[On Ken Irby]

Kenneth Irby reading in his study.

I have had the peculiar luck of never actually taking a class taught by Ken Irby. In my final semester of undergraduate study, I felt I needed some individual guidance to balance the terrifying prospect of my first graduate-level workshop. I needn’t have worried on that account, but fortune brought us together nevertheless — he as an independent study arbiter, myself as a weekly visitor with maybe an extra page to show for my efforts. That’s how we formally met, but it’s not where I first heard of Irby. That would have been through Cyrus Console and (indirectly) Ben Lerner. These being two fellows whose work I continue to admire immensely, and whose attentions to the man gave me a mental construct before I ever set eyes on him. I vividly remember Cyrus reading a few of his “rainbow acrostics at a hastily arranged reading in one of Solidarity’s bookstores in Lawrence. His work is definitely a poetic landmark for me, so his mention of Ken in passing did not escape my notice. This was reinforced a few months later at an art/music/writing exhibit in Topeka (yes, they have those), at which I happened to browse through a copy of No edited by Ben Lerner. Here was another fresh poetic hero of mine, another Kansan singing his praise and — importantly — dedicating a generous portion of that particular issue to the work itself. I admit that I don’t recall anything else about the night, having read through a good deal of the performance, completely oblivious. I was overwhelmed in a way that reminded me of the first time I tried to listen to Ornette Coleman; this accomplished actual thought on page, disciplined and un-equally there. It was hard for me the way sound and proximity carried the stakes (presumed to carry the stakes, I took it, wrongly). So I had a good deal to think about, and needed to, before walking into his office. It sweated books, migratory piles of them. I always seemed to catch him a bit off guard — but no matter, I would sit and wait for whatever came. Usually music, usually jazz. He helped me come to terms with that, too, come to think of it. And he was just as likely to be playing indigenous Peruvian chants as the Kronos Quartet; he gave all of his attention to the sound, easily swapping genres depending on the mood. There were times we didn’t get down to poetry at all because we just chatted through the allotted time. He had the professorial streak, to be sure. If he wasn’t dredging up an esoteric quote from memory, he would string a thought together from an amalgam of photographs, anecdotes, even knick-knacks he had lying about. Amiri Baraka, Robert Duncan (first I had ever hear of him), and of course Charles Olson. His casual familiarity with the terms of American Poetics — resources, personalities, contingencies, genius — astounded me. I was cowed most of the time, and usually curse my younger self for handing him such indulgent garbage, but then he had such discernment. He never gave me a program and the attentions he paid to my work were of a different lens entirely. The man looked at things better, harder, odder. He could point out the blueprint, giving me the impression that a viable poetic direction might be blueprinting as-is. Here again, the action of thought depicted. Where I wanted to make a metaphysical cardhouse, I learned from Irby to take into account the situational aspects of cardhouse-making. The way to accomplish this came clear with further reading: sound cues, the irresistible conveyance of the turn-of-phrase, or vowel coloration, or what have you. Take this example, from Etudes:

call snown draw              cold moon sawm

comb new leaver lean

so shadows dough

I will always be grateful for his guidance in word-smelting. The whole prospect is thrilling — its inherent draw demonstrated for posterity in Irby’s oeuvre. I would teach it even if this were the only reason.

Into friendship and poetry with Kenneth Irby

I’m on the phone with Ken Irby. He’s watching Cat People on TV. He’s narrating bits of the picture:

A Siamese cat has just come out of a box. It doesn’t like her, you see, because she is a cat person.

I search Cat People on the Internet to get a visual. Buried among the millions of YouTube cute cat videos, Jane Randolph swims alone in a hotel pool. Shadows move in catlike shapes above her. A loud purring is heard. Randolph screams. Help arrives. She discovers her robe has been clawed “to ribbons.” She begins to sense all is not as it seems.

I’ve called Ken, because I have to write this article.

I want to write about you, I say, but it keeps getting personal. I can’t write anything academic here.

How can it not be personal? he says. How can anything you write not be personal? I keep telling my students that, and they don’t hear that very much, it seems.

I want to write about how he read his students’ poetry with genuine respect. He didn’t question our aesthetic or give any credence to our self-doubts. He trusted us. He listened to the work and attended it with generosity. Often, he would just urge us to do more of whatever we were doing: writing, painting, or lucid dreaming.

I want to write about having dinner at Ken’s apartment in a blizzard. It must have been ten years ago. I was visiting family in Kansas and I’d borrowed my mom’s car and spun it out into a snowy ditch on Highway 10, the two-lane highway that connects Lawrence to Kansas City.

