Kansas and/or Oz
The poetry of Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson
“It would not necessarily be the case that the poems of a native of another land would be composed of that land. But a Tennessean has no choice. O Jerusalem. O Appalachia.”
“Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.”
— Wallace Stevens
It is not surprising that readers of American poetry sometimes pair the names Kenneth Irby and Ronald Johnson. Although Irby and Johnson had little direct contact, they were born within a year of one another and grew up on opposite sides of the state of Kansas (Irby in the southeast, in Fort Scott; Johnson in the southwest, in Ashland). Both spent formative years in the “Oz” of the Bay Area, and both took the modernist legacy in self-consciously neo-Romantic directions. Neither Irby nor Johnson achieved the notoriety of some of their contemporaries, but both have been “rediscovered” and admired by a new generation of readers.
The biographical and stylistic similarities are most apparent early in their careers: upbringing in Kansas, stint in the army, stint at the University of Kansas, followed by several years of travel, and first major publications in the mid-60s. Those publications bear certain interesting resemblances, not least of all for the presence of “Kansas” (both idea and place) in them. Both Johnson and his critics have noted the influence of Charles Olson on early poems such as “Quivera” and “Circumstances, Of Circum Stances,” in their combination of local history and autobiography, as well as in the style of composition; and the same could be said of some of Irby’s work from the mid-60s, such as “The Roadrunner Poem” and “Kansas–New Mexico.” “Kansas,” has a certain mythology, or at least aura, surrounding it, and one suspects that neither poet could forbear from delving into it.
And clearly, the influence of Olson (and before and behind him, Ezra Pound) is obvious in the early work of both men. Take, for instance, this litany of flora and fauna from Irby’s early “Roadrunner Poem” (1964):
Nodding wild rye
Andropogon — Bison — Canis
Andropogon — Bouteloua — Bison — Antilocapra
Andropogon — Bulibilis — Bison — Antilocapra (12–13)
The Latin translated into English and fleshed out: the bluestem and grama grasses feed the bison and pronghorns, who in turn feed the wolves. These lines are followed by a paragraph from former University of Kansas history professor James C. Malin’s The Grasslands of North America, a canonical source text for Irby, which begins: “No line on a map can be drawn to represent in any realistic manner the actual conditions found in nature.” The scientific attention to detail, to naming, to change over time, and to sources all bespeak an Olson-influenced poetics — as does the open form, combining justified and indented stanzas, long lines, short lines, prose, lists, Latin and English — not to mention a certain concern for the relation of written lines to the actually-existing world.
Likewise, Johnson’s early poems strike an Olsonian chord in both style and material. “Indian Corn” begins:
Columbus, as the first Western eyes, called it
panic grass — Maize, of a ‘quaking’ ancestry, i.e., the
attempt, always, at classification. (38)
As Patrick Prichett points out: “The poem’s appeal to an overlooked historical detail that contains, seed-like, a parable about the advent of European perception on American shores; the pun on ‘panic’; the scholarly aside, couched in analytic language and overladen with commas … these are hallmarks of Olson’s allusive style that Johnson mimes with perfect fidelity.” Likewise, in the early “Kansas” poem, “Of Circumstance, The Circum Stances,” Johnson begins with local, family history, combined with personal recollection:
It is thus I break these furrows, for my grandfather, Henry Clay
Mayse, in his grave
on the hill above where I passed
this spring of 1961, west
one ocean at his head
& at his feet, another (VMG, 64)
The poem goes on to include a paragraph from Quill and Beadwork of the Western Sioux, and then interweaves that book with the poet’s own desire to connect with the native soil:
It was also a custom of
the Sioux women to save the navel cord
of the first-born
& in spite of a damnable
sense of form, that ‘rough skin bundle’ poems
kept in a turtle shaped buckskin
carapace of quills (67–68)
The passage ends with an expression of a desire for poems that likewise might be “built by hand / – that we might determine our own // intervals between / objects” (69). The juxtaposition of the present and the past, the autobiographical and the historical, in a more-or-less representational manner, characterizes Johnson’s first book, A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees (1964); in The Book of the Green Man (1967), written during a trip to England in 1962, Johnson likewise blends contemporary observation and English (and European) history.
