‘She Was Radical and She Was Right’

Poetry was always a man’s preserve in Ireland. Then came Eavan Boland, who shook the hidebound patriarchy to its roots and changed the canon forever.

May/June 2002

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‘She Was Radical and She Was Right’

Photography by Mark Estes

On a recent flight leaving Dublin, Kevin Casey, his wife and their daughter buckled up in their seats and enjoyed a poem together. How very Irish, you might be thinking. Except they weren’t reciting or reading from a book, but examining words woven into the fabric of the seats.

How very Aer Lingus, then—that the national carrier of the fabled isle of saints and scholars would want to showcase its best poets in fine needlework. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s quite nice,’” Casey recalls.

And quite familiar. After all, the author of the poem that now circles the globe is his wife, Eavan Boland—Ireland’s preeminent female poet and a gracious presence in the Stanford English department since 1996.

Boland’s college chum Mary Robinson cited the same poem in her 1990 inaugural address, when she became the first woman president of Ireland. The verses of “The Singers” are a paean to the sean-nos singers of old.

The women who were singers in the West lived on an unforgiving coast.
I want to ask was there ever one
moment when all of it relented,
when rain and ocean and their own
sense of home were revealed to them
 as one and the same?

After which
every day was still shaped by weather,
but every night their mouths filled with
Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars
 and exhausted birds. 

And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
 their true measure of rejoicing in

finding a voice where they found a vision.

Grounded in Irish history and Celtic myth, with a first-class honors diploma from Dublin’s Trinity College, Boland is “regarded as the first major woman poet in the Irish poetic tradition,” says Stanford emeritus English professor Al Gelpi. “Eavan’s poems about Irish history and about domestic life often overlap and intersect, and always she is the poet as elegist—looking back to the past, which is filled with so much pain and suffering and injustice.”

Yet Boland is no traditionalist. During the past three decades, she almost single-handedly transformed the language and changed the course of Irish poetry. “Ireland is a country with a fairly conservative view of women, where putting together the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ had not happened before,” she says, recalling her struggle with the literary establishment. “It’s a country that has learned a lot of hard lessons.”

As one of the youngest lecturers ever at Trinity—she began at 23—and as a columnist for the Irish Times, Boland started to argue in the 1960s that the great bardic poets of the past had fused the nation’s story with the idealized feminine. They portrayed defeated Ireland as Shan Van Vocht, a poor old woman, and glorified reborn Ireland as Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, a young girl with the walk of a queen. In essence, Boland said, Irish poetry had objectified women as passive metaphors, emblematic muses and decorative motifs. “I knew that the women of the Irish past were defeated,” she wrote in her memoir, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Times (1995). “What I objected to was that Irish poetry should defeat them twice.”

In an online interview with Boland in February, New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn recounted how Irish Nobelist Seamus Heaney once told her of the “brilliant” essays Boland had written when she was just out of college. Heaney called her “something of a star.” Boland was a trailblazer, too, because she insisted that female icons needed to walk out of poems and become their authors.

In a recent interview on campus, Boland said she had had two choices when deciding what issues to write about and in what voice: she could be a separatist or a subversive. “In other words, would you break with the canonical patterns or tradition, or would you try to subvert them?” she explains. “It’s a classic case, that the Irish bullied their way into the Western canon in the very language that had been used to evict them and brutalize them and cast them into the darkness of history. They made their statement in that language, and they made that language bow down to them. And that, to me, was a very interesting use of what we think of as subversion.”

It wasn’t easy being subversive in suburbia. At age 22, Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, launching a promising career. When she married Casey and moved to the suburbs in the Dublin foothills to raise their two daughters, however, she found herself part of what she calls a “devalued class.” At times she felt as if she’d landed on the moon, far from the literary conversations of St. Stephen’s Green pubs and cafés.

‘I knew that the women of the Irish past were defeated. What I objected to was that Irish poetry should defeat them twice.’

But as she washed dishes at the kitchen sink, Boland also listened for the rhythmic grind of a neighbor’s garden shears; as she watched Eavan Frances and Sarah Margaret in the yard, she followed the play of dappled sunlight on rowan trees. And once the girls were in bed at night, she could retreat to her desk to write, drilling deeply into the everyday cadences and planes that surrounded her for the sound and shape of her own poetic voice. “I used to work out of notebooks, and I learned when I had young children that you can always do something,” she says. “If you can’t do a poem, you can do a line. And if you can’t do a line, you can do an image—and that pathway that leads you along, in fragments, becomes astonishingly valuable.”

Boland likes to say that it used to be easier to have a political murder in an Irish poem than to have a baby. So, early on, she centered her poems in home and garden and included everyday domestic language that had never been heard in Irish poetry—washing machine, nappies, milk bottle. In the title poem of a collection called The War Horse (1975), Boland looked at outside threats to home and family. Then came The Journey and Other Poems (1986), with its dramatic portrayal of the poet’s mission, and Outside History: Selected Poems (1990), which dealt with women’s exclusion from Irish history and the national canon.

In 1991, Boland came to public blows with Ireland’s literary patriarchy over publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, billed as the most complete collection of Irish writing ever assembled. Although the book included the poetry of three women, including Boland, it ignored the writing of many more. Boland went into battle for them, pillorying their omission in essays and reviews and telephoning round the country to encourage women writers to attend a debate in Dublin—a debate that overnight became the stuff of literary legend.

“She was at the time of the publication of The Field Day Anthology a warrior goddess on behalf of the throng of excluded women writers,” poet Mary O’Malley wrote in a 1999 special issue of the U.S. journal Colby Quarterly that examined the body of Boland’s work. “Her magnificent defense of contemporary women writers ensured that such an extraordinary exclusion, whether from arrogance, ignorance or appalling sloppiness, is unlikely to happen on that scale in Ireland again.”