The tires were buried in soft snow. It was evening. The sky was darkening. No cell phone. Nothing to do but try to dig out around the tires and shove cardboard under them to give them traction. All I had to dig with was a plastic CD case. So, I’m digging in this dark snowy ditch for twenty minutes and a tow truck comes out of nowhere. This friendly tow-truck driver tows me out for free. He wouldn’t take any money, which was a good thing, because I didn’t have any.

I get to Ken’s apartment, probably two hours late. He was worried. The TV played some PBS dance special with the sound off. The food was kept warm in the oven. I sat on the old brocade settee that was his mother’s. The tree that’s been growing in his living room for decades welcomed me. And, behind it, the paintings by Thorpe. Out the balcony window, snow billowed. He brought me a dry pair of socks and a glass of calvados. We talked for hours about friends and family, poetry, painting, and music.

I left long after midnight. The snow had stopped and the streets were plowed. Standing by my mother’s car for a moment, I looked up at the clear, cold Kansas night sky, expansive and silent. My heart burned with love for life.

I felt deeply reassured, in spite of the desolate drive back to Kansas City in the dark, to the old home place with inquisition pope prints and a life-size crown of thorns by the door, reassured that whatever it is I am doing with my life, it has meaning. Reassurance borne from Ken’s generous hospitality: dear friend and ally.

I remember Ken telling me once, There’s never any harm in knowing what you are doing; the more you know what you are doing, the more you can do whatever it is you intend to do.

I think that advice has stayed with me, because now it’s so helpful. What am I doing? I ask myself this all the time in my work. It helps. I try to ask fearlessly. What am I doing? I ask and then take notes.

Ken loves dreams. I love dreams. We talk about dreams: what they are and where they come from. Once, Ken had a student who was always extremely late to class so that finally Ken asked him why and the student apologized and said, I’m sorry, professor, I want to come to class, but I keep having the most interesting dreams, so that I just can’t wake up.

I learned from Ken that I was my own key. This information actively contradicted much that I was being taught at the time. I was to make my work, through awareness and dream, observation and research, and through paying attention to EVERYTHING.

Ken helped me recognize that desire, actually, was enough of a reason to want to write and that making work was all I needed to do to feel satisfied.


When I was nineteen, I met Ken and wasn’t taking my work seriously at all.

Larry Eigner had died and there was a memorial reading at a bookstore in downtown Lawrence. I’d come across Eigner’s work, because I was an assistant at KU’s archive. I loved his use of the page and that he wrote about squirrels.

Six people showed up to that reading: Ken Irby, Judy Roitmen, John Moritz, Wayne Props, Lee Chapman, and me. I was the audience. So what happened was a conversation that was a crash course in poetics. Moritz read Eigner’s work from Hall’s New American Poetry anthology, Roitman talked about Leslie Scalapino’s Way, and Ken talked about Eigner. I realized that I’d found the conversation I’d been looking for; only, I hadn’t known I was looking. (It was so Dorothy.)


As an adjunct lecturer at KU, Ken was relegated to teaching beginning composition courses. He wasn’t allowed to teach any upper level undergrad courses, graduate seminars, or independent study courses. This was a strange situation for those of us who wanted to study with him. I couldn’t study poetry with Ken without a weird bureaucratic scenario involving a faculty member agreeing to oversee the independent study. It was odd.

Why do you want to study with him, one professor scoffed. His poetry doesn’t make any sense!

(This was before a letter writing campaign and department-wide vote secured Ken a tenure-track position, when he was in his fifties and the author of more than twenty books.)

In spite of the red tape, a tenured faculty member allowed me to take an independent study with Ken. Every Friday we had a four-hour conversation. My brain burns just thinking about it. We read and discussed poets and works that to this day remain tremendously important to me, including Gertrude Stein, H.D., Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan. What was so particularly helpful about those conversations is that they really were conversations. There was no set “objective.” We would talk and, wherever the conversation went, that’s where it went. If something came up, such as “scrying,” we would talk about it without any particular goal. What evolved from that, I think, for me, was an appreciation for the expansiveness of writing. That anything and everything goes into poetry. That poetry is reality. That nothing is excluded from poetry, not even “nothing.”

Readers of Ken’s work will notice this expansiveness. That web of connectivity — what could be called love — remarks on the structure of the universe itself, what also could be called love. If love is the activity of connecting one to an/other, thereby dissolving the subject/object confusion, then the drawing of connections via poetry is also love. And so, I would argue that Ken Irby writes love poetry.


Ken asks about “the West” and I tell him about the Occupy movement, which has been so much in the foreground this past week, what with the cops tearing down the Occupy Oakland tents and destroying encampments. We talk about the subsequent marches that resulted in dozens of arrests, injuries, and the hospitalization of Scott Olsen.

There’s an Occupy Lawrence, he says. They’ve set up tents in South Park. Police brutality is nothing new in Oakland. Rexroth used to say that whenever he went to Oakland, he always felt like he needed to show the police a passport.

Then he launches into a story about when he first moved out to Berkeley and how Robert Duncan loaned him a manuscript of The H.D. Book and Ken somehow ended up reading it in Golden Gate Park. I wonder where he read it? Hippie Hill? Stow Lake? And I think about those days when I was nineteen, sitting in his office for hours talking about Andrew Lang’s scrying or Maria Callas or, just, anything! And, that when I think about what a mentor is “supposed” to do, it’s teaching what it means to live a good life, a life full of love. And, what’s amazing about Ken Irby, is he does just that.

October 2011

October 21, 1964

After all every one is as their                                              1519 48th Ave
land is                                                                                San Francisco 22
— G. Stein[1]                                                         21 Oct 64[2]

Ed —
             Thanks for yr card, esp. a Patchen one (its against the wall now where I can see it).
god knows where one goes finally — only finally goes — & I’m here, the fall mov’t west finally, even to living here (48th Ave), to hell & gone out west almost to the ocean, near nothing of the city, except that sea, & Golden Gate Park, just north of me (but then, those are of the real importance to me, not N. Beach or that area, scene, whatever). From here, where does one go? Having come here, I keep wondering (or at times, not “keep”) where that country, of Kansas most, I came from, is in all this mov’t now. Well, don’t we always. I met Don Allen the other day — he wants to use that photo of Olson I took, for the dust jacket of Human Universe[3] — & he said something abt a lot of people cracking up here — that, literally, it came to seem there was no place to go, once here. Jim Clyman[4] went back east, over the Sierras & then to (Ohio was it?) home, way east, in 1846 — but it isn’t an easy mov’t — I can go north (after all, to come to SF from Albuq isn’t finally a simple westward move — only so far as Los Angeles, & up to LA it’s as if the muscles moved w/o thought, toward the sunset — but from LA to SF, north, takes an effort of the will, a decision of the intellect (?) — & one wonders the why of that move, but not of the one to LA, as a direction), but to go back to the midwest now, no, or not at all easily. Oh well. I begin to feel, for real, at last, as a physical, palpable thing, the motion of the currents of this continent, ours — & do they, circling clockwise, west, to north, to east, to south, to west again, center, go down in a whirlpool, in Kansas finally? or never touch center, go round & round? idle conjectures. But I feel the mov’ts, as if an undertow under me.
                                                                                                                                               The ocean
fascinates & repels me, as it must always to someone from the plains. Calm? one knows across the plains, & cannot come to, w/ the sea, its endless restlessness (not at all the same as grass moving —). But fascinating, yes, & now, for the first time in my life really living near the ocean (in Cambridge it was miles away), worth coming to. It, and these hills of California, that are like no other landscape of the U.S. — bare but for the yellow grass & scattered few trees, rounded & steep. Why do they haunt?

