Eavan Boland H’04, scholar, professor and trailblazing poet, died following a stroke in her home in Dublin on April 27. She was 75.
Boland was born in 1944 to Frederick Boland, a diplomat and Irish ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Frances Kelly, a well-known painter. Boland’s quick wit and rhetorical flare—inherited from her father—and her sensibility for imagery and light—developed while watching her mother paint—figure prominently in her poetic work. She passed parts of her childhood in London and in New York respectively before attending Trinity College in Dublin for her undergraduate degree.
Married to novelist Kevin Casey and mother of two, Boland published 10 volumes of poetry as well as two volumes of prose over the course of her 40 year career, the most recent of which—a collection set to be released in October called “The Historians”—explores the ways in which the stories of women, previously obscured, force us to reexamine our notions of the past.
Throughout her career, Boland taught at numerous universities in Ireland and the United States, including a semester-long appointment as a visiting professor at Bowdoin in 1988 and a 20-year tenure as a professor of English and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford. Boland also held residencies in numerous institutions, serving as the poet-in-residence at Trinity College and the University College Dublin as well as at the National Maternity Hospital during its 1994 Centenary.
Boland has garnered many awards in her lifetime, including the Lannan Award for Poetry, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2017. She is the recipient of six honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Letters from Bowdoin in 2004.
A renowned poet, Boland’s work meditates on the themes of womanhood, maternity, lineage, mythology, nationhood and identity, among others. Her voice, which has been lauded as the preeminent voice in the Irish poetic canon, and her poems, which innovated and complicated the country’s poetic traditions in both subject and form, tell the stories often excluded from the Irish literary canon: those of Irish womanhood. Distinguishing between the “shadowy” past and the official records of history, Boland’s poetry represents the voices of those who have lived the past but have been scrubbed from historical records. As she put it herself at a reading for the American Academy’s Celebration of Arts and Humanities in reference to her poem “Quarantine,” “the poem is partly a reproach to the genres of literature which don’t always include the past and the steadfastness of the people who live there.”
Boland herself said in an interview with the Irish Times in 1998, “When I was young, there was a hidden struggle over subject matter going on in Irish poetry … I was aware that it was easier to have a political murder as the subject of an Irish poem than a baby or a washing machine.”
“[There’s] this idea of lineage for someone who’s been excluded from literary history, the [question of] who you are, who your ancestors are,” said Harrison King McCann Professor of English Marilyn Reizbaum in a video interview with the Orient. “[Boland], in her poetry, writes about that again and again and again.”
“You’ll find [it] in the way she merges beautifully Irish history and women’s history because that, too, was a place where women were excluded, where the protagonists of Irish history were typically not female,” Reizbaum added.
Through her representation of female voices, Boland greatly complicated the standards and preoccupations of the male-dominated Irish national literature.
“[Boland] was obviously a woman and obviously Irish and obviously a poet. From our conversations and my reading of her work, I feel confident in saying that the third category—being a poet—subsumed the other two,” wrote Harrison King McCann Research Professor of the English Language Emeritus Franklin Burroughs in an email to the Orient. “She once remarked that feminism in poetry was analogous to the Romantic movement at the beginning of the 19th century—it would change poetry by enlarging it, expanding its idea of the idiom, form, subject matter and voice of poetry and of the whole relation between poet and reader, or poet and audience.”
“She radicalized the Irish literary establishment,” added Reizbaum. “She fought ferociously for the inclusion of women into the canon and for a kind of poetry that includes, that changed the sense of what was appropriate … It not only affected the subjects, but the various forms that poetry took. The kinds of ideals that were laid out for Irish poetry historically themselves began to change as a result of breaking the canon and it broke in all kinds of ways after that.”
Throughout her career, however, Boland adamantly resisted being labeled solely a female poet.
“She did not seem to me to be interested in the construction of a sort of counter-canon, one that was of, by and for women, as opposed to men; or of Irish poets as opposed to British or American ones; or of non-white poets as opposed to white ones,” wrote Burroughs. “It seemed to me that in the last analysis, she saw poetry, the desire that people have ‘to find a voice where they found a vision,’ as a universal impulse. In that respect, she was extraordinarily democratic in her view of the art.”
As an educator, Boland was as exacting as she was lively. A proponent of the writing workshop, Boland brought unparalleled wit and energy to the classroom, pushing her students to engage with one another’s work and advocating fiercely for young writers. Inclusion was at the heart of her pedagogical philosophy.
“In practice, as a poet and as a teacher of poetry, she was unaccommodating in what she demanded of herself and her students,” wrote Burroughs. “Her way of teaching is hard to describe and would be impossible to imitate. She had a mixture of generosity, skepticism, wit, candor, impatience with nonsense or pretension and simple brilliance that were as much a part of her as the features on her face.”
In her time as a visiting professor at Bowdoin, Boland contributed greatly to what was then a small and undeveloped creative writing program. Her classes, and the transformative effect they had on students, helped attract more students to the English department and to the creative writing discipline.
Outside of the classroom, Boland’s time at Bowdoin and the connections she made in Maine found their way into some of her early work. Her exploration of the Maine landscape and her excursions into the state’s nature served as points of departure for a handful of poems in her collection “Outside History,” including “The River” and “Mountain Time.”
Through her work, she forcefully carved out space in a long and unquestioned history for the voices of the unheard and the unrecognized. The bard of the silenced, Boland wrote for those who have quietly underpinned Irish society.
As she writes in “Domestic Interior” of a woman off to bed on an ordinary evening: “But there’s a way of life/ That is its own witness:/ Put the kettle on, shut the blind./ Home is a sleeping child,/ An open mind/ … / And our effects,/ Shrugged and settled/ In the sort of light/ Jugs and kettles/ Grow important by.”