‘I have come to ask certain disrespectful questions of the tradition’; Boland on poetry’s ‘lesser-space’

‘I am an Irish poet. A woman poet. In the first category I enter the tradition of the English language at an angle. In the second, I enter my own tradition at an even more steep angle. I need to be candid about this because, of course, these two identities shape and re-shape what I have to say today. The authority of the poet – that broad and challenging theme – is really, in my case, a series of instincts and hunches. The difference in my case, is that while many poets look to the past for the story of that authority, I no longer do so. I have stopped listening to the story which grants automatic authority to the poet and automatic importance to the poem. Instead, I have come to see a suppressed narrative.’ (Eavan Boland)

I have often wondered at the angle that Eavan Boland speaks of in this excerpted speech from the PN Review. The speech entitled Gods Make Their Own Importance was delivered in 1994 under the auspices of the Poetry Book Society. Eavan Boland revisited a variation on this theme in 2007 when she interviewed with the Boston Globe. I know that its a bit impertinent to extract a blog post from the two linked pieces, but I thought to examine the idea of contemporary women poets taking on larger themes, rather than those small and domestic things so indicative of the lesser space which Eavan Boland discussed.

The Boston Globe article,  Exploring Poetry’s Lesser Space (2007) is as relevant now as it was at the time and maybe more so. A critical review of poetry is either absent or confined to particular little corners here in Ireland. I can take some recent examples of this absence which I have published here on the blog, the Irish Times Books of 2011 did not allow for a single poetry publication, for instance. I have (to date) not seen a review of Oswald’s Memorial in our papers of note, or indeed in any of the Irish newspapers. Lucky then that good reviews are available elsewhere for lovers of poetry and non-fiction. Some people take the idea of a non-fiction readership seriously and cater then to a less limited spectrum of reading tastes and experiences. I am linking Michael Listas National Post Review of Oswald’s Memorial.

If a male author of our very small writing establishment had stripped down The Iliad and had written a powerful dirge as Oswald has undoubtedly achieved in Memorial,  would it have made it to the end of year book lists? I do not think that the issue regarding the provision of space for readers of non-fiction and poetry is the problem, the problem appears to be based on the marketing of books. Oswald’s withdrawal from the T.S Eliot prize was noted in the Irish Times and indeed in the Irish Independent, but there is as far as I can see no review of the actual book on either website. Is it considered unladylike for women poets to take on vast themes that are decidedly not domestic celebratory, and thus not interesting to reviewers?

In 2010 VIDA (Women in the Literary Arts) published The Count, which showed a truly abysmal lack in critical review of women literary writers and poets. I feel that 2011 has been better for women in literature, although there are as yet no published figures available. I have to wonder if a lack of critical and intellectual reviews of poets like Alice  Oswald is based within the same confined dogmatic parameters that Boland alluded to in the linked lecture and interview. The small poems of the domestic, the novels,  and some genres seem open to review and discussion, but the larger themes are passed over and ignored. There appears to be a lack of balance inherent in how certain genres are presented to readers of literature, which reflects a small coterie of male-writers and their special interests. Although, it just might represent how poetry is perceived and marketed in Ireland and the UK.

Of course, it could be simply a matter of impatience on my part to see what reviewers make of books by women writers that exist outside of the poetic lesser space and its artificial confines. I do not see contemporary women reviewers or women critics asking the questions that Eavan Boland did in 1994 or indeed in 2007.  My assumption that the issue of how we look at women literary writers and poets in Ireland must have been resolved satisfactorily without my noting it,


it could be entirely presumed that women reviewers really do not give much of a fuck about Irish literature unless it exists within the cut-out pattern that they are entirely comfortable with. Reviewing the same consistent group of books within the same confining parameters that please their mostly male bosses for a small group of writers who accept a formulaic critique as a matter of course.  The same publishers in the tiny stagnant pool of Dublin-centric art luvviedom: how boring, how narrow – how idiotic. How utterly failed is Irish literature when critical reception amounts to cut-out doll pattern that attempts market influence. Serious poetry and non-fiction readers may have to look elsewhere for cogent and interesting reviews of poetry books written by women.

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4 responses to “‘I have come to ask certain disrespectful questions of the tradition’; Boland on poetry’s ‘lesser-space’”

  1. ha !

    I have nothing else to add either BUT more poetry, more critics, less celebrity-trash and chattel-clutter in newspapers. Cop the feck on !

    Actually, I do have more to say… I find current-issue analysis utterly and terminally boring: preoccupations, and analysis of trash given by maybe 10-20 columnists across the western-media looks samey. There is little talk of art or poetry, it is sleaze, gossip, and opinion requiring the ability to google – and nothing else.

    I don’t buy newspapers, I don’t see the point of band-wagoning on issues, celebs, consumer-trash and disaster. They are boring, disposable, soul-less – not even interesting.


  2. Would you be interested in writing something for VIDA’s website? If so, get in touch with me at catemarvin@gmail.com. This post is really interesting. I’m a big fan of Oswald. I reviewed her *Selected* for *Poetry Magazine* a few years ago.


    I have much more to say about this exchange . . . but I’ll just leave it at this: I had not meant to engage in combat, but had rather hoped for a discussion. You’ll see, if you read the post, how the conversation devolves . . .and I think this has much to do with that male-dominated mode of discourse around literature.



    • Eavan Boland’s speech was entitled ‘God’s Make Their Own Importance’ (from Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’).

      I had believed ,such was the male-dominance of poetry in Ireland, that women poets were simply considered not to ‘be up to scratch’, now I am of the belief that it is simply a question of ego and ‘reflection’. It appears that many people in other countries can be hard-pressed to name women poets who seem worthy of the laurel-crowns that men so haphazardly endow each other with, in a cycle that is akin to the children’s game of ‘pass the parcel’. The damage that this creates to women literary writers is untold:


      I will be in touch. Heres a VIDA archive : http://poethead.wordpress.com/?s=VIDA


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