Oh well. Its like coming to know a woman — not just the sleeping together, but the long contact day to day, intimacy, unconscious knowing of all habits, conscious knowing of them … that kind of knowing, not some silly symbol “the land is a woman” etc etc. Only recollections in the flesh, of how it’s lived before.
                                So I come, too, to total despair — & that’s been coming on a long time — the job in Albq held off — & now, free all day & night (as long as my little saved holds out), & knowing no one here but one friend out of the Army, come up straight against it — quiet & dull, the slough of Despair Despond did Bunyan[5] call it?, but mostly dull, inactivity, paralysis. In & out of, mostly lonely one figures. W/ all the work in the world to do, I can’t do anything — the Zukofsky book,[6] book reviews, an article, a prose thing on the Army, poems, wow. Slowly things crack — tonight (viz., this letter as evidence) coming out, maybe drinking quantities of strong black coffee — a cheap high, one I used to use broke in the Army — or the pitch reached re-reading War & Peace, listening to Bach’s B minor Mass & now the St. M. Passion  
                                                                   anyhoo! up & out — (of myself, toward at least the street outside & the beach & most of all G G Park)
                                                                                 So, wow, there are the mov’ts now. Vegetating mostly — soon maybe move to show.
                                                    The prose concern has been w/ me a long time — & now, feeling hung on what I was/wasn’t doing every time I tried to write a poem, its been a way to let loose, not care, do what the hell I like. I started describing coming to Albq in the Army, I went off for 5 pages describing the Army barracks, in detail. No one’s done that — that information, I mean — & the try at least stays with me. Only Jones has written anything abt the Army worth a damn (not war, you dig, but the life, way of it, in the Army). I don’t yet feel where the focus is in what I’m doing — where going? More what seems important to talk abt, include? It isn’t a “story” I’m telling — & yet recounts incidents — a form finally set only by the time involved — I went in 4 Aug 60 & got out 3 Aug 62. Where I move & how, w/in that, is my own predilection. It all happened. I’ve never read more than 10 pages of Proust, so I don’t know what he did. I’m not, whatever it was. Gertrude Stein, by god, seems closer to me than that — Bob’s stories & yr own — in that 1) they deal of the emotional instance(s) personal; 2) let themselves happen as they go, that form. (Again, no plotted “story”). Though if I wrote a novel I wdn’t do it like Bob’s (& I haven’t read more’n’ a chapter of yrs, so can’t say). But what I’m writing isn’t a novel, or not so simply? Damned if I know what it is. But goes. Very baldly (not badly), description mostly. 1st person w/ asides, senses of what happened, & the facts of the instances given pretty much in skeletal outline. Ah, lordy.
                                                                 I even plan to read James, yet, next (starting w/ darkest James, The Golden Bowl). What did you come to, reading him & then teaching that class? I’d like to know — I’ve avoided him except for a few stories, & they a long time ago — but it comes finally that he was American, his concerns & perceptions — & he was no fool, god knows. It’s always seemed to me his focus was totally on what I guess I’d call propriety — & that seemed to me finally only so deep, no matter how adroit you were in according all its angles, shades. I’m ready to. Last night I found EP’s article on James in the Literary Essays & read it w/ a good deal of interest. & I know Stein drew from him a lot. So I’m green, god knows. Wd like to know what you found.
                                                                                                                                             God, there is so much to do, if I only cd get my ass in gear, as they used to say. Energy simply — I want, or have wanted a long time, to do a study of the town I grew up in, as a place to focus on & draw in whatever, historically, 0f that whole area. Not a year by year acc’t, you dig, but a reckoning w/ what that town is, was, why, where, how, its mov’t. Literal reality of it — photographers (as I use in writing of the Army drawings, diagrams, sketches: of barracks, rooms where Inscription Rock is, etc). What wd one have, w/ all that (I mean really I guess, what the hell of me wd emerge — calculated or not, there) —

Malin has already written several articles on early theatrical entertainments in Ft Scott, & on several philosophers — two — who lived there — amateurs, of course, but significant of what was concerning people there, in that place, state, area, at that time (1870’s). Malin being very keen on such sense. Barbed wire, plays, grass, social darwinism, the railroad, why the library seems the center of town. The presence to me, w/ me, of that town is not at all (or that’s another thing altogether) bound up w/ the people, individuals I know, knew, there — but w/ its corporeal presence, as a body. & it isn’t WCW; “a city is a man,”[7] god knows, no. It’s extremely particular, houses, streets, smells, light, weeds, where vacant lots are (were, still are), where streets go when they run out of town, hills — all, on & on. The people change, or don’t — individuals come & go anyway — & a sense of that place, yes, means something as tangible in the town’s whole presence, as buildings. But I don’t feel any Spoon River Anth. or midwest Peyton Place acc’t (or Look Homeward, A.).[8] Me, except as relator, omnipresent then, don’t count. I don’t know that I cd ever summon to that acc’t the objectivity of resources & all history Olson does to Gloucester or anything now he turns to. I mean, a sense of my reactions to, evaluations of, perceptions of the place, wd always be on past specifics of history — always? I mean that the whole idea as it now is, is perception, & the reality of the bldgs, etc, not to illustrate or investigate some mov’t of human history — ?? The emotional, I’m hung on? God knows. It wd have to come out in the work of it, I can’t fore-guess now. God knows I’ve got to come to a pt where Olson doesn’t freeze me up in awe & frustration to ever do anything he hasn’t already seen, understood, & done long before — i.e. feel I’m w/ him, not down below & no where — & not against, who’s competing?
                                 Anyhoo. Enough of all this. How are you all there? Snow yet? All seasons blend here, but still the angle of the light is Fall, clearly. Is Idaho Out out yet? & that Wagnon,[9] in SLC, how’s he? I wrote twice, & asked for WD 10,[10] which I’ve seen, but no answer yet. Clammed up, pissed off, cracked, or busy? What’s become of that anthology on the West — god I cd ask questions all night, & that’s dull. / I liked yr various views from the N. side grocery in MATTER 2[11] (this is 1st I’ve had chance to say), only felt a generalizing in 6 I hadn’t before in others? Or am I full of shit? The lines’ mov’t is fine; very very fine — I admire so much that long sinuously, more adroit here than even The Newly Fallen. Yas. Damn, the moon’s near nigh full & it’s close on to Halloween — I’ll have to go & scare somebody. Barricade myself in w/ enough to drink, against the marauding kids that’ll come. Or turn on & laugh. Anyhow, write, when you can! One longs, almost, for that frost you must have already had up there — breath of it on envelopes, at least. Hang loose!