That Olson would be a point of reference in the mid-1960s for two young poets interested in what we now call “The New American Poetry” is no surprise. But the similarities between Irby and Johnson were soon to become more attenuated. Johnson, having published two books of open-field poetry rich with local history and documentary sources combined with personal details, made a rather sudden and self-conscious break, both formally and thematically, in “The Different Musics,” a group of four longer poems written in 1966–67. The lineation and arrangement of the verse has changed. Rather than justifying the lines against the left margin or using the entire field via indented stanzas and dropped lines, as Johnson does earlier, now he has hit upon what was to be his preferred form for the next thirty years: lines centered on the page, meant to emulate the bilateral symmetry of natural forms, as well as the stability of an unwobbling spiritual pivot. In “Letters to Walt Whitman,” the poet asks:
But are these landscapes to be imagined,
or an actual
Kansas — the central, earthy prosaic core of us?
Or is the seen always winged, an eidolon only to us — & never
the certain capture
of great, golden, unembroidered
All is Oz.
The dusty cottonwoods, by the creek,
rustle an Emerald City.
And the mystic, immemorial city
is rooted in earth.
All is Oz & inextricable,
bound up in the unquenchable flames of double suns. (VMG, 97)
The desire for a sacramental presence of the transcendent in the immanent — and a declaration of same — will be a constant in the rest of Johnson’s work. While “the mystic, immemorial city” may be “rooted in earth,” the All is being subsumed into Oz, the cottonwoods into the Emerald City, and the double suns are decidedly symbolic ones. In a later interview, Johnson would recount that the Oz books offered solace and escape from the physically and culturally desolate western Kansas in which he lived. He goes on to declare that “writing to me is a means of making the world where anything is possible and in which the imagination lives.”
In the eponymous poem “The Different Musics,” dedicated to Robert Duncan, the scale seems to have decidedly tipped towards “Oz”:
And night comes opening its arms like smokes to enfold us:
Where their feet touch the earth
an encircling of plume, diaphanous featherings.
THE DANCE! THE DANCING OUTWARD!
A spreading effulgence!
A resplendent ‘hood’ of light!
A choric turbulence, to which the worlds keep time … (87–88)
The guiding Muse here is not so much Duncan as a particular version of Blake — or maybe a particularly ebullient mood of Whitman’s — and certainly the verse lacks grounding in an actual Kansas or anywhere else. That this shift should happen around the same time that Johnson discovered, and settled down in, San Francisco, is perhaps not insignificant. Johnson, who had the misfortune to grow up gay in Kansas, by his own account had been searching for Oz since childhood. When asked why so many writers and artists of his generation were born in Kansas, Johnson responded, “Everybody wanted to get to Oz and San Francisco is” (“Ronald Johnson” 550). If you find it and get a toehold there (geographically or ontologically), why move?
