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Exploring poetry's 'lesser space'


Eavan Boland, one of Ireland's leading poets, is best known for verse that punctures mock-heroism and bombast while portraying the quiet domestic world where great dramas nonetheless unfold. "Domestic Violence" (Norton, $23.95), Boland's 10th collection, considers, among other things, losses both intimate and monumental in a transformed Ireland. Boland grew up in Dublin, New York, and London. She lives in Ireland and in California, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Boland spoke from her California home.

Q Explain how Irish women, as you write, went "from being the objects of the Irish poem to being its authors."

A The archetypical poem I have in mind is Yeats's "Cathleen ni Houlihan," which was a very romanticized, static portrait. The woman was so iconic and so overlaid with images of Ireland that for women to become the authors of the poem they had to somehow leave that object behind or contest it.

Q How did this affect you?

A It made me very aware of how difficult it was in Irish poetry to have an ordinary, day-to-day subject. Nineteenth-century painting, by contrast, often depicted the details of everyday life -- people sitting in rooms, at tables; nobody questioned the value of those images to an artist. But when I was a young poet it was easier to have a political murder in the Irish poem than a baby.

Q Did Patrick Kavanagh's poetry strike a chord with you then?

A Kavanagh was a huge emblem to me of what could be done. I think of his work as the central place where these questions were raised and where Irish poetry pivoted, really. Every poet who comes after Kavanagh owes him a huge debt; I certainly do. The bardic caste of poetry that existed, especially at the end of the [Celtic revival of the late 19th century], would have made it very difficult for you to go into your kitchen and think "This can be the site for a poem." If you were to think that, it would be Kavanagh who let you think that.

Q Lately you chart an Ireland that is vanishing before our eyes, making us "exiles in our own country."

A Yes, I really believe that. There are tremendous things about the new Ireland, but there is also a profound irony, which I genuinely believe is true in this generation and may never be again. We were close to the Ireland our parents lived in, but I honestly believe my daughters are in an Ireland now that I don't recognize so well. And I don't think they would recognize ours. I fear that the truly great things that were there won't be visible to them.

Q Has that sense driven you into what one reviewer has termed a "neo Celtic twilight"?

A [Laughs] Well, you know, I wasn't so fond of the Celtic twilight to begin with; I had real problems with what went before. And I'm unlikely to be nostalgic because I question so many of the exclusions that once existed.

Q The title poem of your new book, "Domestic Violence," describes not only what was happening next door but also across the border in Northern Ireland. Why did you connect those two realities?

A For so long the domestic world in poetry has been this safe, sanitized space, the lesser space. Nothing was thought to happen in the domestic space that could equal the large moral universe of the exterior, which is more often the subject of the poem. But this poem is about those years when people were living their lives in houses, in rooms, while the country outside was under the sway of increasingly destructive forces. And there is no way that those two things can't relate to each other.

Q But in the poem "Histories" you juxtapose them.

A It's once again the idea of the public coming in, the radio delivering the accounts of external violence. But the truth is that that will also be the year in which, as Kavanagh said, "the habitual and the banal" go on happening. My mother was going about that ordinary life. And those two things can be beside each other and never connect.

Q "Letters to the Dead," to your mother, are among the most affecting I have ever read and recall Emily Dickinson's poetry somehow. Is that far-fetched?

A No, I mean, I'm delighted. Those poems were among the ones that mattered most to me in my life to write. My mother really was my great hero, and the sense of that absence from your life and the sense of what that presence was . . . well, they were somewhat hard to write.

Anna Mundow is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at