Kenneth Irby

of Lawrence, Kansas

Winner of the 2010 Shelley Memorial Award


C. S. Giscombe and Katie Peterson on Kenneth Irby

Edward Dorn's 1973 poem, "an oecological prophecy," invokes John Wayne in a Howard Hawks epic—it begins,

At that supreme moment in Red River when
Mr. Wayne dismounts along with his companions
on the brow of the final hill and gesturing
toward Texas says:

Someday thatll all be beef!

Dorn's poem leaves the film at that point but not the gesturing. His Mr. Wayne gestures toward any number of body parts, days of the week, and other states. To wit, "Gestures tward Illinois/Someday thatll all be noise/(aside—'Big Noise from Winnetka'…Gestures
tward Pennsylvania/Someday thatll all be New York…Gestures tward Sunday/Someday thatll all be Monday," etc. But then, two thirds of the way through, "Gestures tward Kansas/Someday thatll all be Kenneth Irby."

Kenneth Irby's collected poems, The Intent On, has just been published by North Atlantic Books. Its 600 pages trace Irby's writing from "The Roadrunner Poem" of 1964 ("Even money/will not bring ownership. Love. It is//the body in front of me. Ecstasy
marks up/ the body/but is not satisfied…") through his numerous books to a series of journal entries and poems stretching up into 2006 ("The itinerary of emending the intellect, which is the journey of renouncing the inheritance of all wealth. To become a professor in your own discovery, but of something else. Not the distance covered but the total lack of anything carried along…"). His writing has been, since its beginnings, an insistence on and meditation on human psychic interaction with landscape (particularly the landscapes of the western U.S.); the work has essayed to break down histories of humans and migrations, to investigate the geography itself. The poetry's extensive in the best senses—place-oriented (but unassociated with the cliché of place), intensely musical, complex in its uses of sentence and line and page, deeply referential. The work's points of  departure are reading and living; it shares much ground with recent American conceptual poetics (Black Mountain, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, etc.) but is most like itself. The Intent On begins with epigraphs from Walt Whitman and from Percy Bysshe Shelley; of particular note is the choice of the final epigraph, the last line of Shelley's "The Cloud": "arise and unbuild it again."

Kenneth Irby was born in 1936 in Bowie, Texas and raised in Fort Scott, in Kansas. He served in the U.S. Army and holds degrees from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches English at the University of Kansas. He has published
nineteen poetry books, including The Flower of Having Passed Through Paradise in a Dream, Kansas-New Mexico, To Max Douglas, Orexis, Call Steps: Plains, Camps, Situations, Consistories, and Ridge to Ridge among other titles. Jed Rasula wrote, "Irby's origins in Kansas, much traced in his work (and unfortunately often the only thing people know him for), is given such a clear realization in the early books that that locality persists largely because of the poetry's achievement of it as land (re)gained in vision." Rasula goes further: "Irby's continental grasp yields not geography (to allay the fears of those who suspect him of writing 'dull geography') but 'a world shared not just of references but possibilities/to excitement.'"

In Call Steps, Kenneth Irby wrote,

love and travel, love and exploration
love and all that old net of sweet association
and only the outcry at is known, can't see back past or on
desperate for the wet smell, for the water love

The Intent On is not about one poem, or one of Irby's many out-of-print volumes—it's about the vigilance of Irby's life, as lived by a lyric mind. States of consciousness open out into never-before-imagined states of consciousness and we see secret layers of the
mind that also seem, quite effortlessly, familiar and shared: in his elegy at the older poet's death, "For Ed Dorn," he wrote, "the prairie winter clear bare splendor is so deep/I'm sure I remember North Texas from before I remember." It is difficult to pick out single
poems from Irby's career precisely because of the work's consistency, or rather, persistence—the work's own lack of interest in considering moments more consequential than other moments. But it is impossible not to want to enumerate the lovable qualities of
Irby's verse, which are as many and various as the subjects that he chooses to talk about. For mere usefulness' sake, perhaps they can be narrowed down to the five senses: for touch, his ease in speaking about both the pleasures and complexities of friendship and
eros; for sight, his eye for detail in near, far, and middle distance; for hearing, his precision in scoring a line not only by sound but by weight, speed, and pace; for taste, his understanding of sensory pleasure not only as sustenance and compensation for the
world's travails but as delight and enervation; for smell, his effortless immersion in a natural world that always seems to be leaving tracks for us no matter how lonely we wish to claim to feel.

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