Eavan Boland is a celebrated Irish poet, and the author of ten books of poetry, including Domestic Violence (2007), In a Time of Violence (1994), and Night Feed (1982). She is a regular reviewer for the Irish Times, and she is also the author of several volumes of prose—including A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet (W. W. Norton, 2011), a collection of essays, which won the 2012 PEN Award. Boland has taught at many institutions, including her alma mater, Trinity College, and currently at Stanford University, where she directs the creative writing program.>
Interviewer: Last night [after your reading] someone asked you a question about the difference between poetry culture in Ireland and America—the oral vs. print culture and tradition and how that’s affected poetry today.
Eavan Boland: The comment I was making was on the sociology of art forms. We sometimes think these things are pure matters, and they’re not. In the case of the difference between American poetry and Irish poetry—sort of in the middle and late nineteenth century—you’re really speaking about something that is partly caused by the literacy rate. The American education was pretty well formulated. The literacy rate is high, and that means when Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman wrote a poem, it was read when it was written. Those two things happened at the same time. People read. A soldier in the ranks of the Union army, maybe coming from a remote part of Massachusetts, would have still read the Walt Whitman poem.
In Ireland, in the Catholic population, there really was not a high literacy rate. The legislation, which had only lifted in about the 1820s, had forbidden the Irish to be educated if they remained Catholic. And so you had a poor literacy rate, especially in the rural areas. So what happened was you had oral poets—bards, seanchaís, local poets, who would recite, who had a very, very high development of memory. So the real engine of that culture was an oral culture.
There is a radical difference between the two worlds in the country, not only in audience but in a readership. In Ireland, it was an audience, not a readership in the late nineteenth century. Those things you have to really bear in mind, otherwise you’re going to put the template of one on the other. The American poet has a readership. They go forward to be able to nuance their lines, to make their works complex because people are going to read it, consider it, weigh it. In the oral cultures, they’re going to respond to audience, to the speaking of the poem, and to the memorizing of the poem. They’re going to privilege memory, not nuance. These things make differently inflected poets.
How do you think that Irish poetry and American poetry can learn from each other with respect to those different cultures?
I think they did learn from one another. I think for instance Whitman was a poet who we think of course as being in a print culture—which he was—but that he could as well have come from an oral culture. He had a very, very strong speaking voice in his poems. He speaks to his readers just the way an oral poet would. When Allen Ginsberg came to write Howl, he was inspired by that. It did make Ireland more resistant to the Modernist movement in poetry because that strong counter stream ran through it. But people like William Yeats had a lot of interaction with American poetry. Yeats writes that when he was young he had a copy of Leaves of Grass in his pocket.
How do you see this playing out in the living poets today? And how do you see this fostering readership and an interest in poetry today?
I think we already know that there are very strong constituencies in poetry that have a very strong interest in audience—spoken word collective. Spoken word collective recognizes this energy that comes from audience, and I have a great respect for them, and I think they keep alive that memory. So that’s one of them. I think that there are very clearly signs that that hasn’t gone out, that that memory of audience hasn’t gone. I do think contemporary poets and just previous to contemporary poets, like Adrienne Rich, had a very strong sense of audience, and naturally the divisions and lines are not going to be as clear in an age like our own where communication is privileged. But I see a lot of interest in poetry and its oral traditions.
How have you seen women’s poetry change since Adrienne Rich?
Well, it’s probably a fairly complicated story. She was a really wonderful poet, and to me a very generative figure, but of course she was separatist. Intellectually and creatively she was separatist. So she came from an American moment when it seemed possible to start afresh with a different agenda. Did I agree with that? The real answer is I probably didn’t agree with it, but I thought it was a voice I wanted to hear. I thought she was always a wonderful figure and a wonderful poet, but I don’t think that that stance was convincing to many women poets. I think the relationship with the canonical past and the historic past is something that would be differently seen now. I thought many of her essays, including “When We Dead Awaken”, don’t matter whether you agree with them or not–they’re important pieces of work. So I thought of her as very inspiring, but I don’t have to agree with figures that are inspiring.
Do you think of Adrienne Rich as a foremother? And can you tell us who some of your other foremothers are?
Although I have great interest in Rich, I don’t think I’d call her a foremother. And poor Plath, Sylvia Plath, who died very young. She was a very striving, aspiring poet, and somebody I looked at and admired, and I admire her still, read her still, teach her still. A controversial figure but more because of the narrative that’s built around her. The actual work itself, especially some of the poems in Ariel are really wonderful. I don’t think of her as a foremother, but I do think of her as a wonderful voice in the midcentury, really almost developing a surrealist interest. But I read a tremendous amount of American poets. I admire Louise Glück, who is a very different kind of poet. I like to read poets, and I’m delighted when I read women. There’s a lot of excellent, excellent women poets.
Who would you put on that list of most excellent women poets writing?
There’s a lot of work I’m very interested in. I’m interested in Anne Carson’s work, Louise Glück’s work, a wonderful poet in Ireland called Paula Meehan, who’s now the Ireland Professor of Poetry—a very different sort of poet, close to the oral culture. All over the place you can find them. I think that maybe thirty years ago people could put forward the argument that women poets were a scattering of a few voices, but you really can’t put that forward now. You can argue that there are certain women poets whose work really sets the agenda for the discussion of certain things in poetry. Certain elements of voice. Certain elements of stance. Just as we know that Elizabeth Bishop set the terms for the discussion of a certain kind of nature poem, a certain kind of poet in the center. What we look for in excellent poets isn’t gender or ethnicity but the ability from the self that’s constructed to set the terms for the debate within poetry. I don’t think anybody with too much common sense could deny that really good women poets have done that over the last two decades.
That reminds me of something that you say in A Journey with Two Maps, in the essay “Letter to a Young Women Poet”, about claiming both the past and the present. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I think that might be true of a few decades ago. I’m not sure how true it would be now, but people were intimidated by the poetic past. I’m not just saying women. I think the thing that I really admired in William Yeats when I was younger was that he wasn’t intimidated by the British poetic past, none of whom would have thought an Irish poet could come to the center of that tradition, but he did and he reset the terms of it. And I think that women thought of that past as sort of set in stone, and of course nothing is set in stone. You just have to reconfigure. I mean we don’t see the historical past of many groups of poets the way we once saw it. Seventy-five years ago the canon as we know it looked fairly conservative and fairly exclusive. I think people have long learned that if we are to consider the cannon as a dynamic and powerful force it needs to be inclusive.
Exclusivity is not a practice that has much value in poetry, so I think that the idea that you could challenge the past, that you could make it your own and write your own name in it seemed to me important. If not you’re going to feel that your existence as a poet is determined by that past, which means you have the next step to considering that you can only be legitimized by that. That’s a dangerous step for a poet, and it means they could be in the presence of a very intimidatory sense of the past.
One thing that comes up a lot when we look at history, and the past, and writing about it, is this carefully treaded line with nostalgia. Could you talk about the idea of nostalgia towards the past?
I certainly don’t have any nostalgia for Irish history, I can tell you that. Nobody would who came out of that island. Nor do I have any nostalgia for the canon. I’m afraid I was one of the critics of the canon. I think everybody knows that the canon in 1950 was exclusive of some of the very important voices. I don’t know who could possibly be nostalgic about the canon seventy-five years ago, certainly not if you were a women or a minority. You certainly wouldn’t be looking back with any affection on that.
However, there has always been a difference, a very important difference, not always recognized but there, between the canon and tradition. The tradition is based on what Virginia Woolf called the common reader, the person who looks at poetry and reads it and makes it their own and says to someone else, “You really have to read this.” The tradition trumps the canon in almost every way; the reason we look at Langston Hughes now, the reason we see Gwendolyn Brooks now, the way we look at Adrienne Rich. The only thing that should set the idea of the canon is the last good poem, otherwise we’re going to end up leaving Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” out of it, which for a long time it was left out of it.
Nostalgia I certainly don’t recognize as something to do with the past—if you were to rephrase that question and ask me about the romanticization of the past, that’s a different matter and that’s a challenge that’s correctly posed and rightly posed at people like myself. Are there ways in which I make a fiction of the past? I’m sure there are. And I’m sure that many writers make a fiction of both place and time. When Scott Fitzgerald gets to the end of The Great Gatsby and the speaker says “that’s my middle west,” it’s the idea that you can claim and interpret by language what couldn’t be claimed if it were left silent. In the end, I think it’s not how I romanticize the past that affects the poem I write, but it’s how I imagine the past. And if the imaginative structure is strong, then that is what will carry the argument.
We were talking earlier about domesticity in poetry, and the ways in which women writing about domestic interiors and domestic life is sometimes still perceived as ‘soft’, not valid even, I wonder if you could talk about that?
Yes, first of all, any writer should be delighted to be in possession of a devalued subject matter. It’s a very important thing to have because you want to look at why it’s devalued. The old argument was that the subject matter of the poem guaranteed its size, meaning, and reach. Well, if that was true then we wouldn’t be reading “Those Winter Sundays” the way we do: “what did I know, what would I know of love’s austere and lonely offices.” Love’s austere and lonely offices are only perceived in the poem, through the shoes that are shined, through the sound of the furnace on or not on, and the view is that you perceive the power of the extraordinary presence through the ordinary detail. The argument about the domestic is poorly configured because the idea that the ordinary lives of people couldn’t make it into a poem lacks common sense. The reason “Winter Sundays” is so powerful is the argument of ‘the visionary life lives within the ordinary life.’ And you know Eluard said ‘there is another life and it is in this one’. So the old argument—and I’m not using the adjectives which would be unkind in this matter—that these are trivial subjects that demean the poem are coded. They argue of course that the lives—that the people who want to bring these subjects into poetry demean the poem. If you were to say, ‘can the poem about the domestic life be banal?’ Yes—and so can the poem about the national life, the regional life. Any poem can be banal, but the life that is lived every day, to argue that that cannot have a visionary quality simply doesn’t follow the imaginative direction of poetry.
Thinking about writing out of the lives we live, when did you come to feel like you could call yourself a poet, and when is it appropriate to call oneself a poet and claim that?
It wasn’t immediate, and when I look back now, I find that instructive given the fact that I went to university in a very literary culture. A city that had been struck by lightning, by the literary event—Joyce, Yeats—and it was a very charged environment. Considering that, I was a slow learner, not quick, and I was 22 years of age when I published my first book, but I still didn’t have the sense of myself as a poet. I suppose if I put language on it now, I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t a derived sort of posture or something that I had learned to be rather than what I was. And it was a literary city, a place that had literary values. And then I moved out to a suburb. These were going to be hardworking lives, nobody was sitting around having literary values. And I wasn’t any longer in a sort of formal literary environment—probably true of people when they leave MFA programs—and I then had two little children, and I can still remember myself standing in the kitchen thinking, “Well, I wouldn’t be doing this now unless I really wanted to do it, unless this is what I wanted to do.”
It was labor, and it came as a sort of sense gradually. People were not talking with a whole lot of common sense about women in poetry in those days. I remember one poet—a nice man—saying to me, “The wonderful thing about women’s poetry is when it doesn’t look like it’s written by a women.” There was all of that in the air, and if I had stayed around, would I have picked up some of this? Instead of which, I became really confident that what people were calling a “women’s poet”—I was that women’s poet. I wrote a poem on feeding a child called “Night Feed” and someone said “there’s a niche.” For what? For feeding a child, nobody else does that? I mean, the arguments were based on old biases that Irish poetry had: the male is the bardic, and people were really worried that all women were going to come into poetry from women’s magazines and defile the pure stream, and this was conservative thinking.
You actually answered several of the questions we were going to ask about that all at once, which is wonderful.
Well, I wanted to say something. I come from another generation, another country, another time. I would not have any insight into what it’s like for a young American woman poet now, or even a young Irish woman poet. These things are of their moment. I think the flavor, the weather, the way they are configured is of their moment as well. African American poetry, which we treasure—and is a defining poetry for all of poetry—raises the important question, it’s not that people weren’t going to say women poets couldn’t write good poems, it’s would they be open to the argument of whether the issues raised in women’s poetry were issues for all of poetry. That is, issues for all the craft. That’s the stumbling block.
I wonder if you could describe for us your personal map of the poetry world. How do you see these different bodies of poetry interacting?
