Stanford professor and celebrated poet Eavan Boland dies at 75

Boland was a pioneering figure in Irish poetry who taught generations of writers how to hone their craft and their lives.

Eavan Boland, renowned poet and professor of English in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, died following a stroke at her Dublin, Ireland, home on April 27. She was 75.

Eavan Boland (Image credit: Maura Hickey)

Considered one of the leading female voices in Irish literature, Boland was treasured at Stanford for her transformative teaching and leadership as the Melvin and Bill Lane Director of the Creative Writing Program. Colleagues, former students and the global literary community shared stories as they learned the news of her death, expressing how Boland made an enduring impression not only on the poetry canon but also on every aspiring writer she encountered.

“I learned more from no one else in higher education,” said Adam Johnson, the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing. “No one bore truer witness to the artist’s life, and no one was as dedicated to fostering the potential of all writers. How many will never know how much has been done on their behalf by Eavan Boland?”

Boland had returned home to Dublin this spring to be close to her family during the COVID-19 pandemic and was teaching a seminar remotely on 20th-century Irish literature.

Inside the seminar room, Boland was known as a formidable teacher, a force who would cut through the noise, get down to the elements and push writers to think about what truly mattered to them. Around campus, she was known for her diplomacy, generosity of spirit, family anecdotes, droll humor and humble nature.

“I admired Eavan’s poetry long before I met her, and as we began to work together here at Stanford I found in her the great heart and seriousness one would have expected from her work, but also a keen delight in absurdity and even in mischief,” said Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English, Emeritus. “I never once heard Eavan talk about herself in terms of personal ambition rewarded or thwarted, or of pride in her achievements, extraordinary as they were. Such talk was repugnant to her. Her gaze went outward.”

Documenting the past

Boland’s poetry, writing and criticism illuminate and complicate a vast catalogue of themes: belonging, the past, womanhood, nationhood, her family, mythology, marriage, identity. Woven throughout is her commitment to pull back the layers of history, document the lives of the silenced, especially women, and affirm that the personal is political and vice versa. “A woman leaves a courtroom in tears. / A nation is rising to the light. / History notes the second, not the first” she writes in the poem “Eviction,” published in the New Yorker on the day of her passing.

Eavan Boland reads an excerpt from University Opening Day, 1891, words from Jane Stanford. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Boland wrote more than 10 volumes of poetry, beginning with her first collection, 23 Poems, published when she was 18 years old. After joining Stanford in 1996, she published A Woman Without a Country, New Collected Poems, and Domestic Violence as well as two volumes of prose: Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time and A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet. She also wrote The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms with Mark Strand. Her other notable works include New Territory, Night Feed and In a Time of Violence.

Boland was an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Irish Academy of Letters. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2017, among many other honors.

“To be in Eavan’s presence was to be in the presence of a poet who has carved an impossible path through the obliterating press of history. And to be her student, if one was lucky enough, was to be challenged to carve one’s own path – the stakes were that high,” said Solmaz Sharif, a former fellow in the prestigious Stegner Fellowship program at Stanford who is now an assistant professor of creative writing at Arizona State University. “This loss is too tremendous to name, although our correspondence and sparring continue whenever I sit to write.”

Pushing dreams into reality

A firm believer in the power of the writing workshop and a fierce advocate for young writers, Boland played a key role in strengthening Stanford’s Creative Writing Program during her 21 years as director. She was a champion of the university’s academic breadth and said the interdisciplinary campus made the program stronger, noting in an interview that “no good poem comes from one intellectual direction or another.” Under her leadership, creative writing grew into what is now one of the most popular minors on campus.

Irish poet Eavan Boland, professor of English. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Eavan Boland was a giant and it doesn’t feel at all like an exaggeration to say that I thought she would outlast us all. She was brilliant and funny, twinkling and wry and difficult, and incisive in a way that could cut you and could also cull your poems down to something singing,” said poet Molly McCully Brown, ’12, one of the many undergraduates who Boland mentored. “I never could have written my first book without what she taught me.”

Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities, insisted that any undergraduate who wanted to take a creative writing class should be able to take one. She helped develop a thriving ecosystem, significantly increasing the number of creative writing lecturers over the years and initiating the Levinthal Tutorials in 2003 with the late John L’Heureux to allow undergraduates to work one-on-one with Stegner fellows.

“Over the years she served as its heart and guide, and the Creative Writing Program became one of the most vibrant cultural centers of the university,” said Wolff.

As an anchor of the Stegner Fellowship program, Boland also helped generations of emerging writers sharpen their craft in workshops. Upon her death, countless Stegner alums – many of whose literary work has reached wide acclaim – shared “Eavanisms,” her characteristic zingers about writing and life, while also expressing heartfelt sentiments about her profound influence.

“Her belief in my work made my life as a writer possible,” said William Brewer, current Jones Lecturer at Stanford and former Stegner fellow. “I hope people ultimately realize how many people’s lives she pushed from dream into reality.”

Her Dublin story

Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944 to Frederick Boland, a diplomat, and Frances Kelly, a noted artist. She spent part of her childhood in London and in New York before studying at Dublin’s Trinity College.

Before joining Stanford, Boland was a writer in residence at Trinity College and University College Dublin, and she was poet in residence at the National Maternity Hospital.

In her poem “Mother Ireland,” she writes:

I learned my name.
I rose up. I remembered it.
Now I could tell my story. It was different
from the story told about me.

Boland is survived by her husband, Kevin Casey; daughters Sarah and Eavan; and four grandchildren: Ella, Jack, Julia and Cian. Details for a Stanford memorial to celebrate her life will be provided at a later date.