Eavan Boland Essay - Boland, Eavan (Poetry Criticism)

Boland, Eavan (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

Eavan Boland 1944-

(Full name Eavan Aisling Boland) Irish poet and critic.

Boland is viewed as one of the most important poets in contemporary Irish literature. Critics commend her exploration of feminist issues in her work, particularly the role of women in Irish literature and society. In her poetry she has also subverted traditional Irish mythology and concepts of female identity in order to express a more accurate perspective on the contributions and achievements of women in Irish history, politics, and culture.

Biographical Information

Boland was born on September 24, 1944, in Dublin. Her father, the Irish diplomat Frederick H. Boland, was posted in 1950 as the Irish Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London, and then in 1956 as the President of the United Nations General Assembly. Growing up in London and New York City, Boland felt alienated from her Irish heritage, particularly in London, where she encountered prejudice against the Irish. As a teenager she returned to Ireland and attended the Holy Child Convent in Killiny, County Dublin. She immersed herself in Irish culture and began to write poetry. In 1962 she attended Trinity College in Dublin and published her first collection of verse, 23 Poems. In 1966 she received degrees in English and Latin from Trinity and was hired by the English department as a lecturer. In a short time, however, she left Trinity and became a full-time literary critic and poet. Much of her early poetry focused on domestic concerns, such as marriage, children, and her home in a suburb of Dublin. Yet with the publication of In Her Own Image (1980), critics began to take notice of her exploration of feminist issues, particularly the role of female poets within the patriarchal literary establishment in Ireland. Her work generated much controversy and brought her international recognition as a feminist literary figure. She has taught at several universities, including University College, Dublin; Bowdoin College; the University of Utah; and Stanford University. In addition, she has received several awards for her work, such as the Lannan Award for Poetry in 1994, the Bucknell Medal of Merit in 2000, and the Frederick Nims Memorial Prize in 2002.

Major Works

Boland's early poems were conventional in style, centered on a celebration of domestic issues such as marriage and children, and were heavily influenced by the work of William Butler Yeats. Yet even at this early stage she demonstrated a recurring interest in the role of women in Irish literature and society, which later became a central thematic concern of her poetry and essays. In In Her Own Image, Boland explores such topics as domestic abuse, anorexia, breast cancer, and infanticide. She also addresses the lack of real women in Irish myths and national history and announces her suspicion of the male literary tradition and its portrayal of women. Night Feed (1982) considers the concept of female identity through an examination of ordinary women as well as female figures who have been marginalized in Irish mythology. Through these depictions of regular women, she celebrates the complexity of women's lives. In Outside History (1990) she continues her exploration of female identity, and strives to uncover the silence of generations of women whose lives and contributions to history and culture have been largely ignored. For example, “The Achill Woman” portrays Boland's encounter, during a stay in Achill, with an old woman, who discusses of the Irish Famine and the people's struggle to survive such difficult times. The poet relates this woman's story to her own life and realizes her own failure in recognizing the importance of this woman's voice and her own connection to women throughout Irish history. In these collections, Boland also rejects the notion that women who live in suburbia and raise families are unworthy of attention. Her poetry celebrates the beauty in these lives and the importance of family, marriage, and domestic responsibilities. The Lost Land (1998) returns to the dynamics of family, as Boland reflects on her children growing up and leaving home and the ways in which this process affects her sense of identity. In Against Love Poetry (2001), Boland once again finds value and beauty in everyday existence and explores the tension between marriage and independence.

Critical Reception

Boland has emerged as one of the most important female voices in Irish poetry. Feminist critics have applauded her attempts to locate herself within the Irish poetic tradition by rejecting and reexamining the limited, traditional role of women in Irish mythology and history. By subverting these myths and history, they contend, she succeeds in repossessing her identity as an Irish woman and poet. In a broader sense, critics maintain, Boland's poetic development reflects the dramatic political and cultural shifts in Ireland in the past several decades. Commentators have noted the exploration of such controversial themes as child abuse, violence against women, self-esteem, and eating disorders in her verse. She also touches on issues of alienation, assimilation, identification, and exile. Critics praise her painterly consciousness, poignant lyrics, keen sense of poetic ethics, and use of the concrete to reveal hidden stories in Irish histories. A few critics caution against a strict feminist reading of her poems, contending that this minimizes her work and her contribution to modern poetry. Others have derided her verse as strident and accuse her of mythologizing the domestic sphere and the suburban life. Yeats and Adrienne Rich are regarded as profound influences on Boland's poetry, and commentators have found affinities between the poetry of Boland and Seamus Heaney.

Principal Works

23 Poems 1962

New Territory 1967

In Her Own Image 1980

The War Horse 1980

Introducing Eavan Boland 1981

Night Feed 1982

The Journey 1983

Selected Poems 1990

Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-90 1990

In a Time of Violence 1994

Collected Poems 1995

An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems, 1967-1987 1996

Anna Liffey 1997

The Lost Land 1998

Limitations 2000

Against Love Poetry 2001

Journey with Two Maps: An Anthology 2002

Three Irish Poets, An Anthology: Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Mary O'Malley [edited by Boland] 2003

W. B. Yeats and His World [with Michael MacLiammoir] (nonfiction) 1970

A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in National Tradition (nonfiction) 1989

Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (nonfiction) 1995

Criticism

Patricia L. Hagen and Thomas W. Zelman (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Hagen, Patricia L., and Thomas W. Zelman. “‘We Were Never on the Scene of the Crime’: Eavan Boland's Repossession of History.” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 4 (winter 1991): 442-53.

[In the following essay, Hagen and Zelman assert that Boland aims to “repossess” her place within the Irish literary tradition.]

From Yeats and the Celtic Revival onward, Irish poets have recorded, shaped, and criticized their nation's emerging independent identity. In the process, of course, they also attempted to reforge links to the past by creating for Ireland a literary tradition incorporating the myths, folklore, and symbols of a long-suppressed Gaelic heritage. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, the literary tradition wished into existence by Yeats has been expanded, modified, complicated, and virtually completed: it has become, so the argument goes, a “given” in Irish literature, a dead issue. Thus in Modern Irish Poetry, Robert Garratt “assumes a change among a younger generation of writers in their attitude toward tradition” (5). For today's poets, Garratt argues, the “need to create and establish a tradition in literature no longer appears foremost in their thoughts” (5); contemporary poets no longer feel compelled to write the “definitions” and “apologetics” that so obsessed their poetic forefathers.

Although Garratt does not use the word, forefathers is by implication a key concept in his formulation; the tradition Garratt traces (“from Yeats to Heaney”) is exclusively male. For women, who until recently have appeared only as subjects and objects of poems, not as their authors, the matter of tradition carries considerably more urgency than it does for their male counterparts. Indeed, just as the early Revivalists sought reconnection with a Gaelic heritage suppressed by centuries of English domination, so Irish women poets seek reconnection with a female heritage suppressed by centuries of male domination. Eavan Boland, a major figure in the current generation of Irish poets, is vitally concerned with the “ethics” underlying the Irish poetic tradition, most notably the ethical choices involved in a writer's selection of themes worth exploring in poetry, for these themes will naturally reveal the writer's—and, collectively, the tradition's—ability to bear witness to the truth of experience.

As a poet and a critic, Eavan Boland displays a painterly consciousness, a keen, painful awareness of the shaping power of language, and a fundamental sense of poetic ethics, three strands that merge into a vital concern with the artistic image and its relationship to truth. Art—poetry, painting, history—outlasts human lives; its images offer us a sense of the past which allows us to view and situate ourselves, individually and collectively, as heirs to tradition. As Boland notes, “we ourselves are constructed by our constructs” (Kind of Scar 20). Given the relation between image and selfhood, the poet—especially the woman poet—has an ethical obligation to de- and re-construct those constructs that shape literary tradition, bearing witness to the truths of experience suppressed, simplified, falsified by the “official” record.

In their broad strokes these issues are not, of course, uniquely Irish; as Boland acknowledges, “poetic ethics are evident and urgent in any culture where tensions between a poet and her or his birthplace are inherited and established” (Kind of Scar 7)—a view suggesting the difficulty women poets encounter as they approach a sanctioned national myth. Nevertheless, it is within the Irish poetic tradition that, by both birth and choice, Eavan Boland locates herself. Indeed, because of her upbringing, as she describes in “Irish Childhood in England,” issues of assimilation and estrangement, identification and exile—issues themselves central to an Irish tradition in literature—became significant for her at an early age. She arrived in England, a “freckled six year old”

overdressed and sick on the plane
when all of England to an Irish child
was nothing more than what you'd lost and how. …

(Journey 50-51)

For this child in exile, “filled with some malaise / of love for what [she'd] never known [she] had” (50), educated in English schools, the songs and poems of her birth-country—the Irish poetic tradition—in many ways created Ireland for her. “Fond Memory” (Journey 52) juxtaposes her early sense of identification with the Ireland of song and poem against her adult sense of estrangement from that construction. Evoking her disturbingly peaceful childhood in postwar England, one in which she “wore darned worsted” and

          … learned
how wise the Magna Carta was, how hard the Hanoverians
had tried …

Boland moves from her primary-school experience in the first half of the poem to her home in the second, where her father plays the “slow / lilts of Tom Moore” at the piano. She is affected strongly by the music and

                    … as much as I could think—
I thought this is my country, was, will be again,
this upward-straining song made to be
our safe inventory of pain. And I was wrong.

(52)

As an adult, she rejects the “safe inventory of pain,” with its manifold falsifications and simplifications, but nonetheless retains a fundamental sense of identity as an Irish poet. “I didn't know what to hold, to keep” (Journey 50), the speaker claims in “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951.”

“On the one hand,” Boland writes, “I knew that as a poet, I could not easily do without the idea of a nation. … On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions” (Kind of Scar 8). The only reconciliation possible for her was to “repossess” that tradition. By affirming herself as an Irish poet, and thus rejecting the common notion that women's poetry should be quarantined from mainstream literature, Boland is in essence claiming her birthright, her say in that tradition, her right to “establish a discourse with the idea of a nation” (Kind of Scar 20).

As Boland cautions, such “repossession” is neither a single nor a static act, but a fluid process of de- and re-construction. It is as if she has been presented with a seemingly completed jigsaw puzzle, but herself holds a series of additional pieces. In defiance of those who suggest she create a nice border around the original, Boland would break apart the completed picture and reconstruct a new image. In this model, the first part of the tradition to be shattered must be its alienating “fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both” (Kind of Scar 7). Instead of real lives, the tradition offers Dark Rosaleen, the Old Woman of the Roads, and Cathleen Ni Houlihan, images that by their mythic and ornamental nature necessarily reduce the complex feelings, aspirations, and lives of real women—but not only of women. Boland views these emblematic women, “passive projection[s] of a national idea” (Kind of Scar 13), as “an underlying fault in Irish poetry; almost a geological weakness” because “all good poetry depends on an ethical relation between imagination and image. Images are not ornaments; they are truths” (Kind of Scar 23). By recasting a defeated nation into a triumphant woman, the Irish literary tradition may have gained aesthetically, but it lost ethically: gone were the “human truths of survival and humiliation” and in their place were the “hollow victories … the rhyming queens” (Kind of Scar 13).

Boland's poems, then, attempt to unseat the rhyming queens and reinscribe the human truths they have suppressed, to “repossess” those portions of history ignored by the Irish canon and to reassess the truth of the national identity. In this task, her starting point is frequently the driving of a wedge into the “almost geological weakness” of the Irish poetic tradition. In its simplest terms, the resulting division is the distance between male and female—the split, in Boland's terms, between “hearth and history,” her hearth and his story. Her world, if seen at all, is confined to the margins of his story, the celebration of the grand sweep of Irish heroism. As Boland notes, while the nation's “flags and battle-cries, even its poetry” at times use feminine imagery, “the true voice and vision of women are routinely excluded” (Kind of Scar 19). “It's our alibi / for all time,” she writes in “It's a Woman's World,” “that as far as history goes / we were never / on the scene of the crime” (357). In the official records—the history books, battle-cries, songs, and poems—women exist largely as lamenting voices, mouthpieces, ornaments: the Young Queen, the Old Mother, the Poor Old Woman. “So when the king's head / gored its basket,” the speaker notes, “we were gristing bread”

or getting the recipe
for a good soup
to appetize
our gossip.

(357)

“Like most historic peoples,” women are “defined / by what we forget, by what we never will be: / star-gazers, / fire-eaters” (357). The unsensational and therefore unwritten sufferings of ordinary women, ordinary people, are doomed to become unhistory: “And still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage” (358). Within his story, gristing bread is of no consequence, despite its overwhelming importance in sustaining life; her hearth (a precondition of the “heroics” celebrated by his story), trivialized into recipes and gossip, is...

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Anne Stevenson (essay date January-February 1992)

SOURCE: Stevenson, Anne. “Inside and Outside History.” P.N. Review 18, no. 3 (January-February 1992): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Stevenson regards Boland's encounter with the Achill woman, chronicled in her verse and her essay “Outside History,” as an important moment in her life and work.]

As will be evident to anyone who has followed Eavan Boland's purgatorial journey into self-placement, the story of her meeting with the Achill woman occurs at least twice in her published work: once in the verse sequence of Outside History (Carcanet, 1990), and again as a prologue to her essay of the same title (P.N.R. 75). Boland, then a student at Trinity...

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Ann Owens Weekes (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Weekes, Ann Owens. “‘An Origin like Water’: The Poetry of Eavan Boland and Modernist Critiques of Irish Literature.” Bucknell Review 38, no. 1 (1994): 159-76.

[In the following essay, Weekes applies Richard Kearney's theory about the connection between Irish Revivalism and modernism to Boland's poetry.]

In his excellent study, Transitions (1988), Richard Kearney explores the tensions between Revivalism and modernism in twentieth-century Irish narratives. Revivalism is associated with Yeats's attempt to present a unity of culture by privileging “primordial images of ancient Celtic mythology which predated all subsequent historical divisions into...

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Debrah Raschke (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: Raschke, Debrah. “Eavan Boland's Outside History and In a Time of Violence: Rescuing Women, the Concrete, and Other Things Physical from the Dung Heap.” Colby Quarterly 32, no. 2 (June 1996): 135-42.

[In the following essay, Raschke asserts that “Boland's Outside History and In a Time of Violence use the concrete, physical world to revise notions of what sustains, to query historiography, and to expose the dangers of mythology.”]

Eavan Boland's poetry has been described as “impeccably scornful,” as “denunciatory,” as too “strident” and too “vehement” (Henigan 110), and as justification for “her dangerous...

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Rose Atfield (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Atfield, Rose. “Postcolonialism in the Poetry and Essays of Eavan Boland.” Women: A Cultural Review 8, no. 2 (spring 1997): 168-82.

[In the following essay, Atfield considers the issue of postcolonialism in Boland's verse.]

Postcolonialism in the poetry of Eavan Boland is a process of the recognition and exposure of colonialism: its denial and repression of identity, and the restoration and reconstruction of that identity in terms of place, history and literary tradition. Boland established a sense of dual postcolonialism when, in the Ronald Duncan lecture for the Poetry Book Society, she referred to ‘two identities’ which ‘shape and reshape what I...

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Nell Sullivan (essay date December 1997)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Nell. “Righting Irish Poetry: Eavan Boland's Revisionary Struggle.” Colby Quarterly 23, no. 4 (December 1997): 334-48.

[In the following essay, Sullivan perceives Boland's “revisionary struggle” with Irish mythology, which depicts women in subordinate and passive roles as an attempt to “repossess” Irish poetry for women.]

My muse must be better than those of men
who made theirs in the image of their myth.

—Boland, “Envoi”

Traditionally, the envoi sends the poet's work out into the world with modest hopes, anxious disclaimers, and humble apologies. But in her poem “Envoi” from Outside...

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David C. Ward (review date January-February 1999)

SOURCE: Ward, David C. “A Certain Slant of Light.” P.N. Review 25, no. 3 (January-February 1999): 66-8.

[In the following review, Ward considers the place of The Lost Land within Boland's poetic oeuvre and deems the collection to be Boland's return to political concerns.]

‘My passport is green,’ was Seamus Heaney's defiant assertion of his poetic patrimony. Heaney's confident nationalism has never been shared by his compatriot Eavan Boland. Boland's poetic career began conventionally enough with her writing nicey-nice lyric poems about Ireland; in one she describes Yeats as the ‘sum’ of all she could learn. But writing poems called ‘Elegy for a...

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Kate Daniels (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Daniels, Kate. “Ireland's Best.” Southern Review 35, no. 2 (spring 1999): 387-93.

[In the following excerpt, Daniels finds similarities between the poetry of Boland and Medbh McGuckian and differentiates the poetry of The Lost Land from Boland's earlier poetic work.]

If one were to compose a scale of oppositions upon which to consider contemporary poetry by Irish women, the Dublin poet Eavan Boland (b. 1944) would appear at one end, and Medbh McGuckian (b. 1951), from Belfast, at the other. Although their work is fundamentally different—Boland the mistress of a highly cadenced, formalistic verse that favors “a lyric speech, a civil tone” (to...

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Albert Gelpi (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Gelpi, Albert. “‘Hazard and Death’: The Poetry of Eavan Boland.” Colby Quarterly 35, no. 4 (December 1999): 210-28.

[In the following essay, Gelpi investigates the influence of the American poet Adrienne Rich on Boland's poetry.]

Eavan Boland's growing international reputation is grounded in the recognition that she is the first great woman poet in the history of Irish poetry. Her success is yet another validation of William Carlos Williams' observation that the local is the universal. That very American conviction, which runs from Thoreau through Whitman and Dickinson to Frost and Robinson Jeffers on to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and Denise...

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Michael Thurston (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Thurston, Michael. “‘A Deliberate Collection of Cross Purposes’: Eavan Boland's Poetic Sequences.” Colby Quarterly 35, no. 4 (December 1999): 229-51.

[In the following essay, Thurston offers a thematic and stylistic examination of Boland's longer poetic works.]

Beginning in the early 1980s, Eavan Boland began to work not only in individual lyrics but in slightly longer poems (“The Journey”) and sequences of lyrics (including the poems gathered in In Her Own Image). Indeed, since the 1990 American appearance of Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990, each of Boland's books has included at least one such sequence (Outside...

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Catriona Clutterbuck (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Clutterbuck, Catriona. “Irish Critical Responses to Self-Representation in Eavan Boland.” Colby Quarterly 35, no. 4 (December 1999): 275-87.

[In the following essay, Clutterbuck addresses the critical reaction to issues of feminism and nationalism in Boland's verse.]

This article examines Irish critical responses to a central issue in Eavan Boland's work, responses which were published during eight years of vital development, not only in her own aesthetic, but in her reputation as an artist and in the wider position of women in Irish cultural and political life. In 1987, the results of abortion and divorce referenda in the Republic had consolidated...

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Jacqueline Belanger (essay date September 2000)

SOURCE: Belanger, Jacqueline. “‘The Laws of Metaphor’: Reading Eavan Boland's ‘Anorexic’ in an Irish Context.” Colby Quarterly 36, no. 3 (September 2000): 242-51.

[In the following essay, Belanger maintains that Boland's poem “Anorexic” “best illustrates her attempts to reinsert excluded realities of female experience into an Irish poetic tradition and to explore the implications of the allegorisation of nation as woman.”]

In her 1989 pamphlet, A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition, Dublin poet Eavan Boland describes her search for a way to locate herself in an Irish poetic tradition and for ways to render her experiences of...

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Paul Keen (essay date September 2000)

SOURCE: Keen, Paul. “The Doubled Edge: Identity and Alterity in the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.” Mosaic 33, no. 3 (September 2000): 19-34.

[In the following essay, Keen places the poetry of Boland and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in relation to their writings on gender, nationalism, and history.]

In November 1994, the Irish government collapsed. Its disintegration was all the more dramatic because the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was enjoying unprecedented popularity for his role in brokering an IRA cease-fire and securing the prospect of peace negotiations. Within weeks he had resigned in disgrace over his promotion of Harry Whelehan to president of...

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Katie Conboy (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Conboy, Katie. “Revisionist Cartography: The Politics of Place in Boland and Heaney.” In Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identities, edited by Kathryn Kirkpatrick, pp. 190-203. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Conboy investigates the connection between poet and place in the work of Boland and Seamus Heaney.]

                                                                                          … and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,...

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Anne Shifrer (essay date December 2001)

SOURCE: Shifrer, Anne. “The Fabrics and Erotics of Eavan Boland's Poetry.” Colby Quarterly 37, no. 4 (December 2001): 309-42.

[In the following essay, Shifrer examines the role of fabrics in Boland's poetry.]

By focusing on the role of fabrics in Eavan Boland's poetry, I hope to provide readers with a better key to reading Boland's domestic world, one which reveals her demolition of the aesthetic—and its aftermath, in which Boland recuperates the aesthetic for feminine pleasure. There's a logic, I believe, in reading Boland's poems, at first, autoerotically, reveling in the fabrics, the flowers, the colors of twilight. In moving to a deeper understanding, we then...

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Richard Rankin Russell (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Russell, Richard Rankin. “Boland's ‘Lava Cameo.’” The Explicator 60, no. 2 (winter 2002): 114-17.

[In the following essay, Russell argues that a close reading of Boland's “Lava Cameo” “illustrates how its subject, tone, sentence structure, and diction enable Boland to imagine this scene, sympathetically write herself into it, and establish a new relationship with her grandparents and her own personal history.”]

Eavan Boland's 1995 volume of poetry, In a Time of Violence, explores her imaginative re-creations of history. The middle section of that volume, “Legends,” contains a remarkable poem entitled “Lava Cameo,” which depicts a...

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