Eavan Boland talks to Eileen Battersby about her work, marginalised by the Irish poetic tradition which has little space for the realities of women’s lives.
This interview was first published in The Irish Times on the 22nd of September, 1998
When she was 14 and living in New York, Eavan Boland met the poet Padraic Colum, then a very old man at a party her parents were giving. She asked him had he known Padraic Pearse. “Yes, I did,” he said. It was the answer she wanted. Boland’s work and her life has been shaped by the need to establish and question identities and relations. The role of the poet within his or her country is crucial to her. So, too, is defining a woman’s place and most problematically, the rights of the woman poet and the tensions between those words. “There seems to be no difficulty in being perceived as a woman poet. The trouble appears to lie in being fully accepted as an Irish poet”, she says.
Having left Ireland aged five to live in London during her father’s ambassadorship and then moved on to New York, she found her return home as a teenager left her feeling deprived of the dialect and nuances of belonging. Aware of being different, she saw of herself that “like a daughter in a legend, I had been somewhere else”.
Diplomat father’s daughter, artist mother’s daughter, she has always been an outsider, Boland’s poetry, was born of a fierce intellectual determination. Her first collection, New Territory, was published at 22, her first poem at 17; her apprenticeship was cerebral. As a university student, she had worked at her craft, engaging in the poet’s business of debate and argument. She was part of an emerging poetic movement. Above all, she was an equal. By her mid 20s, however, she was married and had moved to the suburbs. This began the process which as always set her outside the ruling body of Irish male poets.
“I’m not a separatist – I’ve never believed women poets can walk away from the body of poetry that exists. In the powerful debate which exists in and out of the academy, I agree with those who think the real opportunities for women in poetry lie in destabilising the canon, not separating themselves from it. Besides, I have lived in the ambiguity as a woman poet of deeply honouring the work of male poets while at the same time wishing to contest ‘some of the assumptions around that work”.
Nor is she a post-feminist. “I don’t accept that womanhood is a state we can somehow historically transcend. It is a human condition, not a historic one and as such is a very rich central part of imagination, not only of social consciousness.” Though a feminist, she is not a feminist poet: “Poetry begins where the certainties end. I would have to say as someone who has benefited from, and is honoured to consider themselves a feminist, that literature must not be bend out of shape to accommodate an ethical position. Freedom is single. Women writers have struggled to be heard in this century and it is very important they are not part of silencing anyone else.”
Boland has often been attacked on ideological grounds. “It’s important not to silence the written text. On the other hand it is also crucial to prevent the literary discourse of a small country from becoming a higher form of exclusion”.
Celebrated in the United States, her work has been, and continues to be, criticised in Ireland for her concentration on the domestic. The business of poetry, however, is to capture a moment and the freeze-frame of a child’s smile, the private conspiracy of a night feed or the memory of an abandoned bike are a s real as battles or love affairs. “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.”
Boland turned 56 on 24th September 2000 and she is now Professor of English and director of the Stegner Creative Writing Course at Stanford University in California. Her eight volume of poetry, The Lost Land, was published in 1998, while there have also been two volumes of selected work including Outside History (1990), An Origin Like Water – Collected Poems 1967 – 1987 and an outstanding memoir Object Lessons (1995) which is as much a powerfully argued evocatively-written poetic manifesto as autobiography.
No one is more aware than she – and no one has argued as convincingly and combatively – of the dilemma facing the woman poet, particularly the Irish woman poet. “We have a powerful tradition here of the male poet. Irish poetry was male and bardic in ethos. Historically the woman is the passive object of poetry. We aren’t supposed to write poems, we are supposed to be in them.”
“Sean O’Riordain wrote a poem in Irish in the 1940’s, in which the opening line read, ‘A woman can be a poem, she can never be a poet’ – I’m not saying that male poets support that position. But there is a reluctance to welcome the new energies that are being brought into Irish poetry by a whole range of younger woman poets.”
“Challenge” is a word which appears frequently in her conversation, so does “responsibility”. Few major contemporary Irish writers have been as dismissively treated, none have juxtaposed the intellectual and abstract with the routine as effectively. For all her intensity, her poetry is not without humour: “for all time / as far as history goes? We were never / on the scene of the crime” (From ‘It’s a Woman’s World’, Night Feed, 1982).
Long recognised as a formidable critical intelligence, Boland is highly articulate, logical, even patrician. Her opinions are presented with an often rhetorical articulation and precise textual references. She exudes an awkward rigour. Interestingly, her spoken voice is very close to her poetic one. In many ways a traditional lyric poet, her language is exact, deliberate and measured.
Her work is personal without being confessional. “Who is the poet?” and how is that identity constructed are the questions she seems to be addressing, and what are the issues poetry should explore? By focusing on the real, the realisation of the loss of a child – “I turned around. / I turned around. / She was gone. Grown. No longer ready / to come with me, whenever / a dry Sunday / held out its promises / of small histories. Endings.” (From ‘The Necessity for Irony’, The Lost Land, 1998) – she has been marginalised by poets and readers far more prepared to see the heroism in a stolen kiss than to acknowledge the pain which accompanies a mother’s realisation that her child no longer needs her.
Boland’s poetry consistently expresses the relentless passage of time, “A child / shifts in a cot / No matter what happens now / I’ll never fill one again.” (From ‘Endings’, in the ‘Domestic Interior’ sequence, Night Feed, 1982). “I think these small moments are immensely important and have their place in poetry. I think, and I have to be careful here, but it should be said, I know so many men who sneer at the suburban life and yet it is the very life their wives and their daughters have led and are leading. And not to see through its circumstances to its vision and power and importance seems to me to be both wrong and illogical.”
Moving to Dundrum in the early 70’s, she saw “town and country at each other’s throat” (From ‘Suburban Woman’, The War Horse, 1975) but she also witnessed a village becoming a city suburb, “a real communal adventure”. She has no regrets about living there. “We have the same neighbours. I love living there.”
In Object Lessons she writes: “It could be a shelter; it was never a cloister. Everywhere you looked there were reminders – a child’s bicycle thrown sideways on the grass, a single roller skate, a tree in its first April of blossoms – that lives were not lived here in any sort of static pageant but that they thrived, waned, changed, began and ended there.” She remembers a conversation with a neighbour whose children were teenagers while hers were still babies. “Hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost.”
From assertive young Trinity published poet, to suburban housewife and mother, to Stanford professor, Boland has taken part in many debates. For her, the most important and the one that became the most clouded by bitterness involved the under-representation of women in The Field Day Anthology in 1992. “I feel it has the making of a worthwhile debate. It is at the heart of Irish literature now. No post-colonial project, however distinguished, can sustain itself if it continues the exclusions for which it reproaches the original colony. I felt this was a post-colonial anthology which was not sufficiently alert to that contradiction. There were 28 sections; not one was edited by a woman.”
One of only three female poets among 34 male, Boland is well represented, “yet I felt it would have been extremely wrong not to try to challenge these contradictions. Ireland is a small country. It is hard to have these arguments without everything becoming personal. But I don’t despair of these arguments being addressed.”
Colonies and identities, fictional lands and how we make and unmake them continue to haunt her. Of The Lost Land she says: “This is the book in which I think place and history and time and the ageing body which is the cypher of these categories – all of these run together like the colours in a child’s drawing.”
Illustration by Marianne Goldin