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Where Poetry Begins: Eavan Boland in Conversation




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Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944. She is the author of seven volumes of poetry, including Night Feed (Carcanet Press, 1982), The Journey (Carcanet Press, 1987), and Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990 (Carcanet Press, 1990). Her recent work includes In a Time of Violence (Norton, 1994), and an essay collection, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (Norton, 1995). Boland has received international recognition as a poet and scholar. She lives in Dublin, where she reviews regularly for The Irish Times, and travels and teaches in Ireland and the United States. Here she is interviewed by Elizabeth Schmidt, an editor of the literary magazine Open City and former editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Elizabeth Schmidt: As a poet who has been involved in both Irish and American poetry communities, do you see many differences between the two? Similarities? In which world do you feel most at home?

Eavan Boland: Of course they're alike in some ways. But I notice the differences more than the similarities. They're separated, as poetry worlds, by their history and by their heritage. The Irish poetry world when I first knew it still had nineteenth century shadows on it. It was a small, unified, intense community whose references to the past were a common language. The American poetry world is so much larger, more diverse. The common references are much less obvious, at least to an Irish poet. In terms of feeling at home, of course I feel at home in Ireland because I am at home there. But I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity. I always remember I'm an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.

Schmidt: Is it possible to talk generally about how contemporary American poetry differs from contemporary Irish poetry? And more particularly, do you see a difference in how poets in each country are writing lyric poetry? By "lyric," I have in mind Charles Simic’s recent statement that only the finest lyric poems communicate "the experience of the naked moment," that they are the only poems that leave "a lasting record of our naked humanity."

Boland: The contemporary differences go back, as I've just remarked, to some of the historic ones. It's very hard, even for a contemporary lyric poetry, to escape history. And the differences there are really striking. Irish poetry has a bardic history. The Irish bards lay down in darkness to compose. They wrote poems to their patrons that ranged from christening odes to the darkest invective. They were poets who were shaped by an oral culture and you only have to read a book like Daniel Corkery's The Hidden Ireland to know that long after they were abandoned by history at the end of the eighteenth century, long after their language was destroyed, they were remembered and quoted in Ireland. The drama of all that still backlights Irish poetry—the painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience. There is a sort of communal aspect to the identity of the Irish poet even now that has an effect on the contemporary Irish lyric. American poetry, on the other hand, seems to me very tied in with the rise of literacy. As soon as it existed it was read. Of course there are other poetries—I'm thinking of the Harlem Renaissance in particular—where I think the background is more similar to the Irish one, and more oral. But the American poet who traces a descent from Whitman or Dickinson—I know this is a simplified diagram—doesn't have the intense oral, communal past to contend with. They have the exciting sense of a new language, not an old or mortgaged one. So I think, in comments made by Irish and American poets, you have this contrast where the American poet can feel isolated, and the Irish poet oppressed by the communal shadows that fall across the poem. It cuts both ways. Irish poetry draws strength from the bardic past. American poetry seems to me to have benefited, obliquely and maybe painfully, from that felt isolation of the American poet, because it has resulted in that tradition of experiment I admire so much. Irish poetry couldn't have produced a Wallace Stevens. On the other hand, those communal tensions worked well to goad William Yeats into poetry, and kept goading him to the very end of his life. So back to your question on the contemporary lyric. The Irish lyric poem is often strong, eloquent, accessible. It's the lingua franca of Irish poetry. But it's not experimental enough, in my view. Its ties to the old communal obligations of Irish poetry don't help it. The American lyric poem, on the other hand, has been experimental from the start. Look at Dickinson. She was instantly subversive in her lyric.

Schmidt: Having taught in Ireland and America, do you find differences in the way emerging poets write in each country? In how they work at becoming poets?

