The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 12, 1998
Oct. 12, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 7


John Irwin's 17-Year "Journey" Ends

Writing Sems professor's 2,076-line poem becomes a long-awaited book

By Leslie Rice

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In 1981, author and Writing Seminars professor John Irwin came across a line in a story by another Writing Seminars professor, Stephen Dixon, in which Dixon referred to life as being "nothing but sameness and simple sleep." Irwin was taken by the line and decided that he wanted to set it in a villanelle as one of two repeating lines.

"But I could never come up with the other line to go with it," says Irwin, the Decker Professor of Humanities. "So I thought about it for quite a while, and then suddenly one evening, as I was falling asleep, the first six lines of a poem came to me in one bunch."

Butt ache and backache back up and the great
Rent in the great veil rising at an annual rate
Of ten percent, a short fall in the long term,

A headlock in the third fall from the huge
Shoes of the dead, sharp bursitis and the shopping mall,
Some say, have you stumped. Sir, a comment?

With these lines, Irwin began a 17-year journey with a poem that would end up not as a villanelle but as a 2,076-line narrative poem set in iambic pentameter, and with the phrase from Dixon's work appearing 20 pages into the work. Just Let Me Say This About That, penned under his nom de plume, John Bricuth, is due to be released by Overlook Press this fall.

This month, Irwin begins a nationwide book tour that starts at Bibelot in Owings Mills on Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m., he will give a reading at Chapters Bookstore in Washington.

It took 16 years to write, but Just Let Me Say This About That is worth the wait. For readers ambivalent about modern poetry or, for that matter, long poems, fear not; this poem is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. The poem, which departs from most modern poetry norms, is a long narrative written in contemporary American idiom, and it takes on the old question, What is the meaning of life? As author J. M. Coetzee writes about Irwin's work, "This is the kind of philosophical poem we have deserved but have not been given before, confronting the closing years of the American century with bleak hilarity and an unblinking eye."

The poem takes the form of a press conference. The three questioners, Bird, Fox and Fish, address the person at the podium as "Sir." He is either God, the president of the United States or everyone's father. At first, these somewhat Aesopian questioners begin with matters of the state but soon make it clear that what they really want to know is the value and significance of their own lives.

The voice of Sir is wry and a bit world-weary, and has a curious mix of flamboyance, suffering and irony tossed in with the occasional buried reference to past presidents. Throughout the poem, Irwin places together things that are very funny with things very sad because, says Irwin, because how else would one recognize it as life--and also because he wanted to keep the reader always a little off balance.

As the poem progresses, Sir presents Bird, Fish and Fox with a variety of stories, analogies and viewpoints that seem as if he's answering their great question, but then he immediately undercuts them so neither Bird, Fox, Fish nor the reader gets to rest with any one of them. In the end, the poem acts out the way each individual has to find out for himself what makes his life meaningful and therefore the kind of value his life has.

But for all these weighty issues, the poem is wacky and fast-paced. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "The Mr. Bill Show in blank verse tercets," "The Vanity of Human Wishes," updated by Richard Rorty on a bad trip and Browning's Setebos come to life, full of learned references and mock-instructive fables in the Augustan manner. Which is to say, Bricuth's poem is very funny; it's also surprisingly, embarrassingly sad, a convincing account of the pain we pretend is wisdom."

So why 16 years?

"I told myself I would give this poem as much time as it took. I didn't want to feel like I was on any kind of a deadline," explains Irwin.

During that period he also wrote The Mystery to a Solution, which in 1994 won the Christian Gauss prize for the best scholarly book in the humanities, and two-thirds of a volume on the works of poet Hart Crane, due to come out next year. He worked on Just Let Me Say This About That line by line, never beginning the next one until the line before was perfect.

Over the years, sections of the poem have appeared in publications such as Boulevard, Raritan, Yale Review and the Southwest Review. One section appeared in Scribner's 1998 edition of The Best American Poetry.

"I had fun writing it," Irwin says. "It had to be fun. Otherwise I don't think I could have kept it up for 16 years."

Irwin is now at work on a new poem with the same characters, this one set in divorce court (with Sir, of course, as the judge) and addressing love and marriage.

"I'm not getting younger, so clearly this one needs to be written in a shorter period of time," he adds.

Just Let Me Say This About That inaugurates the Sewanee Writers' Series, a publishing co-venture of The Overlook Press and the University of the South, sponsored in part by the estate of Tennessee Williams.