Thursday, March 17, 2016

Yeats, Joyce, and Irish Literature: an Interview with my Irish Lit Professor

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day everyone! Today is more than just the celebration of a famous Saint; it is the celebration of Ireland. With that in mind, I sat down with my professor of Irish literature to learn a little more about it.

Dr. Karen Steele teaches twentieth century Irish literature and is chair of the English Department at TCU. I have absolutely loved learning about Irish literature in her class this semester. I started by asking her about her favorite Irish literature and how she came to study it. Dr. Steele said she was drawn to Irish literature by a Yeats poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

She said, I couldn’t really say why I loved it but it just, it drew me in and I hand wrote it and put it above my bed and I thought about it all the time.”

Once she found her way into Irish literature she looked for other ways to study Yeats.

“I wrote an essay on it, probably not very well, but it was heart felt and I looked for opportunities throughout my undergraduate studies to be able to work on Yeats,” she said.

Dr. Steele also mentioned that she studied Yeats through a modern poetry tutorial during her time at Oxford. This all contributed to Dr. Steele’s immersion into Irish literature.

“It was Yeats who brought me there, but I love to laugh about him now,” she said. “Because I think there is so much about his own personal life and his philosophies that are silly but I just found his poetry irresistible.”

After reading the poem and other pieces of Yeats work I can understand the draw that Yeats would have. But what other Irish writers are out there? Dr. Steele commented on her favorite piece of Irish fiction: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“One of my great sorrows is I rarely teach [Ulysses] because it’s such a complex work, and it requires so much preparation to teach it I rarely teach it to undergraduates,” she said.

Dr. Steele said Ulysses is her favorite because “it’s so extraordinary that all of the jokes, all the fun, all the word play, all the messaging. It’s hard to get if you don’t have a lot of ground work first, so I rarely teach it but I love it so much.”

I haven’t read Ulysses yet (I will just have to add it to my Empire State building of a TBR list), but I have certainly read other works by James Joyce. One of my favorite pieces that I have read in Dr. Steele’s class was a short story called “The Dead.” But why is it important to discuss Irish literature in the first place? What do we gain?

Dr. Steele answered, “Being immersed in the literature is just a never ending entertainment. It’s complicated, it’s funny, it’s deeply humane. Every time I get to prepare to write something or read something about Irish literature I go home to my husband say, this is incredible it’s so smart, so funny.”

Dr. Steele also explains how Irish literature is also important to the global sphere.

“I’m interested in how literature has a role to play in guiding the state of affairs…” she said. “We often think of literature as the ivory tower. It doesn’t have any role to play in the world, but this is such an object lesson in how the culture was deeply invested and actually involved in the revolution and the formation of the state.”

Now that we have an understanding of why we should read Irish literature, where on earth should we start? Well, Dr. Steele had some recommendations on that too. She suggested reading Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Dr. Steele emphasized the importance of the novel's perspective of the Irish immigrant experience.

“It’s really helping us to appreciate how challenging it is as we’re thinking about the questions of refuges today. I think as a novel that really helps us to see why you can desperately want to leave and yet never feel even when you have opportunities in this new country how difficult that experience is.”

This has been something that I have been exploring all semester, and I really believe that Irish literature plays an important role in the study of literature. While I’m sure that I will learn even more the rest of the semester on this St. Patrick’s Day, I think I’ll start on Brooklyn.

Have a fantastic St. Patrick’s Day and please comment if y’all have any favorite Irish authors or books! What’s on your reading list?

-- Kit, intern

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