writing about the people and places of Kansas, Johnson’s poetry increasingly becomes an affair of places more than people — places real and (especially) imagined; whereas Irby’s poetry is, first and last, a poetry of relationships: with both land and people — named individuals — friends, especially, whether via direct contact, reading, or both. As the poet writes in his first book, The Roadrunner Poem (1964), “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it” (9). What he remembers of the Lawrence to Albuquerque trip in 1963 “is the farm west of Plains / is the family on it” (10). However, people living into the land involves physical and economic realities:
What is not
is that care
does not make it theirs (10)
Prichett reads Johnson’s turn away from history as marking an embrace of an erotic utopia — of a specifically gay utopia that existed nowhere except, perhaps, the Castro. The facts on the ground in Kansas were never very congenial: of Ashland, the poet said flatly, “It was a horrible place.” Indeed, the contrast between western Kansas and San Francisco for an openly gay man in the 1960s or ’70s must have been as great as that between Dorothy’s Kansas and the Wizard’s Oz.
But the turn toward the local and more immediate in Irby’s more recent career could be seen as an extension of the concerns that led him, in earlier work, towards the vastnessnesses of the American West and Midwest — including those of western Kansas, far distant from his own wooded, humid southeastern Kansas home. In a 1987 interview, Irby says, “I’m interested in micro-relation, that we all must deal with the local. Malin’s proposal that it all has to happen some place, that there has to be a particular place where things are going on — and thus all history really is local” (116). In the poem “[Developments from a dream the night of 2–3 Feb 1971],” the poet/speaker dreams a meeting, during his high school years, with Olson in Fort Scott. The older poet enjoins him:
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
of yourself (606)
In recent years, Irby has recorded pieces of the social life of Lawrence, Kansas, a place he has lived longer than anywhere else. The poems from the 1990s and 2000s often start out in very particular places in Lawrence, rendered mimetically — say, listening to a recording of Coleman Hawkins on a car stereo in the parking lot of Alvin’s liquor store — only to end with:
… the bronze amethyst chrysanthemums
drunk from the color, no matter their antidote
steel topaz the air, to the heart of the blossomings and back out again, carved in the
and slowness more charged than season can unfold (574–75)
Or, someone cutting in line at (the now-defunct) Borders bookstore at the corner of New Hampshire and 7th leads to an outburst of anger, which in turn leads to more (recurrent) memories and self-reflection:
the discipline of care
kept the care of true exchange
light a candle for us all
for the goose boy and the goose yard and the geese gone
and the foxy dog gone
and all gone everywhere
be patient for
as I have not
to care (581)
While these poems begin with a dailiness that reminds one more of late O’Hara than Olson, they end, as Olson’s often do, by asserting the simultaneous presence of the historic and the mythic — or, as Irby intuited early on, “There is nothing, then, that does not / contain the divine” (66). For Johnson, we might say, it is the divine that contains the things. But both poets, finally, like many of their American contemporaries and precursors, accept the simultaneous presence of both. The actual Kansas is the one under our particular feet, in this particular social and economic locale, with all its ugliness intact. And that is the philosopher’s stone, common as any pebble in the street.
3. In an interview twenty years later, Irby confesses that “when I first went to Harvard there was this built-in sense of wanting to outrage people, of pushing, in reaction to that milieu, where one came from. What I didn’t realize was that so many of the people who I was trying to push this on came from the same places. But I never thought of myself as being a ‘Kansas poet.’” “Kenneth Irby: ‘The Breath on the Edge of the Lip’” (interview), in Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, ed. Lee Bartlett (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), 111.
4. All quotations from Kenneth Irby poems and books are taken from The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009). [The page numbers of these quotations are indicated parenthetically in the main body of the text. — Eds.]
10. Johnson’s turn toward concrete poetry in the late ’60s and ’70s can also be read as a further movement away from historical representation. Likewise, Radi Os (Berkeley, CA: Sand Dollar, 1977) is a Romantic millennial rewriting of Paradise Lost in which “Man” is “the chosen” rather than the creature fallen into a time-bound world.
12. This monument of “naïve” architectural art by Ferdinand Cheval (1836–1924), like the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, served Johnson as an inspiration and formal model for the construction of ARK. For images of the Palais, see “The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace.”
14. For more on docupoetry, its nature, potential, and limitations, see my “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2, October 27, 2011.
17. Many thanks to Robert Webb of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for introducing me to this poem and allowing me to read his copy of this rare broadside/chaplet. Ronald Johnson, Road Side: Desert to Prairie, Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, 15 (Ellsworth, ME: Backwoods Broadsides, 1996).
