Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 6, 1996

The Writing Seminars: Turning To Other Matters

Stepping down: Writing
Seminars chairman
John Irwin retires
from the post he's
held for 19 years.

Steve Libowitz

     John Irwin is a half an hour into the reading of his epic
poem, Let Me Say This About That: A Dialogue. With an audience of
about 60 students, faculty and guests pressed close together in
the wood-paneled, denlike Tudor and Stuart Room in Homewood's
Gilman Hall, Irwin is giving a virtuoso final performance of the
nearly 100-page poem that has been 14 years in the writing and
read in public--in ever-increasing versions--for the past 10

     The poem is a hip, satiric, cynical, desperate, hopeful,
lyrical, episodic conversation between three characters named
Bird, Fox and Fish and another called Sir (whom Irwin introduced
as a composite of God, the president of the United States and
everybody's father). It rambles over the social landscape of
middle class America, providing both an intimate engagement with
and a distanced impression of middle-class angst wrung through
topics as diverse as the desperation of Christmas, the futility
of work, a fatal car accident, the death of a man's children, the
life of the bums at Penn Station in New York, the triviality of
politics, the death of pets, the human condition, and the value
and meaning of life.

     It's a comedy, of sorts. 

     The next day, Irwin will regret that he forgot to tell his
audience that it's OK to laugh at poetry, especially this poem,
which in parts is meant to be very funny.

     "I get more into it if people laugh," he'll say the next

     But now an hour into the reading, he seems to be into it
just fine. Clipping through the stanzas at the quickened pace of
much of modern conversation, his rhythm propels the episodes
inexorably forward with thick imagery and philosophical insights.
Listening to Irwin's engaging voice, laced slightly with a Texas
twang similar to PBS's Bill Moyers, the listener works to
interpret what has just been left behind while tuning into what's
happening now, considering the meaning of the whole of the thing.
It takes effort, but it is a most pleasant experience.

     And then, after 75 minutes, it is over, with 20 pages left
unread and another 10 or so left to be written before it is
finally completed at summer's end. The audience applauds. Irwin
becomes all but absorbed in the push of a handful of
well-wishers. He seems a bit winded--as if having just run a
marathon. But his soft, brown eyes, barricaded behind large,
squarish glasses, reveal exhilaration, triumph. He will likely
never read it again in public once it is published, although he
has asked actor, friend and alumnus John Astin to read it should
he ever do that sort of thing again in his career. Astin agreed.

     Astin is one of dozens of Writing Seminars graduates who
have gone on to successful careers, most as writers but many in
theater, film and other creative fields. And Irwin has seen
countless of them pass through the department while he presided
over one of the country's leading graduate writing programs as
chairman for the past 19 years. On July 1, he turns the job over
to colleague Mark Crispin Miller. 

     "No doubt I had done something in a previous lifetime that
could only be expiated by 19 years," he says with easy
self-deprecation. "As you know, people now convicted of
second-degree murder get out in less than 19 years." 

     Although Irwin's style is to stay in the background, he is
proud and clear about his role as Writing Seminars chairman for
nearly two decades. He points to his successes helping to expand
the department's offerings to nonfiction and science writing as
well as play- and screenwriting. He is pleased by the full-time
and visiting faculty appointments he has made over the years and
the quality of the students they have attracted and helped. And
he is gratified to have served as administrative buffer for a
young crop of faculty writers when they were busy getting
published and establishing their careers. The faculty, all Irwin
appointees, are tenured, and he believes they can now more easily
take on departmental responsibilities. So, he will hold the
Decker Chair in the Humanities, teach and turn his attention to

     "I'm looking forward to summers when I don't have to be on
campus every day or every week," he says.

     Irwin takes comfort in organizing his life around his
writing and editing projects. He has earned much of his
reputation as editor of The Georgia Review and the Johns Hopkins
Press' Fiction and Poetry Series, as department chair of a top
writing program, and as the author of a couple dozen essays and
three books of literary criticism. In the past several years his
efforts have earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991, and in
1994 Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Prize and the Modern
Language Association's Aldo Scaglione Prize for Comparative
Literary Studies. 

