Eavan Boland: Inside History review: honoured but misunderstood?
Enda Longley on how critics might have better unpicked the Irish poet’s work in this collection of essays
Eavan Boland: Inside History may not quite achieve new readings, but it registers the need for something to change in the reception of her work
Eavan Boland: Inside History
Siobhán Campbell and Nessa O'Mahony (editors)
Inside History reverses the title of Eavan Boland’s 1990 collection, Outside History. This affirms or confirms a movement of women in from the Irish margins. Siobhán Campbell and Nessa O’Mahony have asked writers to honour Boland (who is now in her 70s) with essays and poems. And Mary Robinson’s foreword – its authorship as much as its content – underscores the historical shift to which Boland’s poetry belongs. Boland has given Robinson “a deep belief in the need for us to look at civic life and an imaginative life as inseparable”.
Yet the book ends with a conversation between Boland and Paula Meehan in which Boland hesitates over the word “communal”. She stresses not “community” but “communion”: a poem’s “inwardness”. Here Boland adjusts her tendency to blur the differences between literary, cultural and political dynamics, and sometimes between poem and manifesto: “Out of myth into history / I move to be part of that ordeal . . .”
The critical essays in Inside History might do more to unpick those differences. The editors claim that the “thrust of this volume is to read the poetry of Boland anew”. But the case for Boland’s “major importance” is still primarily argued on thematic rather than aesthetic grounds.
Few essayists resist the power of her early manifestos, in which “woman”, “poet”, “Irishness” and “nation” can unduly converge. We are once again told that Boland is in “constant dialogue with the tradition of modern Irish poetry” and “the founding ideologies of the modern Irish state” and that she “puts flesh on . . . the ‘mythic, emblematic’ women in Irish poetry”.
UncriticalIt’s one thing for Boland to represent “the tradition of modern Irish poetry” in ways that support her own work or “project” (the editors’ term). It’s another thing for commentators to accept Boland’s version of Irish poetry so uncritically as to repress her actual literary-historical contexts. Except in an essay by Gerald Dawe, and when O’Mahony illustrates Boland’s influential use of “mythical narrative”, there is scant allusion to other contemporary Irish poets. Perhaps the poems included here are meant to speak for themselves. Yet it would have been illuminating, for instance, to compare Boland with Paul Durcan as a questioner of “founding ideologies” and prophet of Robinson’s presidency.
A root problem may be the lack of specificity in how Boland portrays “the” Irish poetic tradition and “the Irish poem”. Neither has ever been unitary, if understandably rendered so for her polemical purposes. Boland is quoted as saying of the 1960s: “I began to write in an enclosed self-confident literary culture.” John Montague’s death reminds us that the Irish poetic matrix of that decade was more multifarious, more turbulent, more open to the world than Boland’s retrospects imply.
Of course women poets’ lack of “confidence” is, or was, the point. This, too, requires context. More Irish women published collections of poetry during the 19th century, and in the orbit of the Irish literary revival, than Boland’s vista of absence allows. It was in post-1922 Ireland that the number or visibility of women poets (as of political women) dwindled. But the ascent of literary “modernism” may also have played a discouraging part; some feminist critics argue that this was the case elsewhere.
More pressingThus the need to find “a new language” was undeniably more pressing for Boland than for her male contemporaries. Like Adrienne Rich, a significant model, Boland makes language a theme: “The oral song . . . / layered like an amber in / the wreck of language / and the remnants of a nation.”
There is again a difference between “language” as cultural presence and language as poetic structure. Campbell’s and Colm Tóibín’s essays are the most devoted to close reading. Campbell focuses on syntax, Tóibín on Boland’s play between “Anglo-Saxon” and Latinate words.
Yet the key issue is whether Boland always imbues her language with Anglo-Saxon or Hiberno-English rhythmic vigour. Critics who have reservations about her poetry usually cite instances where it seems to lack concreteness, where abstraction weakens rhythm. That’s one reason why The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, with its ending that unfolds like a fan, is such an anthologist’s favourite: Suddenly she puts out her wing – / the whole, full flirtatious span of it.”
Lucy Collins’s well-conceived essay A History of the Poet in Five Objects, which highlights poems about paintings, counters the accusation that Boland’s poetry can be immaterial. But form is another material issue. Some poems make form thematic too. The Achill Woman indicts “the harmonies of servitude, / the grace music gives to flattery / and language borrows from ambition”.
To quote Campbell, Boland’s subject “is partly the problem of presenting a wariness of beautifully crafted rhetoric within the lyric poem which is often committed to just that”. This discounts the protean forms of the modern lyric. It remains a critical task to evaluate the distinctiveness of Boland’s alternation between stanza and freeish verse.
Boland’s manifestosBoland’s inspiring effect on younger Irish women poets is a matter of record. So perhaps it’s time to move further “inside” her poetry. Inside History may not quite achieve new readings, but it registers the need for something to change in the reception of Boland’s work.
That might entail distinguishing between what her poems say about themselves and what they are doing linguistically and formally. It might also entail reading against the grain of Boland’s manifestos. To what extent has she challenged “founding ideologies”? Virginia Woolf said that a woman has no country. Boland’s poems constantly mention “my country”, the “nation”.
She feminises rather than radically revises what Thomas McCarthy calls “accepted Irish themes”: famine, colonialism, emigration. Her poems abound in “emblematic” women, even if her emblems differ from WB Yeats’s. She also generalises a national “ordeal” that does not always connect with the actual ordeals of the past 50 years.
Perhaps the psychological (“inward”) aspect of all this should be more heavily weighted. Critics have noted Boland’s need to compensate for her childhood absence from Ireland. Her poems are often set in a limbo that is not only historical. Rereading them, I was struck by how obsessively the words “dusk”, “shadow” and “twilight” recur.
For Boland the nation and its occluded women may ultimately represent ways of writing the self into existence as a poem. Nobody can doubt the intensity of Boland’s dedication to poetry. In Is It Still the Same, one of her best poems, the poet is to be found under the “same inky sky and pin-bright stars”. Here we “can see nothing of her, but her head bent over the page, her hand moving”.
Edna Longley is a professor emerita at Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of Yeats and Modern Poetry (2013)