To read Kenneth Irby is to experience the attentive gestures of perceptive life. As he observes (via Sir Thomas Browne): “To live indeed is to be again our selves … Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever.” Carl O. Sauer’s geographic and cultural sense of morphology informs the complex spiritual depth in Irby’s lucid writing. He is preoccupied with lands that have insisted on my attention, too: Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, California; so for me to read his poetry invites a sympathetic and friendly perspective, one constructed adjacently on the plains of the Midwest. A spiritual geography takes shape through the pressures of attention he gives to these regions. A body of love is extended by habits of perception, renewing affection for place through the careful pursuit of a feeling mind.
Irby’s writing, moreover, attempts to conjoin the visible and invisible terrains that confront him. A narrative adheres in the lyric accumulation of his art to reveal the dispersed self in words, something located beyond memory and beyond action. His art contributes a narrative of creative imaginings, advancing what Kenneth Burke once called a qualitative progression of formal appeal. Such arrangements are dispersed through echoes, returns, incongruent ruptures, restatements of key themes, paradoxes, and variances in the incremental movements that give art adherence, its present tense. While Irby’s work has appeared in small editions over several decades, the effect of reading The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962–2006 (2009) is like encountering a major symphonic event (the inspired romanticism of Frederick Delius informs with lush splendor the qualitative movement of the serial sequences here).
Irby upholds Charles Olson’s consideration of geography and North American space; Edward Dorn’s sense of the West as divided topography; Robert Duncan’s attention to spiritual depths and correspondences; Walt Whitman’s body of feeling as sexual gateway; and Nerval’s romanticizing power. While he draws on these figures to enable his art, Irby’s writing is devoted also to a body of feeling that is uniquely his own, one that attempts again and again to register the depth of home or homecoming “across the gap,” between phenomenal experience and the imagined realities superimposed on the sensuous textures of place. Throughout the restless search arranged in the body of his work, there is a primary sense of place as homeward recognition and recall in the variant pulsations of life.
Major themes, literary and geographic resonances, and proprioceptive acknowledgments were discussed in regards to Irby’s work by 1979. That year Robert J. Bertholf’s journal Credences devoted an issue to Irby’s writing. The biographic, textual, and historic particulars of the early poems are addressed with enthusiasm by luminaries of the period like Don Byrd, Thomas Meyer, Jed Rasula, Theodore Enslin, Robert Kelly, and others. For me now, 1979 stands out as a moment of the beginning of closure for the openness and investigations of the 1960s. Within a year Ronald Reagan would begin extending the dollar sign over everything, and a new pacing in poetic temperament in the US would start to take place, shifting emphasis away from the New American writing so firmly articulated with Donald Allen’s seminal anthology. Instead, a preference for the terms of the academy and the creative writing workshop would displace the expansive and speculative approaches seen in Normon O. Brown, Henry Corbin, Sherman Paul, and others who influenced much of the writing of the 1970s.
The forms of serial poetry initiated by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and notably taken up by Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Ted Enslin, Irby, and others, would settle into a literary background largely informed instead by the mashup of linguistic and cultural themes taken up in Language Poetry. 1979 was a gateway year, pivoting between the hippie, open experience of Kerouac’s road and a new institutionalized order of experience. But this, too, is an illusion, as all attempts to measure cultural value ultimately strand the argument in the limited perspective of the critic. Recall, for instance, Robert Duncan’s description of how Pound’s renewal of the image of Persephone was articulated as a cultural figure significant to that particular milieu in the early decades of the last century. Each generation takes from the previous necessary tropes and concerns. If Madam Blavatsky and the Order of the Golden Dawn influenced 1909 London and Paris the way Zizek has been distilled for us today, we begin to see how cultural motives are absorbed, traced, retracked, and finally abandoned for other concerns. Irby’s work straddles literary attention to the cultural geography associated with Black Mountain while also being pressured by the motives of a new era of cultural concern. More importantly, his writing is situated with resolve among the ravines, hillocks, fence posts, and skies of the West. If, as Guy Davenport argues, Pound used the Cantos to build a city “as the one clear conquest of civilization,” and Olson searched for home in the spiritual remains of Gloucester, Irby actualizes the open field, casting a watchful eye on the urban penetration and civil conquests of the rural West. He defines his poetics outside the city walls in fields of wheat and sunflower.