     His subjects tend to be those authors and forms from a
period to which Irwin feels a kinship: the America of the '20s,
'30s and '40s with its big band sound and its dazzling literary
stars, such as his favorite American fiction author, F. Scott

     "There is a certain glamour to that period," he says.

     Irwin's orderly, sober below-ground office in Gilman Hall
bears witness to his cultural icons. An art deco grandfather
clock dominates one side of the room, its base chimes keeping
accurate time. A painting by Zelda Fitzgerald hangs framed by the
door. A large poster of Jorge Luis Borges, one of the subjects of
his most recent book--The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and
the Analytic Detective Story (Johns Hopkins Press, 1994)--hangs
directly to the right of his desk chair.

     Irwin is also a big fan of jazz and big band music. The back
of his office door is covered by a life-size poster of Fred
Astaire. Perhaps only in his mind do all his favorite people come
together. Not that he hasn't tried to make his dream come true. 

     He delights in telling the story about the time Benny
Goodman was honored at Peabody, and he got to meet him. Irwin had
a big poster in his home of Goodman's band in the summer of 1939,
so he took it over in the car and asked Goodman to sign it. He
offered Goodman a ride to the airport the next day and the band
leader accepted.         

     "You know when you have people whom you admire who don't
know each other, you want to introduce them?" Irwin says. "I
drove Benny by Poe's grave site," he says, laughing heartily at
the idea of it. "Remember that Benny's mind was always 110
percent on music, so when we drove by the monument and I pointed
out the grave, Benny looked at it as if to ask, 'What band did he
play with?' 

     While not successful bringing his icons together in life,
Irwin has been able to combine them on the page. "There [is a
trick] in [Let Me Say This About That]," he says. "As a big fan
of big band music, I always like those kinds of arrangements that
have false endings, like in 'Tuxedo Junction' or 'Don't Be That
Way.'"  The first false ending comes in the emotional climax of
the poem, an episode about three-quarters through the piece, in
which a father thinks his family has been spared death after his
car crashed through an ice-covered lake. A page or so later, his
good fortune turns quite dark.

     This literary turn gives the character and the listener an
emotional surprise, but Irwin does not seem to court surprises in
his own life. He prefers it ordered and predictable, a landscape
over which he can lope methodically and thoroughly. As a writer,
he gets involved in two or three long projects simultaneously so
that he can slide between them to keep from becoming bored or
becoming stale. After his first work, a relatively short book
(186 pages) on William Faulkner, Irwin says he fell into the mode
of writing that has become much more characteristic, taking on
subjects that are very intricate and that require a great deal of

     And time. His second book, American Hieroglyphics: The
Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance
(Yale University Press, 1975) took 11 years to write and ran 371
pages. Mystery to a Solution, his most recent book, was 13 years
in the making and spans 512 pages. Throughout these projects,
Irwin wrote his epic poem, about eight to 10 pages a year.

     And he knows what his next dozen or so writing projects will
be. "I've got it pretty much laid out," he says with a touch of
excitement in his voice. He even knows how he'll end his career.
"I've always wanted to do a book on my favorite jazz singers."

     And he'll work on another long poem.

     "I thought there'd be something of a postpartum depression
after I finished writing Mystery to a Solution, but there wasn't
because I had three or four other projects going," he says. "But
there may be more of a letdown when [Let Me Say This About That]
is done because this has been something I could always turn to,
and it was fun to do. So I've already started to dream up another
poem, not as long, that will be a dialogue among four people who
generally have lunch together over lots of years."

     Although he's also looking forward to spending his future
getting to do things away from Hopkins ("I'd love to find
something in Italy"), he will not look for a visiting
professorship elsewhere. He likes it in Baltimore. The city has
been a good place to live, he says. And it has been a good place
for him to write, which is, at the heart of things, what John
Irwin loves--and needs--the most.

     "Any day that I haven't written I feel I've died."

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