Loved for Herself Alone, and Not Her Yellow Hair 

Irish poet finds historical relevance in lives of ordinary women

Irish poet finds historical relevance in lives of ordinary women

Pablo Tanguay

Eavan Boland

The poet reads in Gentry Auditorium at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, on April 22 at 8 p.m.

From William Butler Yeats to Seamus Heaney, a long line of Irish poets has sought to reestablish a uniquely Irish identity, to fashion a literature separate and apart from its English overseers. Incorporating the folklore, myths and symbols of their ancient Gaelic heritage, these revivalist poets successfully forged what is now accepted as the Irish tradition, and Irish poets today have a powerful literary heritage to draw on.

The problem is that this poetic line is exclusively male. In Irish poetry, women aren't complex human beings, much less poets. Instead, they're mythical personifications of a romanticized Ireland: Mangan's Dark Rosaleen, say, or Yeats' Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Consequently, the position of contemporary women poets in the Irish tradition is the same as early Celtic Revivalists in the English canon: forced to bear a history not their own.

Enter Eavan Boland, perhaps the finest writer of Irish verse alive. Boland has spent the better part of four decades writing poems and criticism from within the Irish tradition that both de- and reconstruct it. Boland has written about the "geological weakness" of Irish poetry: In rallying an oppressed nation with images of mythical, triumphant women, she says, the Irish literary tradition lost the "human truths of survival and humiliation."

And nowhere are these truths more evident than in the ordinary women who speak in Boland's poems. From the more formally structured poems of her youth ("Looking back on them now, I can see myself ...trying to get cadences right and counting out stresses on a table," she wrote in the preface to An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-1987) to the free verse of her latest collection, Against Love Poetry (Norton, 2001), Boland's speakers detail the split between real women's lives and the romanticized fictions given them by Ireland's heroic tradition. In "Envoi," from her 1982 collection, Night Feed, Boland's speaker, contemplating her muse, says:

If she will not bless the ordinary, /if she will not sanctify the common, /then here I am and here I stay and /then am I /the most miserable of women.

Boland continuously tests history's assumption that the important and the ordinary are mutually exclusive. Neither invisible nor mythical, her speakers inscribe the ordinary with the significance and complexity it deserves. Boland introduces into the Irish canon a counterweight to its traditional formulations: a body of work leading away from the mythical woman and toward the real.

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