Irby’s writing after 1979 continues to trace the morphology of the continent established in books like Kansas–New Mexico, Relations, To Max Douglas, and Catalpa, but the qualitative progression of form registers new critical perspectives. Ridge to Ridge (Poems 1990–2000) takes place over a decade with the serial formality established in prior work, and attention correlates a body of love to the morphology of a landscape infused with personal narrative. Generally, the longer lines establish a thoughtful inquiry that attempts to narrow the distance between self and reality in a poetic language of homecoming. Surprisingly, however, Ridge to Ridge opens with an untitled section, establishing perspective from an interior hearth rather than the wider vistas suggested by the book’s title:
a life into a few vegetables set in a half-shadowed deep window frame
black dirt gloss across flame orange carrots, ivory sprouted filaments from
upcurved fennel and cardoon stalks
how long to sit there to be seen into the painting
how long the lemon cut before glazed over, and another
but in the words past the breeze through from the bedroom window up the
short hall to the feet, and through again (523)
The opening still life frames the poem, showing perspective of landscape narrowed to the window box garden in an almost ironic relationship to the larger geographic vistas of previous work. But these lines determine Irby’s concern also for the poem, for poetry and physical geography finally intersect in the affectionate correspondence of creative imaginings. In the following serial segment a question brings this firmly to light: “how far away do you have to be to see, to be able finally to hear / the poem / and of nobility in what is lost” (523)? The concerns in Ridge to Ridge largely consider this problem of perspective. Self-imposed distances, spiritual yearning and isolation, and the shamanic barter of social negotiations are all suggested as processes in Irby’s engagement with art. Poetry in this sense becomes a tool to reveal many kinds of perspectives, including visions of the self, the landscape, and the queer morphologies of a sublimated sexual knowledge.
The longing of sensuous desire is perhaps heard in the yearning song of the sailor in the Spanish ballad, “Romance de Conde Amaldos”: “cry out to the sailor who is singing it, ‘o tell it to me, tell it to me, please!’ / but he but only answers, ‘o no, this song I only tell to him who with me goes’ / / yo no digo esta canción / sino a quien conmigo va” (523). Sexuality is expressed as dynamic energy shared by those who are willing to take risks, to “him who with me goes.” The soul, expressed as the tension of singer and auditor in the ballad, activates sexual correspondence with the body, announced as “a gesture” that “is elsewhere than the palace of administration.” In Irby’s art, the power of imagination swells and consumes the nature of the poet, requiring an attention alien to administrative forms. It is a kind of shelter:
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)
The “stroke of the pen” into the “black ground black” suggests an erotic charge of energy required in the kind of active love Irby’s imagination requires. The longing for spiritual companionship finds determining forms in an “ascent by ink.” Sexuality is not confined to genital fucking, but pulses as creative urgency across time and distance. The erotic expression is adhesive, shaped by Olson’s sexually evoked notion of energy in the composition methods of “Projective Verse”: The poem for Olson, as for Irby, must “be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” The sexually descriptive account, with masculine pressure, reconnects Whitman’s amative aims in Leaves of Grass through a more aggressive and comprehensive totality of sexual potential. Male sensual energy, while not overtly presented by Irby, registers in the descriptive urgency of his dynamic and active engagement with the formal “bodies” of his poems.
The final stanza shifts gears dramatically in a qualitative progression, abandoning the long flowing lines of creative search in favor of more compact statements. A turn to memory restores the poet’s equilibrium, grounding Irby’s resources in imagination’s twin. Imagination and memory correspond with perception and history, internalized potentials in the self as they are transacted on the formal features of geographic terrain. Irby writes:
some high new tangerine wax fancy
or pink fluorescent twin of deep lament
of children’s coloring book on through a lifetime yet
bright warm clothes that are a rug to the empyrean
elytron opened through the solid trunk of driven sheet
wrapped close and then passed on
there could not be without that fancy now
that indirection of embellishment
to be most dignity and testament
crows take the crows take the over
to teach us insufficiency
heart-wrap skin to call exultant austerity
and spring open a redbird drop cut
tierce tierce tierce tierce tierce (524)
Here the earlier “nobility in what is lost” (523) is echoed by the “dignity and testament” of ancient knowledge, a corvine pedagogy based in certain Native American traditions where the figure of crow is that of the shape-shifter, keeper of ancient laws and folkways. Crow is believed to be guide to the supernatural, and so Irby’s concern here reveals a geographically focused intent on spiritual pathways through the calling forth of local figures of transformation. The “bright warm clothes” that barter passage to “empyrean” are terrestrially figured in the “elytron,” or shard, the hard insect wing that rhymes with the crow wings and redbird wings of spring. The “bright clothes” recall the “heart-wrap skin,” and so the formal relationships continually establish echoes in morphology of self-transformation. The final line, too, persists in aligning the spiritual with the animal (tierce is the third of seven canonical hours), dallying in the metaphoric calls of birds.
