“I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.” — Eavan Boland

“I began to know that I had to bring the poem I’d learned to write near to the life I was starting to live. And that if anything had to yield in that process, it was the poem not the life.” — Eavan Boland

Pioneering Irish poet Eavan Boland died in 2020 at the age of 75. Today is her birthday.

Irish literature is clogged with big names. You always know who you are up against if you’re a writer. You have to “take on” Yeats. You have to “take on” Joyce. There are giants like Patrick Kavanagh to wrestle with. You have to carve out your own space. You have to get those other guys out of the way, just in order to have the confidence to continue.

“Guys” is right. While there have always been Irish women writers, more often than not, Irish women are the subject of the literature, rather than the creators. Historically, it’s a macho field. (That’s changed and THEN some. Some of the best books I’ve read in the last 10 years have been by Irish writers who happen to be women. They’re kicking ass.)

More on Eavan Boland after the jump:

 
 

Boland had the same concerns as the giant males of her generation – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and others: what it means to be Irish, what it means to come to terms with history/past, what it means to be an exile, either in your own land or elsewhere. They write about the sense of dislocation that is often the Irish birthright. Patrick Kavanagh – a giant – was also a major influence, as well as an encouragement. New ground always needs to be opened up. Someone’s got to do it.

Boland attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which made her a fan of workshops forever. She created a workshop in Kilkenny that exists to this day. She got married. She had kids. It was the 70s. A hot and explosive time to be a woman who was also a writer. Sylvia Plath was a huge influence: not so much her tone, but her fearlessness with subject matter. We are talking about Life here. Men write about their lives and it is viewed as universal. Women write and it’s only about and for “women.”

The Irish writer, male or female, already has to deal with a sense of intimidation and potential-silencing because of the giants of the past. The Joyces, the Yeats’s, the Kavanaghs. You are influenced, whether you like it or not, but you resent it. You also love it. You need that inspiration, you are proud of it. But how on earth do you find the cajones to take them all on? (Pardon the gendered language. You see the trouble here.)

Her influences were many. The emotion is in the line. Watch for that.

“Pomegranate” was the first of hers I read.

Pomegranate

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Her poem “The Achill Woman” was a breakthrough for her, and for Irish poetry. (More on that in the quote section below.) This was the moment, the revelation, similar to James Joyce’s “tundish” scene in Portrait or Heaney’s first major poem “Digging.” Joining the history of a culture that had been suppressed, feeling a part of a long-scorned continuum. With Boland, there is the added tension of being a woman.

The Achill Woman
She came up the hill carrying water.
She wore a half-buttoned, wool cardigan,
a tea-towel round her waist.

She pushed the hair out of her eyes with
her free hand and put the bucket down.

The zinc-music of the handle on the rim
tuned the evening. An Easter moon rose.
In the next-door field a stream was
a fluid sunset; and then, stars.

I remember the cold rosiness of her hands.
She bent down and blew on them like broth.
And round her waist, on a white background,
in coarse, woven letters, the words “glass cloth.”

And she was nearly finished for the day.
And I was all talk, raw from college—
week-ending at a friend’s cottage
with one suitcase and the set text
of the Court poets of the Silver Age.

We stayed putting down time until
the evening turned cold without warning.
She said goodnight and started down the hill.

The grass changed from lavender to black.
The trees turned back to cold outlines.
You could taste frost

but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book
and opened it and failed to comprehend

the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery
and language borrows from ambition—

and how I fell asleep

oblivious to
the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the Spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies.

All the male poets at the time gave her the props for what she had done with “Achill Woman,” the space she opened up. It couldn’t have been written by a man, and they recognized that.

Michael Longley wrote a beautiful poem dedicated to Eavan Boland (posted it here). Turns out there was room for her – but she had to make it herself. No one “stepped aside.” Life doesn’t work like that. Boldand’s work has withstood the upheavals of the sociopolitical upheavals of the 60s/70s (in a way that many other strictly message-based feminist writers’ have not.)

Boland was in progress, always.

The Oral Tradition

I was standing there
at the end of a reading
or a workshop or whatever,
watching people heading
out into the weather,

only half-wondering
what becomes of words,
the brisk herbs of language,
the fragrances we think we sing,
if anything.

