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Poet reads reflections from “American Urn”

| Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Saint Mary’s English Department hosted poet Mark Irwin for a reading and book signing Tuesday. Irwin read from his newest book of poems, “American Urn: New & Selected Poems (1987-2013),” a collection of what he said he considers to be his best work.

Assistant Professor of English Aaron Moe introduced Irwin, whose poems and essays have been published in numerous literary magazines, including The American Poetry Review, The Atlantic and The Kenyon Review. Irwin holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Case Western Reserve. He has also taught at various colleges and universities across the country.

Irwin’s collections include “Against the Meanwhile” (1989), “Quick, Now, Always” (1996), “White City” (2000), “Bright Hunger” (2004), “Tall If” (2008), “Large White House Speaking” (2013) and “American Urn” (2014).

“Just as there are endangered species, there are endangered forms of thought,” Moe said. “Reading through ‘American Urn,’ one quickly recognizes how Irwin has revived and created his own forms of thought and gives us, as readers, the opportunities to dwell and linger within those forms, and as those several distinct forms recur throughout the collection, one can settle into those forms and wander in them and discover a new largeness.”

Irwin read a number of his poems from “American Urn” and from his next, unpublished book. Among the poems he read were “Go,” “Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz,” “My Father’s Hats” and “Lucky Boy.”

“I never really plan a reading,” Irwin said. “I kind of listen to what people are saying and compose it around the moment. I was talking to [Moe] and he said, ‘I think Big Bang is still going on at this moment. That we are moving out and that’s actually what the present is. That we’re one with the Big Bang which is continuous.’ So a lot of my poems are about the present tense.”

After reading his poem “Ars Poetica,” meaning the art of poetry, Irwin said, “I’m just realizing that there are all these advertisements in Los Angeles all on the freeways. Everything is reduced to a stock phrase. We have to fight against the pollution of language. That woke me.”

Irwin said he draws inspiration for his poems from everything around him. When he taught Humanities for Veterinary students at Colorado State, he witnessed a professor perform a spay on a labrador retriever, which he used in one of his poems, titled “The Death.” His poem “My Father’s Hats” was written in part when Irwin’s father was alive and finished in a matter of minutes after his father’s death.

Irwin said he was able to draw inspiration from the most mundane aspects of life. He said he named one of his books “Bright Hunger” after waking up to the bright sun and realizing he was hungry. His poem “Tomato Soup” depicts life in the suburbs, which he found in a can of tomato soup.

“The gift of poetry is the gift of wakefulness,” Moe said after the reading. “Thank you [Irwin] for your gift to help us be more awake.”

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About Nicole Caratas

Nicole is a senior English Writing and Humanistic Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. Now a senior news writer, she previously served as the Saint Mary's Editor. She was born in real Chicago but grew up in the suburbs, and she currently lives in Opus Hall.

Contact Nicole