If perspective comes framed by a window in the opening poem sequence, “[vistas, over Lammas]” begins “down in the furrow” (525) — a harvest poem concerned with “measuring, across the gap” (526). Relations of earth and sky, continental migration, gender and family, genital grasping, art and administration (again) provide the primary thematic structure, but the poem’s incidental form largely coheres through metaphoric claims of a vision of late summer. The human body and the landscape are established in an abiding relationship, and in the narrative of the poem a magus figure appears in an active space of “grass walk heart.” An image of a writer appears on “the land behind the ruined barn … scarring the knees and shins, spattering ink on the knuckles, leaving sores on the wrist to time” (525). The poet-magus observes “the field’s body” beside that of
the last Bard, the last mantic poet, possessor of the secret, shared, and
essential history of the whole tradition and its magic
driven to the highest crag above the brilliant torrent of the boundary
time crack raging between the worlds, sunset grandeur of cataclysm
sweeping the cloudscape away behind
at bay defies the invading army come to exterminate all the Makers
into the disappearance
This figure of the Time Visionary (“possessor of the secret”) “defies the invading army” of “the palace of administration” (523), a metonymic value cast largely over systemic forms of thought, economy, and order that contrive for the disappearance of the “essential history” possessed by the “last Bard.” This figure presides later in the poem “by the light of the full moon and the stars of the Big Dipper,” in “the commune of workers in the field of vision, in the field of making” (526). Measurement “across the gap” (against “the torrent of the boundary”) later “opens to the Islands of the Blessed and Beyond the Blessed” (525). Such attention to measurement assures that “it is not lost” in the exterminating forms of administration attempting to arrest the mind of the magus-poet. The bardic claim persists in the visionary corpus of sensual America established by Whitman, but Irby’s sense of authority is presented differently. It’s not the bardic figure who controls “the secret,” but who establishes its relation instead in almost seasonal form as witness to the bodies of the earth. Knowledge of the secret adheres by “the month of the mother” and “the month of the father,” in a “measuring, across the gap” (525). Whitman’s construction of a “bardic ethos” in Leaves of Grass requires the assent of an audience in recognizing the poet as essential holder of wisdom. Irby, however, acknowledges bardic responsibility in the sensuous measurements and observations that are built on perspectives of witness and active creative participation. The dramatic difference in poetic conception ensures Irby’s gifts of coequal engagement with a world determined by his affinities for the open spaces of the West, and it spares him of the Whitmanic role of possessor of visionary power. In other words, Irby values an active participation in the creative topography of his landscape, whereas for Whitman, the power of utterance determines and orders a perverse asymmetry between poetic vision and the experience of reading in submission to the extraordinary and distant bard. Irby humanizes the role of poet while also determining new possibilities of bardic revelation.
The qualitative progression of the poem also disrupts bardic authority, inviting readings that appeal formally through an incongruent extension of terms that organize narrative according to key clusters of imagery. “[H]istory,” “tradition,” and “magic” are modified by “the highest crag,” establishing narrative through contrasts of form and symbolic relations that activate the “sunset grandeur of cataclysm.” Narrative form progresses for Irby through contrasts and sudden enjambed features of a poetic topography that finds its greatest expression in metaphoric statements and revisions. We therefore see the active form here as a series of possible motives or developments that bring satisfaction through the accumulating and shifting features that the poem generates as its own narrative engine.
Since Irby does not overstate the importance of the bardic seer, he’s better able to examine the cyclic wobble of earth’s forces, attending the morphological coherences that inform his work from the beginning. He moves from the cosmological argument of the poem to a sensuous description of a “young man barechested holding the surveyor’s rod” (525). And he goes “beyond the mown enfolded hayfield lined up with the telephone pole” and “disappears behind the lone / monumental sumac.” While the poem sequence opens with anxious quest on behalf of the bardic figure, the landscape and its inhabitants (and its imaginary orderings) are preserved in “body clasping body, across the gap.” These gaps are by nature everywhere in the landscape, but through love bodies reach out to bridge the inevitable distances. At stake there appears to be a resistance to the death of administration, the certainty of colossal separation. But it is also a significant recognition of the body of imagination, the creative “clasping” for the other in all its forms. The humble and humane figure of the bard seeks connection through form; he does not dominate it or the reader, but invites us to perceive according to an advanced stride in the measures of topographic and spiritual “gaps” unforeseen. It is “the heart’s seed” that concerns him, and he presents this seminal figure along, once again, with crows:
what can be known of the heart any more than of the colloquy of the
crows in the field out the window
three in a great triangle, walking
and one flown away, and returned, and their calling
or now in the root crease of the field, where they gather and glean
the heart’s seed
not lost (527)
These talismanic figures of the poem initiate the gathering and gleaning of “the heart’s seed.” They are animistic features that distill the earnest reaching of the bard within the frame of perception that gives form adherence. The poet is shape shifter, coordinated in animistic relations with land and beast. Crows, as birds holding the secrets, correlate with the notion of poet as gatekeeper, or minder of the gaps, initiating possibility through the gestures of affection performed for the apprehension of concerned readers. As the avian familiar of Odin, crows also relate to the poet as seer in Nordic traditions. The significance of these birds for Irby in this poem illustrates the kind of metaphoric threading or comparisons by relation important to his art.
The qualitative appeal of Irby’s serial writing is also in large part due to the sheer delight in language and the variation of rhythms and rhymes (or off-rhymes) he presents in a kind of jazz improv, where mind and ear conjoin into active participation. For instance, this stanza from “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow]” opens a sequence where the imaginative process of memory is disclosed as poetic form in a startling sequence dense yet jubilant in its arcs. The poem begins:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the wet lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
The enveloping darkness prior to one’s being (“the years”) correlates the “new unknown,” breaking out of the “heart wrap skin” (524) that here becomes “old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations of memory.” The sequence, with its abrupt shifts and surprising turns, metaphoric density, and rhythmic aplomb, initiates witness of the self as something that coheres in the forms and images (symbolic forces) that testify through the (often fuzzy) recall of memory. The process activates as “unpredictable calling,” and in the language of the poem, with its symbolic densities and formal progressions, a semblance of what a self might be comes into a new kind of being. The projective elements here certainly recall Olson’s sense of projective verse, where the mind and the body like a jazz musician unite in quick, temperamental pursuits of “the new unknown,” to make it, not, perhaps, known, but activated as spiritual action.
Much of the work in Ridge to Ridge tries to address these dense relations of form through the image of home. The memories worked up into a present tense in the poem activate a sense of home as the accumulation of what is willed into the present through memory. If what we know is wound through a vortex of experience, sensory pulses, applied uses of culture and its forms of language, what coheres as home — as our own? I’m not talking about an ownership as identity — but as spiritual revelation of the common terms of our humanity. Whether it’s Pound’s Wagadu, the Soninke legendary city existing only in the heart, or Olson’s figure of the man with a house on his head, the notion of home retains for Irby a primary feature of identity and process. To see “ridge to ridge” or vista-by-vista is to be constantly active in attention to horizons that come into view and pass away. The past experiences of self arrive and then fade as time frames our passages through diverse situations. For Irby, personal experience is prior to one’s life advancing as creative form, and so home is also homage, an engagement with the distant figures of the imagination that composes the far vista of one’s being. Speaking of Mayan culture and the relationships that adhere across time, Irby recalls observations by Sauer of the centrality of corn, beans, and squash to the ancient diet of the Americas. But this leads him to consider Mayan forms of play, which open up a sense of play in his own “obligation to sustain” as poet-maker:
day care to high school to nursing home, the central corn stalk on the hill
of beans and squash
with its fish and seed, up the spinal column of the hemisphere, the ball
game of the continents
where the directions mesh in play, hole and ear, fiber and hair
become first concert
what play, to be consulted on?
the old grande dame of silk and wool, first dancer once, choreographer of
the lost Pinar once
teacher in the continuance, sun-to-come-up necessary dance with that
same necessary song
a child inherits and knows the obligation to sustain, homage
questions, have you?
between the reflections in the water and the incessant tremor, the short
sharp intake of breath at each intensity
each scarred knuckle smeared the same ecstatic shine (530)
The “dance” and “song” of intercultural, interpersonal progression sustain homage in the “ecstatic shine” of the artist’s visionary intensity. The insistence on vision as the inheritance of lore, dance, and song lets Irby transmit a sense of place as wholly fused with the intent on observation and willful action in the art of attention. The moral obligation of the artist, Irby suggests, is to perform with creative skill and discipline so that a world may be known in the play of its forms. Otherwise, there is no homecoming, no perception of the complex inherence that competes for attention in the process of what we call a world. Without instruments of dance, song, or play, we are limited to imposed claims of what our place in a world can be. Irby continues:
what makes you think you are not in prose because you do not know the
it is not melancholy, it is not sadness, it is not lament, but the shape and
trace of distance
is that release? is that what the concern is about homecoming, about
what home is? itself homage
where some kids have never seen an instrument to play at all, and some
adults never known the means of their production
the black ungained bottom of their unexceptioned conjugal necessity
Home is “homecoming,” a return from “the shape and trace of distance,” one’s own unwinding into the spiritual forms through which life takes shape. An invisible morphology runs parallel to that of the visible geographic and cultural morphologies. While these themes appear in earlier books, the critical gesture of the 1990s is to speak with greater frequency about what is risked in homecoming, and the larger failures of neglecting home as the symbolic frequency of one’s arrival into self-awareness. Such an account of homecoming is shoved by “memory’s emptiness / how space and time bulge with so much wanting of / until it is whatever direction is, direction as, directionless / except not-here, except all-here” (531). He speaks of a “cultivation impossible to cultivate,” acknowledging that “memory’s emptiness” is precursor to other paths, “direction as … directionless,” an “all day nakedness and coming on the edge of to explore … ” (531).
Homecoming as the ritual of youth returning to the alma mater becomes the metonymic value for something much greater in Irby’s work. A hieros gamos, a marriage of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the profane and the sacred, emerge when
out there the first home football game fills the town
in here the same shared inner track is celebration
alchemy is each pulvinus, transmutation of the touch to be like light
a paperclip is the mountain top, and the football game, whistling up
there, but to be water and its transformation out
won in the pines’ sound, lost in the pines’ sound, sound in the knobnut
leapt for and gulped
so for the marriage past, far to the Northland gone
this is the night mail, crossing
the border (533)
Such a marriage for Irby in “September Set” involves “the sphincter of arousal in the brain.” This is “pilgrimage,” from carnal flesh and mind, unified form. Here, “time is the life of the soul as it passes from one state of act and experience to another and is not outside it” (534). States of experience like “solitude and grieving are also instruments of vision.” (537). These states are shared as supernatural urgencies in “the rock ring jell in the eyes of the crow, in the cry of the jay / brought around” (541). The constant chorus of the work is renewed: “come enter again return” (544). While lovely phenomenal details of landscape are activated in the poems, the concern for Irby is with a sense of magical self-transformation — not particularly a willful change in the character of the self, but an inevitable progression of form that is in constant variance, pressure, environmental stress, and formation. In “[étude homage, Religio Medici]” he writes: “How we outlive our notions of ourselves / and never know the others in there all along / give them away, become them / only at a stretch imagine / and the stretch is good” (556). The stretch, the bodily motion, tempers spiritual concern, the inevitable patterns and mysteries of one’s variances.
By “[Ides],” the final poem of Ridge to Ridge, the “transitional affluence of life itself” gives way to grief “and wanting to watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world / to juxtapose to and let the forgetting forget itself for a while” (561). The problem of memory and forgetting, as for Augustine, interferes with a more truthful vision of what remains just beyond perceptive apprehension. The poems in this sequence, unlike others prior to it, begin to acknowledge the invisible, internal landscape that precedes and extends beyond one’s limited abilities to retrieve and process an experience and knowledge. Instead, there is a yearning to “watch something out of the swallowing up part of the made world.” Such Gnostic sensitivity admires bodily form, but also entrusts perspective to a creative, generative potential just beyond reach of that bodily apparatus.
Ultimately it is the essential mysteries and purifications that possess Irby’s imagination. His writing pressures an easy sense of perception in contemporary contexts. He performs ways of knowing and seeing, measuring and valuing. His performances in poetry enact basic conditions in art that reveal, shape, renew, and reorient attention of dynamic objects in equally dynamic spatial fields. The advance Irby makes on the New American poetry is through the humble position of the bardic figure who refuses the role of tribal boss. Exemplification and the ongoing task of poetic labor figure much more predominantly. Irby’s work invites readers to measure their own readings by an effusion of art that makes both music and narrative of shared human experiences. Such an art in narrative can expand the capacities of readers by taking the qualitative progression of formal appeal as the defining feature of serial relationships. In this Irby has always been generous, though in Ridge to Ridge the views are reduced, quieted, eased forth with critical self-awareness. Through a qualitative progression that relies on a renewal of images, phrases, talismanic figures, and scenes of homecoming, Irby establishes a narrative sequence that provides intense pleasure as lyric offerings, but that also confronts readers with an essential story of change, strategies of perception and of being, and, especially, with an appreciation for the renewal of life in the constant flux of landscape. I have been privileged to read Irby for many years, and to speak with him, and to see the Kansas of his imagination. Such geographic necessity informs the heartland of awareness.
