David Kirby’s poetry can be divided into an early style and a later style. The seeds of his later poetry are clearly present in the earlier work, however, just as the subtle sophistication of his latter verse is more easily grasped after an examination of his earlier poems. Any consideration of Kirby’s body of work as a whole must necessarily grapple with three overarching characteristics of his poetry. First is the astounding breadth and depth of his knowledge and interests. Kirby’s poems will connect writer Edgar Allan Poe, composer Charles Ives, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and pop vocalist Percy Sledge (“Looking for Percy Sledge,” from The Ha-Ha). The subjects of his poetry range from French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida to rock-and-roll pioneer Little Richard to Dracula to poet John Crowe Ransom, not to mention the author’s own life.
Second (as perhaps made clear by his wide-ranging interests), Kirby’s verse is often wry and humorous. Readers should be careful not to dismiss his poetry as only light verse, however. Often Kirby will lead readers through a humorous narrative to touch on grief, desolation, and loss. His poem “Lurch, Whose Story Doesn’t End” (from Big-Leg Music) tells of a college trip to the beach that ends with the death of one of the students, a young man referred to as “Lurch” because of his similarity to the character in The Addams Family (1964-1966) television series. The speaker says that Lurch’s story “. . . doesn’t have to have an ending./ Or maybe some stories simply don’t end./ Certainly the story of Lurch never ends;/ it just stops being told.”
Finally, Kirby has focused more and more on narrative poetry as his career has developed. In the poem “Borges at the Northside Rotary” (from The Ha-Ha), he explains his aesthetic: “so I tell him that when most nonpoets think/ of the word ’poetry,’ they think of ’lyric poetry,’/ not ’narrative poetry,’ whereas what I’m doing// is ’narrative poetry.’” Some critics have noted that Kirby’s long narrative poems in some senses are types of monologues; while there is truth to this, the rhythm and presentation of the poems on the page are essential.
Sarah Bernhardt’s Leg and Saving the Young Men of Vienna
Kirby’s extraordinary intellect and diverse range of interests, as well as his humorous approach to poetry, are fully on display in his two early collections, Sarah Bernhardt’s Leg and Saving the Young Men of Vienna. The poems in these collections are...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)