Kenneth Irby (November 18, 1936 – July 30, 2015)

Irby at home in Lawrence, trying to point me toward a CD we wanted to listen to — November 2011.

Irby at home in Lawrence, KS, trying to point me toward a CD we wanted to listen to — November 2011.

Profound sadness at the passing of an old friend, a major poet — whose work is way underappreciated in this, his country —, a great lover of literature, landscape and music. Below a poem from the sixties — p. 133 in his indispensable The Intent On (Collected Poems 1962-2006), North Atlantic Books 2009 — one of the poems I came across early on in his book Relation, and that introduced me to a part of this land I knew nothing about, and which I learned — via Robert Duncan — to call Irbyland. For more on his work, check out the Irby homage on Jacket2, here.


Three Geographical Variations

for Ed Dorn

North out of Lawrence we turned
east before we had to a back
track to Valley Falls and Ozawkie back
roads north into Hiawatha
Old trips of the past will not save us
Noon meals in or out of a calendar
picture quiet and readdress the east
turn into White Cloud and Iowa Point
to reach toward the river and where
the river’s urge in us eased us a little
That is the flow the urge toward
each other links hand in hand as
word in word driving drinking beer all Sunday afternoon
I have come west and at the far ocean remember
It does not matter loose specifics of whose
the linkage matters the flow
the closeness possible the intimations of divinity
as intimations of the dreamed spread land
spread before the eyes of those White Clouds diddled sooners
even the willful wily promoters
looking west at the land’s run
out from under them


I will not let blood and I do not know
if there is any turning back upon the land
to traverse, how much
traversing now will reopen
what spaces seem nowhere
ease us together—it is not different to go past
the endless misuse of landscape
here in Berkeley or there in New Mexico, what space
is open beyond is open across the whole world
Looks past whatever salvations of individuals
realizing salvation is only to pass
into the space all people live in


There is no need to substitute any world for this one
in order to come into any wonder or more
enter the open imagination. Good and evil
seem kindness and indifference    at each footstep
At the other edge of each tree    another pasture
the shade fallen on each face into the sun
Into each lit house dark street we walk home
The stories where we are all changed
beyond the wardrobes back wall    pass through
The eye is blue wonder brown opener the horizon
shines through upon the toss and fling the ring glints
head up in the air    grass goes by    like starlings
iridescent in the sky

—16 Apr 1966

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20 Responses

  1. W.A. Summers says:

    Primary source material re Ken’s life and work
    should be suitably gathered and preserved. Clearly, personal letters demand the care of redaction, etc.

    • Francisco says:

      His archives, manuscripts and letters will be curated by and housed at KU’S Spencer Library.

      • Bill Summers says:

        Not necessarily. Those having his letters written to them will decide if/ where/ they wish to
        make them accessible. Letters Ken wrote to his close friend and literary inspiration, Prof. Edward
        F. Grier, in the very critical time phase of 1958-60 thus far have been withheld from Spencer Research
        Library. Suitably expurgated, these letters would be extremely revealing and valuable to anyone researching Ken’s work. …Spencer Research Library? Not necessarily.

        • Bill Summers says:

          Ken’s letters to Ed Grier (Prof. Edward Francis Grier of the University of Kansas ) during Ken’s
          tumultuous creative matrix time at Harvard (1958-60) are not included or accounted for in the
          recently completed sale by Granary Books of archival items (from Ken’s storage, apartment, etc.) to KU Spencer Research Library. It is unclear if they yet exist. Ken’s letters from Harvard are remarkably
          open and deep reaching, often written while drinking. It is noteworthy perhaps that an archival effort
          would begin with items peripheral to this central phase of Ken’s development, 1958-60, and that the
          letters, etc. from Ken in this matrix two year time seem yet AWOL. The materials provided by Granary
          were collected within the Probate process after Ken’s death and apparently sold (?) to Granary? Noting
          the AWOL status is one thing. Suggesting responsibility for it is quite another matter and extraneous to
          this comment.

    • I feel sure Kenneth would have wished a good bit
      of information (documents, anecdotes, commentaries etc.) of relevance to his work to be accessible online–suitably redacted and subject to editing of addenda by online viewers. Suitable interviews with his yet living age peers having interacted with him–are obviously not served by undue delays.

      • Bill Summers says:

        To update this.: I have suggested to two other of Ken’s age peers among Ken’s cohort at the University of
        Kansas that just a conference cell phone discussion might offer up basic facts of fundamental importance
        to establishing his archive at KU Spencer Research Library and of indispensable importance to any legal
        contracts that seek basically to “fence out ” (contract boilerplate) undesirable temptations in order to
        fence in and nurture the positive aspects of human nature of relevance to this archival matter. It may be
        a bit plebian on campus to consider “intelligence” as Army (or police) sergeants do….or, for that matter, as
        fee based law firms do, btw…but the poetry of all is captured in this context by a skilled janitor’s queries:
        Do they know what the hell they are talking about? Are they shooting straight? Who in the hell is
        in charge?

        • Bill Summers says:

          Underway! —a two hour 27 minute phone visit with snowbound R. Alan Kimball (Emeritus,
          U. of Oregon, Eugene) yesterday got the ball rolling. As prosaic at it is, factual excavation ought
          to inform any arrangements re any archives for Ken. A web site for selections from his letters, etc.
          can help reach the contemporary counterparts to 13 year old Ken Irby…some of them perhaps in
          archive-remote places like , say, Goodland, Kansas, or Cross Cut, Texas.

  2. billoo says:


    thank you for pointing us to K. Irby. Bought the book soon after you recommended it. A real treasure trove and some lovely lines.

    In particular, really like:

    ‘The light in each room of the house is different
    But the light of the whole house
    Hangs suspended in eternal afternoon.’


    ‘The sight at any moment
    is as complete as the human heart is.’

  3. donald sims says:

    Ken Irby came here on

  4. Bill Summers says:

    I seek information as to what archival sources, if any, might by now be into collecting primary source materials (especially letters from Ken ) relevant to Ken’s writing career. Several of us who were in his undergrad cohort are in life’s twilight time….sooo before sunset maybe ?

  5. Molly Mackinnon says:

    Pierre, bonsoir de Kansas. Innumerable times did Ken mention you and read from your works in my classes with him. We became friends, bonding over Polish poets and Pleistocene stone tool remnants…and writing. I loved him a great deal and felt his human influence deeply. Just a note to connect through him these many months later. M.

  6. W. A. Summers says:

    Ken, as a 12-13 year old adolescent, began writing poetry and obsessively reading poetry. This corresponded
    with a very unsettling change in his life when his single sibling, his older brother, James East Irby, left the
    home in Fort Scott, Kansas, to enter the University of Kansas in Lawrence. An outgrowth of this time of
    ferment for Ken was an incident that occurred when W. H. Auden appeared for readings at the nearby
    Pittsburg (Kansas) State University in 1952. High school student Ken Irby was among a group of Fort Scott
    students selected to attend a special reading by Auden. In the course of it, Auden accepted requests from
    the students and this precocious 16 year old, Ken Irby, asked Auden if he would read his poem “Spain”. This
    was during the “McCarthy era” and reading this poem…or having it mentioned…was the last thing Auden
    wished to encounter. He refused. But he did graciously autograph a 1945 edition of his work that Ken
    had been given by Jim Irby. Ken almost certainly had several of his own poems “published” in
    mimeographed Fort Scott High School newsletters . From age 13, Ken began making often copious daily
    entries into journals he kept. He published some poems circa 1954-57 in the KU campus Quill Club
    newsletters. But writing poetry did not become an intense focus until the two turbulent years at Harvard,
    culminating in his M.A. degree and his decision to enlist for two years in the Army in preference to going on
    for a Ph.D. He was stationed in New Mexico ( re. atomic testing) and thus got personally acquainted with
    Bob Creeley, whom Ken described in a letter to me as being “a very close personal friend”.

    • Bill Summers says:

      Further to this comment of Dec 09. Ken’s personal journals were an important focus in his daily life
      when I first met him in 1955. I suspect his devotion to his personal journal entries began in his unsettling
      12-13 year old phase in Fort Scott. It is highly likely he “published” some of his adolescent excursions into
      writing poety–“published” them in mimeographed high school “publications” Retrieval of any of them
      might be quite a challenge, if possible at all. His high school era journals would likely venture from time
      to time into his at least rough drafts of some of his poems. He likely was distracted from writing poetry to
      a significant extent by his firm devotion to the high school debate team that seems to have likely begun
      about 1953 (?”) He was a championship debater in the distinguished University of Kansas debate program
      circa 1955-58. Among those then linked to him in this framework are some later distinguished
      academics—e.g. Don R. Bowen—Illinois; Raymond L. Nichols of Monash U. (Australia); R. Alan
      Kimball (U. of Oregon, Eugene). As noted in comments already, Ken Irby did publish a few poems in the
      1954-57 time frame in the University of Kansas campus publication QUILL.

  7. W. A. Summers says:

    Ed Grier (Prof. Edward Francis Grier ) at KU in Lawrence was the central figure in Ken’s interest circa
    1956-57 in Walt Whitman. I was often privy to extensive discussions between them in Ed’s home, and
    Ed’s influence was very basic to Ken’s reorientations during the turbulent two years at Harvard, 1958-60.
    The letters I received from Ken during that time and the letters received from Ken by a couple others in
    our KU undergraduate cohort are extremely revealing of the reorientations taking place. The many letters
    Ken wrote to Ed Grier in that time span would be of core importance in any archival arrangement doing
    justice to Kenneth’s work. I can’t fathom Ed relinquishing ownership of the letters he received. His own
    devotion to the primary resource materials basic to his own Whitman scholarship would have dictated that
    he usher the letters into the KU archives in due course. That the letters may very well have been put in the
    custody of others is quite likely in that expurgation of some highly personal content would have been clearly
    regarded. In his respect, Ken’s copious journals from age 13 onward would also be hugely valuable. The archival effort, if I be adequately aware, has not yet come by these materials. ??

