Articles

Kansas and/or Oz

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.”[1]

“Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.”[2]

— Wallace Stevens

 

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Kenneth Irby's homecoming

Kenneth Irby in Gloucester (photo by Gerrit Lansing).

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.

On Kenneth Irby and 'Catalpa'

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.

Sensory type/topographies

Ken Irby's atlas to the world

Poetry icon Kenneth Irby creates texts of sensory topographies — and so he has changed technology of the page. I remember his long-time publisher John Moritz of Tansy Press fussing about Irby’s long lines and the gap-toothed spacings and typography and original illustrations — all the ways Irby pushed the limitations of ink, paper, and bindings. This was decades ago, and I still see John grumbling as he midwived some of the most remarkable writing of our time. Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On (from North Atlantic Press), covers forty-four years, 1962 to 2006.

Irby's very own North Atlantic turbine

Kenneth Irby, Robert Duncah, Anne Waldman, April 1972 (photo by Elsa Dorfman).

It would seem that Kenneth Irby and his work have forever been firmly located — not to say nailed down — in what Robert Duncan called “Irbyland,” i.e. the great American plains or grasslands with Fort Scott and/or Lawrence, Kansas, as bio-hub.