On evaluation, reflection, and revelation

Kenneth Irby writing in his study.

Kenneth Irby has chosen to forge his reputation as a poet rather than an expounder of poetic theory or practice; he is not, in the narrow sense, a poet-critic. He has, however, published some acute and telling evaluative criticism, and those reviews, notes, and introductions frequently do illuminate his own thought. This is because strong evaluative criticism tends to produce insights that are inflected and informed by what a critic already knows, cares about, and shares (or doesn’t) with a subject. The best of it cannot — as certainly Irby’s does not — satisfy itself with descriptions of poems in a poet’s own terms. This, then, suggests that the baseline value of the best evaluative criticism is augmented by the process through which a critic, in the act of reflecting on the text, reveals personal interests, ideas, and ambitions too. To some extent such revelation is an inevitable side effect of producing that sort of textual critique. Across nearly fifty years of Irby’s engagements with some of his most significant contemporaries as well as the younger poets to whom he responds, this effect becomes powerfully present. When repositioned from side to center, it tells us a lot.

Irby knows a lot. Charles Stein, George Quasha, and Robert Kelly have admired his poems for their “vast range of referentiality” as well as their “insidious and pervasive music.”[1] This appetite for knowledge also extends into the informal criticism of everyday life, about which, says Kelly, “It’s very difficult to have a conversation with [Irby] in which he doesn’t know a little bit more than you do, or has a few more bibliographical references you hadn’t considered” (126). In reaction to the difficulty of addressing work of this nature, Kelly fantasizes about the virtues of demonstration by direct example, of wishing to “read into the record page after page of Irby’s work, excerpted, repeated, accepted, the work that instructs and nourishes me. Deictic, in my paradise visions, replaces critique” (ibid.). This may help explain why poets promote and circulate Irby’s work more than critics or teachers do. Although he is not well served by anthologists, he is, and has been, a poet’s poet.

Irby is a poet of knowledge, but his masterful work with the long line rarely resembles explicitly pedagogical forms. If there is little overt resemblance here to either Ezra Pound’s ideogrammic approach or Charles Olson’s field poetics, Irby’s poems, like theirs, are replete with data. Yet in the absence of expository demonstration pieces, his position on the art of poetry is organized and clarified in response to the writing that most matters to him, and intensifications of repetition across those responses further indicate where special influence or insight lies. This is often made straightforwardly evident, set off by such phrases as “what works for me as a means whereby I may work as well” (of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom; see no. 6, below) or “for my own senses and uses of the work” (of Robert Duncan’s Ground Work; see no. 14, below). When reviews, notes, or introductions permit elaboration and become critically substantive, they can form, in Irby’s terms, both records of “kinship” and repositories of concepts (e.g., “space,” “place,” “home,” “tradition,” “flow,” etc.).

By his own account Irby began writing major literary reviews almost by accident.[2] The conditions were as he says “fortuitous” (V: 54). At Robert Creeley’s instigation, the young poet wrote to Kelly, whom he then met after a reading, after which he also met Stan Brakhage, Paul Blackburn, and Lita Hornick. At the party that followed the reading Blackburn and Hornick, who had officially taken over as editor of the journal Kulchur, were discussing who could review David Ossman’s The Sullen Art, a collection of interviews that included conversations with several of the poets who would otherwise have been perhaps ideally suited to review the volume. Suddenly Blackburn, as Irby recalls, “turned and said well you’d review it. You were talking about you had read it — why don’t you review it” (54–55). So, Irby reviewed it, and eight more, too.

Thinking back on his work as a reviewer, Irby posits that the “critical enterprise” of evaluation can have a deep connection to the discoveries that advance the new writing a poet is doing at the time. He says, for himself, “that’s what a review is for,” and goes on to discuss how “sometimes I pushed it a little hard to try to say in some obviously literal fashion exactly, literally physically, where I was at the time I was writing the review” (V: 55). This reflective process, which is often unambiguously cast as a real poet writing at a particular time from a particular place, characterizes many of the remarkable reviews that he published in the pages of Kulchur, Poetry, Caterpillar (although these are mostly too brief to be useful in this regard), Parnassus, Conjunctions, and Sulfur. It is further extended in his notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward and, for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley, his own Kansas–New Mexico (published in Credences 5/6 and 7, respectively). This work began in the early 1960s and continued, albeit at a diminishing pace, into the mid-1990s. To Barry Alpert’s observant question, “What prompted you to write reviews? You write more than a number of your contemporaries,” Irby responded, with characteristic directness and humility, “People ask me, mainly” (54).

Reviews can be tricky to write and just as tricky to contract. Too often, affiliations result in puff pieces, antipathies in scorched earth. Irby’s reviews avoid these extremes. So do his introductions to Denis Mahoney’s Black Pig (1994) and Patrick Doud’s The Man in Green (1996). In the process of elucidating Mahoney’s and Doud’s work a cloud of telling references starts to coalesce. Below I reproduce select passages from each of these introductions, but the roster warrants being listed entirely, since — as Irby reflects in his extensive “notes” on Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward — “[t]he point in mentioning other writers is not ‘influences’ but kinships, sources, like spirits, shared gnosis, what keeps the Tradition Active” (see no. 10, below). The tradition being articulated in these instances includes: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Butts, Garth Fowden, Gerschom Scholem, Andrei Tarkovsky, “the American spine line of Whitman, Williams, Pound, Hart Crane, Olson, Duncan (and McClure),” Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Kelly for Mahoney; Northrop Frye, Michel de Certeau, Harold Bloom, the Pogues, Carl Carmer, Federico Garcia Lorca, Giorgio Morandi, and Duncan McNaughton for Doud; José Lezama Lima, William Butler Yeats, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Gerrit Lansing, and Walt Whitman for both. These, presumably, are among the figures whose work Irby keeps within reach, rarely making it back to the shelves — at least not for very long. In “Unpacking My Library” Walter Benjamin recalls with pleasure Anatole France’s riposte to “a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And have you read all these books, Mr. France?’ ‘Not one tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”[3] What matters in confronting Irby’s library from afar is less the fine china than the everyday dishware, so to speak — the texts Irby thinks with. This is, of course, a serious matter for critics, and not a trivial one for general readers.

Although eclecticism may well be part of the point of Irby’s lists, they are, I find, a good deal less eclectic than they initially appear to be. The figures and texts Irby references, while aptly chosen for the volumes they introduce, are associative rather than integral. That is to say, while they surely do matter for Mahoney and Doud, and serve to facilitate an understanding of and appreciation for their poems, they also hold recognizable significance for Irby as well. Indisputably incomplete, such a catalog of thinkers and artists nevertheless recommends itself as a partial yet coherent intellectual and aesthetic genealogy in much the same manner as Irby’s “In Place of a Preface” — a collection of thirteen epigraphs supplemented only by dictionary definitions of keywords — which replaced an expected but never delivered introduction for his own Catalpa (1977). To provide context for his own poems Irby cites incisive but thematically ranging passages by Edgar Anderson, Charles Olson, Carl Sauer (twice), H. A. Gleason and Arthur Cronquist, Alexander von Humboldt, Oakes Ames, James C. Malin, Karol Syzmanowski, Arthur Darby Nock, Osip Mandelstam, Bashō, and his brother James E. Irby, from an introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’s Otras inquisiciones. (The translations of Syzmanowski, Mandelstam, and Bashō, by the way, are each Irby’s.) These lists, taken together, offer the impression of looking at a private library and knowing precisely which books are being most frequently consulted, remembered, and synthesized. Like the man said, “There digge!”

In the pages that follow I pursue Kelly’s so-called paradise visions and indulge in the deictic, making direct reference from Irby’s body of evaluative criticism. The opportunity to present a cento of the most useful quotations (that is, “useful” for future work, whether scholarly or pedagogical) from these reviews, notes, and introductions is a clear advantage of an online venue. The goal of providing this frame is to provoke new engagements with Irby’s poems for critics, teachers, and readers. I had originally thought to gloss each passage, but that practice finally seems to me to risk circumscribing interpretation, which in turn limits use. A bare cento not only stands on its own, but stands to reason, for context, for illumination. Here it is.

A Kenneth Irby cento

NB: In the passages below I have (silently) corrected all obvious typographic or printers’ errors and also proposed emendations of likely errors within square brackets. Ellipses mark the absence of any excerpted material.

1) From “The Unacknowledged Legislators,” review of The Sullen Art by David Ossman, Kulchur 11 (Autumn 1963).

“The choice of title for these interviews is, I think, unfortunate, whatever Mr. Ossman’s justifications. For one thing, two interviews — which, sight unseen, would promise to be more than just interesting — have been omitted as a result of differences over the title: those of Robert Duncan and Cid Corman. […] But furthermore, even accepting Mr. Ossman’s etymological rationalization — ‘“sullen” comes from Latin solus — alone. These poets, and all poets, despite their contacts with the world, are ultimately alone. One creates, after all, by one’s self’ — it is difficult to see in what way poetry is any more a ‘sullen’ art than is painting or, goodness knows, music, or for that matter any other human activity that requires, finally, the individual to exercise his own talents and vision as he alone sees them — and that could involve business as well as art. That the poet — as almost every one of the present interviews would show — is particularly more, much more directly connected in his act of creation with the world of other people and things around him, is undeniably the case.”

