Kenneth Irby (1936-2015)
(a bit of this will appear in the forthcoming Malpais Review, November, 2015, thanks to Gary Brower, Editor)
“It is impossible to write of what one has written or lived except as this day is, out the window, now, explicit.” This quote is from Ken Irby’s The Roadrunner Poem, written in Albuquerque, his first book, which Duende Press published in Placitas, April of 1964. And in 1965 I was very happy to publish a larger bunch of his poems called Movements/Sequences.
He’d been in the Army but in 1963 he was working at Sandia Laboratories. I went to see Ken at Robert Creeley’s suggestion, after I got back from the Vancouver Poetry Conference. He lived on Gavilan Place off North Fourth Street, and he had built-in bookshelves and record shelves throughout to hold his enormous collection. The house was made up of books everywhere, a record player with a small speaker, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed, a large desk and comfortable chairs.
I remember when I first knocked on the door and entered this remarkable sanctuary, it was an overwhelming sensual delight, a home for intriguing conversations of current poetic sensibility and everything culturally alive in the core of living literature. And there was a lot of good, extremely spicy food, good dope, good liquor, while we listened constantly to music by Delius, Scriabin, Busoni, Satie, Schütz, Coltrane, Chinese Classical, the Carter Family, on and on. And talking. And at that time there was the concourse of the Creeleys, Bill Pearlman, Kell Robertson and many other poets passing through on Route 66. I wrote once, “Ken Irby, he taught me all I cannot know, and then some . . . with warm impressions that last.”
Our friendship developed through many letters and visits to Berkeley when he was living there, including a confab at his house with Paul Blackburn, Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, Harvey Bialy and my wife, Lenore, in 1969. All the time he was at Tufts, and in Denmark, and then in Lawrence, Kansas, we exchanged letters and poems frequently until tapering off in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Here is a poem of his from the beautiful A Set. This exquisite publication is large format 16″ by 20″ from Tansy Press in Lawrence, 1983. His friend John Moritz helped publish it.
From A Set. by Kenneth Irby, 1983
stars fall, dark dolls to earth, to the old songs dance, folk of the West of the West, brought back again
almost quickly digitations of the jugglers’ blindfold to bind up the hour before the dawn, before the dark
you do not sleep but subsequently translate that mime into a newer currency
to spend in the street and stand around to watch and sing along to those fast steps
here in the woods, hear in the woods, here in the woods
the cottonwood to the flute and the drum
who in the morning come to sacrifice to health for sake of safety’s speed
talking all the time about the in-laws and the pictures on the walls last week
the expectation to exemplify the dying of the old self to its age
the limitation to just one count of generation, one of revolution, made
Ken Irby reminded me of Charles Olson, such a pervasive mind, an incredible ability to read investigatively and remember and to be open to the creative, and to have a sense of music in his writing. I think of Ken as Olson’s successor. American poetry will probably never see a more thorough poetic mind. He enclosed infinitely the great realm of poets including Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Charles Olson, H.D., Mary Butts, Gerrit Lansing, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, and of course the Creeleys and many others and his searching musical mind discovered new inter-related realms always.
I am thankful for a lifelong encouragement and even praise from him and his exploratory and continual enrichment of American and World culture. My new book Broken Garden & The Unsaid Sings is dedicated “to the memory of my dear friend Kenneth Irby.” And I include here a poem which I wrote before I learned of his death, but shortly after receiving The Intent On, his 680 page collection of poems from North Atlantic Books.
Ken Irby, the post-Olson mind
continues to teach and write
in Lawrence, Kansas,
186 miles from the geographical center
of the contiguous United States namely
A man of comprehensive sensibility
to the eons of place and
the histories of now, the voices
that fill the United States of movement
the languages that toss us back & forth
in the wind
and fill our ears in America,
the discipline of search
that leads to surprises
of our own self
is the teacher for the rest of us
to find and make
The construction of our own selves
found in layered histories
often needs a guide —
“the intent on.”
