Kenneth Lee Irby

11 entries
  • "Of the people I knew as an undergrad at KU, I had no..."
    - Bill Summers
  • "One of the greatest poets this country has been blessed..."
  • "I took many classes from Mr. Irby in the 90s. Shakespeare,..."
    - Brent Wallis
  • "My sincerest condolences to the Irby Family. May the Hearer..."
  • "Ken was a big part of my life for a very long time. If he..."
    - Lee Chapman
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Kenneth Lee Irby

Poet and University of Kansas Professor Kenneth Irby died at 5 a.m. on Thursday, July 30, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. He passed peacefully in his sleep, a few hours after close friends and colleagues read to him from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies, the first book of poems he owned, at the age of fourteen.

Irby's work is widely respected by readers and writers of innovative poetry worldwide. He published 20 books and chapbooks during his long and fruitful career. The last of these, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962-2006 (North Atlantic Books, 2009) was received warmly, and in 2010 the Poetry Society of America awarded Irby the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award. His body of poetry is quite diverse, but is characterized throughout by a conversational tone, persistent questioning, keen attention to the music of language, and a concern with geography, particularly that of Kansas.

Kenneth Lee Irby was born in Bowie, Texas in 1936, the son of physician Addison Craft Irby and nurse Dora Elizabeth Irby. In 1940, the family moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, where Ken grew up. He attended the University of Kansas and graduated with a BA in History in 1958; in 1960, he received an MA in Far Eastern Studies from Harvard University. He served in the Army from 1960-62, then went on to earn a Master of Library Science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. Irby taught briefly at Tufts University and Copenhagen University in Denmark, and in 1974 received a Fulbright fellowship. In 1977, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, to care for his elderly mother, and, in 1985, he began teaching at the University of Kansas. He was promoted to the rank of full professor in 2012 and continued teaching until his health no longer permitted.

Irby was a friend and associate of many of the poetic luminaries of his generation, such as Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, and Robert Creeley. His passing has been met with an outpouring of grief and sympathy from former students, colleagues, and fellow poets. "The first poet I ever laid eyes on!" said poet and critic Ron Silliman, who called Irby "a wonderful guy and still the poet with the best ear I've ever read." Irby's former student, attorney Genna Sue Hibbs, remarked, "He was stunning in his 'American Poets of the 20th Century' class and really opened up [Ezra] Pound and H.D. for me in a way I would not have found on my own. . . . he reminded you that poetry involved engaging all human experience."

Kenneth L. Irby is survived by a brother, James East Irby and his wife Marta Peixoto of Princeton, NJ; nephews Francisco, Daniel, and Thomas; and nieces Elizabeth and Mariana. Memorial services will be announced at a later date; interested parties should e-mail Joseph Harrington for more information, at [email protected]

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Published in Lawrence Journal-World on Aug. 6, 2015
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