By the same token, he intended his opus, ARK, “to be without history,” a performative inversion of Ezra Pound’s project in the Cantos. ARK is to be, like the Facteur Cheval’s grand construction in Hauterives, a Palais Idéal. So in ARK, there is little of an actual Kansas, but rather a symbolic or tonal one. For the later Johnson, the most (or only?) important place in Kansas is St. Jacob’s Well, the “bottomless” spring near his hometown of Ashland, near the Oklahoma line. This large watering-hole on the dry plains, important to the Northern Cheyenne, as well as to early explorers, white settlers, and cattle drivers from Texas, becomes a mythopoetic constant in the poetry, even as its history is evacuated:
keel manifold, sped bones in colloquy steep wheatear
… if hell indeed rein time stood still
and paradise thus daily fall
on usual shoulders,
scrawl on my stone bois d’arc pulled off Great Plains
– Pegasus every point maximum surface –
ATTEMPTED THIS LADDER FOR ST. JACOB
ASTRADDLE BOTTOMLESS WELL
R. J. FECIT (ARK 65, “Windmill Spire,” np)
Kansas here becomes a fanciful (keeled) ark; the “arc” of bois d’arc becomes the curve of a limitless (metaphorical) horizon; and the buried allusion to Pound’s Canto XLV is written imaginatively (and ironically) on a ladder to heaven arising from a bottomless well (the name of the physical well literalized so as to make it metaphysical). In ARK 30, Johnson rewrites T. S. Eliot’s Weltschmerz (at the end of “The Hollow Men”) around the same “place”:
This is the way the word begins, the world begins,
… Around a center
no one can see the end of, at the Well of The Bottomless,
I have placed parallels of bright guardians (np)
Meanwhile, Irby’s interests in memory, travel, and natural history continued unabated (and even intensified) into the late 1960s and 1970s. The poems often treat the history of the places Irby lived in or passed through, and the roads inevitably lead back to or through Kansas. To Max Douglas (1971), and Catalpa (1977), for instance, are rich with history and geography, often straight from the sources (books or conversation), and almost always related to the poet’s own peregrinations. In To Max Douglas, we hear from Malin again, alongside Kansas political boss Cy Leland and newspaper poet Eugene C. Ware:
was all mastery
the closest poetry
stayed to that in Kansas
was Ironquill Ware
whose poetry ‘stinks’
said Malin, ‘yes, it stinks’
the smell was in my adolescent nose
I knew who lived in his old house
3 blocks on down my street
flapdoodle jingo verse, cut East to be
Commissioner of Pensions, wet
his wit flits yet above
some lunchcounter present
avatar of that high interview
the point is, exiles … (191)
The slide from regional history book to conversational anecdote with the historian to personal recollection to local history to a broader point about being a spiritual or cultural exile (and heading west, as Irby himself did), all show a poet who, unlike Johnson, has not finished extending and revising the Pound-Olson tradition and has not done with poems containing history.
“Jed Smith and the Way,” in Catalpa, is a long poem that relates the trek of the Jedediah Smith party through the western US (1826–1830), by way of a similar road trip taken by the author. This work might today be called a “docupoem”: it narrates history, based on research and first-person testimony. For instance, Smith’s men, “a hard, rapacious, horny lot,” making their way through what is now the US Pacific northwest, stop to trade with a wary party of Kalliwakset. One of these is beaten by the “Yankees,” one of whom “missed a skinning knife and a hatchet”:
right then and there the Kalliwakset would have retaliated but one powerful chief
still voted for restraint
till he, fancying a ride on Harrison Rogers, Smith’s first clerk’s, choice steed
was ordered down at gunpoint after a circuit of the camp
and that, as Lord Buckley said, do it, and the Indians snapped (286)
The material here is documentary in the original sense of teaching (history, in this case). But the poem is equally about memory, and about the poet’s coming to terms with what might be called personal geography. “[T]his is the discontinuous / dendritic narrative of a journey / metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return” we read later (288), as the two historical journeys become a single one containing metaphorical and spiritual, as well as historical significance. Even “the country South of Philomath / looked Kansas,” leading, somewhat incongruously, to thoughts of:
The soul of another
of one dead, what lasts after
and makes us remember
where will I meet again
my dog Oscar, dead since summer 1944 (285)
The historical, biographical, geographical, metaphorical trip constitutes a plan “to yield home again, fresh again / drive into country and know this was the spot to take us in” which reminds him that “Kansas always promised and demanded there must be, it wasn’t, you must find, the plains / demand a lot that way” (282). The poem ends with the declaration (in quotes) that “‘you always / have to get there … / this is the Secret History / of the Continent’” (293). The secret personal history and ever-deferred homecoming seems to parallel the (collective, bloody) material history, which can never be subsumed into the former. The personal and historical, pastoral and epic, are never very far apart, and the thrill of discovery is never far removed from a feeling of exile from and gravitational pull of home, in every sense — a sense exacerbated by and exacerbating the itch or need to move.
Of course, one also finds the visionary mode in Irby’s work — the land transformed by the imagination or by its own indwelling glory or grace. “The Roadrunner Poem” ends:
where we do walk beside the opened fields
and the bloom of that intensity
blooms, is the flower
that is full of the earth
is full (24–5)
But even this passage begins “where were ploughed fields / but are now housing developments” (24). As Edward Schelb puts it, “Irby incessantly repeats metaphysical abstractions to embody them, to make them submit to the demands of a certain place”; he “resists the temptation to surrender the self into a visionary reality, into an ease of devotion beyond the flat regularity of the plains.” Irby makes this point clear in the introduction to “Relation”: “But I am concerned here with the precise landscape wherever we are, here and now, as the ‘spiritual landscape.’ What plants grow in my backyard, 1614½ A Russell, Berkeley, California; and how am I aware of them …” (94).
Moreover, as Irby’s career progresses, the plains, in the poems, are often stained by blood. The story does not end with any decisive transcendence or transfiguration; it is as much about frustration, defeat, and violence. These things Johnson could not abide. But somehow, Irby seems determined to work through them. Johnson settles down into lines that are centered on the page, that are meant to imitate organic symmetry. Irby’s sensibility remains spatial — or as Olson says, each poem’s form is the extension (in the philosophical sense of manifesting in space) of its content, and not according to a blueprint determined beforehand. If Johnson conceived of ARK as a structure (or garden), Irby’s oeuvre is a trip (in more than one sense). For the former, natural forms and language can and do coincide; for the latter, that connection always eludes, always produces longing, produces long lines.
However, from the 1980s on, the historical mode is less pronounced in Irby’s work — at least in the form of the grand continental sweep or the “deep mapping” of Kansas. This fact is unsurprising if one considers that Irby moved back to Kansas in the late 1970s, to the college town of Lawrence (where he still resides). “Some people have accused me of writing about a place in a poem only when I’m not there,” Irby would say in an interview, “which is something we’ve all experienced. Thomas Wolfe can only get impassioned about the United States when he’s in Europe.” And if one needs to go away to write about home, then a literal homecoming might have the opposite effect. The later poems are still about Kansas; but the Kansas of plants in backyards, the dead squirrel at the curb, or the students in the apartment complex, taking out the laundry. The poetry seems more interested in the micro rather than macro, when compared to the earlier work, as in this passage from 1999’s Studies:
leaving behind an old pair of wornout levis in the grass by the road, been there a
long long while
pockets empty but for a few odds and ends
a marble or two, a couple of pebbles, some smashed links of a chain, a nut, a foreign coin
(how did it get left?), faded matted ticket stubs
all that it mattered to life to keep always along (572)
For Johnson, “Everywhere is Oz.” For Irby, “you have to become / a stranger / to have / a homecoming” (654) — which is why one first experiences the algia for the nostos. And only thus does one experience any numinous, utopian, or transmogrified reality — via one’s immanent, temporal, quotidian, local existence. Ronald Johnson is always seeking to return to The Garden. Kenneth Irby returns to an actual Kansas containing (among other things):
patchouli from Mark and Janice’s garden, and a big freezer bag of herbs, four
plum tomatoes, one quite ripe goldenyellow globe, a couple of jalapeños (569)
Meanwhile, the balance of Irby’s poetic explorations shifts from transcontinental journeys through the layered history of North America to explorations of dreamscape, of symbol, of syntax. Kansas, in the form of Fort Scott, is explored occasionally as Memory is explored. The poet has read the books, made the journeys and chronicled them. And all of these are brought to bear in a central point. The form of the poems steadies into long lines — lines that could go on forever. Odysseus returns to Ithaca and goes further instead of farther.