“… it is good that the concern should be directed [by Kelly] now to things, to the poet’s vision, after so much time has been spent in recent years on technique. It is too easy simply to say, easily as it comes out, and often, that one writes of what is around one, people or things — which amounts to a truism. Where is the poet? What is he saying? Where does that statement lead us?”

“… it seems to me that Ginsberg’s urge ‘Why not be enthusiastic? Why not be unspeakably enthusiastic?’ and his call, ‘Right — here — now — in action! So I call for a union of consciousness, and I prophesy a new Messiah!’ are much more needed cues than all the cautious circumspection of ‘No one is interested in the ‘I’ of the poem, unless that ‘I’ is projected through a mask.’ The problem is just as importantly where is the poet, what is happening to all of us as living beings — and if you’re a poet, the more, what do you do with your poetry?”

“I don’t think I have elsewhere ever read a more direct and lucid account [than Dorn’s] of what the political concern is for a poet today, who is not simply a propagandist or overt spokesman for some cause. […] ‘I think we have to face, finally, that there has to be some hope for something actionable to come out of all this.’ And the area of politics, not of specific issues but of the ‘fantasy of politics’ as Dorn puts it, is of importance, not only simply as the subject, the concern, because we are in it, but because it is finally ‘valuable in terms of the writing and getting poetry further on a footing of meaning for a large mass of people. And I like that.’ For too long has that kind of concern been missing from poetics discussions among intelligent men.”

2) From review of Ed Sanders, “Poem from Jail,” Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964).

“I very much like the vitality of the poem, but I think that is finally irrelevant to speak of — we do not read poems for their ‘vitality’: a quantity hanging large and palpable in the air all by itself. As, finally, I come to the conclusion that we do not read PFJ for any information on or commentary about, the bomb, or the effects of the bomb, or banning the bomb. It is a personal fantasy which starts from that very general and by now vague theme, of banning, of ramming it back down the throats or up the asses of whoever purveys it. It is not a sentiment I disagree with at all, but alone it tells me very little, and the poem does not enlarge upon it expect in the spread of personal symbols of the writer. I mean, I have heard goddamn enough of the very trite phrases of

let us blame
the cowardly,

& those in charge
of money,
the economists

& the profiteers
& the hidden
men in the


because by now I want to know who they are, specifically, and what blame, specifically, and what — if you’re offering anything — to do against them. I mean, specifics, all along the way.”

“… perhaps what I feel is simply that the author doesn’t ever seem willing to take responsibility for, or be committed to everything that he says, all the effects of the poem which he produces. I feel it simply from the poem itself, since I have no other source or knowledge — and it is all I can rightly work from.”

“It is almost dark now, and the mountain to the east sits up with all the light that is left, gathered to it. The cottonwoods in the front yard are almost bare. A friend writes that his wife is pregnant, their first child. A week ago Kennedy was assassinated. A few days before that I was 27. A terrible age that comes to seem, so little done. And where we are taken, what news takes us way past where we thought to be or could help, more and more brings all the necessity of action and value to ourselves: but using that is not inward and downward into that darkness, but admitting and using that, out, toward those mountains there, that light, that land, these springing cottonwoods, the people there that we can talk to, the love.”

3) from review of R. Buckminster Fuller, Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964). 

“Fuller is right, for himself, in concluding on p. 177 that industrialization (which he always capitalizes) is a religion: or more accurately, that, for himself, it has that primal, all-answering set of values: and he need look no further for same.

That I do not assume. I do not believe that, with the building of more toilets, and better, automobiles, highways, supermarkets, aerosol bombs, and electric fans, we are engaged in that work and moving steadily in that direction, which is the summation of man as an entity on this earth. Which is not to say I deny all such products’ existence, a foolish thing to try, nor willy-nilly condemn them — but that the questions of who and what and where we are, are constant, never to be avoided, and so damned easy to avoid or never even raise, behind the welter and proliferation of our great industrialization.”

“Mr. Fuller is a very famous and respected man, and I have no desire here to impugn his integrity or sincerity, nor question his many accomplishments. Simply that my reading of his book gives me a set of values, or rather a lack of them, that seems to have brought us to a greater and greater problem, not solved it. It seems of no particular value to go into the form of the book, whether it is ‘poetry’ or not, as I first intended: the residue of his ‘statement’ chokes that off in me and makes it seem completely irrelevant.”

4) from review of Her Body Against Time by Robert Kelly, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964).

“In conversation with Eckermann on January 29, 1826, Göethe said of the poet:

as long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new … [ellipses in original]

It is that movement into the world that is so strong a breath out of this book that I don’t know finally how to separate the poems and the earth they mingle part of.”

“Almost more than any book of poems I know, this is a whole, the poems are movements that only flow together: the book must be read and gone into, not a poem here, there. It is as if Kelly knew he could not force the flow of his perceptions each time into one poem, but let them come and go as they would, flow to the top, bubble, subside, so that by the end of the book they are all there, the facets in all their accurate multiplicity but no single poem begins even to give them all.”

“‘Beauty,’ wrote Christopher Caudwell, ‘is the knowledge of oneself as a part of other selves in a real world, and reflects the growth in richness and complexity of their relations.’”

5) from review of The World of the Lie by Ron Loewinsohn, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964).

“I don’t come to the title of this present book, The World of the Lie, easily, simply I guess because I don’t think the plurality of worlds, the each one of each of us, is a lie, or more to the point, the lie. Or that, perceiving that what may motivate the person across from us is not our own, there is any lack, lie, or despair. Conrad said, ‘We live, as we dream — alone.’ Which is not finally a closure on breaking down those obstacles to the other ‘worlds’ across from us. They are there; they can be bridged. […] The ‘worlds’ can be linked and maybe there is where the ‘lie’ really is? Yes! I suddenly can see that: that the lie is to say we cannot cross the street sometime and see each other. Come into the real world, says Olson; there we are real men.”

“My own inclination in the world is away from static, one-at-a-time, presentations or inclusions — so I wish that Loewinsohn might give us the flow of his days, his world or worlds, where all the objects that impinge might be given together, with as much intelligence and self-awareness as the individual movements are here given. And not that he has[n’t] given the flow at all — but that more, more often, I, in my own movement on my way, would wish that he would, I guess I mean, challenge even the basis of each one of those perceptions and record all the doubts and uncertainties: where is he taken, where are we taken with him?”

“It is easy — more or less wandering, as above, in parallels or discontinuities of terms, personal predilections and impositions, whatever — to forget where the tremendous focus of this book lies: in its dogged specificity, that it will never be vague, that is will never try to trick us, make us dupes to a wily or deceitful confidence. I don’t know how I could forget that even for a minute in writing here, when so much shit, straight from what Burroughs calls the ‘greased and nameless asshole,’ is given us, every look we take around us, as great shit. That’s the lie, the world of the lie, for real. In this now, this minute, when most of us don’t even know where we live, the coördinates of directness and perception of our surroundings are almost as important a thing as we can have.”

6) from review of Bottom: On Shakespeare by Louis Zukofsky,
Kulchur 16 (Winter 1964–65).

“What we are given here, what works for me as a means whereby I may work as well, is a delineation of a whole of western thought, wherever articulated, to make clear, to work with what is tangible, seen, what we are, are in, where find ourselves — certainties? That may be touched (however so — ears see, eyes hear, hearts touch, as Bottom says): as against a growing sense in our own time (comes home to me most clearly in the work of physics of nuclear weapons I have just quit) of the impinging of forces no amount of love or reason or right sight, sight at all, may bring out for us to see or sense here, to us (what Christopher Caudwell saw 25 years ago in his Crisis of Physics comes back to me finally, drawn from these sources, as part of an entire tradition). That fundamental: where the sight may work.”

“The movement of the thought within each part and section, letter and subject, I find as that of the parts of ‘A’: a flow, no static pulses. Those who have read ‘A’-12 will know that, as the literal life and thought of the man who wrote it, there is no place to stop (not even at the ‘end’).”

“BOTTOM is one of the major poetic works of our time — no less so than the same author’s ‘A’ — and equally as ‘A’-17, is not a mere assemblage of quotations and commentaries, but is a created whole — and of it, its whole articulation must be dealt with.”

7) from review of The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones, Kulchur 17 (Spring 1965).

“These poems are as direct an example as I know of what Olson’s injunction (out of Dahlberg) — ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION — means in practice; in one practice, at any rate. And it is that honoring of all directions, and that extreme care and sharpness of perception, registration, that most draw me back and again, even though I have to struggle often to go into the thickets there, do not always easily create my own one-to-one terms out of, do not always ‘understand’ (or stand-under, as Zukofsky has said); which problems are particulars of particular moments, never any sense of distrust of what, in whole, is being given me: there is such honesty in that, what is given, that I could never distrust.”

