The Beauty of Ordinary Things – In the Poetry of Eavan Boland Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly

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.”

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Illustration by Marianne Goldin

Major Themes in Eavan Boland’s Poetry - illustrator Dearbhla O'Kelly – illustrator Dearbhla Kelly

The purpose of these notes is to guide you in your exploration of the  poetry of Eavan Boland.  The notes are structured as a series of ‘thinking points’ ranging over the main themes and issues evident in her work.  They are not exhaustive and neither are they ‘carved in stone’.  They should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own understanding of the poet’s work.

 You are expected to study six poems by Eavan Boland from your Anthology.  The poems we will concentrate on are: 

  • ‘Child of Our Time’,
  • ‘This Moment’,   
  • ‘Famine Road’,
  • ‘Outside History’,
  • ‘The War Horse’,
  • ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’

Boland’s view of Irish history and her idea of nation

  • Boland deals with the reality of Irish history, the familiar story of oppression, defeat and death (‘The Famine Road’). The sense of national identity that comes across from ‘The Famine Road’ speaks of victimisation, being downtrodden and living out pointless lives; see also the suffering in ‘Outside History’.
  • Opposed to that view is the male-created myth, involving heroic struggle, battle, and glorious defeat: see the image of the dying patriot immortalised by art in ‘An Old Steel Engraving’. The woman poet feels excluded from that cultural tradition –  ‘One of us who turns away.’
  • Boland resists the myths imposed on us by our history (and the way it was taught!!) and she insists on the necessity of confronting the reality, facing the unburied dead of history and laying them to rest (‘Outside History’).
  • She shows concern for the unrecorded history, for the significance of lives lived on the margins of history, away from the centre of power, far from the limelight of action. She mourns the forgotten lives in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’.
  • In her prose writings Boland explores the idea of nation and the difficulties it produces for her as a woman poet. In Object Lessons she says:

So it was with me.  For this very reason, early on as a poet, certainly in my twenties, I realised that the Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry was not available to me.  I would not have been able to articulate it at that point, but at some preliminary level I already knew that the anguish and power of that woman’s gesture on Achill, with its suggestive hinterland of pain, were not something I could predict or rely on in Irish poetry.  There were glimpses here and there; sometimes more than that.  But all too often, when I was searching for such an inclusion, what I found was a rhetoric of imagery which alienated me: a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both.

It was not a comfortable realisation.  There was nothing clear-cut about my feelings.  I had tribal ambivalences and doubts, and even then I had an uneasy sense of the conflict which awaited me.  On the one hand, I knew that as a poet I could not easily do without the idea of a nation.  Poetry in every time draws on that reserve.  On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions.  At one point it even looked to me as if the whole thing might be made up of irreconcilable differences.  At the very least it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archive, at a distance from its energy.  Unless, that is, I could repossess it.  This proposal is about that conflict and that repossession and about the fact that repossession itself is not a static or single act.  Indeed, the argument which describes it may itself be no more than a part of it.

Violence in society

  • ‘The War Horse’ explores suburban, middle-class attitudes to political violence. It is really a psychological exploration of the theme ‘how we respond to violence’.
  • Race memory and the old antagonisms to English colonial rule still exist just beneath the surface (‘The War Horse’).
  • The real human consequences of political violence are portrayed in ‘Child of Our Time’. The poet here acts as the conscience of our society.
  • Violence is seen as the result of a failure of language, an inability to communicate (‘Child of Our Time’).

The significance of myth

  • While in much of her poetry myth is seen as a positive thing, Boland often challenges the image of woman in mythology (also in art in mythology), particularly when it shows woman as marginalised, silenced, subservient to her husband the hero, as in ‘Love’.
  • For her our history (indeed all history) is laced with myths. The unreality, the coldness and the distance of myth from real lives is symbolised in the stars of ‘Outside History’.

The experience of being a woman

Boland’s strong feminine perspective lends an extra dimension of insight to all her themes.  But she also considers specific issues relating to the portrayal and the treatment of women.

  • The sufferings of women are equated with the oppression of the nation (‘The Famine Road’)
  • The traditional role of woman is validated in such poems as ‘This Moment’, which show woman as mother.  That maternal gesture of catching the child in her arms is the key to the poem.  The protectiveness of mothers features also in ‘The Pomegranate’.  Also her wisdom is displayed in allowing the daughter freedom to learn for herself.
  • Woman as lover features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’ and ‘Love’.
  • Suburban woman features in many of the poems: ‘The War Horse’ and ‘This Moment’.
  • The puzzling relationship between men and women features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’: the mistimings, the tempests of love, the sensual allure. Love diminishes in time, like the importance of the fan.  This makes an interesting alternative view to the blinkered one of idyllic romance.
  • Boland challenges the patriarchal tradition of Irish poetry. In Object Lessons she elaborated on her objections to the images of women in literature:

The majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry.  They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve.  The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.  This was especially true where the woman and the idea of the nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture.  (Note: This is very obvious in the poetry of Yeats where he refers almost obsessively to Maud Gonne).

The trouble was [that] these images did good service as ornaments.  In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry.  Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic.  But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption.  For they were not decorations, they were not ornaments.  However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth.

What had happened?  How had the women of our past – the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival – undergone such a transformation?  How had they suffered Irish history and rooted themselves in the speech and memory of the Achill woman, only to re-emerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sibyls?

The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became.  The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions.  Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief.  It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.

Poetry in the suburbs

  • A good deal of her poetry is set in the suburbs, a setting not associated traditionally with poetic inspiration.
  • The fragile nature of the beauty and order created in the suburbs is brought out in ‘The War Horse’.
  • The toy-house neatness of suburbia is no match for the wild, elemental attractions of nature in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’.
  • In the later poems we encounter a romantic evocation of a suburban twilight (‘This Moment’). Nature has colonised the suburbs (‘Stars rise / Moths flutter’, ‘one window is yellow as butter’).
  • But the real bleakness of the suburban street is not hidden: ‘The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured’ – ‘The Pomegranate’.


Portrait of Eavan Boland as a child by her mother, the painter Frances Kelly
Portrait of Eavan Boland as a child by her mother, the painter Frances Kelly