(The Intent On, Collected Poems 1962-2006, by Kenneth Irby, North Atlantic Press)
Ever love and respect, abrazos, Mr. Irby. Larry Goodell /23Oct2015
Addenda: more poems for Ken and a postcard from him.
/for Ken Irby
I picked “the flower of having passed through paradise in a dream.”
I took the risk of things seeming what they seemed.
It was a wild rose with 5 veined petals
probably the Arkansas rosa.
It smells so sweet in the tiny blue Mexican glass it’s in.
Miss Nowell gave me botany, Martha Sue Nowell
although we didnt get as far as angiosperms.
Miss Stole sold me the tiny blue pitcher — last of the Mexican glass I
/got from her.
Tne pricelessness of names that pass on into things.
The wild Hungarian rose
has cropped up here before
with the Kansas Gayfeather
but this is the Arkansas rose
grows by the Arkansas River
and by the irrigation ditches here
and rocky hillside
by the road.
That “wild Irish rose” the saddest dream did tell
you woke up for the best of all
the dream you dreamed you couldnt bring the flower of paradise back from
you woke up with it in your hand snapped from the bush
you smell the rose here
fragrant as in the dream
the dream you never had except in waking
larry goodell / placitas / early June 1979
This postcard face and back with text from Ken Irby expresses the typical joy in his life of constant cultural discovery which of course enters his poetry and was infectiously communicative to friends. Jim here is his brother James Irby, Emeritas Professor, Princeton University.
“Irby, Bramshill Gardens, London i7July74
Larry — Ah my, what an incredible place the Prado truly is! This Bosch perhaps the greatest treasure there for me, but hardly the only one, not by far — Such a collection of 15th Century Flemish masterpieces! & then the Velasquez & the Goyas! Whew, & yet again! Only the Hermitage rivals it, and we hardly saw it except on the run — Oslo, Stockholm (one of the great cities of the world — where we finally saw that marvelous traveling Chinese show from Peking, with the jade burial suit, etc) Turin, Helsinki, Leningrad, back to Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona (wondrous architecture, not just Gaudi but his compatriots & contemporaries) a couple of days in the countryside about 120 km West of Valencia at the summer house of an old Spanish colleague of Jim’s at Princeton — now Madrid — next Lisbon & N., Santiago de Compostela etc. before Paris again — Such food!! My lord a mercy! You’d flip at the seafood tapas available with drinks in the bars. Spain is much reminiscent of New Mexico terrain, but more tropical (palm trees) but definitely a kindred landscape — you must come here one day — Write me a note at least at the above address where I’ll be by 1 Aug. Hang loose & love Ken”
Soar Heart (from Renew Anew, my poems from 1992-93)
for Ken Irby
I am going to get at it if it kills me.
I am going to intend it to death,
Direct the course not like but be that laser beam.
The very foundation stone, the directed focus.
The question that dissolves on looking at it, Yes
the Yes at the end of the tunnel, the yes that falls apart.
The very anal, naval, third-eye, orifice & cup that
I see you, it, that and it is beyond me,
tiny, to the point an infinitesimal degree but
Nothing stops me, to blunder upon it or intuit
Rewinding the tape to see it again: you only see it once
And once it’s gone it will always be with you.
Books to the ceiling and beyond to the universe read with distinction.
Now remembered nothing, but on the streets my heart beats.
larry goodell / 20Apr93#3
presumptuous of elements
because it is so
how should I say
while Irby can stand upon
here where the drums’ affectation
fuse in the heart
larry goodell / 64Feb27#1 / written while working on Ken’s first books.
Ken Irby and Gino Sky and Ann Quin have been my triumvirate poet/writers in my life. My dearest friends. And Lenore, my very dearest. Love to all in memory of Ken.
larry goodell / placitas, new mexico / 3Nov2015