We were left behind
in a firelit room
in which the colour scheme
crouched well down –
golds, a sort of dun

a distressed ochre –
and the sole richness was
in the suggestion of a texture
like the low flax gleam
that comes off polished leather.

Two women
were standing in shadow,
one with her back turned.
Their talk was a gesture,
an outstreched hand.

They talked to each other
and words like ‘summer’
‘birth’ ‘great-grandmother’
kept pleading with me,
urging me to follow.

‘She could feel it coming’ –
one of them was saying –
‘all the way there,
across the fields at evening
and no one there, God help her

‘and she had on a skirt
of cross-woven linen
and the little one
kept pulling at it.
It was nearly night …’

(Wood hissed and split
in the open grate,
broke apart in sparks,
a windfall of light
in the room’s darkness)

‘… when she lay down
and gave birth to him
in an open meadow.
What a child that was
to be born without a blemish!’

It had started raining,
the windows dripping, misted.
One moment I was standing
not seeing out
only half-listening

staring at the night; the next
without warning
I was caught by it:
the bruised summer light,

the musical sub-text
of mauve caves on lilac
and the laburnum past
and shadow where the lime
tree dropped its bracts
in frills of contrast

where she lay down
in vetch and linen
and lifted up her son
to the archive
they would shelter in:

the oral song
avid as superstition,
layered like an amber in
the wreck of language
and the remnants of a nation.

I was getting out
my coat, buttoning it,
shrugging up the collar.
It was bitter outside,
a real winter’s night

and I had distances
ahead of me: iron miles
in trains, iron rails
repeating instances
and reasons; the wheels

singing innuendos, hints,
outlines underneath
the surface, a sense
suddenly of truth,
its resonance.

QUOTES:

Eavan Boland:

I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’ … I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Boland is a poet who understands what she is up to with uncanny clarity.

Melanie Rehak, The New York Times Book Review:

[Her voice] is by now famous for its unwavering feminism as well as its devotion to both the joys of domesticity and her native Ireland.

Eavan Boland on Adrienne Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law:

For this first time, we hear a distinctive note: the sound of a silenced woman suddenly able to voice a conventional suppression in terms of an imaginative one.

Michael Schmidt:

[Boland] lived in London from the age of six to twelve, in a large residence, rather displaced by her accent and her culture from other children. “Some of the feelings I recognise as having migrated into themes I keep going back to – exile, types of estrangement, a relation to objects – began there.” Boland lived in New York for a time, returning to Ireland in her midteens to school. Before going up to university she took a job and saved to print her first pamphlet of poems in 1963. She attended Trinity College, Dublin. Hers is the generation of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Brendan Kennelly. Patrick Kavanagh< was as important to her as he was to them. But apart from the intellectual stimulus of that environment, there were deprivations she began to feel. The "genderless poem" is what was expected of her. There was the danger of becoming an honorary male poet or, in the cruel terminology of some feminist critics, a "male-identified female poet."

Clare Wills, Times Literary Supplement:

Boland is a master at reading history in the configurations of landscape, at seeing space as the registration of time. If only we know how to look, there are means of deciphering the hidden, fragmentary messages from the past, of recovering lives from history’s enigmatic scramblings.

Jay Parini, Poetry Review:

The literal site of these poems is often Ireland itself, with its heroic gestures, high rhetoric, and (sometimes pretentious) symbol-making held in abeyance, even fended off. Boland brilliantly attacks, and nullifies, this tradition. Boland is, in her quiet way, as melodramatic as any of her forbears. This is always what I have liked about her, the clash of intention and manifestation.

Eavan Boland on Adrienne Rich:

They contest the structure of the poetic tradition. They interrogate language itself. In all of this, they describe a struggle and record a moment which was not my struggle and would never be my moment … And yet these poems came to the very edge of the rooms I worked in, dreamed in, listened for a child’s cry in … I felt that the life I lived was not the one these poems commended. It was too far from the tumult, too deep in the past. And yet these poems helped me live it … Truly important poets change two things and never one without the other: the interior of the poem and eternal perceptions of the identity of the poet.