 — Ken

P.S. Peyote can be had by mail — maybe you already have the info, but if not — 100 buttons for $11 (ask for it cured & they’ll send it so w/o charge)! /

H. C. Lawson
Lawson’s Cactus Farm
1223 S. Alamo St.
San Antonio, Texas

 Abt 5 buttons — ground & put in capsules is easiest — seems a “normal” high.



1. Stein quote from Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945), 250. Stein mentions Kansas on the previous page.

2. Irby to Dorn, 21 October 1964, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

3. Olson, Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Don Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1967). The photograph now appears on the cover of Olson’s Collected Prose, ed. Don Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

4. James Clyman (1792–1881), ranger and explorer of the American West, explored the South Pass with Jedediah Smith, about whom Irby wrote a lengthy half-narrative poem, “Jed Smith and the Way,” which originally appeared in Caterpillar 17 (October 1971): 99–112, and was later collected in Catalpa (Lawrence: Tansy Press, 1977). Clyman went back to Ohio, as Irby recalls, after his missions out West, but thereafter returned to settle in Napa, California.

5. John Bunyan (1828–1888); the “Slough of Despond,” is a bog in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

6. For a period of time, Irby planned to write a book on Zukofsky for the Twayne’s US Authors Series.

7. Williams’s author’s note to Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1946) begins: “Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”

8. Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1915); Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (New York: Julian Messner, 1956); Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel (New York: Scribner, 1929).

9. Drew Wagnon, coeditor of Wild Dog, beginning with vol. 1, no. 3, in 1963, until the magazine’s final issue, vol. 3, no. 21, in 1966. Wagnon was a student of Dorn’s at Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho. For further info, see Clay and Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side.

10. Wild Dog 10; see endnote 11 (“April 30, 1963”).

11. Dorn’s poem “Six views from the same window of the Northside Grocery” appeared in Matter 2 (1964), and was collected in Geography (London: Fulcrum Press, 1965/1968).

January 16, 1963

16 Jan 63[1]

Your unexpected & very welcome letter got to me this morning, forwarded from NY — I want to get some sort of answer off to you right away, but there won’t be as much as I’d like to go into, with final exams breathing down my neck in abt 2 days & more to do than I want to even admit to myself. So, well, anyway — it is good to hear from you — god, I intended more than once during the more than year it’s been since I saw you last, to write — but first the army,[2] which ended up sending me to the Pacific on the atom tests for abt 4 months last spring & summer,[3] then this place have contrived to keep me from doing much of anything but drudgery — I seriously doubt I can hold out here past this year & god knows why I should really, but we’ll see what happens; for whatever, I’m just not an academic type & can’t be even enough to go through the motions here. Anyway, I have thought many times to write you, but like writing to Olson,[4] such a letter is not one I wanted to dash off without thinking a lot first abt what I wd say — the care, at any rate, the concern such a letter would mean — you know what I mean. So anyway, enough of apologies.

I’m glad Jones liked what I sent him — they look less impressive to me the more I reread them, but then, yeah — he asked me to send him some more, which I did — he said he wanted to use them for the April issue, if he can get it out.[5] It was a great thing for me, anyway — I mean, a tangible support at a time when it was needed. & just the week before the New Mex Quarterly took one poem too — so, wow, all at once a breakthrough.[6] I feel, I know there is so much work for me to do just as a beginning really, in order to ever write any even one thing worth a damn, that to stay here much longer seems impossible — all my energy going into learning Japanese & Chinese & the history — when I don’t have the real knack for language nor even the beginnings of the historical insight necessary to produce a great work (& god knows there needs to be one on China, yes). Anyway, though, not to go on abt this. The point is my increasing commitment to writing, that Harvard, nor any such place, can’t foster (or prevent). Clearly. But the commitment is there, for better or worse. I’ve got so fucking much to learn.

