Gathered here are twelve letters from Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, spanning roughly a decade, from January 1963 to February 1974. While this selection constitutes a small portion of only one side of the complete correspondence between the two poets — a correspondence they maintained until Dorn’s death in December 1999 — it is intended to provide a representative sample of Irby’s epistolary prosody, exuberance, and generosity. To get an immediate sense of these qualities, as well as the measure and nature of Irby’s investment in corresponding with Dorn, take the following two paragraphs from Irby’s letter of late May 1997, the month Dorn was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer and given three months to live:
… & I’ve been going back over all the years and connections we’ve had since I first met you, that NYrsEve of 1960 in Santa Fe, the Army guys and me coming to see you on Camino Sin Nombre — down to the afternoon at your place last Jun in Denver — back and forth across the continent, and still on-going —
I just want to say — as a kind of declaration, an affirmation — how much you have meant to me and go on being, person, work, all the infinite inter-essences and resonances beyond articulation, but felt — I won’t belabor this, but there is no one whose moral integrity & intelligence I respect more, and no one, not Olson, not any other person, who has more revealed and made available the complex of the land of birth and upbringing, this shaggy centrum, than have you — little capable as I have been as an attender, no matter — you, in all this, magister, believe me — and thanks, man! all the kindnesses, the edges, the demands, the compassions — there are times when such things have to be said, and reaffirmed, and to fare forward with — ever onward —
Ever onward indeed: Dorn fought his “environmentally / Induced and politically generated” tumor for another two and a half years. In April 1999, a few days after his seventieth birthday, he sent Irby a short letter on stationary from Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda hotel, at the top of which is printed the phrase: “The Inn at the End of the Santa Fe Trail”:
We are travelling these parts mainly because my health has improved enough to allow it — gaining ten pounds of flesh and generally more focused energy. It is bitterly cold — even the wooden Indians are beginning to shake & fret. My chemo day Taxol, is on Monday but that will be cool with the oncologist when I phone him in the moanin’. John and Marina, Jenny’s Bro in Law & Blood Sister are fellow passengers — Ken, I heard you got a job. If correct that sounds so good. I’m retired and on my own 1st time since 1960.
I’m working faster & better than in years. It’s exciting to have the continuity of expression even if in or with a 70 yr old brain to work with.I know how much it means to you to have your situation stabilized. Congratulations —
On New Year’s Eve 1960 Irby was twenty-four, seven years younger than Dorn, whose number he’d found in the Santa Fe phonebook after discovering his whereabouts in the back pages of Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, published in May of that year. Having been drafted into the army that summer, after he’d completed a master’s degree in Far Eastern studies at Harvard, Irby was stationed in Albuquerque, about an hour’s drive from the state capital. In an untitled, unpublished prose piece, Dorn describes the “cryptoliberalism” and “stockbroker bohemism” that characterized the “terminal circumstance” of Santa Fe around the time he first met Irby:
New Mexico, 1959, was teeming with the investment of that primitive wage-slave hope of total destruction through Rockets & Bombs, a development spinning out of the Eisenhower funk-period. […] My address in Santa Fe at this time was Camino Sin Nombre (like gazing at the backside of a tautology) and directly below me the creator of Mat Helm had two cheap but effective spotlights trained on my whole front yard. Free light, all night. Bounding hounds. 4-wheel-drive Vehicles. Very off-base anthropod census-takers. Weird pre-freak cunt-oriented vintage chicks loaded down with silver and turquoise, maybe into something like childrens books. Everything generally off to the side in this situation. Really specific Generals completely outa town, in the hills. […]
It was into this radically unpromising unus mundus that Kenneth Irby drove disguised as a contemporary serviceman but secretly the manager of a team of proto-zen archers (mostly Kentuckians) then stationed with nearly complete indifference (short of perfection like a vacuum) at Sandia Airforce Base. As anyone who has cried Help! can believe, I was delighted to see him. Hearing him was another matter. Between the overwhelming yelping of his hounds gradually I became aware that he was shifting this cargo over the chinese border using a bill of lading in greek. That was probably a courtesy, I’ve since concluded. Then he would fall asleep. Heavy sleep. But not me. If you lived in Santa Fay you didn’t go to sleep. Not on Camino Sin Nombre. Wild totalities in the name of that road. Earth, Night, Rivers, Sleep, Strife, Victory, and so on. I was the guard of something or other there. I don’t yet know what. But it was a yeasty time.
