Friday, March 09, 2018

Eavan Boland As National Treasure

(Picture, Dublin, Stephens Green Pond, by Susan Abraham)

Written in Response to International Women's Day, 2018, Thursday March 8th.

Speculative Discourse / Imbhas Forosnai / Manifestation of knowledge which enlightens / Cauldron of Poesy / Amergin's Ars Poetica 

As Dublin poet Eavan Boland's globally successful academic and literary career is testament to, Irish poets who are women have been historically wholly outside, and generally are thoroughly put culturally off by the long and established bardic and courtly conservative patriarchal literary filí poet tradition and its arduous and voluminous set-textual curriculum.

That taught trained and turned out over twelve Samhain to Beltane semesters, for a thousand years of the Gaelic poetry-schools' existence, forty consecutive generations of bard and literary filidh men poets from the 7-17C

For all but a cererbally touched and spiritually committed handful of both men and women that end up drawn to and enjoying the long and intellectually challenging studies involved in learning in Irish and in English translation the full of this ancient literary filidh poets' tradition; it is a male model which offers absolutely nothing in the way of inspiration, role-models, or relevance for the overwhelming majority of modern Irish women (and men) writers and poets.

Understandably inclined to be inspired and follow in the literary footsteps of contemporary female Irish trailblazers whose poetries of family, motherhood, marriage, childbirth, illness, and the everyday lived female bodily, cultural, marital, and quotidian psychological experience of being a woman, connects directly and viscerally with women in a way ancient male bardic voices from a thousand and more years ago mostly do not.

As Boland states in Object Lessons: "... early on as a poet, certainly in my twenties, I realised that the Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry was not available to me."

The words woman and poet in the Ireland Boland grew up in were, she tells us, 'almost magnetically opposed', 'oil and water'.

Although things have changed relatively quickly; and there is now more than poetic equality across the board. For example, women, from the director to the editorial assistant, make up six-sevenths, or nearly 90% of the state-appointed and employed staff at Poetry Ireland. The Official Verse Culture body, People's Poetry Palace on Parnell Square, and premier literary performance vehicle in the Republic of Ireland "committed to achieving excellence in the reading, writing and performance of poetry throughout the island of Ireland."

And this figure does not include Boland herself, who began with the "Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry (that) was not available to" her when she began writing. But who is now sitting atop of the Irish Nation's poetry tree as its Official Verse Culture chooser in chief and Editor of Poetry Ireland's Poetry Ireland Review, directly deciding the state sanctioned poems for inclusion into Official Ireland's flagship domestic and international poetry journal of global record and note.

A culturally inspiring and positive state of being when we consider that
it is only in the last three decades that Irish society has from the often dark and barbarous past of recent tragic histories of oppression, cover up, scandal, and silencing by Church, State and the Ulster Troubles - emerged into a long overdue light of social and economic mass growth, change, and full poetic and gender parity in the literary arts.

There is now a fully established equality of literary esteem in which Irish female writers rule the global roost when it comes to romantic fiction, mystery, crime thrillers, childrens and young adult, and a new wave of transgressive female fiction and short story writers led by deliciously dark comedic voices such as June Caldwell and Lisa McInerney

Unthinkable that the in ye face content and brilliantly subversive genre-busting comedic and literary style unique to both of these critically acclaimed Irish women's voices would have been published in Ireland during Boland's time as a young poet. 

They would have been sectioned into the Central Mental Hospital on the word of a powerful and jealous male rival and had their hands tied behind their backs with orders they not be allowed to write.

And so it is a long way in a short time, and the milestone has been the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent Peace Process. Which took the daily male created barbarity out of the cultural equation, and since then women's voices in Ireland have been firmly claiming their rightful cultural place after having broken almost completely free from what formerly was all too often a horrific and horrendously repressive and insidiously abusive misogynistic culture dominated in business and politics by a small caste of thoroughly unethical misogynistic men. For example, until the 1970s in Ireland, Irish women could not sit on juries, had to leave their government job on getting married, were unable to get a restraining order against a violent husband, could not refuse to have sex with their husbands, and generally were there to be seen and not heard.

During this long time of de Valera's Ireland Boland was born into and raised in, women could sit next to the poets in the pub, but they could not be the poet, artist, critic, intellectual; and these various what Boland calls 'signal injustices' meant being a women in de Valera's Irish society was a singularly unjust experience.

And of course there was the other society-wide injustice of the Catholic church in which there was a class of perversely corrupted priests who enacted all manner of evil and subjected individuals and communities within Irish society to the most calumniatory, censorious, cynical, demeaning, depraved, derogatory, destructive, malign, obloquious, opprobrious, sickening, vilifying compulsively one-sided coercive 'relationships' in which ordinary Irish children and women were culturally manipulated, legally subjugated and controlled by a fear and abject distrust of Ireland's ingrained patriarchal system, and with no real public presence, platforms or freedom to write, speak or publish in their own voices.

A silent majority most definitely silent no more.

As Boland eloquently writes:

"The majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry.  They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve.  The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.  This was especially true where the woman and the idea of the nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture.

The trouble was [that] these images did good service as ornaments.  In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry.  Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic.  But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption.  For they were not decorations, they were not ornaments.  However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth."

Boland says of this deafening silence that "It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth."

This 'suffered truth' was founded entirely on instilling silence by fear into the people that dared not speak against Ireland's entirely male legal, political and religious institutions which in de Valera's Ireland operated as a monolithic Official Male State that kept its people and culture socially and economically oppressed, repressed and visionless for so long after Independence and the civil war.

And so Boland found her own way of discovering and setting first free her voice into letters in de Valera's culturally stunted Ireland by seeking inspiration not in a dry impenetrable archaic ancient oppressive and spiritually inhibiting patriarchal bardic tradition, but finding it most notably in the language of the American poet, public intellectual and radical feminist, Adrienne Rich, and the British poet Denise Levertov.

Discovering her path into poetry lay in practicing a wholly modern experimental American form that grew out from the university workshop model, and what is often pejoratively labeled confessional writing, founded on a completely different contemporary and ultra-modern 20C poetic gloriously loose, free and unencumbered by the weight of an unmanageable and burdensome wholly male writing tradition.

A modern form of literary liberation in which the only rule is that there aren't any rules and no fixed starting point other than to spontaneously write whatever comes into the imagination. 

In which the Dublin writer sought to speak the private entirely authentic female Irish experience, that successfully redressed the cultural and historical gender imbalance by exploring in poetry the hitherto unshared and lived experiences of being a woman that was wholly new to Irish poetry when she began leading the way and creating a template and inspirational model for the generations of Irish women following her into creating a poetry documenting the authentically lived female themes and subjects of marriage, suburban home, motherhood, illness; and bringing to life a poetry of the private everyday moment of real women's lives.

In an original and entirely logical rejection of the 1960s and 1970s Irish poetry model in which the acceptable themes of poetry were very public, officious, and seriously sombre, dealing with airy lofty public events, in which, as Boland states in her RTE Profile, it was permissible to have a political murder but not a washing machine. There were very fixed subjects for poetry during de Valera's long political reign and an entire assumption about who could and who could not be a poet, with Boland being firmly in the second category as a married woman writing poems on subjects that the snobs in the first category, as Boland states in the RTE Profile, dismissed as the scribblings of someone that shouldn't be writing at all.

And so when she began as the earliest pioneer of this wholly experimental course and form of celebratory female writing in which domestic themes were brought into the public sphere, it was a brand new, refreshing and revelatory writing giving voice to the lived familial, marital and domestic incidents of normal human reality. What was previously considered the inappropriate and mundane unpoetic material of everyday suburbia, was translated, transmuted and turned by the visionary will of Boland into a legitimate and popular subject matter, and creative business of a radically more intimate and homely form of contemporary Irish poetry. 

One that appealed to and spoke to entirely new audiences and redefined the relationship between poetry and the ordinary everyday people of Ireland. 

One in which the private body and the cerebral female Self became major central conceits, sources, subjects and themes of this (then) startlingly different, emotionally very substantive, entirely authentic, and wholly original newly emerging form of literature in late 2OC Irish writing.

And when she left for America, leaving behind the cultural and creative conservatism and stifling petty poetic condescension and misogyny of male Dublin life, she continued the process of personal and public evolution by carving out and creating her own unique role and model of writing. 

Further walking in letters on a path that led her to writing and publishing to great critical and commercial acclaim poems and exploratory experimental biographical and critical literary prose that laid out her poetics and set down a guide and map that became an inspirational contemporary model for English speaking and writing women across the Irish and Anglophone world, who had been shown a way of successfully rejecting the patriarchal bardic mode of lofty public utterance about serious newsworthy events, with such vigour, fervour brio and elan.

An early important encounter for Boland was meeting the person who became transfigured into her poem, The Achill Woman, as an object of profound cultural mystery, as she tells us in A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition (Dublin: Attic, 1989)
"When I met the Achill woman I was already a poet, I thought of myself as a poet. Yet nothing that I understood about poetry enabled me to understand her better. Quite the reverse. I turned my back on her in that cold twilight and went to commit to memory the songs and artifices of the very power systems which had made her own memory such an archive of loss."
Whilst for oneself the Achill Woman is a familiar paternal grandmother born in a Sraheens Bothy overlooking Achill Sound facing the Currane peninsula (pictured below).

With an Achill poem of one's own lyrical soul source that is fully Connected  by blood, flesh and spirit to and from the island and its mythic Tuatha De Danann people of the goddess Art.

That brings to mind a half stanza that appears in Ériu (1921-3) (vol. 9, part 2, p. 118) "Irish Grammatical Tracts", edited by Osborn Bergin:

Sinn ag loighe ar in lucht romhainn,
lucht oile orainn san úaigh.

(we * at * lying * on * the * people * before us /
people * other * on us * in the * grave)

We rest on those who came before us,

and others will rest on us in the grave.


And so for the Irish diplomat's daughter who lived as a child in London and New York where her father had been appointed, there was a significant sense of detachment from the culture of rural Ireland.

As an emotional outsider, two very different women from two radically oppositional worlds, Boland made no poetic connection with this wild remote mythic Achill island woman recounting to the young Trinity educated diligent studious poet local Famine folklore; and the Mayo woman remained in Boland's mind a remote and culturally distant, strange and opaque figure. 

Due in part to Boland's peripatetic upbringing and its concomitant sense of home being not a single geographical location of physical permanence in the way it is for those that are rooted in the reality of one fixed unchanging place; but more home being the carrying around within of a wider world in a transcontinental process of departure and return between multiple homes in different cultures and countries.

A global poet for whom the equivalent of bothy bog and bardic complexity exist in the parallel poetics of domestic experience, the life-long loving marital bonds of one half of a happy marriage, and the self-schooled contemporary complexity of a thoroughly modern global female Irish mind and physical body in the singularly unchanging spiritual home of a legitimate successful, hard won, self created dán/gift/poetry and 'fate' this suburban woman of the people of the goddess Art wrought to become the first real 20C faery from the Tuatha De Danann tradition to speak a visionary home of 'Ireland' that made tame the savageness of Her bardic male mind.   

Whilst the mind of the Achill woman was still dwelling in a pre-historic time, with a living connection to the superstitious remote antiquity and spiritual topography of the poetic model and construction of physical Ireland as an invisible female deity that the suburban Dublin poet had conspicuously rejected when starting out after associating it with de Valera's omnipresent misogynistic influence and suffocating belittling anti-Woman culture in the gritty political centre and extreme periphery on the opposite side from the living heart of the Achill faery island Her.

A timeless Achill populated by the sidhe, Fir Bolg, and most ancient otherworldly race of Fomorians. Where the wind itself is considered to be invisible spirits traveling in their troops to sport, compete and do poetic battle with the hosts of other places away from the heartland and country of the Tuatha De Danann, literally, people of the goddess Art.

That are as real and homely in the minds of Achill men and women dwelling for generations in that land of mountain sky sand sea stone and wild Atlantic weather buffeting into the implacable majesty of Croaghaun's two thousand feet sea cliffs, as neatly mown lawns, ice cream vans, the orderly sound of door bells, the light rumble of opening automatic garage doors and the trusty hum of a washing machine cycle are to the Irish housewife and women poets giving voice to the everyday domestic and familial moments in Darndale and Dundrum.

And so for oneself the identical Achill woman is far from being remote and impenetrable but is a closely familiar and perfectly understood familial reality and fact of who and where I am from as a physical and spiritual human being.

