Eavan Boland passed away on Monday, April 27 2020
"She wrapped her hands around the tree of Irish poetry and shook it to its foundations.”
This was Paula Meehan’s eloquent assessment of fellow poet Eavan Boland on the distinguished writer’s presentation with a lifetime achievement award at last year’s lrish Book Awards.
While there is no doubt that Boland, now 73, forged a landscape for the generations of women poets who have followed her, she’s reluctant to see herself as a trailblazer.
“No. I think that does me far too much credit. I did raise certain issues and the conversation changed but I’m afraid that society issues permissions to people to be a poet. What you worry about is that someone of great value, a woman, a person of colour, or someone disabled might think ‘I couldn’t do that or I don’t feel I have the permission to do that’. What you really want to do is to begin to try and change those permissions.”
Boland’s lengthy list of awards and achievements means she certainly doesn’t want for literary garlands but the lifetime achievement honour, along with the airing of an RTÉ documentary earlier this year celebrating her life and work, would suggest a certain movement towards a reflection on her legacy. For her, however, her life in poetry is more about experience than chronology.
“From the beginning, I would have thought you write poems when you’re young you couldn’t write when you’re older, you write poems when you’re older you couldn’t write when you’re younger. It is really more a sort of a journey through the things that you can do.”
Boland has previously written that “poetry begins where the language starts, in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life”. For her, poetry has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
“I wrote a lot of awful poems as a child, for birthdays and stuff like that,” she laughs.
But I often quote the fine American poet William Meredith, who, when asked ‘When did you start writing poetry?’ replied ‘When did you stop?’. To a certain extent, I think that people who write are continuing something that a lot of other people did but stopped for some reason.
In writing about the domestic sphere and motherhood in her poetry, and later in her acclaimed 2011 collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, Boland gave voice to the preoccupations of the female experience. She says she doesn’t view this as an act of bravery, rather one of compulsion.
“If you don’t put the life you live into the poems you write, the simple truth is you are going to end up writing someone else’s poem. I didn’t want to do that. I knew that there was no real respect for the subject matter I had. But I didn’t feel victimised by that. I felt that to have a devalued subject matter is what a lot of people sometimes have. I was there with two very small children, with neighbours who were living those lives as well; I felt there was a visionary aspect to those lives. It seemed to me completely wrong and contrarian to think that shouldn’t be in poetry.”
While it is now sometimes viewed as unfair to ask a female writer about juggling a literary life with being a mother, when a man seldom has to field such queries, Boland believes there is value in exploring the question, while understanding the difficulties around answering it.
“I wouldn’t object to that question. It would be something I write about. But I do know that there are real sensitivities. It is not that women really mind the question — they are afraid that there is a code inside the question that is going to pigeon-hole them into a social role rather than a poetic one. I don’t actually feel that because I feel it gives you a chance to make an argument. But I understand — there is a lot of impatience and hurt and real suffering that people experienced by being excluded… It is a very damaging thing.”
Boland spends a large chunk of her year in California, where she is a professor of English at Stanford University. Teaching gives her the opportunity to observe the evolving role of the poet.
“I often say to students, if it is a really strong poem, you never really put it down and say ‘that’s beautiful’, you put it down and say ‘that’s true’. I really think that for a lot of people, the experience they live, they really want it to be in the poem they write. For a lot of young poets or emerging poets who are older, for instance, the environmental world, their place in a world that is doing damage, that is taking away the future, that puts a role in their minds, not so much to become an activist as to become a political poet. I think there has been a strong rise in political poetry.”
Boland, who is poet-in-residence at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival, has always been seen as a champion of other poets.
In this vein, she is in her second year as editor of Poetry Ireland Review. While there has been much debate about spoken word poetry and the use of social media platforms in disseminating work, Boland sees such methods as vital to the art form’s future.
“I don’t want to criticise too much… There have always been people who think of themselves as gatekeepers, who think poetry has something to fear from this. They think it is a sort of populism that it brings elements of social engineering that don’t belong in poetry. I don’t agree with that.
Poetry has always changed with the changing world. If it doesn’t, it will run the risk of not being a living language.
Boland has been at home in Dublin for the summer, enjoying spending time with her husband, the writer Kevin Casey, their two daughters, and a growing number of grandchildren.
When asked how her inspirations and motivations have shifted with the seasons of her life, she replies: “The poet Robert Lowell once said: ‘All the poems I’m interested in I can’t write and all the poems I can’t write, I’m not interested in’. I think you spend your time with poems between those two things.”
Kilkenny Arts Festival: highlights
‘Shakespeare is for life, not just for the leaving cert’ is the clever tag line for director Lynne Parker’s new and Irish take on the Bard’s comedy.
Stephen Rea returns with a performance of the work of poet Derek Mahon. Featuring a new live score composed by Neil Martin and performed by pianist Brian Connor.
Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara return from their stint as curators of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, to discuss their design vision and the challenges of curating the world’s leading festival of architecture.