Latta & Hafner on Ken Irby

Kenneth Irby by Robert Amory

Two items of note concerning Kenneth Irby, whose book The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962-2006 I made my favorite book of the year (& most necessary one!) on this blog some time ago: A review & meditation by John Latta which you can read here on his Isola di Rifiuti blog, and an article by Josh Hafner, which I reproduce below with his permission. Hafner’s piece, authored for a class in multimedia studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, also includes a video of Irby reading, which you can see here.

‘Kenneth Irby: poet & professor’ by Josh Hafner

Kenneth Irby was 25 years old when he watched one of America’s last nuclear explosions fade into the Pacific sky on July 9, 1962. Drafted by the Army, he performed clerical work at a nuclear testing facility on Johnston Island, near Hawaii. He still recalls the moment with great clarity.

“It was 400 miles straight up, a warhead in the middle of night. You couldn’t hear anything; it was too far away. But it lit up the sky,” he said. “It faded, leaving a blood-red streak along the magnetic axis. That’s the part I really remember most.”

The explosion Irby saw, however, was the only successful detonation after three attempts by the U.S. at Johnston Island. The first warhead was lost by the Army after failing to detonate in the air and was never recovered. The second missile fell over before even launching.

“I had a friend who went up from the bunker to watch the liftoff,” he said, smiling. “And when it just fell over, he s— his pants. And I don’t blame him in the least.”

Thankfully, the warheads detonated remotely, not by impact.

Following his military stint, Irby experienced firsthand the political revolution of 1960’s Berkeley, Calif. He later taught at Tufts University and, upon winning a Fulbright scholarship, went on to work at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In the early 1970’s, he even ran a tailor shop.

Now 73, with silvery beard and eyes behind thick glasses, Irby is a professor of English at KU and a summation of history and experiences. It’s befitting then that he is also a storyteller. More than that, he’s a poet and, by most indications, a good one.

Last December, North Atlantic Books released Irby’s ‘The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962-2006’, a 680-page, weighty tome chronicling not only Irby’s poetry across four decades, but also his passions, emotions, and stories. In the book, Irby retells his Johnston Island experience in the poem ‘For Round Dances’:

a million and a half tons
of TNT-worth
of atomic bomb, so bright the flash of detonation
lit the deck light as sunlight
through our goggles almost all-opaque

The collection was released to acclaim in American poetry circles that some say is long overdue. William J. Harris, a fellow professor, poet and friend of Irby, said the collection’s release is a distinct footnote in a long-overlooked career.

“This is an extraordinary moment that Ken’s collected poems has finally come out,” he said. “This is a wonderful moment for him, for American poetry. Many people know the importance of Ken and his contribution, but now the world can know.”

If the world doesn’t know yet, perhaps it’s slowly noticing. Last March, the Poetry Society of America, an organization pivotal in establishing the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, announced Irby as co-winner of the Shelley Memorial Award, an honor he shares not only this year with contemporary Eileen Miles, but also with previous winners such as Gary Snyder and E.E. Cummings. He and Miles will split a monetary award of $6,000. Irby’s brother, James Irby, accepted the award on his behalf at in award ceremony in New York City on April 1.

“It’s specified as being for poets ‘of genius and need,’” Irby said. “I thought, ‘Well that doesn’t fit me either way!’ I don’t know where they got that.”

His laughter rings out in his small office in Wescoe Hall, made smaller by enclosing shelves on all sides, heavy with books. Whitman. Kerouac. Hemingway. A plethora of major authors are represented here in book form, many stuffed with Irby’s scribbled notes on old day planner sheets. Others have wine stains on the pages, memories from nights-in well spent.

And there in his hands lies his own book, his own work and words, at this point devoid of any self-commentary or wine spills. Irby still seems impressed by its physical size and weight. But compiling the book’s 400 plus entries isn’t something he did done alone.

Cyrus Console, a doctoral student from Topeka, and Kyle Waugh, an English lecturer from Kansas City, met in Irby’s poetry workshop at the University more than a decade ago. Today, they’re listed on the book’s title page next to Irby’s, as editors. They approached Irby about publishing his collected poems, eventually compiling the works, designing page layouts and dealing with the publisher.

“We were both students of Ken and he has been a definitional person in my life, so that book represents my education of the past 10 years from Ken,” Waugh said. “I got to reckon with the fact that the book achieves this sort of presence. Ken is in there and it documents a lived life.”

That lived life began November 1936 in Bowie, Texas. Irby was born the second of two boys to a doctor and nurse who met at John Hopkins University and married the week the stock market crashed. The family moved to Fort Scott when his father joined a practice there. For a break from small town pace, he would often join his mother on weekend shopping trips to Kansas City, Mo. On one such trip, Irby first encountered the art form that would guide his life.

“She was shopping at a department store downtown called Klines, and like all good department stores it had a book section. And there it had a copy of [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s ‘Duino Eulogies,’” he said. “Published in the late 30’s, it could have been sitting there all that time, waiting for me. It opened up many worlds at once. And at 14 I was ready.”

A young Irby began writing poems shortly thereafter. Besides having a poem published in a national anthology of high school students, he mostly kept them to himself. He went on to study at KU before being drafted into the Army in 1960. During that time he met Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn, two poets enshrined in ‘The New American Poetry,’ Donald Allen’s prophetic anthology highlighting the new American literary scene of the 1950’s. Irby eventually moved to Berekeley, Calif., where Creeley and Dorn nurtured his work, introducing him to a community of authors and poets in the wake of San Francisco’s burgeoning poetry scene.

The evidence of Irby’s poetic camaraderie can be seen scattered about his office: photographs of him throwing knives with William S. Burroughs here, a personal letter from Allen Ginsberg there. Irby shares stories about those friendships and times with a smile. But if his poetry is any indication, perhaps it is the present moment and people that are worthy of celebration.

“The most important thing I’ve learned from Ken is to engage as much of my experience as possible, that every little thing matters, has significance and can be mined for that significance, that it’s worth doing,” said Waugh, looking back on the hours spent compiling poems with Irby for ‘The Intent On’. “That’s one of those most important things Ken can teach.”

Console agrees. Since enrolling in Irby’s poetry course years ago, he’s become a nationally recognized poet himself. His first book, ‘Brief Under Water’ was published in 2008.

“Ken will remind you that less important than if you get questions out of him is that you have a meaningful exchange,” Console said, “that you know he appreciates you, welcomes you and wants you to be there.”

After more than two decades of teaching at the University, Irby gathers books and notes from his office and prepares to leave for a lecture that afternoon. It’s spring and flowers are blooming.  In a few weeks Irby will once again live out the words of ‘Homage’, the final poem gracing the last page of his collected works:

You will not always walk in the rain
on a May morning
or see the iris in bloom
before you give a final
on a campus where you were young and took them
longer ago than you will live after

Once again for Kenneth Irby, at 2:15 on a Tuesday afternoon, life and art will interweave.

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