Eavan Boland 's new book Against Love Poetry is her ninth. Her other books, including An Origin Like Water, In A Time of Violence and Object Lessons , have established her as one of the leading poets of our time, Irish or otherwise.
Her poems often deal with what one critic has referred to as "women's secret history"; her latest book confronts and refutes the myths and conventions of traditional love poetry, choosing instead to discover "the code marriage makes of passion/duty dailyness routine". The arguments against love poetry result in a powerful book which should interest long time readers as well as those who are new to her work.
Born in 1944 in Dublin, Eavan now teaches at Stanford University while also maintaining a home in Ireland. She took time to answer the following questions.
Caffeine Destiny: How did your new book take shape for you?
Eavan Boland: It was a series of separate poems. I didn't consciously connect them. They began to be connected as they accumulated, as I saw the same images and ideas coming back again. These are marriage poems - I've been married thirty-two years. They're also poems that are in an argument with traditional or conventional love poetry. It was hard to manage the different strands. But there's a poem in the sequence of marriage poems in the book - there's eleven of them in all - called "Quarantine". And that was a shaping poem for me. It's about an incident in Ireland in the nineteenth century: A man and a woman left the workhouse at the time of the 1847 famine. It was in Carrigstyra in West Cork. Those were very desperate times -there was famine fever and starvation. This incident must have been like hundreds of others and would probably have been forgotten but it was left as an anecdote by a man writing sixty years later. The man and woman walked north, back to their cabin. They died that night. In the morning when they were found, her feet were against his chest. He had tried to warm them as she died -as they both did. When I thought of that account, when it came into the poem in the sequence, it was no longer a local, Irish incident. It had become a dark love story, and an exemplary one. And that tied together things for me. All the things I wanted to get at -the stoicism of dailyness, the failure of conventional love poetry- all came together there.
I read a quote from you where you stated you are a feminist and a poet, but you don't consider yourself a "feminist poet". Can you elaborate on this distinction?
I've always been feminist, since I was a very young woman in Ireland, and at a time when women were very hampered by inequities there. And I've always believed that advantages, freedoms gained for women, are not sectional: they are necessary and balancing for a whole society. In that sense, feminism is a compelling ethic. But it's not an aesthetic. I've always been certain of its central value. But the truth is that poetry begins- as all art does - where certainties end. That's the departure point. It's rooted where the imagination is rooted: in ambiguities and darknesses and memories and obsessions that aren't available to ethics, but are capable of truth. So, even though the distinction seems too fine, it has meaning for me. Feminism has helped me see society differently, and define myself as a writer differently. But it stops at the margins of the poem, at the edge of the act of writing it.
I also read an essay about you where the writer defined you as "doubly oppressed", something that doesn't come to mind for me when reading your poetry. Do you feel like this an accurate description?
Those words seem loaded, don't they? I think the reference goes back to questions about being Irish, and being a woman within the context of Irish literature. And certainly, when I was young in Ireland, I felt there was almost a magnetic distance between the word "woman" and the word "poet". I don't feel that now. But there was a certain amount of oppression in that -in feeling the difficulty of being a woman poet there, and of feeling that there was a heroic tradition on which it was difficult to write your name.
I read Object Lessons when I was a new mother, and I remember being struck by your saying something along the lines of "once I learned to write with children in the background", and I always wondered - how old were your kids when writing with them awake and around became possible?
It's a good question. My memory is that they were at least four and two before I could let them play near me -say in a room next door with both doors open. I felt strongly about that. My own mother was a painter. She was a wonderful painter, and is a great friend. But I remember my frustration - I was the youngest child of five - when she locked the door to paint. So I made up my mind to have open doors, to make my work interruption-proof if I could.And maybe that was too ambitious. But to be honest, I came to love the background hum and music of children - providing they weren't fighting! And to a certain extent it made me relaxed and fatalistic about writing, which was actually helpful. I knew I couldn't set out two hours to work in, because it mightn't happen. So I took what I could, and in some magical way that was always enough.
The title "Against Love Poetry" recalls in some ways the title of one of your other books, "Outside History". Do you see part of the poets work to write about things that happen outside of recorded culture?
It certainly feels to me that it's on the margins, at the edges that a poet can make one kind of eco-system. Not the only one, of course. Poets have written at the center, in courts, at the seat of power. But that's one kind of poetry. The idea of a poetry which can fathom silences, follow the outsider's trail -that draws me in. In a country like Ireland it was possible to see the difference between the past and history -how one was official and articulate and the other was silent and fugitive. I suppose I was drawn to the past, rather than to history.
How does teaching influence your writing?
I'm not sure it's influence. But I'm a teaching poet -I would miss teaching enormously if I didn't do it. It's one of the wonderful things about Stanford that I can teach here in a certain way. So it's not so much influence as a constant to and fro between the two things. Teaching helps me talk about poetry. Writing helps me understand what I've talked about at a visceral level.
What is the most satisfying thing for you about writing?
I've often said that I don't think poetry is a particularly good form of expression. I know that goes against the grain, but I believe that. Photographs are more accurate. Theatre is more eloquent. But poetry is a superb, powerful and true form of experience. That's the satisfaction for me. I don't write a poem to express an experience. I write it to experience the experience. And the unforgettable poem I read, the one I remember, is the one that manages to convey the experience to me, which someone else once had -maybe hundreds years ago- and, by a poise of music and language, convey it almost intact.
What is your advice to writers at the beginning of their careers?
There's a nice phrase which applies -I used to hear it in Dublin. "If a thing's worth doing it's worth doing badly". So just not to be perfectionist. Because that's what really demoralizes young writers, that sort of perfectionism. It can lead to silence, to self-reproach, to a sort of giving up.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
All the way from Horace, to Akhmatova. From Wordsworth to Plath. From Yeats and Patrick Kavangh in Ireland to Adrienne Rich and Charlotte Mew. The list is endless.
Do you think poetry can change the world?
No, but it can change people. And that's enough.