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Stanford's Eavan Boland defines what it means to be a 'woman poet'

Through poetry and prose, Stanford professor and acclaimed poet Eavan Boland shares how being a woman, wife and mother influenced her work.

Courtesy of Eavan Boland Eavan Boland portrait

Eavan Boland: 'If women go to the poetic past as I believe they should ... then they will have the right to influence what is handed on in poetry, as well as the way it is handed on.'

Poetry has been an integral part of Eavan Boland's life since she was a young girl. In college she wrote her first publication, 23 Poems. She has gone on to publish nearly 20 books of poetry, winning awards and accolades from readers and critics alike.

Growing up in Ireland, Boland found poetic inspiration in everyday life. But Boland, a self-described "woman poet," has always had trouble reconciling those two words. "It was like there was a magnetic opposition between the two concepts," she said. "The woman coming from the collective sense of nurture in Ireland, and the poet coming from the much more individualist, creative realm."

Boland, director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program, is most known for her works about womanhood. Through her writings, she has revealed the inner conflicts she dealt with when she became a mother and how she grappled with Irish suburban ideals about female identity. In moving prose, she has frequently addressed the tension she felt as a burgeoning female poet in the male-dominated genre of the 1960s and '70s.

Although the world of poetry has become much more inclusive than it used to be, Boland said one thing remains the same: "Every young poet has to have the courage of their own experience. That's never going to change."

"When I became a mother I felt the powerful necessity of honoring that experience in language, in poetry," said Boland. "That subject matter wasn't really sanctioned at that time in Irish poetry – it was thought of as merely domestic, or even less than that, and so I had to find my way to it."

The "Status of Woman" clause in the Irish Constitution, which clearly defines a woman's contribution to the state as that of a homemaker, added to the tensions that Boland encountered as a young writer. "The Irish Constitution is one of the very few in Europe that enshrined the woman's place as being in the home," she said. Thus, both state and societal expectations made it difficult for her to realize her dream early on.

However, this difficulty is not contained to specifically Irish women, Boland said. "For a lot of young women in my generation, that [tension] boded more difficulty for them to have this interior sense of permission to become the poet they wanted to." Yet this self-authorization, once confronted, led to a powerful voice. "I learned a lot from thinking that I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote and … from thinking what would happen if you didn't do that? You would end up writing someone else's poem and not honoring the life you lived in terms of creative expression."

Boland felt the need to create a work that shared her exploration of both the poetic past and her personal history. "I wanted to argue that you can still have a great reverence and love for the work that's written in that past while still challenging the idea that you have to be reverent or passive about it. You don't."

In her latest publication, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, Boland departs from her traditional works of poetry to tell the story of her own creative development as an artist. Through a combination of essays and prose, she charts the dual evolutions of her artistic life: her personal development as a poet, and the construction of her identity as a distinctly female poet.

In one passage, Boland describes the fear she experienced when she realized that the trappings of motherhood might not be conducive to writing poetry. Of the birth of her first daughter she writes, "In this new life I had acquired a subject. But no readymade importance had been ascribed to it. I had to do that for myself." She goes on to address the challenge of writing about the intimacy of motherhood, "I could see I would have to do more than write this subject: I would have to authorize it."

Boland admits that she faltered more than once as a poet, but she eventually became more comfortable with her dual "woman poet" identity. In giving herself permission to write about the mundane, the way the sun hit a tree or the smell of her daughter's skin, Boland wrote that she began to bridge her two worlds. Finally, she felt "a fusion, a not-to-be indebtedness between those identities: the woman providing the experience, the poet the expression."

As a young writer without a sense of entitlement, the sense that she could change poetry "was never there." But in studying the radicalism and individualism of 19th-century writers, Boland began to see how "men like Arnold and Eliot accepted the task of making the poet an outcome of civilization rather than a subversive within it."

Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov are two of the poets Boland credits with establishing a poetic tradition that laid the groundwork for her career. "If women go to the poetic past as I believe they should … then they will have the right to influence what is handed on in poetry, as well as the way it is handed on."

With encouragement from Boland, the work of students in Stanford's Creative Writing Program reflects that individualistic spirit. Boland describes the students in the program as "young women and young men … with a pretty fearless outlook on subject matter [and] voices that will no longer be contested."

According to Boland, one of the greatest advantages to the Creative Writing Program is its location at a university that is strong in both its technical degrees and its humanities. The diversity of education on the campus fosters a creative environment for the arts to take root. With regard to poetry specifically, Boland says she believes that this interdisciplinary context works so well because "no good poem comes from one intellectual direction or another."

Boland feels Stanford's diverse academic environment allows literature to find relevancy through all spectrums of the human experience: "Poetry doesn't seek to be a commodity; it doesn't change history or events – it changes people."

Camille Brown is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu