Poet Desmond Egan brings Irish history to life

Whitney Clum

With midterms looming, we can only hope that the Irish poet, Desmond Egan, brought some of the Emerald Isle’s famous luck with him during his visit to Washburn.

The International House hosted Egan, a recipient of an honorary degree from Washburn, to give a lunchtime presentation about Irish poetry as a precursor to his event March 9.

No stranger to the university, Egan’s visit is due to a long-standing relationship with Washburn. At an Irish American Cultural Institute meeting back in the 80s, Egan made the acquaintance of William Langdon, who was head of international studies at the time. Langdon invited him to speak at Washburn after hearing his poetry.  The Irish native, who was the first European poet to win the National Poetry Foundation of America Award, has since occasionally visited Washburn to discuss his craft. He is currently on a three week tour in the U.S., which gave him the opportunity to return.

“He writes poetry that is, I guess you could not really classify it as Irish poetry. A lot of it is about Ireland, but it’s still, you know, when he writes about the famine, that was an event in Ireland, but the emotions of the poetry are things that anyone can relate to,” said James Kelly, a producer at KTWU who worked on a documentary about Egan. “Feelings of neglect, feelings of fear, you know, anguish, things that are connected to the Great Famine in Ireland…I think that’s the appeal.”

While his poetry has been described to have a wide appeal, Egan himself states that the subjects of his writing are based on whatever comes to him in the moment.

“My favorite thing to write about is whatever I can write about, whatever that happens to be,” Egan said. “I have to wait until the words begin to squirm on the page for me. Mostly I’m sitting at home, trying to find a word and failing.”

The hour-long        

event began with a quick introduction of Egan, who sported both a shamrock and an Ichabod pin, one on each

lapel. He then

dove into a primer of Irish poets, seamlessly weaving poetry into the lecture as if aged prose came as natural as casual language.

Beginning with Yeats, Egan worked his way through more widely read poets, such as Beckett, and ended with more modern poets, such as Patrick Kavanagh, while simultaneously working in bits of Irish history to give the poems weight.

While never quite distancing himself from his focus on the history of Irish poetry, Egan sprinkled in quick anecdotes about how a specific work affected him, specifically citing jazz music as the catalyst for jolting him out of writing in a style distinct from Yeats.   

Besides his connection to Kansas that comes via Washburn and tours promoting his poetry, both Kelly and Egan note that there are plenty of similarities between areas of Ireland and Kansas.

“It’s the coasts that seem to get all the press and attention,” said Kelly, speaking about the documentary.  “There are parts of County Kildare that look like northeast Kansas. A lot like northeast Kansas.”

Egan agreed with the sentiment, saying, “We were looking for a shot in Ireland, and he was ready to edit, so we went out somewhere outside Topeka and we walked, and you would think it was Ireland.”

The connection gives the opportunity to  transport students and illuminate a connection between Ireland and Topeka while browsing his work or anthologies.