Making WB more than just a Leaving Cert question
Modern teaching tools keep Yeats fresh. By Michelle McDonagh
He has been described as the greatest poet in the history of Ireland with his themes, images, symbols and metaphors reflecting his personal experience, as well as his nation's experience during one of its most troubled times. Yet teaching Yeats to contemporary teenagers living in a very different reality to his can be a challenge.
Adrian Paterson, lecturer in English at NUI Galway and a member of the Yeats2015 steering committee suggests that Yeats today is "respected rather than loved".
"His unassailable position on the Leaving Cert syllabus has not resulted in the universal affection of schoolchildren, among whom this self-confessed "smiling public man" walked and dreamed of loves and loss," he writes.
Paterson says Yeats is viewed as lofty, aloof and abstract when in fact, he was engaged, committed and sensual.
"But we don't have to like Yeats to listen. We don't have to agree with him to learn something," he notes.
Deirdre Pierse, English teacher at the all-girls Mercy College Sligo says that Sligo is a great place to explore the poetry of Yeats steeped as it is with references to his work and surrounded by the landscape that inspired much of his writing.
"Here at Mercy College, most of my students have already been introduced to Yeats in national school so they aren't phased by his archaic language. Many feel a close affinity to him and are eager to delve further into his poems, connect with his work on some sort of personal level and take ownership of it," she notes.
Pierse says that at Junior Cert level, she and her students focus on Yeats's dominant themes, rich imagery and the musicality of his poetry.
"'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is a great launching pad for any student into the world of WB Yeats," says Pierse. "The girls can easily relate to the theme of escapism. After reading the poem aloud a few times, I'll ask the girls to imagine their very own utopia. This can prompt lively discussion and an interesting sharing of ideas. Soon the students feel that they have something in common with the poet and his work starts to resonate with them. We often write our own poems modelled on the illustrious line, 'I will arise and go now...' The results are always varied, creative and often entertaining."
Similarly the theme of unrequited love engages the Mercy College girl students. Pierse comments: "Let's face it, we've all been there! On reading 'He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' and 'When you are old', we discuss his infatuation with Maud Gonne. My students responded well to the illustrations of Annie West who is famous for her humorous depictions of Yeats and his decades-long adolescent crush. Her book Yeats in Love is a must-have for any Yeats enthusiast."
The fact that Yeats exposes his feelings so publicly through his poems lends him credibility, says Pierse.
"He's no longer a bronze statue perched outside the Ulster Bank or a mural down town, he's a lonely soul looking for love and the girls get that. We playfully imagine his modern day equivalent trolling his beloved on Facebook or tweeting relentlessly about matters of the heart."
The Sligo teacher gets her students to consider the themes of love, escapism, nature, politics and ageing that run through Yeats's poetry and to indulge in both his rich visual and aural imagery.
"We memorise the shorter poems so that we can carry them with us and quote freely when certain feelings are triggered or memories evoked... Poetry isn't just for Junior Cert, it's for life. It's good to have a party piece and with WB under your belt, you can't go wrong," she says.
Ms Pierse's third years are currently working on a production of 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' to a well-known Irish air while her second years are busy creating a piece of animation and a video to accompany his poem.
"My hope for my students is that they form some sort of personal response to his work and that ultimately they enjoy it and other forms of poetry. I hope they empathise with Yeats and enjoy the pictures he has painted in their young and vibrant minds. In his own words 'Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire',"
Diarmaid O'Conghaile, English teacher at St Joseph's Patrician College (the Bish) in Galway says that teaching Yeats is a learning curve.
"The poems do need deciphering, you need to research them. Yeats prided himself on writing everyman's poetry, he felt if it was not accessible to the ordinary Irishman, he was somehow failing yet you really need to know the context that poems like 'Easter 1916' and 'September 1913' were written in and the ordinary guy in the street at the time might not necessarily have known this. He was a member of the Anglo Irish ascendency while many ordinary people were trying to make a living on a half-acre of potatoes at the time or working in the mills."
If it was hard for the ordinary man of Yeats's own time to understand the meaning behind his words, then O'Conghaile notes, it is even harder to make them relevant and meaningful to teenage lads in Galway in 2015 who are working towards a points-based Leaving Cert.
"I teach in an urban school where the lads are under massive pressure with one foot in a virtual reality. They know what it's like to feel frenetic, dissipated, disembodied from the world around them and not at peace with themselves after coming off a computer game after three hours.
"I compare this to how Yeats felt when he became tired of urban life and yearned for the peace of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' and they find that easy to relate to."
Sarah O'Connell, English teacher at all-girls Loreto Abbey, Dalkey uses social media to make Yeats more "teen friendly". Through her teacher twitter account @_Tweecher_, she tweets quotes from Yeats and articles about him.
"There's a big buzz about him at the moment because of the Yeats2015 celebrations - he was trending on Twitter yesterday. By tweeting about him, I bring him into the girls' domain and make him more relevant and topical for them. His themes are quite universal and timeless and the girls can identify with his sense of needing to escape a busy hectic life and get away."