It’s a real shock to learn that Eavan Boland has died. Hers was the kind of presence that seemed outside of time, even though definitely not Outside History. She has had a profound effect on so many of us in different ways over the years – here are some of the things that I remember most acutely, things I’m grateful for and events that I’m glad I witnessed. In roughly chronological order (as they came to me):
- A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition is one of the seminal LIP pamphlets published by Attic press in the 1980s. In this, Boland challenges some of the sacred cows of Irish poetry using her own experience as a lens. It was a daring, radical thing to write and it predates by a long shot the explosion of fine personal essay and memoir writing that Irish literature enjoys now.
- Many discussions (and some arguments) about her poem “The Achill Woman”.
- Several readings and talks over the years, including a seminar at WERRC in UCD where she made a distinction between the erotic and the sexual in poetry. I had to ask her to say more about what she meant in making that distinction but I got there in the end. She had a way of drilling deeper into the core of words and shifting our angle of perception. These shifts were not always comfortable, but they were effective. She had such a strong mind.
- When the Field Day Anthology debacle first blew up she could have sat back and savoured her own inclusion but instead she spoke up and out, publicly and bravely, against the exclusion of other women writers.
- I’d love to say all of her work but I haven’t read everything. These, though:
- Night Feed, the poems
- “Anorexic”, the poem (‘Flesh is heretic…’)
- The Journey, the poems & the poem
- Outside History, the poems & the poem (‘There are outsiders, always ….’)
- In a Time of Violence, the poems. Especially: “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”; “Love”; “The Pomegranate”
- Object Lessons I’m not even sure how to categorise this: Memoir? Challenge? Argument?
- The Making of a Poem (with Mark Strand)
Once, when the Eastern Washington University was in town running a summer school for writers, I audited a poetry workshop given by Eavan. It was, bar none, the most terrifying workshop I ever attended. Terrifying because, at a time when people were always prone to say pleasant, absolutely unhelpful things about other people’s work (‘that’s lovely’ or, ‘Something just like that happened to me …’), Eavan’s commitment was to poetry itself and she cut right through to any weakness she perceived in the work in front of her. As often happened in her presence, I found myself challenged to consider what really matters in a given situation: protecting people’s feelings or defending the value of the art. There was no doubt which side Eavan was on. And at the same time, it would have been an enormous compliment to know that she valued your work enough to deal with it in that way. It was a kind of recognition.
Having said that, it was the Arlen House workshops facilitated by Eavan in the 1980s that kick-started the careers of many Irish women writers. It also led to the establishment of what is possibly the longest-running writers’ group in the country, WEB. This group still meets, some of the original members are still at its core.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience when, to celebrate Eavan’s 70th birthday, she and Paula Meehan had a public conversation, moderated by Jody Allen Randolph in the Peacock Theatre. The occasion was a launch of Eavan Boland – a Poet’s Dublin. It was an extraordinarily warm, personal occasion, a real privilege to witness. I posted a blog about it at the time here.
A website that complements and extends the territory of the book, curated by Jody Allen Randolph and Moynagh Sullivan is here
The last time I saw Eavan was at the launch of a collection of essays about her work, Eavan Boland: Inside History, edited by Nessa O’Mahony & Siobhan Campbell. Mary Robinson launched the book in the (then new) premises of Poetry Ireland. Both rooms were packed to the rafters with well-wishers. Proper order. She is an enormous loss, to all of us.