The following nineteen poems, ordered chronologically, were written between 1959, when Irby was a graduate student in far Eastern studies at Harvard, and 1972, when he was again living in Boston, teaching as an assistant professor at Tufts. Thirteen of these poems are first published in this special feature, while the six remaining are reprinted here for the first time since they initially appeared in literary journals of modest distribution during the 1960s and early 1970s. However, all but three of the poems included in this issue — i.e., “For Gordon Clark”; “Thanksgiving Day, and Lowell’s Birthday”; and “In the Middle of the Road” — appear in their manuscript or typescript form, copies of which Irby enclosed along with letters and other items of correspondence. The recipients of these letters, as well as the publication or relevant archival information about the poems, are listed below. For further pertinent biographical context, see the selection of Irby’s letters to Edward Dorn, included in this feature.
All italics indicate handwritten text, and any text appearing within square brackets has been editorially inserted. With the exception of the four Mandelstam translations, as well as the “Poem for Ronald Johnson,” all of the originals exist as typescripts, and any handwritten revisions (or potential revisions) have been inserted or noted as close as possible to where they originally appear. For the sake of clarity and consistency, the date and location of composition of each of these poems (whether indicated by the original document or not) have been brought flush with the left margin, three lines below the final line of text. In cases where the published version of the poem does not indicate a date and/or location of composition, this information appears in square brackets.
Special thanks to Ben Friedlander, for seeking out drafts of Irby’s early work in Irby’s letters to Charles Olson, as well as to Melissa Watterworth Batt, in the Department of Archival and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, and to Elspeth Healey, in the Department of Special Collections at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Special thanks also to Ken Irby and Jeff Bergfalk, for taking the time to review these transcriptions.
Sources and notes
[“When can I move from this room”]: unpublished, typescript (TS), 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 9 June 1959, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Archives, and Special Collections, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries (hereafter cited as Dodd MS).*
[“The heat of spring has driven me into my hands for coolness”]: unpublished, TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 9 June 1959, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS.*
[“‘Bodhisattva Mahasattva knows in accordance with truth…’”]: unpublished, TS, 2pp; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 9 June 1959, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS.*
“Leaving Cambridge — June 1959: II”: unpublished, TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 9 June 1959, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS.*
“The Oregon Trail”: published as broadside (21.5 x 35.6cm), Lawrence, Kansas: Dialogue Press (1963); TS, 2pp; included in Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 16 January 1963, Box 1, Folder 17 (Irby, Kenneth 1965), Edward Dorn Papers, M1514, Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries (hereafter cited as Stanford MS). In a handwritten note at the end of the poem, Irby writes: “I’d been reading Zukofsky I guess — but the situation was out of Summer ’62 just out of the Army on my way to Portland. She was a crazy woman — we talked for miles & miles —[.]” [The poem is dated one day after the date of the letter with which it is archived; thus, Irby either decided to include a copy of it just before he sent the letter, or it’s been miscataloged at some point.]
“For Thanksgiving 1962”: published in Change  (1963): [13–14]; TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 19 January 1963, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS. Of this poem, Irby remarks in his letter: “I should have a poem in [Ron] Loewinsohn’s CHANGE, first issue, — my first appearance in print!!”
“Exile Scene”: unpublished, TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 8 April 1963, Box 1, Folder 17 (Irby, Kenneth 1965), Edward Dorn Papers, M1514, Stanford MS. In a handwritten note at the end of the poem, Irby writes: “This isn’t too much but for the real intensity of the snowy night it was written. There was another thing I was going to send, but will wait — its so chopped up now. So, good enough for now[.]”
“‘To open Night’s eye that sleeps in what we know by day’ — Robert Duncan”: published in Sum 1 (December 1963): 1–4; TS, 4pp; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 13 September 1963, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS.
“‘There is no coming back from the space / you make’ — Ed Dorn”: unpublished, TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Charles Olson, 13 September 1963, Irby Correspondence Folder (1959–1964), Charles Olson Papers, Dodd MS.
[“Cape hunting dogs”]: published in Wild Dog 8 (May 1964): 14.
“For Gordon Clark”: published in Poetry 105, no. 2 (November 1964): 94–5.
“Poem for Ronald Johnson”: unpublished, MS, 1p; handwritten in Ronald Johnson’s “Autograph Book,” MS 66, Ronald Johnson Papers, Archives and Special Collections, the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.**
“Four Poems of Osip Mandel’stam”: unpublished, TS, 2pp; included in Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 26 December 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Dodd MS.
“for Ed Dorn, in England”: unpublished, TS, 1p; included in Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 26 December 1966, Folder 137, Edward Dorn Papers, Dodd MS.
“Thanksgiving Day, and Lowell’s Birthday”: published in Caterpillar 7 (April 1969): 197–201.
“In the Middle of the Road”: published in Ploughshares 1, no. 3 (December 1972), 86–8.
*With regard to these poems, in a letter to Charles Olson of June 9, 1959, Irby writes:
[…] I enclose a few poems — the best ones I have written so far, all produced in what time was left over from Chinese this spring (I’ve been working on a M.A. degree in East Asian studies at Harvard this past year). I haven’t any illusions about these pieces — they aren’t particularly good, and I know in many cases why. In fact, I know too much about them — and don’t feel enough; too much thought and not enough emotion, action, experience — that’s the whole foundation of the lackings in them; and in me generally! I am interested, intensely, in whatever comments you might make on them; I know whatever you would say would be opinion, but the opinion of an accomplished poet whose work I admire very much. I guess every writer who’s just beginning wants to know this from the older authors who are already established: is what I’ve written worth anything at all? And I’m no different, but: no matter what, I’ll keep on writing, whether it’s good now or not. I can’t even say why, except that I feel constant drive to write, to communicate, I guess, as well as by expressing my feelings on paper to some how make clearer to myself what I am. I have been writing off and on for the last ten of my 22 years and by now I can’t stop. But I am vitally interested in having the opinion of some poet whom I respect on what I’ve written.
As I mentioned above, I’ve spent the last year studying Asian subjects, mainly the Chinese language, at Harvard; and I guess I’ll be back again next year, and so on until I get a doctorate and can teach. But I am not at all certain about this, nor anything else for that matter. This year has been probably the most critical in affecting my attitude and way of thought of any in my rather brief existence. I only mention this because it may help somehow to explain the rank confusion in the poems. They exhibit, I suppose, the influence of the poets I have been reading this spring: yourself, W. C. Williams, Robert Lowell (his newest work), Ginsberg, Corso, Duncan, Rilke, Pasternak, Paz, Vallejo, Wallace Stevens — all in all a pretty mixed up lot. So far all I feel I have been doing is superimposing some preconceived notions and generalities on a set of variegated symbols and images; I haven’t been doing what I want to do, what I feel I should do: draw the ideas and images naturally from what I see, letting the vision, the concrete situation(s) engender, generate from what I already know, have felt, the images and statements. Trilling’s statement on Keats in the introduction to Keats’ selected letters sums up what I desire, even though I have not attained it: “He believed that this answer (to life) was to be derived from intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience. It was not, of course, to be a formula of any kind, not a piece of rationality, but rather a way of being and of acting.” In other words, as Malraux says, a man is the sum of his actions; and simply enough that makes me about nothing so far. But enough of this. I only write to accompany the poem I enclose. If they strike you enough to make some comment on them, one way or the other, I will be pleased and grateful. I hear Grove Press is bringing out a volume of your selected poems in the fall. I look forward to reading it: getting hold of many of your poems has been a problem all year long! I hope this hasn’t bothered you unduly, but I’ve reached the point where I’ve got to show what I’m writing to somebody, somebody who damn well knows what he’s doing. […]
**Note the image in this issue of “Poem for Ronald Johnson” in manuscript form, from one of Ronald Johnson’s “Autograph Books,” which are housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas (see above). The first word of this poem appears in brackets in this transcription because neither the editors nor the author have been able to decipher it. The choice of “Tossed” is based on the notion that Irby playfully substituted a miniscule long “s” [“ſ”] for the modern short character.