1. Syllogistic progression: advancement step by step (example: mystery stories)
2. Qualitative progression: like foreshadowing — advancement of narrative through echoes, returns, approximate relationships based on nonsyllogistic sequences (much poetry, including Irby’s serial forms, progresses in this way)
3. Repetitive form: restatement of the same thing in different ways
4. Conventional form: forms an audience takes for granted (stories with beginnings, middle, ends)
5. Incidental form: metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, etc — any of the small components that sustain a narrative
Additionally, forms can be interrelated or be in conflict. Most of the narratives we encounter are composed of conventional and nonconventional elements; they advance at times through syllogism, at others through amplification of dominant themes; their metaphorical components often produce closure or paradox, challenging our ability to intervene with our own presuppositions of form. I use this sense of qualitative progression as a way to understand serial poetry, and also as a way to address the progression of Irby’s narrative sequences.
2. See Credences 7 (February 1979), ed. Robert J. Bertholf (Kent, OH: Credences Press). Other contributors include: Eric Mottram, George Quasha, Charles Stein, Paul Metcalf, Reginald Gibbons, George Butterick, David Bromige, Paul Kahn, John Moritz, Bob Callahan, Linda Parker, Mark Karlins, Larry Goodell, Roy Gridley, and a bibliographic “checklist” by Robert J. Bertholf.
4. Following Olson and Dorn, Irby continued adjacently to pursue cultural and topographical patterns in the environment in ways Carl O. Sauer describes in his influential essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” which determined not only the disciplinary concerns of cultural geography but also motivated many of the New American poets. In essential ways, it laid the foundation for a midcentury poetics, particularly in the West, which was based on attention to the ecology and environment in a creative and physical sense. See “The Morphology of Landscape,” Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
6. See for instance Jeffrey Walker’s argument about the asymmetrical relationship between the bardic poet and his (largely his) audience in Bardic Ethos and the American Poem: Whitman, Pound, Crane, Williams, Olson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).
The most important books always got to me through the hands of a friend. I don’t know who put Ken Irby’s Catalpa into my grasp but I suspect Benjamin Friedlander. In the 1980s when we both lived in the Bay Area, Ben was generally out ahead in knowing who was writing the poetry we would need to look towards as we fashioned an emerging sense of our own practice. Many poets in my pantheon I owe to him giving me a book. The flat textured blue cover of Catalpa, with only a title and author’s name and a burnt-orange-colored medallion — half of it a flower or a half peyote button or some such design, done in the publisher Lee Chapman’s hand — looked handmade enough to make the book seem a cryptic discovery, but substantive enough to say, here’s a poet who has done some good, Projectivist work.
Catalpa opens with a dense “In Place of a Preface,” mostly quotes and dictionary definitions of land, landscape, plant, and place: four terms that have dawned with huge importance for a number of us who write what we loosely think of as an ecologically informed poetry. Equally salient in this little orienting note was citation of, and a thinking-through of, ideas from ecologist Edgar Anderson, geographer Carl Sauer, and poet Charles Olson. (I knew the work of all three from significant Turtle Island publications brought out by Bob Callahan.) Irby also cites Matsuo Bashō, Osip Mandelstam, and Jorge Luis Borges, so the book promises wide-open poetry culture spaces too.
Catalpa falls into three sections of poems, the first titled “Berkeley.” This section is site-specific to California Alta — the great north coast and rolling hills, the wide Central Valley, all the crackling vegetation of the region — with precise evocations of places that had come to sit deep in my own psyche. Point Reyes, Strawberry Canyon, Marysville, the Sacramento Valley. Recognizing what I now see as a bioregional approach, Ken’s “Berkeley” defines a cultural and natural area that stretches north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and pokes over the crest of the Sierra Nevadas to the east. Historic personages rub against contemporaries in his pages — Sir Francis Drake, scout and mountain man Jedediah Smith, alongside friends named Eileen, Kelly, or Shao. Chinese ideograms occur on a few pages. Modern poets show up, some I knew something about, and some I’d not yet encountered. All this scholarship and care set into vivid street-smart lines:
circles and seeks
in the long map of California
along the Central Valley
keeping the corners out
I think this poem may have been the first time I ever saw a poet use the word watershed. History also came alive, in a way poetry had not done it for me previously. “Point Reyes Poem, 2” opens with Irby scratching a bad case of poison oak on his legs. That act leads back to Francis Drake and his British sailors, who call their California territory New Albion after they’d made landfall on the shores of Point Reyes, “past Limantour spit,” tromping the unfamiliar hillsides. In a distinct Irby gesture, the poem concludes:
what plants did Drake see growing here
that still grow here?
