Illustration by Marianne Goldin.
For more than 40 years, Eavan Boland has been one of the most prominent voices in Irish poetry. Born in Dublin but raised in London, she had early experiences with anti-Irish racism that gave her a strong sense of heritage and a keen awareness of her identity. Boland bucked convention in being one of the first female poets in Ireland to write plainly and eloquently about her experiences as a woman, mother, and exile. The author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Domestic Violence and Against Love Poetry, she’s also the author of Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time and co-editor, with Mark Strand, of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. As director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University, she continues to influence a new generation of poets in the United States as well as abroad.
Eavan Boland will read at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the 53rd annual Poetry Day celebration on November 14. In anticipation of her upcoming appearance, I spoke with her about her recent work and the challenges she faces in imagining experience.
Your new book, Domestic Violence, is built around a contradiction: that nurturing human impulses live side by side with violent ones, as you witnessed during the Troubles in Ireland. How do you reconcile this contradiction in your poems?
I wonder, is it a contradiction? I think the issue here is a division between nurture and imagination. We don’t just live our lives, we imagine them. It’s that act of imagining that brings the richness and complication to plainspoken moments. “Domestic Violence”—both the poem and the book—revisits things which have troubled me about the distance between living and imagining. For instance—to take one example—I wanted the title poem to ask whether the family homes which provided shelter throughout the Troubles in Ireland, including mine, also provided a way of exempting ourselves from imagining what was happening. A private life doesn’t encourage that escape from public events, but it does, on occasion, allow it. At a certain moment it seemed to me that imagining the truth of the wider island we lived in was necessary, certainly for me. It also seemed that retreating from it into a private life would turn a shelter into a cloister. For most people, the truths beyond their safety are difficult ones. And so it was in Ireland at that time, and going further with it was difficult, too. It involved looking at language, at self-deception, and the part both play in the origins of something as chilling as hatred. That makes the location of nurture—that private life—also a locus of intense inquiry. That’s what I wanted to do. For all that, there’s no way I could reconcile those things in the poems. But I could ask the questions.
Writing about the interior lives of women was once a radical proposition in Irish poetry. How has this poetic tradition changed?
I don’t think the interior lives of women were a radical proposition in Irish writing. After all, Joyce created Molly Bloom, Yeats had Crazy Jane, John Synge put forward Pegeen Mike, and Sean O’Casey had Juno. There were many voicings of the lives of women, some stylized and some more realistic, some better, some worse. What was radical was that the objects of a literature became, in a short space of time, the authors of it. When women began to write the Irish poem, and made it answer to their lives, that was both renewing and disruptive. It wasn’t just that the Irish poem became more urban, more daily, less bardic, less retrospective. It wasn’t a series of negatives. It was that a whole new treasury of tones, nuances, surfaces, and perceptions became available to that poem. That’s where change came in. That’s the change that will persist.
In your poem “Ode to Suburbia,” you speak about how “the common / Hurt which touched you made / You human.” At what point did you recognize that the details of an ordinary life were important enough to be the subject matter for a poem?
If the details of a life are not important enough for a poem, then I’ve no idea what we’re doing as writers. Poetry doesn’t confer importance on human experience: it’s the other way around. Of course, you can have the courage of your experience, and feel it’s what you want to write about, but you still have to assemble the poem with craft and care. And that’s something else to worry at. Self-expression is not art.
Having crossed that threshold, are there still some subjects you feel can’t be broached—that are too private, taboo, unimaginable, or resistant even for poems?
I don’t think it’s so much the taboo or the private, as simply the fact that the way I want to write a particular poem might not work. Other poets may be different, but the real estate of my poems has remained pretty much the same for a long time. So it’s not the subjects that are resistant; it’s the imagining and reimagining of them.
You’ve said one of the difficulties of Irish poetry is its tendency to “forget its past in the middle of the present.” Do you think American poetry faces the same dilemma?
The past I was speaking about—it was in an interview—is the past of Irish poetry itself, not of Irish history. And that’s something different. Poetry moves forward in unpredictable ways. But if you look at its chronology, there’s quite a bit of disowning the past, or forgetting it, that goes into the various so-called moves forward: The Romantics wanted to disown the Augustans. The Augustans had already forgotten the Cavalier poets. The Modernists were ready to forget them both. I’m not sure it’s always the way to proceed, especially not in the already fragmented cultural history of a small country. But I don’t feel able to translate the comment into American poetry. I think you’d have to be an American poet or poetry reader to do that.
In “The Journey,” you write that “somewhere a poet is wasting / his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious // emblem instead of the real thing.” What is that “real thing” poets should write about, but don’t?
Well, in that case, an antibiotic. Literally. The poems begins with a riff about that: that there’s never “been a poem to an antibiotic.” It’s at the heart of this fairly long dream-poem. “The Journey” is essentially a poem about child mortality; our own infant daughter had recovered from a dangerous meningitis around that time. But it’s also about the fact that such subjects are extraordinarily absent from poetry. So the poem begins and continues with an argument about the way ornamental language can protect a poet from reality. It’s something I think crops up from time to time, the old debate about what agency language has in a poem: whether it merely decorates the subject or reveals it. And that’s the larger theme of “The Journey.”
Domestic Violence opens with a poem which asserts that the place of memory is to “remember, not atone.” What is the place of atonement in poetry?
I don’t think it has one. I associate atonement with prayer, with memory, with speech. But not with poetry. A poem is a more complicated assembling of language and meaning than I associate with atonement.
In “Letters to the Dead,” a series of elegies that appear in Domestic Violence, you revisit the death of your mother. There’s an obvious difference between imagining grief and experiencing it. Were both kinds of mourning necessary to write these poems?
I couldn’t imagine the grief unless I’d experienced it. I don’t say that as any dictum either. I’m just speaking for myself. Traditionally, the writer of an elegy didn’t have to experience the grief they were recording. Milton’s “Lycidas” is a great elegy, but there’s no evidence that he knew Edward King, the subject of it, in any deep or feeling way. In our age, we write the elegy with a closer traffic between the experience of grief and the imagining of it. On the other hand, I don’t think that imagining has to be mapped by your first experience of loss, which can be so visceral that it’s almost a private language. It’s the traffic between that first private feeling and the wider view which points towards elegy, certainly for me. “Letters to the Dead” tries to take a broader look at mothers and daughters in Ireland, at landscape, at something wider than a single loss.
In the poem “An Elegy for My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears,” you describe yourself as a “conservationist.” What are you conserving when you write a poem?
That particular poem is built on seeing the downright, grounded objects of an old Dublin kitchen as dying traditions. It so happened that I loved my mother’s kitchen—what I can remember of it—in our first house in Dublin. Even though we left it when I was very young, I remembered certain objects clearly. I could still see the kettle, the clotheshorse with clothes drying in front of the fire, the brass firedogs, and so on. The poem is made around this woven series of parallels between the natural world we do care about and want to protect (the animals, the eco-systems) and this vanishing domestic habitat that we care much less about because we’re always ready to remake it in the name of progress. The term “conservationist” is linked to this conceit of the poem.
Your poems seem to me not to regret the passage of time as much as record our lament of what’s lost to it, in a literal, physical sense. It takes the form of rust on a cattle grid in “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground,” or an old florin and a paper cone of lemonade crystals in the poem “Of Shadow. Of Simile.” And yet you’re a staunch early adopter of technology. Will an iPod ever make an appearance in one of your poems?
Now that’s a very interesting question! I really am an early adopter, and always prepared to be enchanted by something new in technology. But that’s back to some of the other questions that you’ve asked, many of which circle around the imagining of things, as against, or in addition to, the living of them or the experiencing of them. I use my iPod every day. I turn it on and off, and I appreciate it. But I can’t really imagine it. So it’s not likely to end up in one of my poems. But I don’t doubt it’s going to be a part of the world to another poet, who will feel about it the way I felt about my mother’s kettle and clotheshorse. So the ode to the iPod may not be as far away as we think.