One's own father, Gerald Desmond, was raised during the Emergency on Achill, by the Achill woman, his mother, Winifred Desmond nee Masterson, who gave birth to his brother there in Cashel, in the old army barracks next to Lynott's pub, that was originally a smithy, and who has a home there we regularly visit. And these Achill and Mayo Famine tales are part of one's own family folklore I heard and recall from one's earliest childhood remembrance.

Raised on second-hand tales from my own Dublin mother, whose parents were both from Bohola in Mayo's west. And whose eyes would light and blaze and whose body shook with passion as she told me and my three elder and one younger sister what we now understand was the most important information she passed orally on to us her children.

Told to my mother, Pauline Desmond nee Swords, as a young girl in 1940s Dublin by her then nonagenarian Mayo great-grandmother and first-hand witness, who herself had experienced eviction onto a boreen at the side of a Bohola cottage in Famine era Mayo, with her parents and eight siblings, owning nothing at all in the world but the rags they stood up in. 

And so, all this is an object lesson in how what works for poet number one, and what tradition and tales they are born into and will naturally connect with, take to, learn from and love; will be to poet number two a wholly alien baffling strange tradition, and not at all the same set of familial experiences it is for poet number one. 

Ultimately we all have our own unique literary template, path and poetic model, that we alone discover, write, and create, by drawing the sounds in our silent spiritual voice up from the cerebral cauldron of experience within our mind, and set them slowly down into print by the continual spontaneous experimental act of spinning letters into lines, sentences and stanzas.

And one by one the silent aural sounds within transliterated into words are written in form/s that over time, the more we write, come to accurately reflect, sing and speak in song the one true voice in our head heart and soul. Or not. 

And what I do recognize and wholeheartedly commend and celebrate is Boland's unique self-created path and position in Irish poetry, as an inspirational role model for her generation and later ones of Irish and Anglophone women and men writers. 

Although one's own sixteen year path of scholastic study on which I found nothing but joy, very possibly, and perhaps precisely, because I am a man, and so can connect with it - is a course that will be, and is, totally off-putting to a majority of Irish women writers precisely because there are no women's voices in there with which to identify and connect. 

And so in the exact same way many men do not read or connect in any real depth with the contemporary women's writing Boland is a world leader in, so too many (if not most) women (and men) are not in any way attracted to, nor do many connect with, the bardic tradition.

Passing over its arduous twelve year set-textual curriculum that taught trained and turned out a thousand years of courtly male poets in Ireland from the 7-17C; in favour of becoming a poet on their own terms. Learning on the more modern, less challenging plethora of folk poetry curricula written and taught by any number of Ireland's contemporary self-taught spoken and written word practitioners from similar schools of derivative American learning; in which the starting point is not the introduction to students of ancient unchanging knowledge in the form of ogham scales and the rote acquiring of a system of prosody; but spontaneously writing whatever comes into the imagination.

And though I have seen Boland only the one time, two years after arriving in Dublin, at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, 2006, introduced by Paula Meehan, and the following day one's own and four others' Poetry Ireland Introduction readings occurred in Damar Hall; one can say, that, though at the time I was not led to explore her work, the act of writing this blog has turned on the light of sincere curiosity and genuine interest in tackling Boland's writing in greater depth than the coast for quotes and skim across the landing pages of online sites containing basic biographical and critical data points with which to make this experimentally written piece spurred into spontaneous literary existence from a Poetry Ireland Facebook Page video of Boland posted as part of International Women's Day.

Being a product of the happy and productive writing workshop model oneself, I do look forward to becoming acquainted with the published work of the Director of Stanford University's Creative Writing Program and Ireland's most critically significant living poet who is a woman. 

With a heart of Dublin that my own mother had, even though she left her Cabra home in 1955 aged thirteen with her elder sister, three brothers, mother, Mary Swords nee English, and retired Bohola garda dad, John Swords, who'd spent thirty years since the founding of the state serving as a guardian of the peace in An Garda Síochána. Dead before I was born, and who my mother idolized.
"At the very least it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archive, at a distance from its energy.  Unless, that is, I could repossess it.  This proposal is about that conflict and that repossession and about the fact that repossession itself is not a static or single act.  Indeed, the argument which describes it may itself be no more than a part of it."
Eavan Boland, Object Lessons.
Kevin Desmond Swords

 Masterson's bothy, Sraheens, overlooking Achill Sound to the Currane peninsula.