Anne Fogarty, Irish Book Review:

[New Collected Poems] acts as a timely reminder of the significance and innovatory force of Boland’s achievement as a poet and of the degree to which so many of her texts … have lastingly altered the contours of Irish writing. Modern Irish poetry would be unthinkable without her presence. New Collected Poems valuably updates the record of Eavan Boland’s artistic output. More vitally, it underscores the vibrancy of her ongoing project as a poet who is doubtless one of the foremost writers in contemporary Ireland.

Eavan Boland:

I had the good fortune to meet [Patrick] Kavanagh when I was still a student. I sat across from him in a café at the bottom of Grafton Street, where they still turned and gritted the coffee beans in the window. Our conversation was brief but memorable, at least for me. And yet it would be years before I could unpick the legendary threads, the second-hand mythology of the poet. Once I did I could bring with me into later life not an image of sitting across from him, but the less easily realized shape of a writer of persistence and craft: an innovative and dissenting poet, neither afraid of the limits of his subject matter nor the reach of his own imagination.

Eavan Boland:

My father had a superb intelligence, but it was a rational one…[My mother introduced] this wonderful fragrance of the unrational, the inexplicable, the eloquent fragment.

Michael Schmidt:

In “The Achill Woman,” the poet, a student preparing for finals, retires to a rural croft to revise “the Court poets of the Silver Age” and one evening encounters a countrywoman, speaks with her and begins to find herself. It is an incident to which Boland has referred in prose essays and interviews, the point at which she began to apprehend her Irishness and her womanhood as something given, positive and in the broadest sense political… The poets she could no longer comprehend were those who, like Spenser and Ralegh, had fought to control the ancestors of that Achill woman.

Eavan Boland:

What went into the Irish poem and what stayed outside it was both tense and hazardous for an Irish woman poet.

Michael Schmidt:

Irish women have had to negotiate from being objects in the Irish poem to being authors of it.

Eavan Boland:

“[I am] an indoor nature poet … [Nature poets]… like Frost or the best of John Clare, for example. Their lexicon is the overlooked and the disregarde. They are revelatory poets. They single out the devalued and make a deep, metaphorical relation between it and some devalued parts of perception … What happens is that the poet becomes the agent in the poem for a different way of seeing.

Michael Schmidt:

Kavanagh, [Austin] Clarke and Padraic Fallon had to work out from the great poem of Yeats; they had to “write a whole psychic terrain back into it.” Indeed, the overshadowed Irish poet, the poet who isn’t Yeats, or Heaney, has always to clear a space in the shadow of these presences. Boland was writing “a whole psychic terrain” into the Irish poem as well, not again but for the first time.

Eavan Boland:

[Feminism is] an enabling perception but it’s not an aesthetic one. The poem is a place – at least for me – where all kinds of certainties stop. All sorts of beliefs, convictions, certainties get left on that threshold. I couldn’t be a feminist poet. Simply because the poem is a place of experience and not a place of convictions.

Eavan Boland on Outside History (1990):

Here I was in a different ethical area. Writing about the lost, the voiceless, the silent. And exploring my relation to them. And – more dangerous still – feeling my ways into the powerlessness of an experience through the power of expressing it. This wasn’t an area of artistic experiment. It was an area of ethical imagination, where you had to be sure, every step of the way – every word and every line – that it was good faith and good poetry. And it couldn’t be one without the other.

Michael Schmidt:

[Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poesy (1595)] is a justification of the freedom of language, exploration and concern that poetry might enable. The strategy Sidney adopts, which is not to answer the attack but to advocate “in parallel,” is a rhetorical approach rarely used. In recent years Eavan Boland, trying within Irish poetry to clear a female space, employs the same kind of unaggressive, reasonable and reasoned strategy. It is hard to answer because it adjusts the counters of argument in an unexpected way.

Eavan Boland on In a Time of Violence (1994):

I want a poem I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in. That’s a very different undertaking for a woman poet than for a poet like Yeats … A woman poet has to grow old in poems in which she has been fixed in youth and passivity: in beauty and ornament. The sexual has to be separated from the erotic … The woman poet has to write her poem free of any resonance of the object she once was in it.

Eavan Boland, interview in The New Yorker:

So much of European love poetry is court poetry, coming out of the glamorous traditions of the court … There’s little about the ordinariness of love.

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