Introducing Eavan Boland: a guide to a great Irish poet

As a book celebrating the US-based poet’s long and distinguished career is launched in Dublin, its authors consider her achievement


Eavan Boland’s presence as poet, critic and teacher has been of major importance for generations of writers and the occasion of her seventieth birthday in 2014 prompted a surge of interest in the work of this leading Irish poet. Symposiums and public discussions were held and a number of celebratory and critical publications appeared with the aim of bringing a new focus to the writer and her work.

No reading of contemporary poetry in English would be complete without taking full account of Boland’s oeuvre and this collection is intended to offer a reappraisal of Boland’s influence as a poet and critic in the twenty-first century. Eavan Boland: Inside History seeks to critically re-encounter the work, offering essays, interviews and creative responses. To do so it brings together writers and thinkers from Ireland and the UK, from Europe and the US to address the tropes, themes and craft of Boland’s work in varied and surprising ways. The thrust of this volume is to read the poetry of Boland anew. The book thus attempts to reposition Boland scholarship, offering new ways forward with a focus on the most important aspect: the poems themselves.

Eavan Boland is always considered an Irish poet, though she has made much of her professional and poetic career in the US. Boland’s work is characterised by the art of making the personal understood as political. She is known for a distinctive expression of the realities of family life as well as for subverting ideas of nationhood and of the place of the poet in relation to tradition. Re-readings of history and mythology are animated by a keen awareness of the dangers of inherited myth and stereotype while her explorations of married love are paired with a fierce critique of the idea of “love poetry” in the canon.

The daughter of Frederick Boland, a diplomat, and Frances Kelly, a noted artist, Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944. She spent part of her childhood in London and in New York, later studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Her first two collections, 23 Poems (1962) and Autumn Essay (1963), were published before she was 20 years of age. Even as a young poet, Boland was acutely aware that the act of writing takes place within a constructed and possibly constrictive environment. In Object Lessons, she writes, “I began to write in an enclosed self-confident literary culture”. It would become part of her life’s work to open up that literary culture, sifting it with feminist ideas as well as with her revision of the “proper” subjects of the poem and consequently rendering it less enclosed and more aware of its own contingencies.

A strong supporter of how the poetry workshop can democratise literary access, Boland is known for her encouragement of early-stage poets and for her generosity as a teacher. Her essay In Defence of Workshops defends the creative writing workshop as a place which could subvert the literary establishment’s refusal to give “societal permission to be a poet”. Her work to almost single- handedly open up possibilities for poets in terms of subject matter and approach is noted by many critics including Fiona Sampson in a review of Domestic Violence: “her highly-articulated ars poetica has already remapped the territory of contemporary poetry”.

Throughout her career, Boland has articulated her own project in individual essays and prose collections. Jody Allen Randolph, a contributor to this volume, has written of these works: “Boland makes a complex ethical argument about the history of a set of image systems in poetry”.

In 1995, Collected Poems appeared from Carcanet, allowing readers access to the early collections, including work originally published by Arlen House in the 1980s as well as the Carcanet volumes. Seen in total, it was clear that a systematic experimentation with form, theme and language was well underway.

The exploration of cultural identities continues in The Lost Land (1998) while the interrogation of the poetic tradition is a key focus of Against Love Poetry (2001) published as Code in the UK. Reviewing in the Times Literary Supplement, Clair Wills noted that:

“Boland is a master at reading history in the configurations of landscape, at seeing space as the registration of time. If only we know how to look, there are means of deciphering the hidden, fragmentary messages from the past, of recovering lives from history’s enigmatic scramblings.”

The New Yorker had been publishing the work of Boland under the poetry editor Alice Quinn for 14 years by 2001. In an interview on the publication of Against Love Poetry, Boland and Quinn discuss the poems as written against the tradition of love poetry in the poetic canon. Boland says:

“Love poetry from the troubadours on is traditionally about that romantic lyric moment. There’s little about the ordinariness of love, the dailiness of love, or the steadfastness of love. John Donne is, to my mind, the most beautiful poet of marriage and the stoicisms of love but he is rare.”

Contributions include a foreword by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, as well as essays by Jody Allen Randolph, Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, Siobhan Campbell, Lucy Collins, Gerald Dawe, Péter Dolmányos, Thomas McCarthy, Nigel McLoughlin, Christine Murray, Nessa O’Mahony, Gerard Smyth, Colm Tóibín and Eamonn Wall. There are also poems from Dermot Bolger, Moya Cannon, Katie Donovan, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, Paula Meehan, John Montague, Sinead Morrissey, Paul Muldoon, Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Jean O’Brien and Nessa O’Mahony. The volume concludes with A Poet’s Dublin, a reissuing of the conversation that took place between Eavan Boland and Paula Meehan on the occasion of her 70th birthday at the Abbey Theatre in 2014.

As editors, we’ve been delighted to be part of the conversation that this volume continues. It has been a privilege and an honour to work on this collection particularly as we both feel poetically in Eavan Boland’s debt, as do many contemporary writers… We believe that the work here will set the terms of debate on the work Eavan Boland for many years to come.

This extract is taken from the introduction to Eavan Boland: Inside History, edited by Siobhan Campbell and Nessa O’Mahony and published by Arlen House, which is being launched at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square East, today, December 15th

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