Turns out he and those other rough explorers came away blistering with the tarry plant (Toxicodendron) that every local knows to be careful of:
poison oak certainly
his men must have itched from
infernally, though Albion
we share across 400 years
the haze of fluid, sap
the blisters raised and lymph
on equal, heedless bodies
I’d never encountered something that made the local both comic and sacred like this, that provided my own summertime rashes of poison oak a four-hundred year backdrop. At the time I could most likely only say with awkwardness what I got out of Ken Irby’s lines, or what I hoped to emulate. But in the 1990s I would come across the term bioregion, and after that learn to stand by phrases like eco-zone, watershed, drainage system, plant community, and the like. This is the book, Catalpa — perhaps Lorine Niedecker’s poetry and Joanne Kyger’s were the other models — that showed how poetry can be made from the carefully investigated local.
Sometime in the mid-eighties, not long after receiving Catalpa, I was asked to give a poetry reading with Ken Irby in San Francisco at Canessa Park, a former bank or insurance building down the street from City Lights bookshop and Brandi Ho’s Szechuan restaurant. What an honor. Ken and I struck up a friendship at the event. We began to exchange letters. I treasure the hoard of letters Ken wrote me: dense, tightly packed, rife with information on books, poets, music, botanical detail, Great Plains culture, medieval philosophy. Once when I moved briefly to another house, Ken wrote, “what plants do you see outside your window?”
My copy of Catalpa has a postcard from Ken, which I’ve used for a bookmark since 1988. It shows a Chinese bodhisattva sculpture — a famous one, of painted wood — from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Ken selected the icon to fit with my Sanskrit and Zen studies no doubt. Just to give a flavor of his intense correspondence I’m going to quote from the postcard. About halfway through, after various greetings and personal updates, he writes —
A glorious spring for flowering here, esp. trees, the various prunus, the redbud (Cercis canadensis — flowering Judas) — & now lilac, too, early & profuse (along with Verras of late — O Walt! & Duncan: What if — lilacs last in this dooryard bloomed?) — in (undecipherable) last weekend even my uncle’s tree peony, transplant from Mississippi, was in bloom — o Li Shang-yin! Very glad you’ve been in touch with Gerrit, who speaks well, warmly, of yr rich letters — I trust you will see him when you, he tells me, go to Boston, next month is it? He also spoke of a reading for you via Michael Franco at Tapas, where the Duncan Memorial was held — may all go well! Let me hear what you’ve heard of the SF RD reading — I’ve had no word yet —may all be green & lush & a-flower w/ you all! LOVE
Ken’s fountain pen hand is not too hard at first glance to read. But it turns out that its density and the pronounced flourishes and serifs make a great many words tough to decipher, slowing you down enormously. Typically his full letters would go a couple of tight single-space typewritten pages (in the very small font-size his typewriter had), then as he broke off to sign the letter he would add margin notes, then long looping addenda that wound around the pages; then he’d begin to write where the typewriter left off, and another page or two of his compact handwritten words would come. I used to think it would be a good idea to go through each letter and type out his handwritten material so when I wanted to reread the letters I could go quicker.
Letter writing is now a cryptic, all but vanished art. Ken was one of its great exemplars.
If you look at the above half-a-postcard you’ll see its density. It gives the names of three plants — (“dignify things by giving them their names” Joanne Kyger once told me). Ken dignifies one plant with three names: the popular, the Linnaean, and a vernacular. He also names five poets, two of them friends of ours; mentions a reading series; makes a riff on a Whitman line; and quite genuinely inquires about two memorials recently held for Robert Duncan — (pc. dated 21 April 1988, about three months after the older poet’s death). It all feels utterly human.
My daughter Althea had been born a week after Robert Duncan’s death. I remember when I wrote Ken of her birth and told Ken her name was Althea Rose, he alerted me to the Althea rosea, citing the stunningly complete horticultural dictionary Zukofsky had used for 80 Flowers — a set of books I wish I had the discipline to study. The althea is the common hollyhock, Ken said, with family connections to the mallow, the rose of Sharon, and many other mostly medicinal plants. (One Greek meaning of althea is healer.) Only Ken would have taken occasion to study up these facts and load a letter with his discoveries. Thanks to his efforts this became part of my family mythology.
These types of precise study are what Ken Irby has long represented to me, a comradeship in poetry that is based on passionate friendship, close reading of texts, and direct contact with the orders of nature, with babies, and with Islamic philosophers. The center of his poetry remains for me that first book I was given: Catalpa. What I needed at the time were poems I could check out with my own eyes.
Indian Summer in Berkeley means
the fogs come back in October
At the time I was reading everything I could from the early, indigenous poetry of California, and found in Ken’s book material that might have been reworked from the notebooks of Alfred Kroeber or Jaime de Angulo. Possibly Ken received much of his work in a vision.
My head rolls on the rim of the world
My eyes are not what I see with
In the basket, in the valley
In the creek bed under the water