New Collected Poems
The title of Eavan Boland’s New Collected Poems is particularly appropriate for a poet whose work has continued to evolve so that each edition as it was published was a commentary on previous work, as well as an expression of her most current sense of herself as an Irishwoman writing poetry. Boland was born in 1944; her mother was an artist, and her father was an Irish diplomat assigned to various locations outside their home country. Her education was essentially traditional, so that her initial idea of poetic form was built on the model of European and British writers. Her early work was admired for Boland’s ability to use these forms with competence and to find subjects suitable for a poet working in a familiar tradition. One of her most celebrated poems from this time was “The War Horse,” the title poem of a collection published in 1975. The poem is written in rhyming couplets, all the lines beginning with capital letters, the horse a symbol of mindless destruction:
He stumbles on like a rumour of war, huge,Threatening; neighbours use the subterfugeOf curtains; he stumbles down our short streetThankfully passing us. I pause, wait,Then to breathe relief lean on the sillAnd for a second only my blood is still
The slant rhymes are small variants, acceptable alterations within a standard structure. The central image is of some uncontrollable force disturbing the community as sectarian violence in the United Kingdom casts Northern Ireland and England in tableaux of strife that the poet observes with a wary trepidation.
For Boland, this mode, which earned her considerable praise, became progressively unsatisfactory. “There was a nineteenth century shadow on the poetry world when I first knew it,” she recalled, “a certain kind of well-structured poem was around me in the air.” She understood the necessity for mastering the requirements of this kind of poem, and her early work was evidence of her skills. Then, in 1985, in a striking declaration of poetic purpose that she called “Writing the Political Poem in Ireland,” she identified her problem with the kind of poetry she was writing by asserting, “For a long time Irish poetry kept an almost nineteenth century order” wherein “there was an apparent decorum about it all” that signified a consensus rarely challenged. Boland had reached a point where the idea of the feminine in Irish poetry, “the nationalization of the feminine, the feminization of the national,” required the kind of scrutiny that would permit the “woman poet in Ireland” to move “from being the object of Irish poetry to being its author.” This startling, unexpected reversal and expansion “had caused real disruption,” she felt, and in spite of her previous successes, she was ready to employ it as the dominant element of her own poetic practice.
From then on, her work continued to evolve in three specific areassubject, style, and structure. In addition to an active engagement with the accelerating political transformation of Irish life in the latter decades of the twentieth century, Boland wanted to write from her location as a mother raising two young children in a suburb of Dublin, to “find a private history within the public one”a direct echo of one of Virginia Woolf’s notable intentions. This required the development of a voice that had no precedent in Irish poetry, but that was also beginning to emergegiven the individual qualities of her contemporaries Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckianas more than an isolated instance and as a part of a growing awareness of Ireland becoming an integral state in modern Europe. To register her “voice” as an authentic instrument of this culture, the measured rhetoric of her earlier poems was replaced by versions of the vernacular and by less conventional, more inventive structural arrangements. Boland anticipated this in “The Muse Mother” from Night Feed (1982), in which she sees from her window “a woman hunkering/ her busy hand/ worrying a child’s face.” The poet is aware of her separation from something fundamental that she misses as “my mind stays fixed.” She imagines a connection with the woman on “this rainy street” who “might teach me/ a new language” so that the poet would be “able to speak at last/ my mother tongue.”
The multiple meaning implicit in the classic formulation “mother tongue” suggests the task she had set for herself: how to speak for and from a distinct cultural location, with a language that she must fashion capable of conveying her immediate, personal experience as an Irishwoman with two young children living at the turn to the twenty-first century. A crucial component of this undertaking was her understanding that language and form are linked in ways that demand attention to both simultaneously, the kind of composition that American poets since Charles Olson have regarded as basic to their craft. “I sought out American...
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