Although Kenneth Irby, a distinguished innovative poet, has recently become better known, he deserves to be much better known than he presently is. In 2009 he published a massive book of poems, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, which for the first time provided easy access to the full body of his work and ample evidence of how productive he has been over the years. Before this book, I think, few people realized how prolific he has been. Furthermore, in 2010 he won the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America. Among other notable winners have been Lyn Hejinian, Robert Pinsky, Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings — big books and awards help writers get established, especially awards. Awards, beyond giving writers a little money, make them visible. Ken isn’t better known — that is, isn’t better known beyond a relatively small group of fellow avant-gardists and poetry connoisseurs — for a number of reasons. Coming from the American postwar avant-garde tradition, in particular, the New American Poetry, his friends and supporters do not give out the major prizes (which make one major — yes, it’s that simple). Ken has been happy with and loyal to his friends and the little presses that usually publish him, and finally, he has not tried to push himself into the literary big time: he is not a literary operator. But we feel that his work has been kept nearly secret long enough. Clearly, he is entitled to be more celebrated, and moreover, the poetry public would greatly benefit from being exposed to this learned, musical, and compassionate poet.
To gain a general sense of Irby’s poetry, let’s look at the opening paragraph of Lyn Hejinian’s essay “We might say poetry,” included in this feature, about this Irby poem. Hejinian says:
First, it is a landscape poem — or, to put it in more current terms, it is a site-specific work; it bestows specificity on a particular locale, and in so doing it projects forth from its site a multilayered and emotionally-complex geocultural vision. Second, it is notable for its intimacy of address; one feels one is sharing not only a moment but the affective memories, sensations, and feelings that characterize that moment. And third, it radiates love.
In this brief description of one Irby poem, Hejinian captures the general character of his poetry: it is local, it is intimate, and it radiates love. Ben Friedlander in his essay, “The Walk to the Paradise,” a reading of another Irby poem, helps the reader understand the phenomenological nature of Irby’s poetry — it is a poetry of attention where language makes “contact with the real.” In short, Irby writes a homely but luminous ongoing epic of the everyday world of the here and now: of friends, of dreams, of music and reflection.
Since Irby is both an intellectual and personal poet, one preoccupied with many notions as well as the quotidian moment, there are many names the reader needs to know to fully appreciate his work. There is the UC-Berkeley cultural geographer, Carl Sauer, and the University of Kansas Western and Plains historian, James C. Malin — these two scholars undergird much of Irby’s meditations on geography, a main topic of his. Then there is the long list of poets who figure into his life — his life of the mind and of his poetry — both famous and little-known. Some are the New American poets: Charles Olson, a father figure; Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan — all close friends; another close friend, the Gloucester, Massachusetts poet, Gerrit Lansing; and the two Kansas poets: John Moritz, Lawrence poet and small publisher of Irby as well as others, and Ronald Johnson, the Topeka and San Francisco experimental epic poet. To fully enter Irby’s poetic universe we need to become friends with his friends and intellectual heroes.
On Saturday, November 5, 2011, there was a colloquium in Lawrence, Kansas, celebrating Ken Irby’s seventy-fifth birthday and his career. The scholar-poets Lyn Hejinian, Pierre Jorris, Ben Friedlander, Denise Low, and Joe Harrington delivered cogent papers discussing Irby’s work — all have been published here. Moreover, additional essays by Robert Bertholf, Robert Grenier, Dale Smith, Matthew Hofer, Aldon Nielsen, and Andrew Schelling; a chronology, a poem by Nathaniel Tarn, some uncollected Irby poems, a selection of letters between Irby and Ed Dorn, and a cluster of former student musings have been added. The students, Cyrus Console, Kyle Waugh, Peter Longofono, Jeff Bergfalk, and Monica Peck, have been included because teaching is integral to Ken’s mission: his job is not only to help young writers become better writers but also to help them engage in adventures of the mind and the arts. Moreover, from the conference we are also including a sound recording of Low, Hejinian, Joris, Friedlander, and Harrington reading from their work and the culminating event of the day, where Ken reads from his oeuvre. Following classical tradition, at the end of the reading Lyn Hejinian crowned Ken with laurel. She did this as the renowned classicist and translator, Stan Lombardo, recited the last few lines of Horace’s Odes I.30. First in Latin:
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.
and then in English:
Take this just pride
as your honor, Melpomene, and wreathe
my hair with laurel, a Delphic crown.
There are two areas I wish the special feature had covered which it hasn’t: Irby’s journals, the source of his poems, and his involvement with music, a joy in his life and a source of his own poetry. Moreover, even though Denise Low in these pages has initiated the study of Irby’s artwork in her survey of his glyphs and drawings, there needs to be more work done in this area. To not look at his designs and pictures is like discussing the poetry of William Blake or Kenneth Patchen while ignoring their art; that is, you are missing a great deal of the story. I hope these rich topics, in addition to many others, make it into another issue of a journal devoted to the work of Kenneth Irby.
Since Ken Irby should be ranked with such contemporary figures as Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, Lyn Hejinian, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, and Rae Armantrout, I hope this feature will cause a bit of a stir, and help introduce this important poet to a larger audience. This audience needs this gentle but commanding presence.