Eavan Boland Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with Irish poet Eavan Boland at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14. Boland discussed poetry, writing in an international community, as well as other literary topics.

Boland, who attended the International Writing Program residency in 1979, has published nine volumes of poetry, as well as two volumes of prose. Her awards include the Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. She is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and the advisory board of the International Writers Center at Washington University. She is professor of English at Stanford University and director of the creative writing program.

Live Discussion: 


Scott Doll, Iowa City: Eavan Boland,

You have said that the prescriptions of Romanticism and Separatism have governed female poets in a phallocentric society. Has this changed over time in favor of women writers at all? Also, has an increasing role of feminism had any beneficial effects?

Eavan Boland: Dear Scott -

Thanks for your question.

A "phallocentric" society is not a term I would use, nor associate myself with. It's a term that doesn't seem precise or useful. (The term has been used in some essays by other writers that I've quoted.)

But in the essay "The Woman poet Her Dilemma" I did raise the issues of Romanticism and separatism. How they seemed oppositional and might well be wrenching opposites for women poets.

I think some things have changed. Do I believe feminism has had beneficial effects? Absolutely. But as an ethic and not as an aesthetic, and I've said that about myself elsewhere. I'm feminist. I'm not a feminist poet. I think poetry begins where certainties end. Even the finest ethics and collective historical movements or aspirations can't come to the space between the page and the pen and the poet's mind.

But I do believe that feminism has played a great and powerful role in recovering texts, in challenging the silences and lacks of permission surrounding women poets - whether their absence from anthologies or curricula or their missing presence on a canonical record. It's also effective in that it challenges the idea that issues raised by women poets -of craft and tone and self -are issues only for women. It commends the idea that these are issues for all of poetry, and that they benefit all poets and readers regardless of gender.

best wishes
Eavan Boland

Patrick, Iowa City: Dear Prof. Boland,

Could you talk a little bit about the difference between "memory" and "history," and how these operate in your poems? Many of your poems make reference to historical events, such as the 1847 Irish famine and the Northern Troubles. At the same time, personal memory (of marriage, motherhood, and travel) is the doorway through which you enter into your meditations of these larger events. Does personal memory serve history, or betray it? Are the two phenomena completely separate for you?

Eavan Boland: Hi Patrick -

Thanks for the question.

I probably have never quite resolved these issues in my mind. Let me take the question you ask. "Does personal memory serve history, or betray it?". Look for instance at Yeats's "Easter 1916" poem. Yeats opens there with a personal memory of the combatants in the Irish Rising ("I have met them at close of day/Coming with vivid faces"). And he then enters the event as he sees it.

Yeats salts that whole history in the poem with personal memory until you're not sure which is which. Does his personal memory betray the history of the Rising? No, but it shapes it. After you read the poem, the history has become plastic again, not fixed. Yeats doesn't just affect history in this poem. He makes it. The same would be true of Whitman, for instance. Their fusions of memory, feeling and history are thoroughly dynamic.

So to go back to your question -I am not sure whether personal memory serves history. But them I'm not at all sure that history deserves to be "served". And if there is a betrayal it seems to me history is the treasonous part of the equasion, not the other way around. History overwrites, makes anonymous, depersonalizes at a great rate. Personal memory retrieves what it discards.

Hope this helps -

Eavan Boland

Neill, Iowa City: Eavan, I'm a fiction writer and plan to apply for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Do you have any advice for me? Or any thoughts about the program in general? Thanks!

Eavan Boland: Neill -

We are always delighted to have talented young writers apply. (The email of our administrator is mpopek@stanford.edu. But you probably know that from the website.) It really is a strong and vivid community of young writers. And we're always thrilled that young writers turn to it.

I should add however that it's extremely competitive. I think's that's been on the increase. We have wonderful teachers in the program and they are real mentors to the Stegners.

Last year we had above 1600 applications for 5 places in fiction and 5 in poetry. But I don't add these statistics to be disheartening. 5 poets were chosen, and 5 fiction writers. And young, gifted writers are always defying the statistics anyway.

So the best of luck with the application and, of course, with your future work.

Eavan Boland

Jess, Chicago, IL: Do you find yourself using and re-using themes and/or words in your work? For example, in my own work, I am always coming back to a 'field' when I write. 'Field,' the word and all the different ways of describing a field, is always present. Do you think this sort of tendency should be fought or avoided as a writer? If not, what is the best to follow this tendency and still keep your work and your writing 'new'? Thank you!

Eavan Boland: Hi Jess -

Thanks for the question -

Certainly, I've often used the same words again and again. Or phrases. The problem is that the word begins to acquire a certain symbolic meaning for you and yet may not have that for a reader. So the reader can see that you're using a word that has great meaning for you. And not for them.

I would certainly set yourself a task of avoiding the word - or even the concept for a month -and see what happens. Otherwise you're falling back on something which may be a bit like poetic comfort food!