“The two long poems, ‘A Poem for Willie Best’ and ‘Crow Jane,’ are major American poetry, major I underline: major poetry anywhere. As sequences, as forms of the sequence, they concern me more right now than anyone since Olson, Duncan, or Parker Tyler. As commentaries on, emergencies from, the specific social rots of racism and special starvations our beautiful land and 1964 give us, I think one is a simple loser to ignore them or the energies in them. A lot more has to be said about either of those observations. Which becomes the process by which we and Jones go on: that is, there is a great deal here, in these poems, I do not agree with, do not like, don’t go along with at all, as why shouldn’t there be; but the basis — the intelligence, directness, at times great clarity — upon which all concerns are here presented, worked out, the permissiveness of that to disagreement, is what most matters, is what most matters to me, now, this December of 1964 and literally a continent away from Jones and his New York.”

8) from review of Ace of Pentacles by John Wieners, Kulchur 19 (Autumn 1965).

“William Carlos Williams said, writing in 1957 of Louis Zukofsky, ‘The music of poets varies with the sensitivity of their ears.’ Wieners’ ears must be very sensitive, very beautifully and acutely sensitive indeed. Of these 52 poems, I would say a third are great lyric poems. Elegiac. Pointed to a survival that is not merely surviving, but prevailing. ‘The poet strives to know the terms of his defeat, not to escape them or be cured of them,’ Duncan has said. In the face of the ripping apart of a person these poems give evidence of, there are the poems, more in their fact of testimony, even than they seem. The hold on reality, the objects [that] surround us, is so direct that even the terms of uncertainty, of anguish, are made certain: from which to transcend.”

“I would say the 7 parts of ‘A Series’ demand the attention of any poet working today: that the experience given has been made indelible; that the music is of a grace few ever reach; that the care with rimes — not just of sounds — is scrupulous.”

9) from “The World Dances between Our Eyes” [review essay on six contemporary poets], Poetry 105 (March 1965).

“It is mid-November; here in San Francisco it becomes the time of year the earth is most close, green finally with the beginning of the winter rain, and at this point, clear days: that the look[s] go directly, out toward, hopefully into, with, the objects of the earth. The clear view, as I turn off Bush Street, toward the Presidio, in any direction across the Bay. Until there is no place, no thing at all in out sight we do not close with, we do not want to see or have, in us. A man cannot help working from a sense of that — turning to or away from it, refreshed from, or blunting, imposing upon: the objects of the world, the world, the earth itself. And the form of that work becomes finally as Robert Duncan has said in his book on H.D.: it is the form of the poet’s experience itself that we find in the form of his work; the world made in the poem is created to make room for the poet.”

10) from review of Places to Go by Joanne Kyger, Caterpillar 15/16 (April/June 1971).

“If it were certain the edge of relation would be as dull as Clarence King said California’s weather was. But there is a lot to be said for small, infrequent doses, to keep irritability in sight. The dialectic of boredom and nervous excitement is pitched most finely in the kitchen, as a place to go, preparatory to starting out for those higher and wider regions. …”

11) from “Some Notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward,” Credences 5/6 (March 1978).

“The point in mentioning other writers is not ‘influences’ but kinships, sources, like spirits, shared gnosis, what keeps the Tradition Active. The more obvious connections among recent Western poets would include the Vaughans, Blake, Novalis, Hölderlin, Nerval, Whitman, Hopkins, Yeats, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Crane, Olson, Duncan, Spicer, Kelly a scattered, insufficient, mere beginning of a list.”

“One might more valuably speak of a tradition of what could be called American pastoral elegiac, ‘All is of Holy Garden and Wild, the Walk,’ not ever restricted to the rural, but ‘the blest vacant mind,’ ‘coursing black savannahs, cruising broken cities’ … to trace a line that might include, among so many others, Freneau, Bryant, Emerson, Thoreau, Whittier, Whitman, Melville, Tuckerman, Timrod, Stickney, Vaughn Moody, Robinson, Hartley, Phelps Putnam.”

“Nor should it be neglected to speak of a line, indeed a tradition, of great gay Boston poets: Wheelwright, Blake, Jonas, Wieners (and Blaser and Spicer for a while), in this connection. Or like close connection with a younger generation of poets of the farout, occult, ecstatic, revelatory, new life in everyday: Stein, Bialy, Grossinger, Quasha, Meyer. Again, short lists and insufficient, but to lead on.”

“A number of ‘key words’ recur throughout the book, valuable to trace as threads in the fabric. As, among others: lion, apple, rock, gate, cat — and all the various verbs (shoot, burst, explode, etc.) of the constant urge to full act, live it up — not profligacy (necessarily) but whole intensity: is the necessary drill — ‘Express the grape / the angel said’ — ‘don’t languish in the clover / but make song’.”

12) from “A Note on Kansas–New Mexico for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley,” Credences 7 (February 1979).

“The poem is concerned primarily with movement, travel from place to place — the trip itself, from Fort Scott to Albuquerque in August 1963, being the take-off point — as anyone brought up on the plains must be concerned — and with settling, finding home (‘the home of my mind’ Ed Dorn put it) (as I feel now that the town I grew up in demanded, as part of its whole nature, legacy, satisfaction at all, that one leave it in order to ever come to know it, have it, live with it) (oneself).”

“I was very much aware of the breaking of the poem into parts, however, for the pauses and the spaces between sections are as important as the sections of the poem themselves, for what emerges. But mostly, I was simply working by feel into my leaving Kansas, my moving to Albuquerque, my loneliness, lack of sense of connection to that new place as a settled ‘home,’ my mother’s sickness, my honor and relish of what possible life might be on the land — going wherever I was taken, to find out what I really felt, was up to. As Duncan says in his Voice of America talk, ‘We do not understand all that we render up to understanding.’ That seems crucial to me, here or anywhere.”

“And I did try to sing, even though my singing voice often is but a slightly heightened version of my speaking one, and with attendant breaks and cracks. And like almost everything I’ve ever written, the poem is about the land, the plains, ‘this vast shaggy continent of ours’: the very marrow and resonance of me.”

“Also, consider the senses of time in this poem: (1) how long it takes to read the whole thing, and any given section; (2) how much time elapses in the motion of any section (or is it ‘timeless’?); (3) the time span covered by the whole poem — except for the 1953 reference, it’s either August or November 63 (actually closer to 4 than the 3 months the poem calls it, but no matter there).”

“One can wander here as in a woods or thicket. Not so grand a forest as Olson or Duncan, nor so finely garned [sic] a one as Creeley, but a forest nonetheless. A lot could be said also about the grammatical or syntactical ambiguities herein (terms courtesy of Larry Goodell, not Empson)?”

13) from “‘america’s largest openair museum,’” review of Elite/Elate Poems and Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, Parnassus 8 (Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1980).

“Boris Pasternak used to insist that life in order to be life continually has to exceed itself. It would seem that we in Spectator America have come to expect, demand even, that a poet in order to be a poet always has to do something else.”

“… each section is provided with prefacing and/or concluding commentaries and/or notes, making an immediately engaging and variously revealing tapestry of setting: place, circumstance, history, method, identification, theoretical rationale, companions of the spirit. It must be said that Williams’ talents are displayed as amply in these settings, and in the titles of the poems, as in any other aspect of his art. In fact, he has an absolute, unexcelled genius for titles (which I, for one, envy unreservedly).”

“Many people have objected that poems in order to be true poems have to be ‘in one’s own words’ (own by intensity, presumably — one does wonder how any word can be actually owned). Williams, while certainly continuing to say things himself, affirms a tradition of finding one’s voice ‘outside,’ in which the emphasis is on operations of precise attention, selection, and placement, rather than ‘inspiration’ or vatic seizure. (Williams has often said that he makes poems out rather than up — thus providing a perfect reply to the question: ‘is that a real poem or did you make that up?’)”

“For the existence and development of such an art as his, the creative role of the reader is crucial. … But even more important is the creation of the context in which it is claimed: this is a poem — the surround that very exactly determines how the precise selection is to be viewed.”

“Williams’ is a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses, intention in abeyance except to be ‘scrupulous to the momentary actual,’ in Kelly’s words; and of the exact sudden light flash of wit, image, world-play, revelation — not a meditative poetry, concerned with turning thoughts over and over. It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, ‘a bathing in the visible world’ — and of Ravel’s sites auriculaires.”

14) from review of Ground Work: Before the War by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 7 (1985).

“There is no better way to gain a momentum into the book at hand, particularly if the opening pages are found daunting, than to (re)read all of its predecessor. But Duncan has set the notes he has at the beginning of Ground Work as its immediate true introduction because in fact what especially marks this work, what has come to the fore in the progress of writing it and the poetry that has followed, is a much more intensely complex prosodic awareness, consubstantial with its like notation (‘the articulation of the total sound of the poem,’ exactly, where the poem has come to process, make with a greater and greater complex of input). Duncan here is at the height of his technical powers, and of his tekhne I would for my own senses and uses of the work cite just three out of many possible instances: the long line …; the remarkable counterpoint of voices and texts …; the kept tension. …”

“To date I know of no serious extended study of Duncan’s work not ultimately in Duncan’s own terms, such is the scope, erudition, and intelligence of his writing on poetry. So far no one has read his work as well as he has, or anew. There is Olson’s ‘Against Wisdom as Such,’ certainly, but by now that has been so closely attended and responded to by Duncan it’s become virtually an integral part of his own work. The true heirs of part of his writing and theory at least … are the Language poets, though for a variety of reasons this is never alluded to, nor have they carried their doctrinal and theoretical (as distinct from poetry politics) differences with him into print.”

