National Poetry Month, or April, as it’s also known, prompted me to immerse myself in the newest work of renowned poet and feminist figure, Eavan Boland. Cast over my reading was the shadow of the recent and sad news of Adrienne Rich’s passing. Rich’s work was an inspiration to so many within the field of poetry and beyond. I was cheered to see her obituary prominently displayed on the front page of the New York Times. The wonderful series up at the VIDA site, “21 Love Poems to Adrienne Rich” riffs on her series of the same title and shows how deeply her influence was, how keenly her loss will be felt.
Years ago, when I was an MFA student in New York City, I had the chance to hear Eavan Boland read with Adrienne Rich. I remember well the reverence in Boland’s introductory comments as she said that she would remember the honor of being paired with Rich, foremother to so many feminist poets, for the rest of her life. I sat in the audience, amazed by her awe, as I thought of Boland as no less a radical figure, and realized how clearly each was offering a baton to the next generation to pick up and carry on.
Boland, who holds several prestigious titles as a professor at Stanford University, has single-handedly changed the conversation about women’s position within the canon of Irish poetry (and outside of it) through her dedicated work over the past thirty years. Her latest contribution, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, picks up where her first nonfiction book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time leaves off. In Journey, Boland traces the genesis of her identity as a poet while growing up in and outside of Ireland, always aware of the heavy weight of canonical history which has relegated women to a far corner of the conversation and how its press informed her education and first attempts at writing. Her intelligence is diamond-sharp, her arguments are both original and complex, and her prose reflects her true sensibility as a lyrical writer. Her characteristic gift for taut, clear statements, rendered with rhetorical force, is evident throughout the book as she makes her case for how women poets need to reapproach history and reappropriate tradition.
The title’s inclusion of the word “maps” is both metaphorical and literal — Boland explores the known territory of literary history she has been taught (and is still taught) to create a palimpsest which includes a feminist viewpoint that can permanently broaden what subjects enter into a poem, nevermind which writers enter the canon.
Divided into three parts, the first, “Journeys,” traces Boland’s personal path into her career. She writes movingly of the masters — all men — offered to her throughout her education in England, America, and her home country of Ireland, and how she recognized there wasn’t room within these poems for a female presence who wasn’t decorative or objectified, and the effect this had on her emerging poems.
Gradually, as she outlines in the book’s next section, “Maps,” she finds a matrilineal legacy that connects with the subject matters central within her own life and that she no longer wants to deny. This section leads with her tribute to Adrienne Rich, followed by Elizabeth Bishop, then Charlotte Mew, and then Sylvia Plath. She also explores the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Most interestingly, Boland offers a chapter on the Irish poet Paula Meehan, and Boland’s attempt to translate an anonymous “dream-vision lyric” written in Latin, Foebus Abierat, presumably written by a woman, which has haunted her for years. Boland also signals her commitment to recovery of women’s voices within “Translating the Underworld,” a chapter that describes her intensely moving project translating the work of post-war female German poets, anthologized in her volume After Every War: Twentieth Century Woman Poets.
The book ends with the section “Destinations” which consists of just one chapter, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet” — a riff on the Rilke title of similar name, but is an address to the aspiring female writer. In this chapter Boland proposes that the young woman poet learn to change the past —”Not by intellectualizing it. But by eroticizing it.” By this Boland means that women should claim a past that has traditionally excluded them. Boland states:
After all, stored in that past is a template of poetic identity which still affects us as women. When we are young poets it has the power to make us feel subtly less official, less welcome in the tradition than our male contemporaries. If we are not careful, it is that template we will aspire to, alter ourselves for, warp our self-esteem as poets to fit.
Of the past she writes, “It is, after all, the place where authorship of the poem eluded us. Where poetry itself was defined by and in our absence. There has been a debate since I was a young poet, about whether women poets should engage with that past at all.” She recognizes this challenge, but continues, “We need to go to that past: not to learn from it, but to change it. If we do not change that past, it will change us. And I, for one, do not want to become a grateful daughter in a darkened house.”
Her edict to rewrite, remap, and remake is constant throughout the book, as seen in variants of her exhortation:
Can a single writer challenge a collective past? My answer is simple. Not only can, but should. Poetry should be scrubbed, abraded, cleared, and re-stated with the old wash stones of argument and resistance. It should happen every generation. Every half-generation. In every working poet’s life and practice.”
Challenging tradition and refusing inequality underpins all of her work, as A Journey offers examples, models, and urgency to not believe this work has yet been fulfilled.
Correspondingly, Boland’s other touchstone throughout the book is how to admit more into the sphere of the poetry world — specifically themes, images, and ideas that allow women to write more fully about their lives. Boland vividly describes living in a suburb, with two young children in a young marriage, and recognizing rituals within her life that were ordinarily excluded from celebrated poems. She writes of inheriting the mantle of poetic tradition, yet:
The difference was that as a young woman I did so in circumstances which were relatively new … in a house with small children. With a washing machine in the background. With a child’s antibiotic on a shelf with a spoon beside it.
After long struggle, Boland came to realize, “… the fact is the words of poets and canon-makers — but more canon-makers than poets — had determined the status of my machines and my medicine bottles. … They had made the authority of the poet conditional upon a view of reality, which then became a prescription about subject matter. They had debated and subtracted and reduced that relation of the ordinary to the poem so that it was harder than I thought proper to record the life I lived in the poems I wrote.” Boland writes, movingly, of wanting there to be an ownership within the poem so that “whatever I lived as a woman I could write as a poet,” to hold within her writing “a way to have the child’s medicine and … darkening room in the suburb” sanctioned within the canonical poetry world.
Through this fusion, Boland finds a way to join her voice as a woman and as a poet; through her activism and commitment she has fostered change within the academy and rewritten a relationship to history. In her insistence, she holds the door open wide for other women to pass through.
Boland closes the book by thanking the women poets in the generation before her whose strength bolstered her when she started out. She writes, “But I believe words such as canon and tradition and inheritance will change even more. And with all that, women poets, from generation to generation, will be able to befriend one another. And that, in the end, is the best reason for writing this letter.”
It is deeply pleasurable, nevermind galvinizing, to feel the weight of Boland’s strong intelligence and deep conviction. Her contributions have been invaluable. In the early summer of 2011 I again had the chance to hear Boland read, and again, her insistence on feminist activism within the literary world and insistence on a new legacy for women writers radiated just as strongly as when I heard her years ago. She concluded by reading her beautiful poem, “Anna Liffey” which ends with the speaker’s simple phrase “I was a voice.” The reverberations of this phrase for Boland’s poetry and her feminist commitment will be far-reaching for generations to come, and have made an essential and inspiring difference.