Eavan Boland

Zlatko Anguelov, Iowa City, IA: In the Internet and, especially, the social media era, poetry looks like an art of the past. It is an elevating, elite art, which has very little in common with the simplicity of mind revealed by the free access of non-educated people to the public space. For whom do you write your poems in this unpoetic context?

Eavan Boland: Hi Zlatko,

Thanks so much for the question.

I'm not sure I agree with its premises however. First of all I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "the free access of non-educated people to the public space".

In a country like Ireland we have a very strong question mark over the term "non-educated". Education is such a rich, variable and profound concept. People acquire it in so many different ways. And into the whole art of poetry -for hundreds and hundreds of years -the most democratized and nurturing encounters have taken place between people and poetry. Human experience has educated poetic form here. And poetic form has shaped human experience. I'm speaking about the ballad, the ghazal, the narrative etc. That is the education which is consequential in poetry. Formal education is not an issue. William Yeats never went to University.

William Blake probably had little formal instruction in that sense - though he worked as an artist and scrivener. Charlotte Mew didn't go to College. Virginia Woolf said she had six guineas spent on her educatiohn. Yet they are the source of education for thousands of readers on thousands of college courses all over the world. That should guide us in thinking about education.

So I don't see the relationship between poetry and the virtual public space in the way you do. Not at all. It's not oppositional. And it's not new. The internet doesn't replace the meeting hall, the room at midnight where someone reads a poem they love alone, or the poetry reading in a crowded hall. What is wonderful about the internet is that it knows how to be all these spaces at once. It adds to them. It doesn't subtract. The reader is not changed there. They are simply set free into new opportunities. But the art is the same. The encounter is the same.

As for an audience, nothing has changed. I write for myself and hope that a reader will find that poem and be able to include it in their experience. The reader of poetry -as far as I'm concerned -is involved in an essential action. It follows logically for me that there cannot be anything non-educated or elite in that -on either side of your equasion. The poem and the reader always make up a human, democratic and profoundly educated unit. And always will. In any space -virtual or actual -

Best wishes

Ben, Iowa City, IA: Can you discuss the way that you weave narrative into your poems, while still maintaining the lyrical aspects?

Eavan Boland: Hi Ben

Thanks for the question -& it's an interesting one.

I don't think narrative and lyric are oppositional elements of the poem. But there can be conflicts of interest between them. For instance you might have something in a poem that wants to work towards revelation (to use a simplistic tag) and if you narrate it you simply keep the reader in a logical posture. And the lyric mode would be best there.

Similarly a lyric mode can suppress a narrative just when you need to engage the reader and draw them in. Poems that are too cryptic, where you have to guess at what the narrative really is, just keep tripping you up.

I think the best advice is to think of yourself as a reader when you look at your own subject matter. Do you want it to go to a lyric mode, or do you want to know what happened.

A very interesting poet in this regard is Brigit Pegeen Kelly. She has a wonderful book called "Song" and the poem at the back called "Three Cows and the Moon" is a perfect balance of lyric and narrative. They work with and for each other in that poem -

Eavan Boland

Jennifer, Iowa City, IA: Looking back, do you think the anti Irish resentment you experienced fueled you to dispel myths and become a poet? Did you use writing as a release while you felt resentment or did you start afterward?

Eavan Boland: Dear Jennifer, thanks for the question. I started thinking about it and writing about it well after that. I left England when I was twelve, so I had no clear consciousness of anti-Irishness then. It had certainly existed in London when I was a child at school btu ti's only when you grow older that you being to remember it and articulate it clearly.

But your question is certainly right. Later that feeling of displacement I had in London --and the anti Irishness there added to that- became a real influence on me.

Best wishes,
Eavan Boland

Sallie, Rock Island, IL: Hi Professor Boland, I had a few questions about your poem "The Pomegranate" that I was hoping I could get answered.

I noticed in your poem that you make the strong connection of mother and daughter, and I was wondering if this had anything to do with the connection between England and Ireland?

I also saw that you do not mention a father to the daughter you're writing about, does this play into the myth that women didn't have a strong voice? Or that men create problems, and it's up to women, or possibly mothers, to fix them?

Knowing that your father was a diplomat, did that have any significance in this poem?

Eavan Boland: Thanks for your question. I'll start at the end of it first: the poem is closely built around the Ceres & Persephone myth. In that, a young girl is kidnapped and brought to the underworld. Her mother comes to bargain her back. She negotiates with the king of the underworld.She gets her back for six months and the girl stays for six months.

So it's a myth of the starting of the seasons. The time the mother gets her back becomes spring and summer. The time she stays there becomes Fall and Winter.

I hewed pretty closely to this. There's no father in that myth. There's no father in the poem. The archtype of the legend is mother & daughter only.

I wouldn't have thought of it as England and Ireland. But I entirely see why you ask the question. In the myth the underworld ruler represents all the negatives of power. The mother signs off for the light and steadfastness of love and womanhood.

Best wishes & thanks for the question! Eavan Boland



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