“And yet Duncan’s work yearns for, calls out for differing, not negating but demanding reading, of like serious reach — as in Blake’s ‘Opposition is true Friendship,’ not that the contraries be dissolved, but realized. But that is another life’s work!”

“These great Romantic (of the Romance of the Forms) ‘propositions of evocation,’ to use Gerrit Lansing’s term, these vatic hymns of the psychocosmology of everyday life, provoke me to consider again the following essential statements, offered that the poetry be considered then also in their light. From Thoreau: ‘A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry.’ From Stevens: ‘we think we have long since outlived the ideal. The truth is that we are constantly outliving it and yet the ideal itself remains alive with an enormous life.’ From Yuri Tynyanov: ‘The reader who sees only solidified bodies in this culture demands that the poet see better than he does.’ ‘There is another danger: to see one’s own works as solidified bodies — to fall captive to one’s own verse culture.’ In that tension the poet makes his profession: ‘I enact my being here /   / for the sake of /   / speculation in the nature of man.’”

15) from review of Ground Work II: In the Dark by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 12 (1988).

“The matter, the deep matter at the heart here is vision. Vision, not what one would want or decide to see, but what one is given and cannot avoid seeing — what, as Duncan would say, you don’t get not to see, to experience.”

“Poetry, the poet has told us, is not the repository of dead things but the place where eternal things emerge. … What the social, the political, the civic/civil world has surrendered from itself, has given up on, goes then into the realm of the imagination. There is only one place for these visions of what has been thought possible, of what has come to be seen as lost in the actual world, to come true — Christendom for Dante, Kings for Shakespeare, Democracy for Duncan and us all — not just as survivors of history and of being disowned in the public realm, but as regulators and accusers of what is happening. It took Kings to betray Kings, Kings being Kings, and the idea of Kings. So as participants in Democracy our eternal yearnings are for the nature of what we have betrayed.”

16) from “Some Notes on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers and Michele J. Leggott’s Reading Zukofsky’s ‘80 Flowers,’Sulfur 34 (Spring 1994).

“Years ago after reviewing Bottom, I wrote to Zukofsky and asked why there was no Marx in that book, and he replied that he was no more a Marxist, after all, than he was a Spinozaist — but there is more to it than that, and what became of Marx in the work. What is the nature of authority in Zukofsky? Where does he leave off and why; what does he settle for, is satisfied with? What is the nature of the personal canon Zukofsky affirms and how does it change — how is it ‘privileged’ as reference and source? What are particulars?”

“Inevitably … we come back to what is in fact the first experience of the poetry and what Zukofsky clearly particularly focused on: the sound, its unpredictable diversity and novelty, the extraordinary vocabulary, the open flux of syntax, and the pleasure, the delight to be had from all of that (and the great humor in it). Even without other study that is primary and will have its impact (‘Its art was beyond me yet somehow available in my sounding the poem,’ Duncan said.) But no matter if we determine we are going to read only for the sound and juxtapositions and not pay any attention to what is ‘said’ or ‘meant,’ the poems won’t let us (nor do they satisfy equally throughout on that score), but keep drawing us (and resisting us) into their undertow, and into all the complexity of Zukofsky’s world. As Levi-Strauss says, words do not become non-referential.”

“To conclude, let these speak:

we forgot that we were not performing the chief moral obligation of humanity,
which is to protect the works of love.

● ● ●

Mystery, to use that admirable English word meaning all information relating to the theory and practice of a craft, which we borrowed from the Old French mestier, and by carelessness amounting to genius confused in spelling with the word we derive from the Greek for occult.

— Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

treasures of potentially useful variability deserve careful study.

Edgar Anderson, Plants, Man and Life

the study of the scope of poetry is poetry, and requires all the reasons of poetry for its pursuit.

— Laura Riding, Preface to her 1938 Collected Poems

17) from introduction to Black Pig by Denis Mahoney (Mystic, CT: Hozomeen Press, 1994).

“In Mary Butts’s two booklet-length essays of the early 1930s, Warning to Hikers and Traps for Unbelievers, she affirmed a belief in rites and sacraments as dramatic, a sort of play drawn from recurring universal natural events, ‘about the health and ill-health of the soul.’ What is at stake there is also what is at stake in this poetry.”

“But it also needs to be stressed here what depth and intensity of literary awareness and kinship, all lightly worn, is present in this work. It certainly, and consciously so, is out of a tradition of lyric epic and of the page as territory and field, adventure, discovery, cosmology, the measure of paper — ‘placement becomes central to my entire being,’ Denis has written in a letter. … And the self as multiple, multiply situated and articulated, self-questioning, self-reflexive, self-outward.”

