A Changing Reality: How One Professor Uses Book to Show the Power of Words

  • News Photo 5268
    Dr. Richard Russell, associate professor of English at Baylor University, holds his recently published book, Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland. The book, which demonstrates the power of words, has won two regional awards from the Modern Language Association.
  • News Photo 5267
    Dr. Richard Russell, associate professor of English at Baylor University, works at his office desk in the Carroll Science Building. Russell's book, Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland, has recently won two regional awards from the Modern Language Association.
Oct. 19, 2011

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What began as a doctoral dissertation 10 years ago in North Carolina has become a multi-award-winning book for one Baylor University professor.

Richard Russell, Ph.D., associate professor of English, has won both the South Central Modern Language Association (SCMLA) and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) award for the best book published by a member of the association in 2010.

Russell said his book, "Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland," focuses on the two Irish poets' efforts to reconcile the political strains between Catholics and Protestants during the "Troubles" of Northern Ireland.

The "Troubles," which endured from 1969-1994, was a period of religious and political unrest that eventually led to a civil war between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. Poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney lived in the region at the time, and though they possessed different writing styles, Russell said both poets used their works as a way to help diffuse the volatile situation.

"One argument is that they pay as much attention to their poetry as poetry that they are able to make secondary contributions to the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants," Russell said. "They use very specific and precise words, and there's a real bias there on both sides among Protestants and Catholics, and through specific language in their poetry they try to deflate abstract notions of the other side."

"These poets lived in the midst of it (the war), and they didn't want to be reporters and only talk about the 'Troubles,'" Russell continued. "Instead, they actually made contributions to the peace process through the specific and precise use of language in their poetry."

Russell has been researching, writing and revising "Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland" since 2000, when he began writing about the topic while studying abroad for a few months in Belfast, Ireland.

When he returned to America, Russell continued his dissertation as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I've revised it off and on through the years, and the analogy I would use is it's a birth," Russell said.

"It's a child you carry, and then it comes out, and you're very proud and excited."

Russell said he was surprised to learn he had won two awards from the SCMLA and SAMLA, which, when combined, represent all of the Southern and Southeastern states.

"I've actually never heard of anybody winning two of these, as my former adviser (from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) pointed out to me, so I was really excited to get one and was even more excited when I got two," Russell said.

Russell will travel to Hot Springs, Ark., next week to be recognized for his award at the South Central Modern Language Association conference. He will also travel to Atlanta the first week of November to be recognized at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference.

Russell said the conferences of the Modern Language Association, the governing organization for English and foreign language teachers, chooses its winners based on the significance of the book's contribution to the field of English literature, as well as clarity of writing style and argument.

While the Tennessee native is thrilled by the success of his book, he holds an ideal for its overall contribution to society.

"I would hope that people, not only in this country, but also in Britain and Ireland, read it and realize that words can actually change reality," Russell said. "Realize that weapons are not always the best answer, but that they may do it indirectly like these poets did. With words."

by Carmen Galvan, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805

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