Dylan Thomas once wrote that the world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. By that standard, Eavan Boland transformed the world many times over, with a body of work that was accomplished and treasured in equal measure.
As her fellow poet, President Michael D Higgins, said in his tribute on her unexpected death on Monday, Boland’s particular gift was “to reveal the beauty in the ordinary”.
Born in 1944 in Dublin to a diplomat father and artist mother, she spent periods of her childhood in London and New York, later attending Trinity College Dublin. She published her first collection, New Territory, in 1967, the year after she graduated.
For many, their first experience of Boland’s work was through her poems on the Leaving Certificate English syllabus — a form of literary immortality peculiar to Irish poets. She was not just a poet but an esteemed teacher of poetry at institutions including UCD, Trinity, the University of Iowa, and latterly at Stanford University in California, where she was a tenured professor.
Over the course of her career Boland received many awards for her poetry, but her work also struck a chord with readers outside academia. In 1999, when RTÉ was compiling a list of the best-known and best-loved poems of the previous century, Boland’s Quarantine was on the shortlist, as it was again in 2015 for the Poem for Ireland. The poem centres on a couple who leave a West Cork workhouse during the Famine, dying on their way back home. It resonates in these strange times as never before, with its opening lines:
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people...
The appeal of Boland’s poetry was global, and she was quoted by then-US president Barack Obama in 2016.
Notwithstanding the imprimatur of the White House, Boland was very much an Irish poet, as evidenced by many of her works, including An Irish Childhood in England: 1951, which recalls the jolt of animosity experienced as a young child in an English school:
…the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said — “You’re not in Ireland now.”
That helped her in turning an examining eye on Irish poetry itself. In a 1998 interview, Boland said: “When I was young, I think, there was a hidden struggle over subject matter going on in Irish poetry which I blundered into. I was aware that it was easier to have a political murder as the subject of an Irish poem than a baby or a washing machine.”
The writer and professor Declan Kiberd said she was “one of the very few Irish poets to describe with any fidelity the lives now lived by half a million people in the suburbs of Dublin”.
Boland lived in Dundrum — the classic case of a small village swallowed up by the capital’s urban sprawl, and in poems such as Domestic Interior, she found the sublime in the mundane:
Home is a sleeping child,
An open mind
And our effects,
Shrugged and settled
In the sort of light
Jugs and kettles
Grow important by.
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.
When I asked whether it is unfair to ask a female writer about juggling a literary life with being a mother, when a man seldom has to field such queries, she replied with characteristic acuity: “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 pigeonhole them into a social role rather than a poetic one.”
At the time of her death, Boland was in her third year as editor of Poetry Ireland Review — only one of the myriad ways she supported other poets’ work.
In its tribute, Poetry Ireland referred to the curiosity and energy she brought to her role, saying: “The cover letter for each submission was read with as much appreciation as were the poems, for people interested her just as much as poetry. The journey the poet makes to put pen to paper, to send a set of poems for her consideration, this was as important to her as any poetic reputation.”
Boland was a fervent and egalitarian champion of all kinds of poets and poetry; it was noticeable in our conversation that she referred to “young poets or emerging poets who are older” — always conscious of exclusion. She saw the value of innovation, telling me how she saw spoken-word poetry and the use of social-media platforms in disseminating work as vital to the future of the art form.
Although the poetry world lost her on Monday, her example and advice will continue to resonate with writers everywhere. As she told this newspaper: “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’.”
It is at times like these we need our poets most. Boland is a huge loss to our nation and our culture but in the gift of her poetry she has left us a promise of renewal, that is needed now more than ever. Hers is a legacy that will be cherished by her family, friends, and the many people at home and abroad who knew and loved her through her poetry.