Posts Tagged ‘Eavan Boland’

Irish poet Eavan Boland is dead. From her NYRB essay on literature, religion, the communal imagination, and the summer of ’85 in West Cork

Monday, April 27th, 2020
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One of Ireland’s leading poets, Eavan Boland, died this morning of a stroke, at her home in Dublin. She was 75. I knew her, and yet was at a loss about what to say, so instead I reposted a her poem about Ireland’s Great Famine, which I published a month ago on these cyber-pages, including the thoughts she shared with me. It’s here,

Eavan spent half the year in Ireland and the other half as a professor at Stanford. Occasionally when I’d be driving a car on campus, I’d see her trudging back to her campus home along Campus Drive or Lagunita, wearing an capacious calf-length skirt and jacket in earth tones, carrying a satchel full of papers. A sign that all was right with the world. I’d think to honk and wave … but you don’t honk at Eavan Boland. You just … don’t…

From poet Alfred Corn on his Facebook page:

Depending…

The last time I spoke to Eavan was in 1994 during a literary conference at Washington University in St. Louis, organized by William Gass, the topic being “The Writer and Religion.” Apart from Gass (writer against religion), the participants were William Gaddis (against), Grace Mojtabai (for), me (for, depending), Amitav Ghosh (neutral), and Eavan (respectful but dubious). She spoke of the miraculous BVMs [i.e., Blessed Virgin Marys – ED] that sometimes appear in Ireland, attracting large crowds of believers. Which puzzled me because I regard such things as epiphenomena, not as exemplifying religion per se. But then I’m not Irish.

I wondered what Eavan had said on that occasion, and by chance today I found that she had discussed that very conference in a remarkable 1995 essay in The New York Review of Books“As the Spirit Moves” is being made available without subscription for awhile on the occasion of her death. It’s here

It begins with a fine summer in 1985, West Cork, along the seaboard. “In the town of Kinsale, which is a summer resort on that coast, there were more tourists than usual. This is one of the beautiful parts of Ireland and indeed, without being tribal, one of the beautiful parts of Europe. Surrounding it are small towns, villages, and farms. The terrain is fairly flat, without some of the Gulf Stream warmth which produces the dramatic palms and tropical branches of certain parts of Kerry further west.”

This is what happened there. And this is how it stirred almost the whole of Ireland during that summer. Traveling back by car on one of those fine evenings, a woman stopped at a grotto which contained a statue of Our Lady. Ireland, which in the Republic at least has sustained a largely Catholic culture, had celebrated what was called a Marian year in 1950: a year, that is, in which Our Lady was honored as the Mother of Christ. The result of the celebrations was that hundreds of small grottoes and statues and shrines to Our Lady remained scattered around the countryside as continuing places of worship. This one was just outside the village of Ballinspittle, perhaps ten miles from Kinsale. It was eloquently set in the recess of a hillside, about thirty feet above the road. And on one of those sunny evenings, in late July, when travel in a car, or a visit to the places which contained such a grotto, must have seemed like a pleasant and appropriate summer diversion, a woman saw that statue of the Virgin Mary move.

Within not weeks, but days, someone reported a similar phenomenon. Then another. Then another. Then more and at different shrines. Sub-headlines of the Irish Times, second leaders on the evening news, whole radio programs, and finally television documentaries were devoted to the phenomenon. A woman had seen a statue move in a city church. Another had seen the Virgin reach out her hand. Another saw her move as if to step down from her shrine.

Then the headlines gave way, at least in the urban press, to analysis. Sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists began to be featured on television. They explained that this was not unusual, that in times of stress, of hardship and recession, this sort of thing had been observed widely. By this time the summer evenings were getting shorter but the clear, warm hours before dark, and just after it, were filled with literally hundreds of cars, visitors, couples, and whole families converging on any place along the seaboard, but especially near Kinsale, where this had been observed. In an outpouring of insistence and longing, men and women with accents which were not so often features of the urban Dublin news programs described what they had seen, and they could not be shaken from their stories.

Then the explanations grew less frequent. The outrage and suspicion of the Catholic clergy, disowning and warning against these visions, became less emphatic. The journalistic silly season passed. The evenings grew colder. The rain returned. Suddenly, as quickly as it had come, the phenomenon was over. No statues moved. No sociologists talked. Normality returned.

I remember that summer clearly. I remember driving down the Dublin roads, where the luburnum and lilac filled the verges with yellow and violet, and listening to my car radio. Something seemed to have happened that was not faith, and could not be called religion; that was short of hysteria and yet by no means rational. From the safety of a cosmopolitan city, which Dublin has finally become—with fast cars and fast food and a limited concentration span—I could hear, to use Joyce’s phrase, “the batsqueak” of another Ireland. Through the statistics of debt and unemployment, and Northern violence, I could hear the elegy and anger break out one last time, lamenting a simpler time and a surer one.

I did not believe that the statues had moved. But I did not believe the sociologists either. I knew enough about the unreason of Irish history to respect and even be in some awe of what had taken place on those fierce and unaccountable evenings, in the long light hours, in small towns and farmlands where television cameras hardly ever reached, and where political scientists usually never went, except briefly at election time. And I was troubled.

As I listened to disc jockeys and radio broadcasters speaking jovially or contemptuously, whichever way you viewed it, of the faith and hallucination of those who saw those statues move … Since I lived in Dublin, I heard more of the skepticism and muted contempt which a place of purported sophistication has for a simpler region than anything which might indicate sympathy with what had happened.

And yet I was moved. I could not completely share in the cynicism of a capital city.

Second Space.

What follows afterwards is a discussion that’s hard to summarize, about the communal imagination and the role of literature, and the “monstrous” development of  “the religion of poetry” – the attempt of poets to become priests, and losing their poetry, too.

“In their attempt to make sacred a time and a country that were resolutely being defined as secular, they were testifying to an enormous loss and a true deprivation,” she writes. Well, Czesław Miłosz said the same thing. He mourned our loss of “Second Space,” which is also the title of the last collection he published before his death in 2004. Well, that’s another story for another article.

Requiescat in pace, Eavan Boland. You can read her whole essay here, while it’s still available.

Think we have it bad? Eavan Boland’s poem about Ireland’s Great Famine

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020
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Eavan Boland: one of Ireland’s leading poets

Update: Eavan Boland died of a stroke this morning at her home in Dublin, on April 27. She was 75.

Ireland’s terrible period of starvation and disease from 1845 to 1849 was called the “Great Famine” or the “Great Hunger” – George Bernard Shaw had a different term for it: “the Great Starvation.” About a million died, and a million emigrated. The worst year was 1847.

I ran across Eavan Boland‘s poem “Quarantine” the other day over at the Poetry Foundation website. It is said to be Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney‘s favorite of her poems. It is certainly mine. I asked her how she came to write this poem about the Great Potato Famine, and whether the story was true. Here’s what she replied:

The story itself is anecdotally true – that is, it comes from a book called Mo Sceal Fein by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire (the title means he was a priest). The book was published  as autobiography somewhere about 1907 and in the Irish language. The title means “My Own Story.”

There is a brief recounting in that book of the story of Kit and Patrick, who left the workhouse during the 1847 famine to return to their cabin. Both were weakened by lack of food and she had famine fever. In the morning they were both found dead. In the text it says “the feet of the woman were in Patrick’s bosom, as if he had tried to warm them.”

It’s a very brief story and I first heard it as just that, when I was a teenager. Later I read a translation of it in the book. It seemed to me then, as it does now, to bring together so much of the public agony and private experience of the Ireland of that time. Just a terrible parable of people on the dark side of history, who somehow amend it for a moment by the grace of their actions.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season
.  of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
.  He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
.  Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
.  There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
.  Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

“A Chicano on fire”: U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera returns home to Stanford

Sunday, April 9th, 2017
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Herrera offering cookies at the Poetry Foundation (Photo: Don Share)

Last month, U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera visited Stanford. We were still only two months into a new presidency. It was much on Herrera’s mind, and on the collective mind of the full house he had attracted to Cubberley Auditorium for a free-wheeling evening of reading, commentary, reflections, and audience participation.

He spoke of the United Farm Workers Movement – “those were my classrooms,” he said. He grew up in a different era, the era in the 1960s, where the vital question was: “Do you want to be in the classroom, or out in the streets, marching with people?” He remembered his “early occupied water tank poetry,” when he was director of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, headquartered in an occupied water tank in San Diego’s Balboa Park, which had been converted into an arts space.

He also referred to his time as a Stanford anthropology major: “I was sizzling on anthropology, sizzling on poetry – two major sizzles.” Of course we know which sizzle won.

“I was a Chicano on fire.” He still is. As poet laureate, he described meeting an 11-year-old who had written a poem about the children left behind because their parents had been deported. The story got a big round of applause, or perhaps the applause came when he said, “America! Stop deporting us!

He recalled saying “one thing they made sure – that we could never be authors” – that is, by prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write.

“You are the author. You are the author,” he told the audience.

From the director of Stanford’s Creative writing program, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who gave an excellent (as usual) introduction:

As he traveled through those landscapes, in actuality and memory, he also explored the psyche of place, drawing into his work influences and affinities as far apart and yet as apposite as Allen Ginsberg and Luis Valdez.

And in all of these travels and writings he has been an innovative, restless stylist, in the words of  in the New York Times  becoming the creator of “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in HumanitiesIt is the something else, perhaps, that makes us especially eager to hear him this evening. In an interview with NPR he recalled his childhood. As the son of Mexican farm workers, he followed them the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys,migrating as his parents did, seeking work. But when he remembered those years in an interview given to NPR he also spoke about their meaning. This is what he said:

“And those landscapes, you know, those are some deep landscapes of mountains and grape fields and barns and tractors; families gathering at night to have little celebrations in the mountains and aquamarine lakes way down below. So, see, all that is like living in literature every day.”

Juan Felipe Hererra’s words here provide a pathway into his achievement. The idea of a literary enterprise which is lived rather than learned is everywhere in his work.  His words also remind us that the oldest life of poetry lies deep in its communal existence, in  its companionable relation to a people, to a language, to the future of both. It also reminds us of the association of this writer with one of the true traditions of poetry, the poet’s refusal from Homer onwards to disown the adventures and sorrows of a people, and the artistic determination to draw their story into the dignity of remembrance and beautiful speech.

Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
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Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

Farewell to Stanford’s “How I Write” – and hello to Hilton’s new book!

Sunday, November 1st, 2015
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Teamwork: Charlie Junkerman and Hilton Obenzinger

It’s a cliché that all good things come to an end, but stoicism was little consolation for the 40 or 50 of us who came to bid farewell to the “How I Write” series that has been part of Stanford life for more than a dozen years. The series of public conversations has been ably and amiably hosted by Hilton Obenzinger, under the aegis of Continuing Studies.

Here’s a few things that were consolations: the send-off party at the Stanford Faculty Club was celebrated with good food and good company. And here’s the best part: Hilton has made the 13-year series into a 262-page book, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experienceavailable on Amazon here. The book is dedicated to the late Diane Middlebrook. Hence, last week’s event was a fête for the new book, though tinged with a little sadness, too.

Charlie Junkerman, the dean of Continuing Studies, called the book “a portable condensation of all those conversations” and “the right capstone to this project of many many years.” Noting Hilton’s ventures in fiction, poetry, history, and criticism, he added that “he hasn’t written a cookbook so far, but that may be coming.”

What did Hilton learn from this long venture? “People are weird and they work in all kinds of strange ways.” He remembered the author who required his “writing sweater” to write. He spoke with award-winning Irish poet and essayist Eavan Boland, who likes writing code and reading tech magazines, while engineer Eric Roberts, author of Programming Abstractions in C, has no TV and surrounds himself with books, not tech toys.

As Tom Winterbottom writes in his discussion of the book here:

Who knew that the renowned Stanford literary critic Terry Castle wrote the entire first draft of her dissertation in tiny handwriting on just seven sheets of legal-sized paper?

Or that the acclaimed author and Stanford professor Adam Johnson learned the craft of storytelling at a young age in part by rifling through his neighbors’ garbage cans for inspiration?

Amusing, yes, but anecdotes give little sense of the grueling process of writing itself, or the perils of publication. The longed-for moment when you see your book in publication can bring as much rue as reward:

When you read your own work as something fresh, something strange, it can be very exciting – especially if there’s time to make revisions. But then, once published, you almost inevitably discover typos, mistakes, and causes for regret and even remorse. As in a lover’s quarrel, sometimes we wish we could take the words back. But it’s almost never possible. …

obenzingerMost of the time the ill-chosen words hang there; if you’re lucky, no one reads them and they turn to dust. But sometimes the words act and cause actions, as words do, and some readers may be led down the wrong path or may have terrible thoughts planted in their brains. So far I haven’t disowned any of my own writing, although I often cringe at how infantile, wrong-headed, or tone-deaf some passage may be.

I certainly can’t disavow my typos. No matter how much the copy editor and I comb the text, at least one goof will slip right through the galleys. For some reason there’s an article repeated or a word misspelled or worse. Yet I’ve come to terms with the stray typo, because the error demonstrates that the work is not perfect, the text is always contingent, always transient, a ‘draft of a draft,’ as Herman Melville‘s Ishmael describes Moby-Dick. …

But shame, failure, despair, utter horror, these are all stations on the journey, even after completing a ‘draft of a draft.’ …

“Where’s the quote from?” several of the guests called out when he was finished reading. “Me!” beamed Hilton. It was his own. It’s in his book. You can buy it here. (And you can read a little more about it here.)

Eavan Boland and W.B. Yeats – a connection that is “part scrutiny and all invention”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015
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Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

A sense of displacement

“There is a mystery and poignance to the way poets find one another. The process can never be mutual. It is always the younger poet in a later generation who does the finding. It is always left to the younger poet to work out a process built on artifice and illusion: to make a connection across time and distance that is part scrutiny and all invention. At the end of the process, after all the memorising and inscribing, the older poet remains intact in both meaning and achievement. It is the younger one who is revealed.”

We wrote about Irish poet Eavan Boland a few days ago, with her address at the Hopwoods Awards ceremony at the University of Michigan. Then I found this June 10 article in the Irish Times, “Saving grace: how WB Yeats helped Eavan Boland to become a poet.”

She discovered William Butler Yeats as a teenager: “What was revealed to me was how willing I was in this initial encounter to enter a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and heroic legends. How easily I passed into all this, like an unchallenged ghost. Now I look back, I know the key to my first response was not the truth of his representation but the depth of my own displacement.

Yeats_Boughton

His world of lakes and spirits

“I had returned to Ireland at the age of 14 having lived for years outside the country. I knew instinctively that I lacked a secret language of location that turns a child into an adult who fits in. I missed the sense of belonging that both reveals and restricts the meaning of place. Without those signals of self I was able to accept without questioning Yeats’s artifice and invention: his landscapes filled with improbable spirits and perfect language needed no standard of proof for me. There was no other place waiting for me. I adopted his and made it my own.

“So began my late teenage years and the beginning of my 20s, when I knew many of his poems by heart. Stanzas, epigrams, exclamations guided some inner space whenever I summoned them. His words entered my mind the way melody enters the mind of someone who loves songs: a framing device well beyond the subject matter of what’s remembered. It seemed back then that I had acquired not just a possession but also a comfort zone. And I might have remained there. I might have stayed grateful for the Virgilian companionship of a poet whose well-phrased dramas and dramatic phrases brought more dignity to my everyday life than I could have provided.”

The encounter goes on. Read the rest of this beautiful essay here.