American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

A Kansas Condition of Text

with 3 comments

Kenneth Irby (from the back flap of his collected poems)

I’ve been rereading Kenneth Irby’s poetry with pleasure this week, in a book I didn’t even know was in production: The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962-2006 (North Atlantic Books, 2009) — a book that also includes a fair amount of writing new to me. Pierre Joris has already written a note, a brief one (link here). This will be more like a footnote; a lengthy one.

Irby’s work has deep roots in nineteenth-century American poetry. Whitman is a particular source — Whitman and Shelley provide the book’s epigraphs — though the result has little in common with the Shelleyan Whitman of Allen Ginsberg. Irby is hardly a “bard”! His Whitman’s tone is best caught, I think, in the sequence “Delius” (1974), about the British composer Frederick Delius, who made an orchestral setting of Whitman’s “Sea-Drift.” [1] It’s a moody piece of music, which like the sea touches disparate shores. In Irby’s poem, too, the sea is sound. His shores are places where the poem has left its lilac scent — the North Atlantic shore of Whitman; Grez-sur-Loing, in France, where Delius lived; Irby’s own California coast, at Point Reyes:

upon the contours of the land

“It was a long, long time
before I understood exactly what I wanted to say
and then it came to me all at once”

Walt Whitman, along the Loing
into blackberry thickets toward the Reyes coast
agonizing before the 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass
along the North Atlantic shore
turning in the conversation

in the living room at Grez
to the high hills, wordless [2]

This plural experience, a chorus of perspectives, is true to Whitman’s poem, but it also owes (and acknowledges) a debt to Delius. A debt also to Irby’s modernist sources, poets of quotation and juxtaposed particulars — Olson in the beginning, later Zukofsky and Mandelstam.

Irby’s long-lined poems of the last quarter century are even more Whitmanian, though their plurality of perspectives is no longer presented in narrative form, or thematically, as in “Delius.” Their aspects simply accrue, however compressed by modernist technique, like “flecks of other colors on … worn crayola tips.” Notations on experience, they acquire meaning through accumulation.

But it isn’t Irby’s Whitman I wanted to write about here. Another nineteenth-century American earns mention in his work. Not as important a figure as Whitman, not as influential on Irby himself, but a piquant contrast on account of his insistently local importance — a locality that he shares with  Irby. I’m thinking here of Eugene F. Ware, a Kansas lawyer and politician, who wrote verse under the pen name “Ironquill,” verse rudely critiqued in Irby’s 1971 poem “For Max Douglas.”

The passage in which Ironquill appears begins with a reference to Cy Leland, a party boss from the same era; the “you” is Max Douglas, a poet from St. Joseph, in Missouri, just over the border from Kansas:

Cy Leland
was all mastery

the closest poetry
stayed to that in Kansas

was Ironquill Ware

whose poetry “stinks”
said Malin, “yes, it stinks”

the smell was in my adolescent nose
I knew who lived in his old house

3 blocks on down my street
flapdoodle jingo verse, cut East to be

Commissioner of Pensions, wet
his wit flies yet above

some lunchcounter present
avatar of that high interview

the point is, exiles
and to reach from that, from your

St Joe to present Lawrence
is a cut as far

and continental as the reach
to California

Irby, who grew up in Fort Scott, had gone West by the time he wrote this poem (it begins in Sonoma County, with “David” — David Bromige, I guess — informing Irby that Max Douglas had died). So what is he saying with that last reference to California? That he, a poet who left Kansas for army and school, was no less an exile than Ware, who went East for a patronage job? Perhaps so. But also that the distance across the border from St. Joseph to Lawrence was equally significant. Which means, presumably, that Ware’s significance — his Leland-like mastery of the art of verse — was circumscribed by geography. What then of Irby’s mastery? Is this why he denigrates Ware, citing James Claude Malin — the Carl Sauer of the grasslands — as authority? Though a careful reading of the poem might allow a degree of affection for the “stink” that lingered into Irby’s adolescence, there is surely an undermining irony in the negative judgment. Irby was then a poet who took the local Olson-fashion as his material. What happens when the material teaches you that the local is a limitation?

Irby eventually moved back to Kansas, and ceased to be local in the Olson way (as Olson himself did after moving back to Gloucester). But through the seventies, the problem of mastery vis-à-vis the local remained significant.

Given the Olsonian aspect of the problem, it would be a further irony that the denigration of Ware came from Irby’s “Sauer” (Sauer having been one of Olson’s intellectual “fathers”), but Malin was also the historian who did most to insure Ware of a posterity, having published nine essays on Ware before 1969. These were then followed by a book, published the same year as Irby’s poem. Irby quotes from that book in a journal entry now included with his collected poems. The quotes leave a very different impression than “For Max Douglas.”

Here’s the first quote; it comes from the opening of Malin’s introduction:

Literature has many examples of multiple personalities. Some of them are of unusual interest to both literature and general history, and each is a special case.

The reference here is to Ware’s split commitments, not only between politics and poetry, but also within poetry, Ware having written both humorous verse and philosophical verse. The next two quotes come from Malin’s final pages. There’s Ware himself, from a late sonnet:

… The book alone remains
Man builds no structure which outlives a book.

And Malin’s superfluous comment: “the poet must have meant the content of the book.” A Mallarméan thought, which Irby underscores by drawing a link between Ware’s Autobiography of Ithuriel (1909) and Mallarmé’s Igitur. Not exactly stink. [3]

I said before that there’s affection in Irby’s recollection of Ware’s stink, which did indeed get in Irby’s “adolescent nose,” though the evidence is not on view in The Intent On. But the evidence is there, in an old issue of Credences, a festschrift that includes a sample of Irby’s high school poems. Those poems do, to my sense, have an Ironquill quality — though not the Ironquill of “flapdoodle jingo verse”; the other one, the Mallarméan Ironquill, “The Philosopher of Yellow Paint Creek, Kansas.” There are differences, too, of course, quite major ones, but a certain shared impetus as well, a certain seriousness, tending toward abstraction, though edged with homely detail; a certain earnestness. Here’s the opening of Ware’s “The Real”:

They say
A certain flower that blooms forever
In sunnier skies
Is called the amaranth. They say it never
Withers away or dies, —
I never saw one.

And here is Irby’s “Credo”:

I could not enter there,
nor freeze the nightly vision
without pity.

I could not enter there,
nor in the afternoons describe the wet
descending world I met.
It was the silent weeping,
the almost bitter fear of loneliness.

And here is Ware’s “Elusion”:

The prairie grasses whispered in my ear
From year to year,
Strange melodies whose burning verses stole
Into my soul,
Strange songs which ever and anon would come
And sing themselves to me and hum and hum
Beyond control.

Yet when I tried to capture, word for word,
The songs I heard,
The written verses lost, it seemed to me,
The pictured melody.
I had not said that which I tried to say —
The music had in some uncertain way
Eluded me.

And here is Irby’s “Concertino”:

Infraction of light beneath these smeared-on
flowers, prism of mahogany, yellow ochre
is your color, yellow ochre is your mind.

You are like the sea, o cornflower of my
heart, spaced evenly in purple bowls and
tasted with my eyes. More cool than snow,

more orange than earth my knife spreads
swords against your face, and are they
swords? No, rather eyes and arms that

fall as sweet as melons to your breasts.
O nothing is to me so sensual and
deep as armpits full of golden leaves.

Which is no more successful a “pictured melody” than Ware’s, perhaps, but pretty good for a fifteen-year-old!

It’s remarkable, really, how faithful Irby’s later work remains to this impetus. Explaining, perhaps, why his Whitman resounds through the music of Delius, and why that Whitman became so central to his project. Like an orchestral setting of “Sea-Drift,” Irby’s Kansas belongs to the senses; an abstraction edged with particulars, aspiring to a condition of text:

études of massive block sonority
the sound of a cello saved from the baggage hold and caught
just before it hits the tarmac
the walk not to the paradise but the old home garden garden
even if that’s just the same old dump of a place and still to get there
sunk not to oblivion in the center of the river of fucking
but the importuning of intentioned and unrecognizable strangers
to set back the night or set it forward in the light
where inside the hyacinth vine the she-cardinal hops in and out to find


1 [Back to text] There is a Naxos CD with the original recording from 1936, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. “Sea-Drift” is a section title first used for the 1881-82 Leaves of Grass (it was “Sea-Shore Memories” in 1871-72); the principal poem — and the one from which Delius drew his text — is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

2 [Back to text] The spacing here is flattened to the left margin by the WordPress software. The original page can be seen here (via Google Books)

3 [Back to text] A later poem, written in Denmark, has “Ware foreshadowing Kipling 20 years” and “Mallarmé and War / crossing paths in the Lecompton dark.”


3 Responses

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  1. Hi Ben,

    Only you could touch these two wires together. I love this blog.

    Kind of touched by Irby’s relationship to Ironquill, which calls up a (not so far gone) world where kids learned the “local poet” by heart. You love and hate poetry that comes to you like that in a very special, inner-ear sort of way, I bet. “.. it never/Withers away or dies,” “sunk not to oblivion in the center of the river of fucking.”

    rodney k.

    December 16, 2009 at 1:58 pm

  2. Rodney:

    It was a lucky break for me, that my library owns the Malin book. I have a feeling it was self-published; anyway, hard to find.

    That passage in Irby’s poem has been in my head for a long time, and it just seemed the right moment had come to give it a closer look, that is, to look at the Ironquill part of it. I guess it’s my debt to Olson — or maybe just being a historian’s son — but I get a kick from checking sources. I don’t like leaving home, so I guess this is my version of visiting a monument in a foreign city.

    Do you think Ironquill was taught in school? I did wonder *how* the “smell” got in Irby’s nose.

    Thanks for the love!


    Ben Friedlander

    December 17, 2009 at 7:18 am

  3. I am glad you care about quality. The problem is that not enough individuals take the time to embrace talent. Its a bigger issue at hand. The business as a whole is oversaturated. We need to begin to teach the youth and new generations about the culture as a whole. 🙂 🙂

    The Saint Joseph Mo DJ

    February 7, 2010 at 1:57 am

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