A Vocabulary of Belonging: An Interview with Eavan Boland

A conversation between Eavan Boland and an interviewer was captured in an image, and it was displayed for all to see.

In the 1960s, when Eavan Boland released her poems, she faced two dilemmas.

Firstly, she was a female in an Irish society that was homogenous, traditional, and deeply religious.

Secondly, the nation was still under the sway of its past, with the poets of Ireland preoccupied with romanticized myths and scenic views, only five decades after the nation’s independence.

In suburban Dublin, while raising children, Boland felt far removed from the Irish literary canon.

As a result, her work was largely focused on the minutiae of everyday life: the sound of a kettle boiling, a child going to bed, etc.

Nonetheless, her writing also sought to combine the personal and the political, illuminating a past that was often left out of the history books, by visually capturing moments from different eras in a single line.

When I was in high school, I initially encountered the poetry of Boland. I memorized them for the Leaving Certificate Examinations in Ireland, and revisited them in the New Selected Poems published in 2013. This interview was conducted through long, consecutive emails.

I had wished to meet with Boland in her home in Dublin but I discovered that she spends half the year teaching English at Stanford University in California.

— J. P. O’Malley

According to O’Malley, it is essential to think about the nourishment that our minds require in order to remain healthy.

He believes that just like our physical bodies, our brains also require the right kind of fuel in order to function optimally.

In A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, you remarked that your mother was your hero and that the dates and events of history had little influence on you compared to her life.

How did your mother’s influence shape and direct your experience as a poet over the course of your career?

EAVAN BOLAND: My mother’s childhood was difficult, as the last child in a family with five daughters, her mother was thirty when she was born.

Additionally, my grandmother passed away after my mother’s birth and her father drowned in the Bay of Biscay when she was fourteen. Her eldest sister had died of tuberculosis prior to this.

Despite all of this, my mother was a remarkably strong and loving person, a talented painter, and full of hospitality. The only problem was that she wanted to forget the past and refused to talk about it.

This was something I wanted her to do, as I believed it was important to remember it and make sense of it. She was my hero and I admired her resilience.

BLVR: You wrote in a collection of essays about the process of discovering your poetic style, which appears to have taken a few years.

While you appreciated the mundane life of being a suburban housewife and raising children, you felt that it was not a subject to be explored through writing.

When I first started writing in the ’60s, the Irish literary climate discouraged the writing of ordinary or domestic life. Writers of the time were attempting to recreate the works of their predecessors.

Political memory, landscapes and historical events were the usual topics of Irish poems. I was a woman living in the suburbs with a husband and two children, and it was a life shared by many yet not represented in Irish poetry.

I have often said that when I was young, it was easier to have a political murder in a poem than a baby. This goes to show how the ordinary was not given much value.

BLVR: When I returned to Dublin at the age of fourteen, I was unable to relate to the place anymore. I had no familiarity with the street names or meeting spots, and felt as if I had not just left a location but my past as well.

My sense of belonging had dissipated, and I was without the tools to create a present self.

EB points out that childhood can provide a special language for people who are born and grow up in a certain place.

Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet, talked about her own unsettled childhood, noting that she felt like a guest in her own life.

The speaker, too, felt like an outsider when returning to Ireland at fourteen, recognizing that he had missed out on years of being an Irish child and was therefore lacking certain customs and ways of speaking.

At one point, EB believed that these missing pieces were necessary for building a self.

However, he now understands that a self can be crafted from both what is present and what is absent. Many writers have explored this theme in their works.

At a previous reading at Boston College, I remarked that Irish history is usually depicted as one of heroes and liberation from subjugation; however, the past is a realm of its own.

As a young writer, I noticed a clear distinction between the past and history. History was the accepted version and often it was an optimistic story in Irish literature whereas the past was a place of darkness, hushed voices, and forgotten stories.

I realized that even if I looked into my mother’s life, I wouldn’t be able to locate it in a history book. It was a part of the past that was only kept alive through whispers and fragments of memory.

By the time I began writing, I had decided that I wanted to be a poet of the past, not of history. This led me to consider the combination of the public and private poem.

I was of the opinion that the private experience must be highlighted and made a prominent element of the poem, even if the poem was about a public event. I no longer saw ordinary life as a disregarded subject; instead, I believed it could be a strong point of focus.

What is it about the nineteenth century, and the Irish famine in particular, that has made it such a recurrent theme in your work?

I’m often drawn to nineteenth-century Irish writers such as Carleton, Samuel Ferguson, Lady Morgan, and Kickham. This century is a critical point in both Irish writing and history, as authors started to reflect on the defeats they experienced.

They tried to discover if an Irish identity was a reality. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with all their ideas, they are still important to me. Yeats’s description of their writing as “fiery shorthand” is fitting.

What’s even more remarkable is the famine that happened during the same period. It’s a defining moment that completely altered the course of history, leaving people with no means of defending themselves.

Yet, it was astonishing to find that the writing from this time period rarely addressed the tragedy that was unfolding. This was when I first started to realize that writing can sometimes lead to further silence.

In an essay named “Becoming an Irish Poet,” the author noted that two words kept appearing in Irish poetry: the first-person singular pronoun, “I,” and the first-person plural pronoun, “we.”

EB states that a major shift witnessed in poetry in the past century is the weakening of the present in traditional poetry, which used to explore shared purposes of society, nation, and religion.

Poets from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era were able to write with certainty, making poetry out of shared values.

However, due to two world wars, the decline of organized religion, and large variations in society, there is now less willingness to join the poet in his journey.

It is still possible to write in the first person, however the lack of a collective we makes the poem more subjective and personal.

It is peculiar to think that two pronouns can have such a great impact on poetry, a centuries-old art form, but EB affirms that they do and still continue to do so.

BLVR: In “Domestic Violence” I put forth the notion that it is important for a single writer to contest a shared history.

My response is brief: Yes, it is possible, and more than that, it is necessary. The use of poetry to dispute, dispute, and rework established ideas should be done regularly by each generation.

When I was younger, I felt a strong sense of awe and even intimidation when it came to the canon of poetry. It was almost like a spiritual space, where poets of the past had written powerful and moving works.

However, I was unaware of the fact that they were all written by men and I was disconnected from them, believing that my own journey as a poet had no real place in that history. It took me a while to understand that no writer can be passive when it comes to the past.

Even though it may appear to be a solid, unchanging thing, it’s not.


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