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Poetry with Ciaran Carson

Since Caltech is a small, and STEM-focused, school, the amount of humanities offered can be very limited. I really like many of the classes I’ve taken (British Romantic literature, creative short story writing, and Irish literature in particular), but there are some niche subjects that I’m interested in that are just too specific to be offered. Among my pet ideas–Irish mythology (fairies, a favorite for popular teen fantasy novels nowadays it seems, though I’d like to learn more about them in their original context), novel-writing workshop, 20th century Latin-American literature (like Borges and Garcia Marquez, and after the class we’d ideally know more than just those two names). Or mythology of cultures other than the classic Greek and Roman would be super cool too. There are so many creatures that haven’t made it into mainstream literature–rusalki (water nymphs in Slavic folklore), selkies (creatures who live as seals in the sea but have human form on land, found in Irish and Scottish folklore), changelings (a baby fairy or troll that has been swapped with a human infant), far darrigs (a type of solitary trickster fairy in Irish folklore in the same class as leprechauns and chlurichauns).

Also because Caltech is so small and STEM-focused, we don’t have as big of a chance for non-STEM seminars in which writers, artists and musicians from the real world come in and talk about their work. It’s such a shame, because I’ve found out a surprising number of my fellow students are either really into visual arts, different types of music, literature, or some other creative hobby. In a lot of cases, they are just as talented at that skill as they are in sciences.

However, today I attended a poetry reading by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who also plays the flute and the pocket whistle. The event took place in Dabney Lounge, the humanities building on campus, and was put together by Professor Kevin Gilmartin and the Caltech Associates, among others. Carson flew from Belfast, Ireland to Pasadena for this reading, accompanied by his wife Deirdre, a famous fiddler. They will also attend multiple receptions and luncheons in the next couple of days to meet students at Tech.

I left House dinner a little early to get to Dabney on time. I’ve never seen the Lounge so full, except during chamber music concerts (but that’ll be another story for another time)–maybe 90 people were in attendance, filling up the whole room and extending to the balcony as well. There were students, members of the faculty, and, it seemed, some people from the community. The program opened with Professor Gilmartin introducing the Carsons; then there was a duet between the couple, with Ciaran on flute and Deirdre on fiddle. Folk music is something 20-somethings aren’t exposed to much these days, most of us going for pop and rock, or classical if we play. As a classical musician, it was really cool noting the differences in style and technique of the folk tunes. I guess they could critique us as being way to strict in our rules on these things, since folk music (from what I could tell) has a lot more freedom in its style.

We had read a bunch of Carson’s poems this week for English. To me they seem enigmatic, and indeed when I met Carson at the reception following the reading he told me, "I always tell my students that if they know exactly what they’re going to say before they write something, then what’s the point in writing it? Writing is about discovering something you don’t even fully know yet." Another interesting question a fellow student asked him was, "Professor Gilmartin often quotes in class, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ What’s your take on the role of poetry in the world?" And Ciaran Carson replied, "It depends what you’re trying to make happen. Politically, yes, it doesn’t make people do anything. But it makes people feel and realize things inside, and that’s quite essential to life."
At the end of the reading and music, there were book signings and book buyings for those who hadn’t already purchased a book of Carson’s. For those of us in the class, we lined up by the dozens (okay, there are only maybe 24 people in the class, so 2 dozen) and got agood old-fashioned autograph! No snarky selfies like the types you see so much on Facebook today. For the curious, here is the cover of his Collected Poems that we read.

And some dessert and my nametag from the reception after 😀

Going to Caltech does have its perks. Even if I don’t have as much time as I’d like to ponder the meaning of all the poetry we do manage to read, it was still very refreshing and inspiring to attend a reading and hear a writer talk about his work. It definitely brought new perspective, and gave me some ideas in my own writing. A shout-out to our awesome Prof Gilmartin for his dedication in bringing famous poets to this unique STEM school every year for Irish lit!
Till next time,

Anita Chen

Anita is a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in English. Born in the island nation of Taiwan, she braved the cold on the American East Coast for a year at the age of six before moving to San Diego, California. At Caltech, she is involved in the music program and the literary and visual arts magazines. She is also an upperclass counselor (UCC) in Ruddock House, one of the 8 dorms on campus, where she watches out for the mental health of her peers and every once in a while tries to stir up trouble and excitement for her hallmates. In her spare time, she tutors and TAs, writes poetry and prose, plays the violin, draws, paints, cooks, and climbs rocks. She is currently pursuing her senior thesis project under renowned professor of chemistry Harry B. Gray, and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Graduation year: 2017

Option: Chemistry

Minor: English

House Affiliation: Ruddock