Here we find evidence of “the kindnesses, the edges, the demands, the compassions” to which Irby’s above letter refers, and although Dorn remains a silent addressee in the following selection, these qualities, at least, reverberate in the enthusiastic abundance of Irby’s letters.
This selection picks up with Irby in January 1963, roughly five months after he completed his two-year draft duty in the army, and five months before he dropped out of his Harvard PhD program. “The point is,” he wrote to Dorn in mid-January 1963, “my increasing commitment to writing, that Harvard, nor any such place, can’t foster (or prevent). Clearly. But the commitment is there, for better or worse. I’ve got so fucking much to learn.” Having thus committed himself to the life of a writer, whatever that might mean, Irby left Cambridge in June, just as he had four years before, and headed for Albuquerque, stopping off briefly in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Subsequently, these letters track (with admittedly large gaps) Irby’s path from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1964, to Berkeley in early 1965, where he lived until 1971, at which point he made another transcontinental move, returning to Boston, this time to teach at Tufts University, until 1973, when he relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark, for a one-year visiting professorship and a few months of traveling mainland Europe on a Fulbright grant. Dorn, meanwhile, led an even more peripatetic life, moving with his family from Pocatello, Idaho, in 1965, to Colchester, England, where he’d been hired on a Fulbright grant to teach in Donald Davie’s newly minted literature department at the University of Essex. In the late summer of 1968, recently divorced, Dorn returned to the States with his new partner, Jennifer Dunbar, whom he married the following year. Between 1968 and early 1974, where this selection ends, Dorn and Dunbar lived all over the US and beyond: in Taos, Lawrence, Chicago, Kent, West Newbury, Riverside, Rollinsville, San Francisco, Vancouver, Colchester: the list goes on.
By 1974, having published seven books over the previous decade, Irby was preparing an expanded edition of To Max Douglas, for which he asked Dorn, in the final letter included here (“12 Feb 74”), to contribute a short preface (Dorn agreed). The following year, Dorn’s own meta-Western mock-epic Gunslinger — all five books of it (including its “interlude” book, The Cycle) — was published by Wingbow Press, ending a seven-year phase in his career that began in England amid the uproar of 1968, and which, likely more than any other period, secured a dedicated readership for his work.
Irby’s correspondence with Dorn offers an impressive bibliographical counterpart to his recently published collected poems, The Intent On (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), and because he shares a deep and abiding interest in geography, as well as a debt to Charles Olson (Dorn’s teacher at Black Mountain), these letters are particularly rich with references to landscape-related literature, to the writings of cultural geographer Carl Sauer, or historian James Malin (whose work Dorn and Irby discussed coediting a selection of, for Frontier Press, in the late ’60s), or to the journal accounts of arduous expeditions — e.g., Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, Jedediah Smith, and John Wesley Powell — or to an array of writers from the sixteenth century, the first period of European exploration in the New World, the period of wanderers like Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Francis Drake, and mystics like Jakob Böhme and John (“Dr.”) Dee. But it’s not only books on these topics that Irby discusses: he explores a variety of ways of getting to know the earth’s potencies, such as when he provides, in the postscript to a late October letter from San Francisco, the mailing address for a San Antonio cactus farm, from which one could order a hundred peyote buttons for $11. Still, perhaps the most evocative and compelling aspect of these letters is their depiction of the vicissitudes of Irby’s experience as young artist: his struggle to extricate himself from his academic confinement in the “one vast city of the east coast,” intermittently fleeing Cambridge on the weekends to visit LeRoi Jones or Paul Blackburn in New York City, or Olson (twice) in Gloucester, and subsisting on epistolary encouragement from Dorn and Robert Creeley, among others, to follow his writerly inclinations; or the rich delight he takes living in San Francisco or Berkeley, where he found a welcoming community of friends and fellow artists, and, despite “the tracts billboards freeways & waste dumpage,” could relish the lush atmosphere of California, “land of magnificent vistas & formations like none on earth,” he writes in one letter, and where his work as a poet really began to thrive. “Yeasty” is, for both writers, an apt description of the decade that this selection covers.