    • Bill Summers says:

      Ed Grier also was very basic to Ken’s fervent interest circa 1958 in the poetry of Hart Crane. This was the major
      step in Ken Irby’s gravitation toward the work of Olson, then Creeley, Dorn, Duncan , , , A very timely and very
      vital person in Ken’s consolidation of centering his life on poetry was Bob Creeley. Basic to this was the
      decision Ken made in 1960 to step back from going on for a PhD at Harvard, his then having completed very
      ably an M.A. there ( history). Ken decided to enlist in the Army (the draft was part of American life back then)
      and was stationed at Sandia in New Mexico in a sort of research library position. This set the basis for his
      making contact with Creeley and spending great amounts of time at the Creeley home. By 1963 or so this
      close “across the table friendship” had distanced into an “across the room cordiality”–this, according to letters I received from Ken. But Ken spoke in letters 1961 or so of “being advised by Bob to …. or to ….” The notion of anyone being able to “advise” Ken was astonishing to those of us who were in his cohort at the University of Kansas circa 1954-58. Ed Grier and then Bob Creeley were hugely important figures in Ken’s creative ascendency.

  8. Bill Summers says:

    It is likely Ken Irby “published” a few poems circa 1949-53 (?) in mimeographed “publications” of Fort Scott (Kansas) High School. As noted, he did publish a few poems circa 1954-56 in the University of Kansas
    QUILL publication. He was a prominently successful debater in the distinguished University of Kansas
    debate squad during about all of his undergraduate enrollment there, 1954-58, attaining noted success in
    the Heart of America national debate tournament, among other tournaments. Among the debate squad
    at that time were later distinguished academics such as Don R. Bowen, Raymond L. Nichols, R. Alan Kimball…

  9. Bill Summers says:

    What has been emergent in the last four decades or so re the important role of heredity in human
    personality warrants perhaps some regard to the degree of analogy between Kenneth’s father ,
    Craft Irby (M.D.–pediatrician ) and Kenneth. Craft Irby was a very significant figure at Ole Miss
    (hometown: Holly Springs, Ms.) in the struggle for tolerance of jazz, himself a highly regarded jazz
    pianist. Craft’s younger brother, Pratt Irby (M.D.–urology ) was very able with jazz trumpet. And
    the younger brother, Pleasant Eugene Irby, Jr., also became a sax player in the Ole Miss “Mississippians”
    jazz group. Craft also organized his own jazz group that sustained itself commercially (How well?) for
    a time from Memphis to New Orleans. His role in jazz and with the Ole Miss “Mississippians” was formally
    honored with an award sometime well after WW II.

  10. W. A. (Bill) Summers says:

    Ah, well, a year later now: The letters from Ken that Ed Grier had are represented in an organized way now in the Spencer Research Library—except for the dainty fact that they are letters written in, or after, 1963 ! WHERE are the feverish, brutally candid (often from 90 proof, solo ) letters written Ed by Ken in the tumultuous formative period of 1958-61 and beyond.?? The two years at Harvard 1958-60 are of basic significance. In a letter to me in the spring of 1960, Ken notes (again, writing solo from his Cambridge room, perhaps loosed by bourbon?) that on Feb. 10, 1960, he resolved to make priority each day of time devoted to writing poetry, dealing with his academic course work as immediate sidebar. And this observation, shared by me with C** H******** of the then Lawrence, Kansas, “Palace” rooming arrangement at 11th and Ohio, caused him to recall that at Spring break that year, Kenneth, back briefly from Harvard, while staying a few days at the “Palace”, was notably outside for a few hours each day writing in a chair in the yard. But the very brutally frank letters written his friends and associates during 1958-60 appear to be given no cognizance in the transaction of $31,000 leading to presumed centrally important archival materials coming to rest in the Spencer Research Library that sooo widely interfaces with tax supported KU.

    And in the lawyer guided claim of copyright over letters written by Kenneth, there appears to be a memory loss about the whispered little issue of Ken’s manifest attitude and behaviors vis a vis what he termed at the time as “bourgeois copyright law”. His feverish “boosting” (stealing) of books from prosper bookshops was by all indications a ramification of this point of view put into action. His disdain for copyright “exploitation” of cultural knowledge was manifest in comments, written allusions, and in his observations (to me, anyhow) about the lack of copyright assertion by the Foreign Language Publishing House in Moscow of books they published in English translations that were sold at cost by a Chicago licensed outlet.
    What basis does all this have for a declaration that his personal letters to his friends in this time frame are subject to copyright. ???

  1. July 31, 2015

    […] is way underappreciated in this, his country —, a great lover of literature, landscape and music. Below a poem from the sixties — p. 133 in his indispensable The Intent On (Collected Poems […]

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