So — the Malin[7] books.[8] The name & address you’ve got is the man alright — his books are several, & for the most part only available from him. […] [T]he major book, I guess, the one I find I keep looking over & over again & again is called The Grasslands of North America,[9] which amounts to a commentary on all — scientific & historical — that has been written on the great plains as geographical area — from explorations to ecological treatises. The bibliography alone — abt 60 pages — is a great thing to have. That one is avail. from Malin — I think the cost is abt $4.00 or so. Winter Wheat in Kansas[10] was published by the Univ of Kansas Press, is still I think in print (pretty sure, I only got my copy last year). A book of essays mainly on late 19th cent in the mid-west, Confounded Rot About Napoleon,[11] is from Malin himself again, as well as some other things I figure. His earliest book, the one which made his reputation, so to speak, is titled John Brown & the Spirit of ’56, (? I think that’s it — put out by Am Philosophical Soc, or Am Historical Society, or something of that sort,[12] I don’t have my copy here & I’ve barely looked at the book since I got it in the summer.). So, I guess to write to Malin himself at that address you’ve got would be the best thing, & the Grasslands book esp. as what seems to me his greatest thing, & the most useful for coming to grips with what is there. […] [I]t seems to me he’s one of the few people writing about the land, the country there, the land, god, that you can go to & learn from, tangible things, directly & to the point.
                                                                                                                                                     Libraries might have his things —though the privately printed stuff like the Grasslands bit (new edition last year) might not be in them.  — Will write more about Malin when finals are over & I’m more or less free again, hopefully.

Maybe it’s only my feeling for my own country there, Kansas, but anyway, so it is. Bob[13] should still have somewhere a copy of the Kansas Historical Magazine I left with him, with an article in it by Malin on where the people came from who settled in Kansas, during different decades of the 19th cent.[14] Another point of concern. When you see him in February, you might ask him to try to find it.
        & say hello from me, too; I haven’t heard anything out of him for a while now, figuring he’s busy as hell on the novel[15] & school, etc. So, well.
                                                                                       I got up to see Olson once briefly in September, rode up to Gloucester on a Lambretta w/ a friend of mine[16] & nearly froze my ass off, but the trip was worth it — after finals are over next week I hope to get up again. He spoke abt yr prose in particular when I was up there, with a great deal of praise. Yr things in Kulchur & Yugen[17] lately have been greater to read than anything else prose-wise I’ve come into lately or for a long time — the more here in Boston & out of my natural country did they speak greatly to me. Well hell, I can’t say anything that will say more clearly, this damned Japanese clouds my brain completely. I hope the anthology of contemp. Am. Prose will be out before too long, & can get at more of yr stuff. Any hope for another bk of poems?
& what is the bit you’re doing on the West? I’d like to know more about that too …

So, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll stick in one thing, one of the poems Yugen took.[18] The thought in it is pretty loose & wobbly, too generalized, but that’s what to work out of, to go on away from. & the try, by god, the try I don’t give up on, yet.
Let me hear from you again, wish I could write more now, but no time. My best to Helene & the kids[19] — & wishing to hell I was there in Idaho instead of here in Cambridge next to the Hertz RentaTruck

  Hope the reading in Vancouver[20] goes w/ great things.                                  best, as always
                                                                                                                                                      — Ken

Elie Dorfman[21] also sends her best wishes, etc., when I talked to her briefly tonight. Her cat — named after Corso[22] — I’ve taken in because of her roommate, is crawling all over me as I write this — reason among others for the frequent mistakes & flubs — but a great cat.

 Till later —



1. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 16 January 1963, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

2. See the chronology included in this special issue, as well as Irby’s short account of witnessing the detonation of a nuclear warhead in his poem “For Round Dances,” in The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 50.

3. [Irby’s handwritten note:] got out of the Army in August

4. Charles Olson (1910–1970).

5. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), editor of Yugen from 1958 to 1962 (with Hettie Cohen, coeditor for nos. 6–8); coeditor, with Diane di Prima, of The Floating Bear from 1961 to 1963; founder of Totem Press, active from 1958 through 1962; and coeditor and critic for Kulchur from 1960 to 1965. Dorn’s correspondence with LeRoi Jones is extensive, see: Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: the Collected Letters, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), as well as “Edward Dorn, American Heretic,” Chicago Review 57, nos. 1/2 (Summer/Autumn 2012).

6. Irby’s poem “Madrid, New Mexico” was published in the New Mexico Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Spring 1963): 68–69.

7. [Irby’s handwritten note:] (“Barbed Wire” Malin he’s known as)

8. James C. Malin (1893–1979), historian and author of The Grasslands of North America, among much else, whose writing had a heavy influence on Irby’s poetics and sense of geography. See Irby’s prose pieces on meeting Malin (and Carl Sauer) elsewhere in this special issue.

9. [Irby’s handwritten note]: this must be the one Bob mentioned I’d shown him

10. Malin, Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas: A Study in Adaptation to Sub-humid Geographical Environment (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1944).

11. Malin, Confounded Rot about Napoleon: Reflections upon Science and Technology, Nationalism, World Depression of Eighteen-Nineties, and Afterwards (Lawrence: James C. Malin, 1961).

12. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1942).

13. Robert Creeley (1926–2006).

14. Irby is referring either to Malin’s article “Housing Experiments in the Lawrence Community, 1855,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Summer 1954): 95–121, or “The Turnover of Farm Population in Kansas,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 4, no. 4 (November 1935): 339–372.

15. Creeley, The Island (New York: Scribner, 1963).

16. Robert Grenier (b. 1941). See Robert Grenier’s essay in this feature.

17. See endnote 5, (“January 16, 1963”). Dorn’s seminal essay “What I See in the Maximus Poems” was published in Kulchur 4 (1961), and his “Notes More or Less Relevant to Burroughs and Trocchi,” as well as his review of Michael McClure’s The New Book of Torture, were published in Kulchur 8. Dorn’s prose reflection “Notes About Working and Waiting Around” was published in Yugen 8 (1962).

18. Jones’s involvement with Floating Bear ended before the issue containing Irby’s “Grasslands of North America” would be published; the poem was instead published in Robert Kelly’s magazine, Matter 1 (Jan 1964): 5.

19. Dorn married Helene Buck in Seattle on July 1, 1954. They had a son, Paul (b. 1954), and Buck had two children from a previous marriage — son Fred (b. 1949), and daughter Chansonette (b. 1952). From 1961 to 1965, the family lived in a refurbished chicken coop on Ray Obermayr’s ranch outside of Pocatello, where Dorn taught at Idaho State University. Dorn had met Obermayr in 1950, when he enrolled in the latter’s painting class at Eastern Illinois University. Dorn attended Eastern Illinois for two years before dropping out and, at Obermayr’s suggestion, enrolling in classes (initially as a painter, not a writer) at Black Mountain College in 1954. For further information, see Tom Clark’s Edward Dorn: A World of Difference (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002).

20. Dorn gave a reading at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in February 1963 (recording available online at Pennsound and the Slought Foundation).

21. Elsa Dorfman (b. 1937) — Cambridge-based photographer.

22. Gregory Corso (1930–2001).

April 17, 1966

Kenneth Irby with son, Daniel.

2009 Rose
Berkeley, Calif.
17 Apr 66[1]

ED —

             I asked Mike Brodhead[2] to send on some more of the Red Cloud[3] photos to you but I haven’t heard from him, so don’t know if he has, or has more, or what. Hopefully there are some left he can send. [Brodhead is going to England in June — will you still be there? I’ll give him (or he has already) yr address — he’s a very pleasant man, a student of Malin’s & head of the Kansas Collection in the Univ. of Kansas Library now.] / Are you staying on another year? I’ve heard rumors of? The people at K.U., by the way, are very interested in yr possibly coming there at least as far as I can tell. Creeley will doubtless have more information after his 2 weeks there. /

     Anyway. Here it’s Sunday, grey & cold after almost 80 yesterday. Verdi’s Requiem’s on the radio & I’m reading Paul Metcalf’s new book GENOA,[4] very strange & compelling work “on” Melville & Columbus, as well as the blood & the body — combined w/ “fiction” (how much it’s not clear — the narrator’s brother gets fused eventually w/ Carl Austin Hall, the K.C. kidnapper of 15 years ago [who was of a very old pioneer family from a town abt 30 miles N of where I grew up in Kansas.][5] centering equally on the landscape of the “middle west” — the prairie, let’s say, not the great plains — Indiana to Missouri, long grass & tree-ed. It is all in all a curiously fascinating work. Betimes I read George MacDonald’s[6] fairy stories. /                                                                                                                                                                                           Someone who was through left a copy of yr Geography, so I’ve been reading through that at leisure, too. A store down the street got Bunting’s Loquitur[7] also, but it’s too expensive to get now, short of copping (& it’s pretty big to do that, alas). But I’ve had a chance to look through it, & lord, it’s a beautiful book. /
                                                                                                         Of yr own book, of the poems I hadn’t seen before (which weren’t too  many) at all, it was the “Inauguration Poem #2” that really knocked me out — the dimensions of it. The relation of orders of the continent is set anew. Oh, the zap “We ever held it certain that going toward the sunset we would find what we desired.” — Cabeza de Vaca.[8] /

The good individual salvation is, is that, having come there, all the people are already there for you, you can meet them finally; not that any isolation, even w/ Divinity, occurs. O the federations of divinity. Last Sunday, Easter, I went to Sacramento & marched w/ the grape strikers their last lap from Delano to the capital bldg.[9] Even the cops were sympathetic & pleasant — meanwhile Gov. Brown[10] spent Easter w/ Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs. The coils & all motion of relation w/ anyone, are here, this, now. So that VietNam diminishes all friendship everywhere, but the act where we are w/ those we know is the only construct against it constantly. Where do the poems go, & to what end? If not now. So I applaud Creeley’s decision not to go to Pakistan, & even more his explicitly telling them the govt’s policy in VN made impossible his going as any kind of representative of it. I wd go further & say there is no govt anywhere anyone cd go as a representative of, no matter what current details of policy. What a great man Ammon Hennacy[11] really is, in the face of everything, the beauty of his acts, down the line.

“Let them imagine a life which is the outcome and growth of all lives,
and is mixed. But let them also imagine another life to grow in it from
all the lives, which though it had grown from all the lives, was free from
all the other lives, and yet possessed all the essential properties of those
lives. This other new life (let them imagine) is illuminated w/ the light,
and only in itself, so that it cd behold all the other lives, and they (the
other lives) could not see or apprehend the new life.”

                                                                       Jacob Boehme[12]

                                                                                                                   preface to Six Theosophical Points

 That last sentence I don’t know abt, but I am w/ him otherwise. Duncan more & more seems to me most a genuine anarchist poet. Why does no one note this — all his antecedents he clearly refers to? //

      News: Jonathan Greene[13] tells me Doubleday has taken Kelly’s novel Scorpions.  Kelly will apparently replace X. J. Kennedy at Tufts next year, Kennedy going to UC Irvine (Orange County S. of L.A. — Birch country), where are the Wagnons?[14] Have heard nor hide nor hair since they left a month ago. /
                           Anyhow. Hope Italy is/was what all Englishmen obviously flipped for, after England’s winters — SUN! WARMTH! Keep well, all of you, & write as you can. Hang loose!


                                                                                                                             — Ken 



1. Irby to Dorn, 17 April 1966, box 13, folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

2. Michael Brodhead, historian, archivist, and friend of Irby’s since the late ’50s. See also Irby’s account of meeting Malin in this feature.

3. Red Cloud (Lakota: Makhpiya Luta; 1822–1909), war leader and statesmen of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). Irby supplied Olson with a copy of the Red Cloud photograph, which appears on the translucent flyleaf of Olson’s ‘West’ (London: The Goliard Press, 1966).

4. Paul Metcalf, Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (Highlands: Jargon Society, 1965).

5. Carl Austin Hall (1919–1923) along with Bonnie Brown Heady, kidnapped and murdered six-year-old Bobby Greenlease , in Kansas City, Missouri, in September 1953. Hall and Heady were caught, convicted, and executed in December of that year.

6. George MacDonald (1824–1905), Scottish poet, novelist, and minister.

7. Basil Bunting, Loquitur (London: Fulcrum Press, 1965).

8. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–1557), Spanish explorer of North America and one of four survivors of the Narváez expedition in 1527, who, over the next decade, walked from southeastern Florida to Mexico City. Cabeza de Vaca’s written account of this voyage, titled Relación, was an important text for Olson, Dorn, Irby, and other poets at the time.

9. Delano Grape Strike: a strike and boycott led by the United Farm Workers against the Delano, California, grape growers. On March 17, 1966, Cesar Chavez led a 250-mile march from Delano that reached the state capital at Sacramento on April 10, Easter Sunday, the day Irby joined the march.

10. Pat Brown (1905–1996), Democrat governor of California from 1959 to 1967, lost the 1966 gubernatorial election to Ronald Reagan.

11. Ammon Hennacy (1893–1970), Christian pacificist and anarchist.

12. Jacob Böhme (also, Boehme; 1575–1624), German mystic and theologian.

13. Jonathan Greene, poet, founder of Gnomon Press, book designer. Greene designed Irby’s The Intent On.

14. Drew and Terry Wagnon, coeditors of the last two issues of Wild Dog and friends of Irby’s in San Francisco. See endnote 9 (“October 21, 1964”)