Eavan Boland: a tribute

Eavan Boland.

Warm tributes have been paid to Eavan Boland, who died on 27 April 2020, age 75.

In the Irish Times, Paula Meehan said, “If we need or want a national poet, as we sometimes do, then her compassionate, ironic, and truth-laden art is there for the taking.” Colette Bryce, who guest-edited the Winter 2019 issue of The Poetry Review and is now editor of Poetry Ireland Review, said, “I admired her art, her intellect and her anger. I am so shocked to hear of her passing.” On Twitter the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called Boland “one of our best & boldest poets, someone whose work showed a remarkable sympathy & warmth. She documented the lives of women in history & culture & explored how the difficult truth about the past can help us make sense of the present.”

Anne-Marie Fyfe, who as Chair helped arrange Eavan Boland’s Annual Lecture for The Poetry Society in 2008, writes of Boland instigating “a poetic shift as radical in her time as that of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters turning their gaze towards domestic interiors, and one that, for her, expanded – rather than circumscribed – the possibilities for exploration of passion and longing, uncertainty and disappointment, childhood and ageing, closeness and distance.” Michael Schmidt, Boland’s publisher at Carcanet, said, “It has been a privilege to publish in PN Review so many of her major essays and interviews, and her poem sequences, and at Carcanet to publish her own poems, her anthologies, her Dublin, and books about her. […] It will be hard for many of us to adjust to her absence.” (Read Michael Schmidt and Anne-Marie Fyfe’s full tributes, below.)

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin on 24 September 1944, and studied in Ireland, London and New York. In 1962, studying English Literature and Language at Trinity College Dublin, she published the pamphlet 23 Poems. Her first collection, New Territory, followed in 1967. Her subsequent collections, The War Horse (1975), In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982), were to establish her as a writer who wrote fearlessly and powerfully to create her own, new terrain.

As she told Poetry magazine in an online interview in 2003, her early years as a poet were difficult because “I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. […] I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”

Eavan Boland reading, 2007.

She published many celebrated collections: In a Time of Violence (Carcanet, 1994) received a Lannan Award and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize; Domestic Violence (Carcanet, 2007) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Her work, both as a poet, critic and anthologist, was regularly reviewed in The Poetry Review. In reviewing her New Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2005). Elaine Feinstein called Boland “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half-century”: “No-one has articulated with more poise the dilemmas of being a woman poet in Ireland.” In their 2014 review of Boland’s New Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2013), So Mayer noted the increasing sparseness of Boland’s writing, “the lasering-in of attention to the seemingly irreducible and unresolvable conflicts of writing from a place of erasure”. In 2008, she gave The Poetry Society Annual Lecture, ‘Shades & Contours: A Cartography of the State of Poetry’, mapping the geographical complexities and geological shifts that delineate the landscape of poetry.

Eavan Boland taught at Trinity College, University College and Bowdoin College Dublin, and at the University of Iowa. She was Mabury Knapp Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, California. She was also a regular reviewer for the Irish Times. She divided her time between California and Dublin where she lived with her husband, the novelist Kevin Casey.

Anne-Marie Fyfe, poet and Chair of The Poetry Society, 2006-2009, writes:

Eavan Boland’s death leaves all of us in the poetry world so much poorer with the loss of her inspiring presence, even as her poetry leaves us all, readers and writers, so much richer.

And that’s not only Irish poets or woman poets, but anyone who, on beginning to write, could see the visible literary world didn’t exactly mirror their own concerns. Part of Eavan’s unique contribution was to focus on everyday objects, on silent rooms, on suburban stillness. It was a poetic shift as radical in her time as that of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters turning their gaze towards domestic interiors, and one that, for her, expanded – rather than circumscribed – the possibilities for exploration of passion and longing, uncertainty and disappointment, childhood and ageing, closeness and distance. A shift of perspective that, she found, could also be used to bring the complex meanings and legacies of myth and history (and not simply Irish myth and history) right into the realities we live with today.

A poet I’d admired from first reading – in 1987 – ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’, I was to find Eavan unfailingly encouraging when we met, and when I went on to write about her academically, and later when I interviewed her for Poetry News in 2007. So I was delighted when she accepted our invitation to give the 2008 Poetry Society Annual Lecture at London’s Bishopsgate Institute, under the title ‘Shades & Contours: A Cartography of the State of Poetry’. What has resonated with me since that memorable night is Eavan’s prescience in recognising the extent to which eco-politics would come to weigh upon poetry’s concerns, not instead of, but over and above, the questions that had dominated her thought when defining her own poetic terrain years earlier.

Eavan Boland’s poetry has been a mainstay of my poetry life as it has for so many: her wisdom and thoughtfulness will be much missed, but her philosophical vision, her groundbreaking legacy, and, of course, her poetry, will endure.

Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, Eavan Boland’s publisher, writes:

Eavan Boland was a cornerstone of Carcanet and of PN Review. She came to us, her first British publisher, in 1985, and she stayed with us, always as a friend and mentor as well as a poet, translator, editor and essayist, until 27 April. Almost half of her life, and almost half of mine, we travelled the same road. She gently but firmly put me right on a number of issues (and writers) and made suggestions which strengthened the Carcanet list immeasurably. Many poets she steered towards us, and the one for which I am most grateful is the American Brigit Pegeen Kelly, one of her and my favourite writers, ‘a poet’s poet’, as she said, inventive in forms and themes.

My dear colleague Robyn Marsack, working through Eavan’s correspondence in the Rylands Library, Manchester, wrote to me two days ago to say that when Eavan writes about her own work she is brisk and practical, but her eloquent advocacies of the work of others are what make the correspondence vibrant.

It was through her that Carcanet came to know and publish gratefully the work of key Irish writers, women and men, and to look at work from other parts of the Anglophone world. Had she not appeared on the scene when she did, with her energy, her developing ideas, her ability to see fore and aft and to move, to change her mind, change direction in her forms and themes, Irish and Anglophone poetry generally would be very different, and certainly not better.

It has been a privilege to publish in PN Review so many of her major essays and interviews, and her poem sequences, and at Carcanet to publish her own poems, her anthologies, her Dublin, and books about her. It was wonderful when she came to Britain for special events and on tour, and when we met in New York at the Sherman Grill for a long breakfast that became an early lunch. More than just a privilege, it has been a continual pleasure. That pleasure was enhanced by frankness on both sides, and some instructive disagreements. It will be hard for many of us to adjust to her absence, even though her work will accompany us for the rest of the journey.

29/4/2020