Knowledge, Duncan McNaughton reminds us, is all of what one’s love becomes capable of.
— Kenneth Irby, from the introduction to Patrick Doud’sThe Man in Green
Over the past half-century, Kenneth Irby’s writing has serially explored the contours and sundry habitations of what he calls the “spiritual landscape” (94) of the North American continent, seeking out and attending its “Lords of the Soil” (319) and “sustainers of the spirit” (91), its “Rock Chalk dogs” (306), “dark gods” (214), “dwellers of the dream” (306), and “mute attendant spirits [who] in-dwell” (331) the objects of his everyday life.
First of all, thank you to Jacket2 for dedicating this special feature to the work of Kenneth Irby. This project was initiated by William Joseph Harris — whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with as a coeditor, and to whom I’m grateful for this opportunity — and it builds off of the Kenneth Irby Symposium that he organized at the University of Kansas, in November 2011, at which five of the essays included here (Friedlander, Harrington, Hejinian, Joris, and Low) were presented.
Kenneth Irby’s first pamphlet, The Roadrunner Poem, appeared as the fourth issue of the journal Duende in April 1964. Forty-five years later his Collected Poems (2009) appeared as a massive document of one poet’s engagement with the process of the poem and the poetics of its statement. More than a shadow falls between the early and the late appearances of Irby’s poetry. Like most collected poems, this volume defines a career in writing and, when set against the literary history of its time, punctuates its achievement by the influences it absorbs, the modes and fashions of contemporary poetry it either acknowledges or rejects; it registers a poetics of an articulate sensibility driven, or at least dedicated, to making language and poetic form define themselves. Publishing such a book is no simple matter. The book brings together into full public notice the poems the poet accepts. In asking for a fair reading it must acknowledge the risk of rejection, the intemperance of the literary world, while hoping for praise, understanding, and confirmation of the writing life of the poet.
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 way the land falls away is the first fact.” This sentence, falling off into the deep space of allusion, sounds the depths of the nearly quarter century that separates it from the “FIRST FACT” opening Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael; from the “central fact” of Olson’s opening musings on space, which themselves call to mind such predecessor sentences as “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” Olson writes.