David Kirby

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

David Kirby
December 2010

Aaron, today I want to tell you about the poet David Kirby. David happens to be exactly my age, whatever age that might be. He has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and he’s been teaching at Florida State University for his whole career. He’s published 22 books and hundreds of articles. Whew! He’s written everything from scholarly articles to children’s stories.

He’s won four Pushcart Prizes, the Brittingham Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship—all of those are pretty much the biggest deal you can win in poetry—plus a string of others; his poems have been included in Best American Poetry twice.

This crazy productivity has included 30 or 40 book reviews a year. He writes for the New York Tiimes, and he’s on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

What I think will come through in Kirby’s poems that I want to read for you, is his sense of humor. Which brings me to the subject of humor in poems. Let me quote you what Kirby said about that in an interview with Taylor Gorman on a site called tumblr.com:

This is Kirby: “People are always pointing out to me that poetry’s not really funny. Thanks a lot! But usually they’re the same people who complain that poetry doesn’t rhyme any more, even though it does. What I’m saying is that people who misunderstand or miscategorize poetry usually don’t read poetry; otherwise, they’d know how wrong they are. Barbara Hamby and I just co-edited an anthology [an aside—this is his wife, who’s also a fine poet] calledSeriously Funny: Poems About Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else. It’s 400+ pages of poems by great American poets over the last 60 years, all of whom are serious and funny at the same time. That’s pretty natural, don’t you think? When you’re talking to your friends, don’t you lament, joke, celebrate, rue, and get pig-biting mad, all in the same conversation? I do.

That’s what Kirby’s poems do. They move in all those directions—nimbly, I might add. I’d like to launch into one of his really long ones, but this will do. It’s called

These Arms of Mine

Sometimes interviewers want to know what
dead people I’d like to have dinner with,
but my answer to that is nobody;
I mean, I wouldn’t mind following Dante around
and see who he talks to and where he shops and what

his writing schedule is, but can you imagine
trying to have a conversation with Dante?
Yeah, he wrote the greatest poem ever,
but his world view would be totally different from mine,
plus his temper was supposed to have been terrible.

Shakespeare wouldn’t say anything, probably;
he’d be storing up bits for his next play. Whitman
would probably talk your head off, and then
you’d be bored and not like his work as much as you
used to. No, I don’t want to have dinner with anybody.

But if you’re serious about time travel, I’d like
to go to Jamaica in 1967 and be sitting at a table
and drinking a Red Stripe in the after-hours club
where Bob Marley is playing, and Otis Redding,
who is touring the island, comes in “like a god,”

according to eyewitness accounts, and Bob Marley
looks up and begins to sing “These Arms of Mine.”
Wow. I tell you, I wouldn’t be myself.
I’d be Troilus or Tristan or Lancelot,
crying my eyes out for Cressida or Isolde

or Guinevere. She’d be on the battlements
of a castle in Troy or Wales or England,
all beautiful and sad-eyed, and I’d be clanking
up a storm as I drop my lance and brush
my visor back and pound the table with my mailed fist

while all the rastas look at me and say “I and I a-go
cool out wit’ a spliff, mon!” But my arms
are burning, burning from wanting you
and wanting, wanting to hold you because
I need me somebody, somebody to treat me right,

oh, I need your woman’s loving arms to hold me tight.
And I . . . I . . . I need . . . I need your . . . I need
your tender lips, and if you would let these arms,
if you would let these arms of mine, oh, if you would
just let them hold you, oh, how grateful I would be.

Man, that poem took me through the entire history of poetry, all over the scale, all the way to Bob Marley and, whoa, is that Elvis?—”treat me right”? What we need, the root of all those famous words, says Kirby here, is the need to hold someone and be held.

Kirby has these ragged margins for all his poems—you can see them, Aaron, but our audience can’t. Maureen McLane asked him about those in a 2004 interview in the Chicago Tribune:

He said one reason is that he loves long, compound sentences, and the sawtooth effect keeps from getting too many of what editors call “word stacks” down the left margin, such as a bunch of “ands” piled on top of one another. I know what he means because my poems are sometimes word stacks. I didn’t know that’s what editors call them!

Kirby says also that he thinks of each poem as a kind of reading script, too; even if the reader isn’t listening, really, she can get a kind of jazzy aural effect from what she sees on the page.

Plus—and I’m quoting him here: “It’s a signature look, isn’t it? Nobody else is doing it. Or if they are, it looks as though they’re stealing my stuff, which makes my stuff worth stealing. But prose poetry? Nope, not for me. Prose poets give up all semblance of rhythm, whereas I want to stay highly rhythmical.”

Okay, one more Kirby poem. This one in in triplets—three-line stanzas—with the first line to the margin, then the second one indented and the third indented but not quite so much, so there’s a regular staggered pattern.

It’s called “Almost Happy” –I ran across it in the fall issue of Arts & Lettersmagazine.

Almost Happy

My father is the first of our parents to die, and when
he does, Barbara says, “We only have to do this three
more times, right?” So many ways to do it. My dad

just told my mom that they ought to hit the road, then put
his head on her shoulder and went to sleep. But if you
want, you can take your own life, and that of your

pretty wife, too! When Othello kills himself, he uses
sleight of hand to distract Lodovico, Montano, Cassio,
and Gratiano as he readies the sword with which he will

stab himself to death and tells the story of an epic
battle with a “malignant and turban’d Turk,” ending
the military recap and his own life at the same moment

when he says, “I took by the throat the circumcised
dog, / and smote him—thus.” To dead Desdemona
he says with his last breath,” I kiss’d thee ere

I kill’d thee; no way but this; /Killing myself,
to die upon a kiss,” for so mixed are love and hate
that if we are not heedful, if we are not cautious

and sober stewards of our emotions, then we will find
ourselves no better off than the young nobleman
named Julian who, returning from the hunt

one day and thinking himself to have surprised
his wife in bed with her lover, drew his sword
and slew the covered figures, only to learn that,

in his absence, his parents had come to visit, and,
respectful daughter-in-law that she was, his missus
had offered the best bed in the house to the mother

and father of the now-orphaned noble who renounced
all his worldly goods, withdrew to a river bank,
and, as St. Julian the Poor (though not yet), devoted

the rest of his life to ferrying strangers to the other side.
One dark and stormy night, a leprous pilgrim
appeared and demanded to be carried over despite

the evident dangers, and after several hesitations,
the saint-to-be invited the stranger into his bark,
and when they were in the middle of the river, the leaper’s head

became surrounded by a luminous nimbus, and it was—
guess who, reader? That’s right! Jesus Christ, come
to take away the sins of the unhappy parricide!

And you thought you had problems. Boy, I’d feel awful
if I’d done what Julian had, wouldn’t you? Future
sainthood notwithstanding. When I recount

some mistake or other I’ve made to Barbara and say,
“At least I never killed my mom and dad,” she says,
“Well, you’re okay there, Dave.” But looking back,

I realize that, at the end of his life, I wanted my father
to die, to put down the burden that had become
himself and not drag it into his eighty-ninth year.

And I hope my own sons will feel that way
about me, that they’ll see the humor in it.
Death: either you get it or you don’t.

Conductor Loren Maazel says “The idea of dying
is like a joke or a literary device. It’s not all that bad.
So you fall into eternal sleep. So what?”

Maybe that’s what Henry James meant when he wrote that,
in the hours following their mother’s last moments,
he and his brothers and sister where “almost happy.”

See, I am in great admiration of this poem because David Kirby is able to take me all over the place—from his father to Othello to St. Julian to Loren Maazel to Henry James —and I end up not at all where I would have thought. He makes me laugh, or at least smile, over the sad, or the tragic. What he does, I think, is actually marry the comedy and tragedy in the time-honored way that makes us feel ….I could go on to try to say HOW it makes us feel, but feel is the point, isn’t it? I don’t think we can feel one way (happy, for instance) without feeling the other. What Kirby does here reminds me of when we’re at a wake, or, you know, at the house after a funeral. We do all that laughing—telling funny stories about the deceased—and then we have tears of joy and sadness running down our cheeks! When one strong emotion is called up, the others come along for the ride. David Kirby’s poems manage to take us on an amazing ride.[/two_third]

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry