For the second installment of the “Why I Study English” series, Erin Yanota shares the reasons behind her choice of discipline. Erin is a recent graduate of McGill University, taking a BA in English with a focus on modernism and modernist studies. Her Honours essay focused on the poetry of both H.D and T.S. Eliot.
My name is Erin, and I study English Literature largely because poring over books has been, from a very young age, a virtual compulsion for me. I have been reading and thus ruining my eyesight (I wish I could say unconsciously, but a mix of genetics and my own poor choices–burying my face in books for long periods of time–have had me wearing glasses since I was six years old) for some eighteen years and counting. In spite of my poor vision, I keep reading because I find in literature my drive and my motivation.
What I find most valuable about modernist literature in particular is not only its deeply pensive quality and its emotional intensity but also the modernists’ experimentation with form and intellectual rigor, as well as their development of new aesthetics. Studying modernist literature requires a rigor that has taught me to be rigorous in my own projects (and my own thinking more generally) and to be always seeking and open to new, innovative ways of thinking. In this way, the study of literature teaches me about poetry as much as it teaches me about myself, helping me to understand what I value and what I aspire to do in terms of intellectual work and the way I interact with the people and world around me.
There have been debates for millennia concerning what literature does–whether, as Horace suggested in the Ars Poetica, it is in fact to ‘instruct and delight’ or whether, as W.H. Auden wrote in his elegy for W.B. Yeats, poetry ultimately “makes nothing happen.” I have no definitive answer to either of these statements. On a certain level, I don’t think it really matters what we can say literature does on a universal scale. The fact that literature has served political, cultural, social, religious, spiritual, and personal purposes for individual writers and readers throughout history is, I think, enough.
When I decided in high school to come to university to study literature, I made that decision based on the fact that I both enjoyed and showed an aptitude for the study. I am someone who has, at various points in my life, considered study in many different fields: music, performance, philosophy, psychology, history, and even (for a brief moment) political science. For me, literature is the choice that best encompasses my sometimes disparate but always changing range of interests. It was particularly when I began to do research for my literature classes that I saw the vast range of fields that literary criticism can involve and the interdisciplinary nature of English studies. Studying literature has offered me a glimpse into many different historical periods, political and cultural moments, and intellectual currents. I believe that it’s important to be aware of how people have lived, thought, and seen the world–-sometimes in startlingly different ways from today.
What’s more, one can gain this awareness by studying literature and by studying the ways in which others have read literature. Gaining this perspective can help one to improve one’s ability to empathize, an ability I find valuable not only for improving the quality of interpersonal relationships but also for driving people to take action in wider social causes. Literature’s ability to make the reader feel things implicates her in its assessment of the world and makes her aware of an experience or perspective that is completely other. This process of reading and thinking can cause people to enact change: not merely seeing but feeling what others have experienced and are experiencing today. The value of the humanities lies in discussion: we not only gain new perspectives from the texts we study, but we are also pushed into new ways of thinking by our peers who inevitably see things differently than we do, who have interpretations that we have not considered, and who can help us to figure out how best to respond to the cruces in an object of study or even in the world today.
It is the provocation of feeling that keeps me studying. Sometimes, a beautiful image, situation, or sound can affect the reader of literature in some profound and inexplicable way. Moments like that remind me that sometimes it is best to go with your gut, “since feeling is first,” as e e cummings put it. Above all literature can remind one that to feel and to be affected by something beautiful is deeply human. Poetry in particular can leave the reader scrambling to rationalize the logic behind the words and to understand what it is that moves her. I suppose I am little bit of a romantic at heart. Of course, I have been continuously finding new reasons to value the study of literature along the way, but to be blunt, I study literature because I fall in love with beautiful things, and poetry allows me to do that every day.