Archive for June, 2015

My love of W. B. Yeats goes back to my time in Laurie Steven’s Modern Poetry class at Laurentian University, likely over twenty-three years ago. (I date myself, it’s true, but it’s quite the relationship, to have loved a poet for over twenty years. The only other who comes close is Seamus Heaney and I’ve written about him extensively in this blog before, including our fated meeting in a Sligo pub in Summer 2012, just a year before his death.)

Maybe a lot of people would find it strange that I could fall in love with a dead man, but it happens quite often. I read Yeats and I sigh. I read Shakespeare, or see a play performed at Stratford in August every year, and I weep. These men and their words undo me completely. If they lived today, I would be a groupie/stalker, following them from reading venue to reading venue, or from theatre to theatre. Their brains, their souls, their hearts, their words, well, they all pretty much entrance and bewitch me. Deeply, completely, madly….

I think the first poem I must’ve heard was “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” and I recall my great-aunt, Norah Kelly, reading it to me once in my early teens. She was a school teacher at St. David’s here in Sudbury, in the Donovan, along with her sister, Maureen. When my sister and I slept over at my great-aunts’ house on Kingsmount, Norah was the one who would read to us (usually wonderful tales of Madeline, but she also had a book of Irish legends that I was particularly drawn to. It’s in one of my bookshelves somewhere here and I pull it out when I think of her.)

The next time I encountered Yeats was in Laurie Steven’s class, probably in 1993. At the time, I had to take the class. I had dabbled in writing poems, but it was nothing but maudlin gunk that was fit for an overweight depressive teen girl who used to sing Broadway tunes in her bedroom. Going into Laurie’s class was a wake-up call that made me begin to realize how much I loved modern poetry, and Irish poetry in particular. I had always been drawn to stories, and the Irish side of my family (which was much more mentally healthy than my father’s German side) filled my desire for more history and legend. In that Modern Poetry class, we read the classic Yeats poems. You know the ones: “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” “Byzantium,” “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” “Easter, 1916,” “When You Are Old,” “The Second Coming,” “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and “September 1913” (just to name a few). None of these are surprising. They are the ones you would most often study when undertaking an undergraduate English degree anywhere in the world. They give you a sense of poetic history and tradition. It makes me laugh a bit, inside, when I think that an Irish poet, someone who was such a nationalist, has made it into the English canon. It’s a bit subversive in a quirky way. ūüôā

My fourth year thesis was all Yeats, all the time. I focused on the evolution of his imagery, from faery lore, to political, to personal, to mystical poet. I lived and breathed Yeats in that final year. I posted up flow charts in the hallway of my house, standing in front of them for hours, trying to think out new ideas, living in his world. There were late nights with beer, a baseball hat and plaid shirt and jeans (blame Nirvana and the grunge movement!) and the Chieftains on the cd player, as I tried to sort out the patterns. It was one of the best years of my young life. Then, when I went to do my Master’s degree at Carleton University in Ottawa in 1994-95, I lived and breathed the poetry of Seamus Heaney, focusing on his bog bodies, and the imagery that mirrored the struggle between the North and the Republic. Those two years were two of my happiest on the planet simply because I could sink into words and live inside the minds of great poets. (I also fancied the work of Patrick Kavanagh….and still love to sing “On Raglan Road.” I also went along the Grand Canal, in August of 2012, and sat next to his statue in the early morning light, sending him love and thanks for his words….out into the ether. I also think I rubbed his knee for good luck, but that sounds untoward so we won’t dwell on it! ūüėČ

Yeats, though….oh, Yeats.

I’ve been to Sligo twice now, once in 1996 and once in 2012. Both times, I’ve wept upon seeing the hulking shadow of Bunbulben. I’ve marvelled at the beautiful swan doors at the little church that stands in Drumcliffe, Sligo. (If I ever marry, I’d love to get married here, next to the poet who opened my heart to words and images….who made me weep when I read his work.) Both times, well, I’ll be honest, I’ve borrowed a rock from the top of the grave, to hold as I thank him for his gift to the world. That’s a story that shouldn’t besmirch this blog entry….but suffice it to say that, sometimes, I like to kneel at his grave and weep a bit, and then perhaps, hold a rock in my hand….and who knows what might become of that little rock afterwards. I’m hardly a criminal….so I’ll leave it at that.

Besides his poems, well, I love the story of Yeats and Maud Gonne. (I named my first car “Maud” in his honour. Long story.) ūüôā I love that he loved her so much…that they were such good friends….that he kept asking her to marry him. That she never did, well, that part of the story breaks my heart. If I had been her, if I had been Maud Gonne, I would have said “yes” right away, if only to have conversations about poems, faeries, history, legends, and life. She, though, was in love with an Irish revolutionary named John McBride. Even though Yeats was a poet who became political, even reaching a place in the Senate during a monumental time in Irish history, I guess she was more drawn to one of the more prominent revolutionaries. He ended up dying in Kilmainham Gaol, a place that I find vibrates with pain and sorrow whenever I visit there. Afterwards, poor Yeats kept up, trying to woo and court her, but to no avail. I think she led him on, even though they were close friends….there was love there, of some sort or another, but it wasn’t very kind in some ways. Anyway, some of his most beautiful works include the love poems he wrote for her. My favourite is “When You Are Old.”

It’s his birthday tomorrow. He was born 150 years ago. I can’t even believe it. He died in 1939, the year my mother was born. (It also was the year Margaret Atwood was born, and the year Seamus Heaney was born, so I think it’s pretty amazing…four of the most important people in my life, in a real life way and in a literary way, either came to, or exited, the world, in 1939. There’s something there if you believe in serendipity, and I do.) {The brightest light in my life, in terms of my writing life, and in how he encouraged me in my writing, was Timothy Findley….but he’s a story unto himself. I miss knowing Tiff isn’t around here, in this dimension, anymore….but that’s another story entirely.}

In honour of my beloved W. B. Yeats’s birthday, here is a rendition of “Two Trees” by Loreena McKennitt

and a lovely interpretation of “When You Are Old” by Sheila Carabine, of the Canadian folk duo, Dala.

Reading about the pain of his love for Maud Gonne makes me want to weep….and then I think of how he wrote, in “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light.
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

He so loved her that he wrote poems for her. She knew, she loved him (in her own way), but they weren’t meant to be. It’s the best unrequited love story in the history of literature, in my humble opinion. I keep wishing they’d managed to get together, like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Preudice, but that was not to be. I think, though, that it’s romantic enough that he wrote those poems for her, that they live on, that their story lives on….and, most importantly, that I can pick up any Yeats poem, sigh, and wish I was Maud Gonne. (I might have made a different choice had I been her, so very long ago….)


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I have been thinking about writing this blog entry for a while now.¬† It’s been marinating in my mind, I guess you could say.¬† I have friends here in town, in Rainbow District secondary schools, who walked the picket lines for about five weeks.¬† Each day, on the way to work, and then home again, I’d honk like a crazy woman on the way to the Catholic school where I teach.¬† Let me tell you….I felt guilty.¬† I wanted to hop out of my Yaris, pick up a picket sign, and walk in solidarity, but we are of two different unions, so our paths are different.

Now that secondary teachers in Rainbow, along with Peel and Durham, have been legislated back to work, well, everything feels even more¬†uncertain.¬†Democracy is fleeting, it seems.¬† All of the elementary and secondary teachers¬†whom I know went into teaching because they love working with kids.¬† Listening to the radio in the morning, on the way to work, I found that¬†the majority of comments were heart-wrenching.¬† Most people, it seems, based on media coverage in May,¬†think that teachers are only “in it for the summers off” or the end of day bell.¬† My profession, my vocation, has become a punching bag for people who really don’t understand what it is that we do on a daily basis.¬† I wish, and I’ve said this before, that people could spend a week in a school, to see what we actually do.¬† We do transmit content knowledge and curriculum, but we do so much more that cultivates the human being, not just¬†the course grade attached to the human.

Just today, outside of the instructional time in a classroom, I witnessed….

1.  a teacher organizing a fundraiser for a student battling cancer

2.¬† another teacher organizing a Zumba-thon for “Fit Spirit,” an initiative that is particularly geared to encouraging girls to move and be more active, to think more of their mental and physical health, and to cultivate self-confidence

3. a teacher encouraging a student who’s had a hard go, offering the student a kind word, a reassuring smile, a quiet “you can do it…I believe in you” ¬†when maybe, just maybe, they may not have¬†ever heard that in their own family home

4.  a chaplain organizing a graduation retreat for Grade 12s who will reflect, consider, and celebrate their six years at our school before graduation next Thursday night

5. a teacher speaking with a parent by phone, reassuring her that the two of them would work together to ensure the student’s success in a difficult course of study

6.  a secretary chatting with a student, bantering, checking on their well being and welcoming them to school in the morning, even if they were a bit late

7.  a teacher or two, a busy chaplain, and a library technician running a breakfast club for kids before school starts, to ensure a good healthy start to the day

8.¬† a teacher hearing a Grade 12 valedictorian’s speech for the first time, trying not to cry when she thinks of how the student has blossomed since she first taught her three years ago

9.¬† a student sharing her dreams for university, or college, or travel, hesitant but excited to start out into the “real world” in September, in a new way

10.  a talented music teacher organizing a spring evening concert

There are so many more endless examples of how teachers contribute to kids’ lives, to how they shape souls.¬† I wish that those who ‘bash’ teachers could see how much we love their kids, even though they aren’t our biological kids.¬† While they are with us each day, while they are away from their own parents and guardians, they are our responsibility.¬† We take that honour seriously.¬† We love your kids, we guide your kids, and we will fight for your kids in our classrooms and schools, even if sometimes the media and the public wants to think it’s all about salaries and holidays.

It isn’t about any of that. It’s about the kids.¬† If no one but us can see it, well, it makes me worry.¬† Our profession has become demoralized and demeaned in recent years in Ontario.¬†Some of us are wondering why we even started in this profession.¬† Some are burnt out, leaving early, moving into other careers.¬† It’s a loss.¬† No doubt about it, but I understand it.¬† ¬†None of us need or want a parade to thank us for the work we do, but we also don’t need to be belittled in media or public forums.¬† We simply don’t deserve it.

For my fellow teachers, in difficult times…stay strong, don’t doubt yourself (even if you feel like it), and support one another.

Finally, a bit of wisdom from a poet teacher…for the road!




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