Monday, 18 May 2020


'In my generation women went from being the objects of the Irish poem to being the authors of the Irish poem'. 

I've been reading some of the many tributes to the Irish poet who spoke these words, Eavan Boland (born 1944), and who died last month.   When her first book of poetry, New Territory, was published in 1967 she was only in her early twenties.  She and her contemporary women poets began to shake up the poetry scene and were determined that women's experience should be noticed and recognised.   The New York Times described her as the 'disruptive Irish poet' who took on the male-dominated literary establishment in Ireland.

One of my 'O' level set texts in the late 1960s was Six Modern Poets.   I read in the introduction:  'Poetry, like scientific discovery, indeed like all aspects of human experience, is a way of getting to know',  but for the writer of this introduction (J R Osgerby) a poet was always 'he' despite the inclusion of a token woman poet, Elizabeth Jennings, in the anthology.  (For the record, the other poets were Ted Hughes, Norman Nicholson, R S Thomas, Philip Larkin and D J Enright.)

In 1992 I was teaching A level English and women's poetry was on the syllabus:  Elizabeth Jennings (again!) and Anne Stevenson.  The set book was the inspiring Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets: Eleven British Writers, edited by Jeni Couzyn.

Eavan Bowland was a writer, an academic and an editor.  She once described her  notebook method of composition when her children were small - some days she couldn't write a poem, so she would write a line; some days she couldn't write a line, so she would write a phrase, and over time her notebook provided the rescources for her work.  From 1996 until her death she taught at Stanford University in the States where she was director of the creative writing programme and professor of English and humanities.

One of her poems which is often anthologised is 'The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me' in which she imagines her mother in a stiflingly hot 'pre-war Paris'.  But the poem ends with the observation of a blackbird 'on this first sultry morning':
     '... Suddenly she puts out her wing -
      the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.'

Another often-anthologised poem is 'The Famine Road', a critique of the harsh British imperialistic attitude to the starving Irish who were given roads to build during the potato famines (roads going nowhere).  The poem is interlaced with a dialogue between a woman and an officious doctor who tells her she will never have children.  The last words of the poem are:
     '... what is your body
      now if not a famine road?'

The famine road appears elsewhere - in 'That the Science of Cartography Is Limited', a poem sensitively discussed by Ruth Padel in her book The Poem and the Journey.   A map may show a forest but 'cannnot convey the fragrance of balsam' or the 'gloomy' atmosphere of the place.  It can depict a line on a map but not that the line 'cries hunger' as it 'gives out among sweet pine and cypress'.  Nor the fact that the road disappearing into 'ivy and scutch grass' is a famine road.  But what are we to make of this: the narrator first sees the famine road 'When you and I were first in love'?  The poem is more than a history lesson - it is put in the context of the life of two individuals, just as the previous famine road poem is read in parallel with the life of a young woman.

Ordinary life.  In 'The Journey',  prefaced by some lines from Virgil's Aeneid book 6, Eavan Boland writes:
     'But these are women who went out like you
      when dusk became a dark sweet with leaves,
      recovering the day, stooping, picking up
      teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets -'

Hannah Aizenman, writing in the New Yorker on 29 April, described Eavan Boland as 'illuminating the textures of ordinary labor and daily intimacy.'

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