Note on the text
In a short memoir/essay included in this feature, Andrew Schelling describes what a typical letter from Irby might look like:
Typically his full letters would go a couple of tight single-space typewritten pages (in the very small font-size his typewriter had), then as he broke off to sign the letter he would add marginal notes, then long looping addenda that wound around the pages; then he’d begin to write where the typewriter left off, and another page or two of his compact handwritten words would come.
Incapable of reproducing the shape of their originals, the following transcriptions necessarily lack one of the most beautiful features of Irby’s letters: their near illegibility. The effect is due less to Irby’s handwriting than to his habit (as Schelling notes) of filling every square iota of the page’s surface with it — blocks of text running in multiple directions, a vortification of the page. Aside from the physical appearance of these transcriptions, then, the general formatting and stylistic features of the originals have been reproduced as accurately as possible. Irby’s dropdown indentations for new paragraphs, for example, his substitution of the em dash for various marks and functions of punctuation, and his characteristically expressive compound word-formations (e.g., “howsomever,” “hodgepodged,” “yesiree,” “hardnesses,” “outloud,” “buildingup,” “headon,” “wot the hell,” “fur shure,” “it not only thunderstormed, […] it hailed abt hensegg size”), as well as his Blk Mntn shorthand (e.g., “yr,” “cd,” “wd,” “abt,” etc.), have all been retained. And Irby’s characteristic practice of underlining text for emphasis has also been preserved, both for the sake of verisimilitude and for maintaining a clear distinction between authorial and editorial formatting gestures (i.e. underlining vs. italicizing; see below).
For the sake of readability, some of Irby’s marginalia, “looping addenda,” and minor handwritten revisions have been moved from their original positions but all significant modifications that these transcriptions have made to the manuscript or typescript originals are detailed in the endnotes. Italics indicate any handwritten changes or additions to the letter — e.g., continuations in the margin, side-notes and footnotes, caret inserts, etc. With a few exceptions (e.g., the three-tiered wordplay in the first paragraph of Irby’s “12 May 72” letter), this material appears either at the end of the main body of the letter, or is provided in the endnotes, which offer a wide variety of contextual information, from the names of lesser-known writers and literary magazines, to relevant historical events, like the Delano Grape Strike. For further biographical context, including the years of publication for Irby’s major books, see the “Chronology” elsewhere in this feature. Likewise, for a brief discussion of the barn star symbol that accompanies Irby’s signature in letters beginning around 1965, see Denise Low’s essay.
Irby enclosed drafts of poems with a number of the following letters, and with the exception of those that have been collected in The Intent On, all of these poems are reproduced in this feature. Two of these poems however — “KANSAS FLOWERS” (“26 Dec 1965”), and “KANSAS IS THE HOME OF PROHIBITION” (“12 Sep 1963”) — which originally occur, handwritten, in the flow of the main text of their respective letters, have been reproduced as such here. The other poems appear in the unpublished/uncollected poems section of this feature, and information about their epistolary origins can be found in that section’s prefatory note. Lastly, the ellipses enclosed in square brackets indicate places where text has been removed, either at the request of the author, or out of respect for the privacy of other people. These ellipses appear in brackets so as not to be confused with ellipses in the original.
With the exception of the two letters quoted at length in this introduction — both of which come from Irby’s personal archives — the originals of all of the following letters are housed with Dorn’s papers in one of two special collections libraries: the first five letters included here appear courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries; and the remaining seven letters appear courtesy of the Department of Archival and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut. Specific citation information for each letter can be found in the endnotes. — Kyle Waugh