But Johnson also returned to Kansas — and to the geographical specifics of the place — later in his career. The poet’s cancer, HIV, and economic marginality compelled him to “go home again” — this time to live with his father in Topeka. The remarkable poem written on the journey eastward in 1993, “Road Side: Desert to Prairie,” returns the poet to the actual Kansas by the side of the road — with all its detritus intact (“a hubcap (Mercury) / cast onto asphalt,” “blue high / heeled shoe”) — not ideal palaces or enchanted wells. When the Johnsons near Ashland, the poet seems to see Kansas as sadder and more physical than it has ever been:
a quivering cottonwood,
the wind unceasing woven
silk frieze of grasses,
meadowlark loft fencepost
the red, red bluffs of home,
white towers based in mirage
flat as infinity,
jet trails X gigantic ghost
— sickle moon in immense blown dome,
to vanishing point. (np)
Indeed, these (left-justified) lines are not out of place next to Johnson’s early work — or Irby’s, for that matter. The road sense of loss and the strangeness of “home” is palpable, and conveyed via particulars of the landscape.
In his last years, in Topeka, Johnson wrote The Shrubberies, the little poems that, in my view, rival anything in ARK for their precision and emotional force. That power comes from the poet’s honest, receptive account of the world around him — not The Garden this time, but a garden — specifically, the botanical garden adjoining the historic Ward-Meade House, where the poet worked in his final years. Kansas history, plants, weather, make their way back into even these short verses:
desk cleared for planting
first coneflowers, a large
pink daisy with a bronze
center in the shape of hive
as well native of Kansas
knives into green air (14)
ferry long gone
Santa Fe Trail
all lost! (38)
One approaches the Ward-Meade House, the grand home built by one of Topeka’s prosperous early settlers, via “Old Prairie Town,” a “town” composed of relocated historic buildings from western Kansas’s cowboy past. They remind me of the young Johnson, asking:
When was it I came to know …
how the stark vertical courthouse
had its relation to people, those builders
of frontier facades
for saloons & of farmhouses
opposition to horizontal prairie? (VGM 65)
If you continue past the historical horizontal facades, past the grand architecture of the palatial house, one arrives in the gardens, where Johnson was a gardener (literally, this time). It is as though the walk from the parking lot to the far end of the park were a physical map of his poetic career. There is even a plaque to Johnson inside this locus amoenus; but standing next to it, one is never unaware of the sounds of Interstate 70 hurrying near, just below.
For both Irby and Johnson, there is a Kansas of the land, and there is a Kansas of the mind — though the ratio of each is quite different for each poet. Irby shares Johnson’s romantic tendency to look, if not see, into the heart of things, but what he finds, in Kansas or anywhere else, is always provisional — as often interrogative as declarative — as though the speaker of the poem — the “poet” — is saying “can it really be thus? — and if so, what is one to make of it?” Reconciling the natural world to the human, and the historical to the autobiographical, is never an easy task for him, whether in Kansas, New Mexico, California, or anywhere else. Johnson’s mind and words, by contrast, can transform anyplace into Oz (or at least Ozymandias). But he has to destroy the actually existing Ashland, Kansas, where he grew up (in ARK 47), in order to save it for his Vision.
This difference might be accounted for by the people/places distinction that Stevens famously delineated. While both poets begin their writing careers by writing about the people and places of Kansas, Johnson’s poetry increasingly becomes an affair of places more than people — places real and (especially) imagined; whereas Irby’s poetry is, first and last, a poetry of relationships: with both land and people — named individuals — friends, especially, whether via direct contact, reading, or both. As the poet writes in his first book, The Roadrunner Poem (1964), “The land is incomplete / without someone to live / into it” (9). What he remembers of the Lawrence to Albuquerque trip in 1963 “is the farm west of Plains / is the family on it” (10). However, people living into the land involves physical and economic realities:
What is not
is that care
does not make it theirs (10)
Prichett reads Johnson’s turn away from history as marking an embrace of an erotic utopia — of a specifically gay utopia that existed nowhere except, perhaps, the Castro. The facts on the ground in Kansas were never very congenial: of Ashland, the poet said flatly, “It was a horrible place.” Indeed, the contrast between western Kansas and San Francisco for an openly gay man in the 1960s or ’70s must have been as great as that between Dorothy’s Kansas and the Wizard’s Oz.