18) from introduction to The Man in Green by Patrick Doud (Lawrence, KS: First Intensity Press, 1996).

“Two propositions return as I read here. The initial statement of Lezama Lima’s 1957 La expresión americana: ‘Sólo lo difícil es estimulante.’ And Robert Duncan in ‘Transgressing the Real Passages 27’ of a decade later: ‘For now in my mind the young men of my time / have withdrawn allegiance from this world, from public things.’ This is certainly difficult work, very (and stimulating), in meaning, in what Lezama called visión historica, a difficulty not so much, not just, not so simply in the images themselves, nor in the thinking, nor in the allusions, but more in what we might call the matrix the poetry assumes, takes on, takes much of its strength from its certainty of, that it is there, that it is significant, that it can be dealt with; and the extreme condensation of expression, told slant.”

“Work of displacement and of description. Displacement of direct bodily proprioceptive experience and immediate reactive emotion … and all that landscape, just in and of itself, into the making of another, middle, in-between realm, a mythic body, landscape, city. …”

“A poetry which ‘haunts the suburbs of the body.’ And a part then of the central tradition of the American lyric epic, at least from Whitman on (Crane especially) — and that fundamentally American religious conviction Harold Bloom has analyzed, the beyond-the-soul seed-of-light real self, not part of but anterior to the created universe, alone with a resurrected but not yet ascended savior, the great yearning for that, at the same time that the emptiness, the missing, the absence is profoundly known, exile in the land of birth.”

Irby’s literary reviews, introductions, and selected notes

Introduction to The Man in Green by Patrick Doud (Lawrence, KS: First Intensity Press, 1996), 8–9.

Introduction to Black Pig by Denis Mahoney (Mystic, CT: Hozomeen Press, 1994), i–v.

“Some Notes on Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers and Michele J. Leggott’s Reading Zukofsky’s ‘80 Flowers,’” Sulfur 34 (Spring 1994): 234–49.

Review of Ground Work II: In the Dark by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 12 (1988): 281–88.

Review of Ground Work: Before the War by Robert Duncan, Conjunctions 7 (1985): 261–67.

“‘america’s largest openair museum,’” review of Elite/Elate Poems and Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, Parnassus 8 (Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1980): 307–28.

“A Note on Kansas–New Mexico for Ed Grier and Roy Gridley,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 56–61.

“Some Notes on Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward,” Credences 5/6 (March 1978): 128–57.

Review of Places To Go by Joanne Kyger, Caterpillar 15/16 (April/June 1971): 279–80.

Review of Our Word: Guerrilla Poems from Latin America, trans. Edward Dorn and Gordon Brotherston, Caterpillar 10 (January 1970): 241–42.

Review of Seaweed by Armand Schwerner, Caterpillar 8/9 (October 1969): 144.

Review of Olson/Melville: A Study in Affinity by Ann Charters, Caterpillar 8/9 (October 1969): 56.

Review of Ace of Pentacles by John Wieners, Kulchur 19 (Autumn 1965): 103–4.

“The World Dances between Our Eyes,” reviews of The Unknowing Dance by Chad Walsh, Tactics of Survival by George Hitchcock, The Vulnerable Island by Carol Berge, The Very Thing That Happens by Russell Edson, Interchange by Jack Hirschman, and Round Dances by Robert Kelly, Poetry (Chicago) 105 (March 1965): 414–20.

Review of The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones, Kulchur 17 (Spring 1965): 86–90.

Review of Bottom: On Shakespeare by Louis Zukofsky, Kulchur 16 (Winter 1964-65): 98–103.

Review of The World of the Lie by Ron Loewinsohn, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964): 99–102.

Review of Her Body Against Time by Robert Kelly, Kulchur 14 (Summer 1964): 95–99; rpt. Vort 5 (Summer 1974): 73–76.

Review of Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialism by R. Buckminster Fuller, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964): 89–91.

Review of Poem from Jail by Ed Sanders, Kulchur 13 (Spring 1964): 87–89.

“The Unacknowledged Legislators,” review of The Sullen Art by David Ossman, Kulchur 11 (Autumn 1963): 83–85.



1. Robert Kelly, “On Irby,” Credences 7 (February 1979): 121; this fine special issue celebrates Irby and his work.

2. Barry Alpert, “Ken Irby: An Interview,” Vort 3 (Summer 1973): 54; hereafter abbreviated V. The biographical information cited here is derived from interviews conducted by Alpert for Vort and Lee Bartlett for Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

3. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1968), 62.

4. I adapted this list from “Kenneth Irby: A Bibliography,” available at the Electronic Poetry Center.