It’s no more reliable than anyone else’s. Poetry has always been a series of villages. I always like to read very much the essays poets write about other essays. Robert Hass has a very helpful description of Kenneth Rexroth writing about the regional world he was in. And I think I would have known that, but I wouldn’t have known what it would have meant—a poet like Robert Hass, writing on the California context at a certain moment in a very important way. So poetry has always been a world with many circumscribed worlds inside it. And you’re not going to know about it until you hear that voice says to you, “well look, I was there, I read those people.”
I once saw a rock musician interviewed, and he was speaking about the past, and he said, “You know what? Even your influences have influences.” And so you want to hear about these cascading influences that produced the poem. When I read a poem that I admire particularly, like “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop, I think to myself, where did that come from? Where did that stanza form come from? Where did that decision to change the neo-platonic model, which has a private revelation for the nature poet, and make it a revelation that everyone on the bus has? Everybody sees the moose, feels the “sweet sensation of joy.” That wasn’t Marianne Moore’s view, and it wasn’t Robert Lowell’s view.
In poetry, one rule is true: it is the margin that defines the center, never the center that defines the margin. Look at the history of poetry. Look at 1804, when the 18th century was finished, as the central model, Wordsworth, was on its margin. People in the locale think he’s a French spy. Nobody’s interested in him. He’s out in lake country. And he writes the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, which sets the terms. So it is always the margin that defines the center.
What are some of the margins you’re seeing now are, and where are they going to go in the future?
We certainly know without too much guesswork that some of the women poets we will value will emerge from situations of great contention, societies in which the image of the woman is a template for submission to the central cultural model. And we know that women poets who contest that will be voices we want to hear. It’s an intensification of what happened in many situations. I think we should be reading Forugh Farrokzhad in Iran. A really wonderful, wonderful voice. Her poem “On the Cold Season”—people should read these. Even though we get it in translation—we don’t want to have it in translation—we’re lucky to get it in translation.
So, would you say that to be a poet is also to be a kind of historian?
Not necessarily. I think you know in the old days the Chinese poets were very much intersected with scholars and historians. It’s a mix. I have an interest in that. I’m also interested in essays and criticism and things, but the poet doesn’t need to be any of that. I think if you are at all on the margins, you should make your own critique because otherwise someone else will make it. And I certainly prefer to make my own critique!
How long have you been writing these prose volumes? When in your poetic development did you start becoming interested in criticism?
For a very long time I worked in journalism. Sometimes I wrote four or five times a week in my thirties for the Irish Times on literary feature things and poetry readings. I learned to write prose without any superstition. I don’t have any superstition about writing prose, nor do I have a huge investment in it. But, you know, I’m an argumentative prose writer. Probably I didn’t begin to think about doing something more than that until I was in my late thirties, and then I did publish, after years of argument and contention, about Irish history and the Irish position. I published a book called Object Lessons, written more from the marginal viewpoint. And I was glad to do it, and I think it was valuable for me to do.
I know you replaced one of your foremothers at Stanford. What did that mean to you?
Well, two of them, really. Adrienne [Rich] had been there previously, then Denise Levertov. They were two of the poets I most honored—and not only most honored, but it brings up a very interesting question. I think there are poets you like to read, and value deeply, but there are also poets whose witness you admire particularly. Both those poets gave a very strong witness of what it meant to be a woman in the contemporary world, to be a poet and to write, both as wives and mothers—figures I was inspired by then and am inspired by now. And so I was very honored to know them both a little bit. And of course Stanford was so glad to have them and honored to have them. So to have had them in the world, and in my world, was really a very great privilege.
What are some of the books you’ve read recently that have been particularly significant to you?
I was fortunate enough that Beth Bachmann gave me her book, Temper, yesterday, and I’ve had a chance to look it over. It’s a beautiful book. A lovely, eloquent book, and I read it with great pleasure. There’s a really wonderful book that isn’t perhaps on everyone’s radar, though it should be if they’re poets—it’s called Now All Roads Lead to France. It’s written by a poet in England called Matthew Hollis. It really appears to be just evoking the moment when Robert Frost met Edward Thomas in England in 1915, but it’s a much broader view of influence and affinity between nations, between poets. It came out about a year and a half ago, and it’s really a wonderful book.
Thank you so much!