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Irish poet Eavan Boland in residence at Stanford

STANFORD -- When the directors of Aer Lingus voted to weave four lines of her poetry into the airline's seat fabrics and dining linens, Eavan Boland was charmed.

"There's something enormously endearing about a country that takes its living heritage to heart like that," she says of the carrier's plans to showcase the country's poets. "Of course, I don't think it's so surprising if you're Irish, because it's a very literary place that is very connected to its writers."

As Stanford's newest professor of English, Boland is bringing her affection for her homeland and her love of language to an enthusiastic new audience. Each winter quarter she will be in residence to conduct poetry workshops for Stegner Fellows in the Creative Writing Program and to teach undergraduates in the English department.

In her classes Boland frequently draws on the literary history of the fabled island of saints and scholars that has bred such eloquent spokesmen as W. B. Yeats, James Joyce and Seamus Heaney. In recent weeks, as bombings by the Irish Republican Army have threatened to end the fragile 17-month cease-fire, she also has tried to come to terms with the island's other heritage - its tortured political history.

"The terrible part about living in a country where hatred has been an engine of history is not so much that you see the violence clearly, but that you have in your mind this fictive sense of the beautiful country it could have been," she said in a recent interview.

"My daughters have known nothing else since they were young than turning on the television at 6 at night and seeing somebody being buried. That has been their intimate experience all their life."

Boland's eyes are the delicate blue of a thrush's egg, but they brighten when she talks about home and family - her husband, novelist Kevin Casey, and their two daughters, Sarah, age 20, and Eavan, 18. Her gaze is intent, framed by a peach complexion and dark auburn hair. Dressed in a comfortable skirt and sweater, with a single strand of dark beads at her neck, she appears to be a woman at home with herself.

Boland grieves for the people of Ireland's neighborhoods, for the young men in and out of uniform and for the children who are held hostage by the political turmoil.

"And that is why I feel we as poets have to endure," she says. "We are one of the reporters, and our language has to be there."

Her battles to transform the language of Irish poetry are legend in her homeland. The Chicago Tribune has described Boland as "the first woman poet to achieve in Ireland the kind of artistic status that men have regularly won in that small country with its wondrous poetic tradition." She has argued in the media and at public writers' debates that, while women once were the objects of poems written by men, they now have become the writers. The language of Irish poetry, she says, must reflect their views.

"Ireland is a country with a fairly conservative view of women, where putting together the word 'woman' and the word 'poet' had not happened before," she says of her public dialogue with formidable male tradition. "But it's a country that has learned a lot of hard lessons in the last 10 years."

When she was finding her way as a young poet in the late '60s, Boland says it was easier "to have a political murder in the Irish poem than to have a baby. The language for the dailiness of life was not there, and poetry had to be taught the words for washing machine, for house, for life."

She grew to believe that society could issue "permission" for people to be poets, and that the permission was not equally distributed.

"My clashes with the profound myth which generated the Catholic idea of the Irish poet were respectful," Boland says. "I never wanted to demean or challenge or wound or undermine people.

"But I did want to put it before people that neither I, nor anybody else, I felt, wanted to live in a literature without the voice and vision of women. I felt that would distort our national literature, and so I felt those arguments had to happen."

Albert Gelpi, professor of English, says her arguments were more than merely persuasive: "Eavan did the kind of trailblazing and mediating that is opening the way for the next generation of Irish women poets."

Gelpi, who served on the faculty search committee that recruited Boland, says he hardly can open a new anthology or issue of the American Poetry Review today without seeing her work in print or her opinions quoted.

"In the last few years Eavan has become a very visible and important presence in this country, as well as in Ireland," he says. "She is someone whose views are constantly being sought."

In the workshops she conducts for Stegner Fellows, Boland tries to re-create the atmosphere that she remembers from her own days as a young poet in Dublin.

"A workshop should never be an acrimonious place, but it absolutely should be a passionate place," she says. "Because what's at stake is everything you believe in."

On a recent afternoon Boland had high praise for the "hugely interesting" stanzas of one poem under discussion, but did not hesitate to shake her head at another passage that she thought was ambiguous.

"I don't know what the last three lines are about," she said, reaching out her hand to the writer. "I just don't get it."

When one Fellow suggested that an "either-or" ending allowed readers to interpret poems in whatever way they chose, Boland leaned toward him and pressed her own argument for clarity and understanding.

"But if it doesn't make sense, why do it?" she asked quietly. "You're not inviting readers in to decode or unpack your arguments. You're inviting them in to a passionate and urgent and clear world."

Boland praises the Stegner program as the "great gateway" for poetry in the United States, and she is equally enthusiastic about the undergraduate class she teaches.

"My preference would always be to work in the English department, as well as the Stegner program, because it brings a poet into a world where there is a witness given to literature," she says. "You're faced with 18-year-olds who are at the edge of another gateway to poetry, and I truly love that."

Heralded as both a "feminist Dante" and "an Irish Adrienne Rich" by American critics, Boland often is praised for her straightforward approach to her craft.

"Eavan Boland's best poems seem to me those in which she writes without apparent fuss or political flourish," a New York Review of Books critic wrote. "She gets on with it, writes the poem, and leaves the ideological significance of it to be divined."

Two years ago Boland won the prestigious Lannan Award in poetry for In a Time of Violence, and her work increasingly is available to American readers in such publications as The American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Partisan Review and The Yale Review.

In the United States she has taught at Bowdoin College, the University of Houston, University of Utah and Washington University in St. Louis, and she also has been writer-in-residence at Trinity College and University College in Dublin. A recipient of the Ingram Merrill Award in Poetry and the Terrence des Pres Award for prose on poetry, Boland has served on the board of the Irish Arts Council and as chairperson of the Irish Times Literary Awards for Irish Writing.

She says she had her first "premonition of creativity" as she watched her mother at work. Frances Kelley was a well-known Irish portrait and still-life artist whose paintings are displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland, and art was a visible presence at home.

Boland left Ireland in 1950, at age 6, and spent her early years in London, where her father was the first Irish ambassador to Britain. When he was posted to the United Nations, the family moved to New York and Boland was enrolled at Sacred Heart School. She remembers sitting next to a Hungarian refugee classmate there and seeing in the young girl's eyes a distress she could appreciate.

"I recognized something I wouldn't have had any words for then - the sense of always being in other schools, always being in different places."

Boland would recall the exile of her early years in An Irish Childhood in England: 1951:

The bickering of vowels on the buses,
the clicking thumbs and the big hips of
the navy-skirted ticket collectors with
their crooked seams brought it home to me:
Exile. Ration-book pudding.
Bowls of dripping and the fixed smile
of the school pianist playing "Iolanthe,"
"Land of Hope and Glory"
and "John Peel."

When Boland finally returned to Ireland at age 14, she yearned to reconnect with her homeland. It was then that she discovered Yeats.

"He was the poet I came across at about 15 or 16, with this very real thrill of reading a poet from my own country - at last," she says. "There was a coming home in two senses, literary and actual, and I still think he is the poet I love most. I have a great tribal pride in Yeats."

Boland published her first volume of poetry at age 22, after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin with First Class Honours. During the years she spent at home with her two young daughters, her imagery began to shift from heroic legend to family hearth, from Spanish sails to "nappies" and milk bottles. She also ventured into private realms that had not been explored previously in Irish poems - menstruation, anorexia, masturbation, mastectomy.

"The sense of the traditional, formal, well-made poem was strong around me when I was a young poet, and I wrote until I could no longer write my life into it," Boland says. "At that point it broke apart, and I began to experiment with the idea of putting the life I lived directly into the poems I wrote."

At a recent Stanford Bookstore reading to celebrate the publication of her seventh book, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987, Boland drew an overflow crowd. With some students and faculty sitting on the floor just inches from the podium and others standing in faraway aisles, she read nine poems and prose selections that showed how far her work has ranged.

In a poem to her husband, Boland looked back on a time when they kept watch at the bedside of their younger daughter, near death from meningitis, and asked, "Will we ever live so intensely again?"

There were moments of sparkling wit when she explored the marital challenges of Isabella of Bavaria and her "daft prince" who thought himself made of glass.

There also were darker moments when Boland recounted how a tinker's horse grazing in her south Dublin neighborhood came to embody the most threatening years of Ireland's "troubles." She read slowly from The War Horse, leaving many in the audience hanging on the image of an uprooted crocus as "one of the screamless dead."

"Eavan's real passion is her strong feeling about Ireland, and her role there makes her unique," says Marjorie Perloff, a fellow poet and professor of English.

"I also think she's going to be one of the great assets Stanford has. Although she's only here one quarter a year, she lives right on campus and wants to participate in everything. That means that within each 10-week term she's going to do great things."

As Boland wraps up her first quarter of teaching, she already is making plans for the introductory "Poetry and Poetics" course - and the new crop of Stegner Fellows - she'll teach next year.

"I love the contact with the undergraduates, and I want the workshop to be an exciting, do-or-die place where argument is welcomed," she says.

"In Ireland, you see, argument is quite a bond. It's a sparkling part of life, and I associate it with a great relish of things."



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