American critic Jody AllenRandolph, who works both sides of the Atlantic as a poetry reviewer for the Irish Times and the Women’s Review of Books, went to Dublin in 1988 as a Mellon fellow in Irish studies and has followed Boland’s career closely since then. “God, but it was fun to watch,” AllenRandolph says of the Field Day aftermath. Although many younger poets feared for their careers and stayed out of the fray, she says Boland “almost single-handedly challenged what was a very oppressive male establishment, one that was still trying to set terms for what the permissible subjects of poetry were.”

After throwing down her gauntlet, Boland continued to speak out in Irish newspapers, radio and television about the exclusion of women poets. She also crisscrossed the country giving workshops for aspiring women writers in the smallest of villages. “She really opened people’s eyes to the mixtures of complacency and prejudice that existed intellectually in Ireland at that time,” says Casey, a novelist and short story writer. “She was radical, and she was right.”

So right that in 1997 Boland received the Irish Literature Prize, and her poetry became part of the new leaving certificate test that secondary students in Ireland must pass to gain university entry. Having challenged the national canon, she became an honored part of it.

In the 1990s, Boland also was invited to lecture at a number of schools in the United States—Bowdoin College, University of Houston, University of Utah and Washington University in St. Louis. The Stanford English department asked her to teach for a quarter in 1996, and the following year she joined the faculty full time. She commutes to Dublin, departing after final exams and returning each quarter. Casey joins her on campus for three months, and their two daughters occasionally visit. Sarah, 26, works for Dow Jones in London, while Eavan, 23, works in a Dublin bank.

As Stanford’s Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in the Humanities, Boland, 57, teaches poetry and 20th-century Irish literature; the latter attracts students from across the University. Boland sometimes relates personal anecdotes to illustrate a point. Her father, Frederick Boland, was the first Irish ambassador to Britain and to the United Nations, and she treasures one story from his days as a young diplomat in Paris, when he happened to sit next to James Joyce in a café one evening. Asked what Joyce talked about, her father told her, “All night, he kept asking, ‘Do you remember the corner of Dorset Street? Is that pub still there?’” Boland tells her students that Joyce, like many Irish emigrants, kept a map of a place in his heart all his life.

As a director of the creative writing program, Boland also helps select 10 people annually for two-year Wallace Stegner fellowships. In the workshops she teaches for Stegner fellows, Boland aims to recreate the atmosphere she remembers from her own days as a young poet in Dublin. “You see such excellent work coming in that you’re very loath to pick at it at all,” she says. “But the workshop is a conversation about craft, and I discipline myself to consider that poem as unfinished business.”

Nan Cohen, a former Stegner fellow who teaches poetry in the English department, describes Boland as a wonderful “diagnostician.” “She has an amazing ability to discern the crack or flaw that is deforming the whole poem,” Cohen says. “She can grasp what writers are trying to do and show them what is keeping them from doing it. Sometimes it’s almost surgical: the wrong line comes out and suddenly the poem is there.”

Since arriving at Stanford, Boland has published two more volumes of poetry—The Lost Land (1998) and Against Love Poetry (2001). She continues to publish regularly in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Threepenny Review, Kenyon Review and American Poetry Review. She recently co-edited, with Mark Strand, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2001).

A self-described “late developer,” Boland says that although she published early, a distinctive voice took time to develop and she only began to hear it with her third book, Night Feed (1982). Gelpi says Boland’s power often derives from her ability to write about the transitory—“about being in a moment, even as that moment is passing.” It could be a domestic turmoil, like the near death of her infant daughter from meningitis, or a historic tragedy, like the plight of Irish villagers on the northwest coast who survived the famine by eating seaweed.

Eavan Boland sitting at a small table

The almost tactile images Boland creates on a page may have to do with growing up as the daughter of painter Frances Kelly, a well-known portrait and still-life artist whose work is displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The youngest of five children, Boland was allowed into her mother’s studio only at the end of the day, when she wondered at the big paintbrushes and cans of turpentine.

“If I think of myself as anything, I slightly think of myself as a painter’s child,” she says. “There’s a very plainspoken part of my mind that is interested in objects and surfaces and attitudes and light.” Boland also learned from her mother’s work that painters pause for no muse. “They don’t talk nonsense about waiting for inspiration. They just follow the daylight and paint.”

In her ninth and newest collection of poems, Boland plows rich ground—from Irish wolves to emigrant letters, transfiguration to computer codes—and three of the most intriguing words comprise the title. Against Love Poetry is dedicated to Casey, her husband of 32 years, whom she pictures as a steady “clear spirit,” in contrast to her own young “talkative, unsure, unsettled self.” But mostly Boland examines the kinds of questions long-standing couples ask themselves and each other:

Where are the lives we lived
when we were young?
Our kisses, the heat of our skin, our bitter words?
 The first waking to the first child’s cry?

The new collection honors the complications and contradictions of married love, not the romantic aspect so often celebrated with sonnets and scarves. “Love poetry has edited out so much of what we think of the daily and the humdrum and the ordinary,” Boland says. “And that, of course, is where the steadfastness between men and women is found.”

In one poem, she uncovers love in the horrors of the Irish famine, recalling the true story of a married couple who left a workhouse for the poor in the winter of 1847, to return home. They walked west and north, the husband carrying his weakened wife on his back.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
 The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

“We think of art in a certain way as something that adds enormously to our understanding of the world, both morally and personally,” Boland says. “But the truth is that art is not ethical, but imaginative. And it is full of the creation of untidy human people we totally believe in and want to sit next to and want to live with.” Like that fated couple.

Diane Rogers is a senior writer at Stanford.

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