Book: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats

For a change of pace, I read The Collected Poems of W. B Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran.

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats

I had read a little bit of Yeats through college – mostly famous ones, like “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “The Second Coming”. But I hadn’t read widely in his work (like, say, many of us have in Shakespeare). But I should have! Yeats (1865-1939) is known as an Irish statesman, poet, and playwright, as well as the winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature, who founded the Abbey Theatre (the national theater of Ireland, located in Dublin) and served as a significant force in the Irish Literary Revival. He was, to put it simply, a pretty important dude.

Yeats’s poetry is arranged chronologically through this book, so you can see the different phases of his body of work. The first phase plays on his interest in Irish legends (there are some poems about the Other Folk, the faery folk of Ireland) as well as in the occult. His poems became more realistic after he matured some, and often describe the (not necessarily simple) pleasures of country life, recalling his childhood in County Sligo. One of the remarkable features of his poetry is their rhythm and lyricism – they often read like songs, and should definitely be read aloud on occasion. Don’t let anyone give you weird looks… just subdue them with the magic of his verse, or threaten them with being swept by the faeries if they insult such a great Irish poet.

I highly recommend any and all of Yeats’s poetry. Students of mine will read a little with me in 9th grade, and a little more in AP English.

Book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The next book on my list was another James Joyce masterpiece: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Cover of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

You’ve probably heard of this one before. (In fact, I think there’s a Family Guy episode about Brian, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.) It’s a famously semi-autobiographical account of James Joyce’s early life, education, adolescent misadventures, and dreams of fame as a writer. The central character, Stephen Dedalus, makes his way through life as a very challenging and unique third-person narrative matures with him. The narrative voice is astute and precocious at first in his young years, then becomes clearer and more mature as Stephen ages, until he reaches manhood and we finally read Stephen’s own words – his diary – at the end.

What’s cool about this book is that it was heavily censored while Joyce was trying to get it published, and was banned in many places afterwards. The realistic but not graphic description of a teenage boy’s life in Dublin – I’ll let you read it and find out what publishers objected to – was enough to hold up the book’s publication for years. Today, it seems positively modest when compared to what we see in even PG-13 movies, but back then, it was totally scandalous. This is a reason you should love this book (along with many, many other classics, including To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and even Harry Potter and The Hunger Games) is because it was banned, and who doesn’t love to carry around a banned book? It’s your own act of personal expression and intellectual rebellion… much like Stephen Dedalus himself!

I also read this book because Stephen Dedalus appears in Ulysses. Intellectually and literarily, Ulysses is the zenith of my preparations, and I had/have to work up to it slowly.

Book: Dubliners

The first book I read to get ready for the trip was James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Dubliners, by James Joyce.

Now, I had definitely read this before. I read it once as a high schooler in my own AP English Literature class, and totally hated it. I believe I threw the copy across the room when I finished “The Dead.” (“It’s SO DEPRESSING!” was my explanation when my mom asked what on earth was wrong with me.) I read it again as a college undergraduate in a modern British literature class, and tolerated it. And then, for some unfathomable reason, I decided to torment my AP students with it. Probably because it’s a great work of literature, or the language is really challenging, or it’s the definitive example of the epiphany, or something like that. And in rereading it with my students – especially this year, with my stronger background knowledge of Irish history around the early 20th century – I loved it.

What’s to love about Dubliners? It’s a collection of short stories about the lives of people who live in Dublin, but it also reflects what it’s like to grow from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, and how difficult that growth can be. It’s pretty depressing, but it’s beautifully written. Joyce tried to throw you a bone in there, too – he always said that he wrote the final story, “The Dead,” as an uplifting coda to the stories. Whether or not it’s uplifting, you’ll have to decide for yourself. And you should, because even if you don’t read it in my class, or even if you don’t know a lot of Irish history, you can still get a lot from the stories. They’re written in a way that’s pretty easy to understand (especially compared to Joyce’s novels, like Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake), and the way Joyce writes really is beautiful. You’ll be a better person for attempting some Joyce. Trust me.

How do you get ready for the Emerald Isle?

How exactly does one prepare for a trip to Ireland?

I mean, obviously there’s the administrative stuff – booking your hotel and flight, making sure your passport is up to date – and there’s the fun stuff, like packing your sweet vacation clothes. But how else do you get ready? When I was planning this trip way back in September, I made it a point to choose travel dates that would allow us to take part in as many cool activities as possible over our week in Dublin. (By “us” I mean “Mr. Shifflett and myself,” because somebody has to carry my luggage. …just kidding. As a fellow English teacher and lover of all things Irish, Mr. Shifflett was the logical choice for a traveling companion.)

The first and biggest consideration was to go during Bloomsday. James Joyce’s most famous novel Ulysses is a retelling of the epic The Odyssey set in a single day – June 16, 1904 (the day Joyce met his future wife Nora Barnacle in real life). Every year, on June 16, huge nerds lovers of literature from around the world flock to Dublin and follow main character Leopold Bloom’s journey around the city. Obviously it was imperative that we go during a time we could celebrate Bloomsday.

This also meant that I had to actually read Ulysses, which is considered to be one of the most challenging books ever written, but that’s another story (largely in that I have not yet finished it… but I will!).

We looked at our dates around that time and tried to figure out what else we could do – literary walking tours? trips to local parks and museums? plays showing at famous Dublin theaters? – and realized that everything else we wanted to do happened pretty much every week in Dublin. We weren’t traveling over any bank holidays, so we really had a lot of freedom in choosing which days we’d go to parks, writers’ houses, churches, and other famous sites.

This brought us to our final consideration: when could we meet up with my friend, the Irish author and teacher (and Dublin native) Claire Hennessy? Claire is a well-known young adult author and educator, and has been my friend for a number of years (…about ten now. Boy, do I feel old!). She graciously agreed to meet up with us and tell me all about Irish schooling, her experiences as a writer, and life in the city. Our dates worked with Claire, and with that, we were on our way!

So what after that? Lots and lots of background reading/viewing. We wanted to be very well-read and well-prepared for the trip. After all, what’s the point of going to Remembrance Park or George Bernard Shaw’s house if you don’t know what you’re remembering or who Shaw was? So I drew up a reading list, and for the last nine months, I’ve been working my way through classic and modern Irish fiction and nonfiction. That’s what I’ll be writing about in the next few posts: my informal and not really that intellectual thoughts on all the truly fantastic books I’ve been reading to get ready for the trip. Stay tuned for some books you might be interested in!