Features

Voices on Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

For a poetry that yields such immediate and immense pleasure, the work of Joseph Donahue remains hard to characterize. As the author of seven volumes — including the forthcoming Red Flash on a Black Field and Dark Church, the third installment of his ongoing Terra Lucida serial project — Joseph Donahue has spent almost three decades crafting a sensibility that straddles the often-reductive binaries of literary discourse. As sacred as it is profane, as popular as it is avant-garde, and as funny as it is forlorn, Donahue’s poetry puts forward a voice that resists easy categorization. While there are many aesthetic reasons that make Donahue’s poetry difficult to encapsulate, the most pressing obstruction to characterizing his poetry is the little precedence that exists for such an endeavor. Despite a number of important interviews and a handful of essays, there persists a lack of commentary on this rich and rewarding body of work.

This festschrift for Donahue is long overdue. In it, one will find interpretations of literary works infused with personal feelings of respect and admiration as well as previously unpublished poetry by the writer himself. The entries follow a reverse chronological order, in that the first address his most recent publications, while the last focus on his earliest efforts. If there were one goal for the feature, it would be to make public the conversation already taking place about Donahue’s poetry, and in the process expand the poet’s readership. Such a task is necessary when a writer privileges the disorderly devotion of literary pursuits to the orderly self-promotion of schools and movements. These readers have gathered to give thanks for a poet who listens with intense generosity, a voice that hears voices. 

On Kenneth Irby

Sunflower drawing by Lee Chapman.

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:

              sume superbian
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.

— William J. Harris

Nineteen Poems

Kenneth Irby’s drafts and notebook.

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. — Kyle Waugh


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 [1] (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.