But the turn toward the local and more immediate in Irby’s more recent career could be seen as an extension of the concerns that led him, in earlier work, towards the vastnessnesses of the American West and Midwest — including those of western Kansas, far distant from his own wooded, humid southeastern Kansas home. In a 1987 interview, Irby says, “I’m interested in micro-relation, that we all must deal with the local. Malin’s proposal that it all has to happen some place, that there has to be a particular place where things are going on — and thus all history really is local” (116). In the poem “[Developments from a dream the night of 2–3 Feb 1971],” the poet/speaker dreams a meeting, during his high school years, with Olson in Fort Scott. The older poet enjoins him:
to learn Fort Scott’s past, to find out
all local dimension, but it was
a gleam deep in his eyes
telling me, tell
the Secret History of your town
get the Secret History
of yourself (606)
In recent years, Irby has recorded pieces of the social life of Lawrence, Kansas, a place he has lived longer than anywhere else. The poems from the 1990s and 2000s often start out in very particular places in Lawrence, rendered mimetically — say, listening to a recording of Coleman Hawkins on a car stereo in the parking lot of Alvin’s liquor store — only to end with:
… the bronze amethyst chrysanthemums
drunk from the color, no matter their antidote
steel topaz the air, to the heart of the blossomings and back out again, carved in the
and slowness more charged than season can unfold (574–75)
Or, someone cutting in line at (the now-defunct) Borders bookstore at the corner of New Hampshire and 7th leads to an outburst of anger, which in turn leads to more (recurrent) memories and self-reflection:
the discipline of care
kept the care of true exchange
light a candle for us all
for the goose boy and the goose yard and the geese gone
and the foxy dog gone
and all gone everywhere
be patient for
as I have not
to care (581)
While these poems begin with a dailiness that reminds one more of late O’Hara than Olson, they end, as Olson’s often do, by asserting the simultaneous presence of the historic and the mythic — or, as Irby intuited early on, “There is nothing, then, that does not / contain the divine” (66). For Johnson, we might say, it is the divine that contains the things. But both poets, finally, like many of their American contemporaries and precursors, accept the simultaneous presence of both. The actual Kansas is the one under our particular feet, in this particular social and economic locale, with all its ugliness intact. And that is the philosopher’s stone, common as any pebble in the street.
3. In an interview twenty years later, Irby confesses that “when I first went to Harvard there was this built-in sense of wanting to outrage people, of pushing, in reaction to that milieu, where one came from. What I didn’t realize was that so many of the people who I was trying to push this on came from the same places. But I never thought of myself as being a ‘Kansas poet.’” “Kenneth Irby: ‘The Breath on the Edge of the Lip’” (interview), in Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, ed. Lee Bartlett (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), 111.
4. All quotations from Kenneth Irby poems and books are taken from The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2009). [The page numbers of these quotations are indicated parenthetically in the main body of the text. — Eds.]
10. Johnson’s turn toward concrete poetry in the late ’60s and ’70s can also be read as a further movement away from historical representation. Likewise, Radi Os (Berkeley, CA: Sand Dollar, 1977) is a Romantic millennial rewriting of Paradise Lost in which “Man” is “the chosen” rather than the creature fallen into a time-bound world.
12. This monument of “naïve” architectural art by Ferdinand Cheval (1836–1924), like the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, served Johnson as an inspiration and formal model for the construction of ARK. For images of the Palais, see “The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace.”
14. For more on docupoetry, its nature, potential, and limitations, see my “Docupoetry and Archive Desire,” Jacket2, October 27, 2011.
17. Many thanks to Robert Webb of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for introducing me to this poem and allowing me to read his copy of this rare broadside/chaplet. Ronald Johnson, Road Side: Desert to Prairie, Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, 15 (Ellsworth, ME: Backwoods Broadsides, 1996).