Boland: Travel and communication have definitely changed things. The gulf between poetic communities like Ireland and America is not as wide as it once was. I think there are real differences, but maybe less than there once were. There are starting to be workshops and creative writing degrees in Ireland. Trinity College started one for the first time this year, for instance. Young poets in both places are probably going to have more in common than they used to. But those differences of history can be seen here as well. Emerging Irish poets tend to feel at the center of things in Ireland. They give readings which are well attended. The poetry and writing festivals are lively and warm and very communally based. I think their equivalents in America feel that chill of isolation, not so much personally as through the impersonal sense that they are not quite certain where they stand with their society. Becoming a poet is not easy in either country, but maybe in Ireland it's still a less isolated process than in the States. Then again, at Stanford I teach the Stegner Fellows, which is a very distinctive and rewarding thing for anyone. These are very serious, very gifted poets, on a fellowship that gives them the shelter of time at the very moment when they're preparing a first book. That's wonderful for me—it enables me to have a conversation about poetry which I particularly value and couldn't have in that way in Ireland.

Schmidt: How has physically bridging two cultures—teaching in California, maintaining a home in Ireland—affected your own work? Has being removed, in a day-to-day way, from Ireland changed the way you compose poems? The way you come across inspiration for a poem? The imagery that's available to you?

Boland: It's not location, I think, that changes poems or poets. It's where they are in their own work, what impasse or forward movement is there, that makes the difference. For a long time, I've had a sort of dialogue going on in my mind—maybe even a quarrel—between those elements of poetic experiment and bardic inheritance. The tension is in my own work, and it's not where I am that adds or subtracts from it, but what I'm writing. I may outwardly bridge cultures as you say, but inwardly as a poet I stay in the same place I've always been, just trying to move from the unfinished business of one poem to the next.

Schmidt: You mentioned the lyric is the lingua franca of Irish poetry. To what extent do you feel, if at all, that your ideas about feminism—the way those ideas have infused your work—have created a transnational poetics, a sort of lingua franca that addresses, for example, the domestic visions that women of a certain class everywhere can share?

Boland: I'm a feminist. I'm not a feminist poet. I've said somewhere else that I think feminism has real power and authority as an ethic, but none at all as an aesthetic. My poetry begins for me where certainty ends. I think the imagination is an ambiguous and untidy place, and its frontiers are not accessible to the logic of feminism for that reason. So I don't really think it's created that poetics you speak of, in exactly that way. Where feminism has influenced and anchored my view of things is in the making of a critique. And it's one of the things I'm most uneasy about, looking back: that so much women's poetry pre-existed that critique. I think it needs a critique. Feminism is certainly a part of a book like Object Lessons.

Schmidt: Perhaps the notion of a "transnational poetics" conveys a sense of the generic that contradicts the intense feeling of place in your poems. Can you describe the process by which the particular and the intimate become paradoxically emblematic, if that's the right word, and therefore accessible?

Boland: Eliot has an interesting essay on Baudelaire that touches on this. He's writing about the way Baudelaire pioneered certain kinds of urban reference and imagery, certain ways of talking about the rain and dirt and downright squalor of a city. Then he stops and says, well, it isn't because he wrote about those images of the city; it's because (he says) Baudelaire raised them "to the first intensity" that they matter. And of course, that's what any poet writing about a particular place wants to do: to transform it, not just catalogue it. When I was in a suburb in Dublin, at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, surrounded every day by the same rowan trees and distances, I wanted to convey not just a place, but the sort of bodily knowledge I got from place.

Schmidt: In your books of poems and certainly in your autobiographical prose, certain ordinary images are repeated and lingered upon. Is this a way of making the ordinary emblematic?

Boland: It wasn't that much of a strategy. I just wanted to find a way of conveying how things change from the ordinary to the familiar, from the familiar to the known, from the known to the visionary. How the same thing can be seen differently over and over again. I was in a flat in Dublin when I was a student for a few years. It had a table in one room, a window over a garden. There was nothing remarkable about any of it, except that remarkable things happened to me there: I wrote my first real poems in that room and began to believe and hope I was a poet there. When you go back to find those feelings in memory, you can often only draw the map in terms of place and it has to be the perceived place, not the actual one: the way a room looked, for instance, the hour after you wrote your first sturdy poem in it.

Schmidt: In Object Lessons you mention reading Sylvia Plath at an early age, and later Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich. Is it possible to say something more about how each poet's work has influenced your own, and if their work shares qualities you see as either especially "American" or "feminine"?

Boland: It's an interesting question. Each of those poets has been very important to me. Each of them leads me back into the American poetry they were nourished by, and departed from, and returned to in certain ways. I can see Whitman better through Adrienne Rich at times, than I can through some of his own poetry. I wish a more exact and exacting critique had been made for Sylvia Plath. I think she was an American surrealist and is too often discussed as a character in an American melodrama. Bishop interests me so much because she opened this fascinating space between voice and tone; her tone was so talky and throwaway in her poems. Her voice was so dark, so achieved. The poem you hear happens in the space between those two. Did she do that because she was American, feminine, a formalist who destabilized forms by using them in new contexts? All of the above, I'm sure. So it's hard to make the lines and draw the boundaries. They're also precious to me, I won't deny it, because they opened the identity of the poet up for me. They made that identity include their womanhood, and they found ways to explore and articulate their womanhood through that identity. One of the reasons I feel so confirmed by some of what has happened in American poetry is because of them. I found the courage to be a poet in Ireland and it was a given that I was an Irish woman. But they gave me the courage to believe that one identity need not limit or edit the other.

Schmidt: Do you feel that the intense discipline and technical mastery you concentrated on as a young poet was a necessary stage on the way to writing "the full report of the reality conveyed" to you? Do you feel that learning to write in particular forms helped you find the form that truly matched the later poem's inspiration? Or do you see those years of striving to write in a more traditionally Irish voice as some kind of false start?

Boland: No, definitely not a false start. Every young poet, to some extent, writes the poem in the air. And a certain kind of formal, well-structured poem was around me in the air when I was young. I laboured to write it, and I learned to write it. And for part of that time it was certainly someone else's poem I was learning and labouring to write. But an apprenticeship in poetry, like in any other craft or art, is not necessarily a journey in self-discovery. I struggled with issues of the line and the voice in those forms. I learned a lot.

Schmidt: Reading your autobiographical prose, it is possible to see your growth as a poet in cycles—from working at mastering traditional forms to working to find "that true meeting between a hidden life and a hidden language out of which true form would come—the form of a true poem?" Would you describe how two quite different recent poems, "The Pomegranate" and "Lava Cameo," reflect this growth? How did you approach writing each poem?

Boland: They're both important poems to me. "Lava Cameo" was written relatively quickly; "The Pomegranate" took almost a year. Yeats has an interesting essay on the different kinds of time in poetry, how English poems are meditative—he says they may be like "The Thames Valley"—whereas Irish poetry has a sort of crisis time. I think there's truth in that. "Lava Cameo" is about my grandmother and tries to compress a lost life into an image of something ambiguous, a profile cut on volcanic rock. I can still see the antique stall where I first saw a lava cameo. But the stanzas I used—fairly open, dissociated stanzas, capable of covering ground and changing voices—were something I could manage at that time. "The Pomegranate" was less easy. It's very easy to get a time fault in a narrative poem like that. By time fault, I just mean that the poem can go quicker in some places and slower in others. I had to struggle with syntax all the time, and go back, and go back again to get the consistency I needed. I've often thought that there's a difference between revision and rewriting. Revision is brisk and businesslike. Rewriting can become addictive. You start again and start again. "The Pomegranate" seemed for months like a poem I was rewriting. Then eventually I went back to it, and picked up something that felt like a tune, and worked along with that. It's an important poem to me. It widens out to include things I loved and wanted to bring together: my teenage daughter, Sarah, asleep in a room full of magazines and Coke cans and cut apple. In other words, the disorganization of the beloved moment. And then that fearless, organized structure which is legend. I just wanted to introduce them to each other in the poem, the way they were already connected in my mind.

This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal published by the Academy of American Poets for its members. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.