In the course he teaches at Delaware Valley College, Quinlan does not confine himself to Irish poetry. Judging from some recent class handouts, the poets and poems range from the classic to the modern and include the likes of Robert Browning, John Milton, John Keats, W.H. Auden, Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Levertov, Billy Collins, Miroslav Holub, Philip Levine, Tony Hoagland, Robert Pinsky, Amy Lowell, and Theodore Roethke.
"He really lives for and cares about poetry," Joe Quinlan says of his father. "I know people who love poetry and write it all the time. He is rare in that he doesn't write poetry; he just loves to read it."
Anne Brown, 89, of Lahaska, has been attending Quinlan's poetry class for five years.
"He can recite poetry, and he puts us all to shame with his general knowledge of poetry, which is very impressive," Brown says. "His passion for poetry comes through, and his classes are always interesting. He gives us an overview of everything, including some of the modern poets.
"The main thing is that he's such a gifted teacher. You don't meet many in your lifetime, and it's been a great pleasure to be in his class. He uses kindness and tact. I've never heard him insult or embarrass anyone. He makes everyone feel a lot smarter than they really are. We have a very diverse group that has come back year after year after year. We all like poetry or we wouldn't be in the class, but I think he fosters a love of poetry by just the way he teaches."
In summer 1998, Quinlan went to China to teach conversational English at a university in Xi'an. He was struck by how popular poetry is there and in particular the interest in classic Chinese poetry from the fifth and sixth centuries. The appeal of poetry, he believes, is universal.
"There's something way down deep in human beings, something intrinsic inside us, that needs these stories," he says. "We read poetry or any kind of great literature, or listen to great music, because it's the nature of human beings to hunger for this kind of spiritual satisfaction.
"You can live a long, happy life without reading a poem or listening to Beethoven, but your life is diminished. Such works are a door to a higher level of response to the world. What makes us different from cockroaches or elephants is that we have the capacity to create and feel things with some degree of depth that the rest of the animal world doesn't have. People who go through this process find great satisfaction and great understanding of what it is to be a human being, and poetry contributes to that kind of thought."
A facility with words and a fondness for poetry seem to be woven into the DNA of the Irish, something Quinlan doesn't deny.
"Actually, there's nothing really different about Irish poetry from other poetry of the Western world," he says, "but Ireland for some reason or other has an affinity for poetry and folk music. It's more widespread there, and the magazines and books are full of it. It's more a part of normal Irish living, and poets are revered there. When Seamus Heaney makes a comment about something, you see it in the newspaper."
Many theories have been advanced for why the Irish are so smitten and skillful with poetry. Quinlan's take is pragmatic.
"The Irish have traditionally had a hard life. They didn't have any money, so they had to come up with something that doesn't cost anything. To write a poem, all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper."