Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944. She has published many books of poems and her personal memoir, Object Lessons, which reflects on her development as a poet in Ireland.

Why I am a Poet

I have never found it easy to explain why I am a poet.  I have sometimes thought the reason for this might be that a poet is what I am, rather that just what I do.  Then again, no explanation from my background seems complete.  I came from a bookish house; my mother loved poetry and encouraged me.  Those are two reasons, I suppose.  But they apply just as well to my three sisters and one brother.  But they didn’t become poets, and I did.

The single reason, or explanation, which seems accurate comes not from my background or my childhood, but from my observations of how I feel – how I have always felt – when I write a poem.  A poem, that is, which seems true to the experience it came from.  And that, in the end, is the only measure of judgement I have for a good poem.  As Robert Frost once said: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.

This explanation is also hard to articulate.  It has to do with the way an experience happens and the way it is felt and remembered.  The fact is, I have never turned to poetry as a method of expression.  To be honest, as a method of expression it has certain flaws.  It is, for instance, a very demanding art form.  There are rules and regulations and customs and conventions to observe in it.  It is not as direct or spontaneous a method of expression as writing a letter for instance.

So if I don’t write poetry to express an experience, then why do I write it?  I write it, not to express the experience but to experience it further.  Poetry may have drawbacks as a method of expression, but it is a superb and powerful and effective way to experience an experience.  I know of nothing to rival it.  You may feel that you really know and remember that winter dawn when the poplar trees were harsh, dark spikes; when the moon was falling out of the sky; when you could taste the frost.  You may think you remember the experience perfectly.  But there is a difference between remembering an experience and living it again.  And when you begin to write a poem about that dawn, when you reach for the language, the musical clusters of sounds  – all those things poetry is so rich in – you realise how well suited a poem is to make that winter dawn not just happen again, but go on happening.

There actually was such a dawn and I tried to write about it in a poem called Night Feed.  My first daughter was born in winter and I would go into her room when she was a very small baby to feed her.  She would be crying hungrily, wide awake in her zipped sleeper.  Outside the window, the world was a beautiful and strange place.  The branches of the poplars were black, not brown.  The garden was full of shadows.  The sky was an odd mixture of dark and light, with the moon and stars falling between the cracks.  Inside her room, there was this small life: a living embodiment of the dawn.

It was a powerful moment.  When it was over, I wrote Night Feed.  I assembled it from fragments of language, parts of rhythm and real details.  I recorded ‘the rosy zipped sleeper’ my daughter wore, as well as the poplars and the fading moon.  But what I really wanted to record was the power of the experience which once happened but as one which kept on happening.  I wanted to write about it so that the moon was always falling downwards out of a cold sky, and the baby was always just opening her ‘birth-coloured’ eyes; so that the magic kept on assembling itself out of shadows, and electric light and cold air.  Maybe it was an impossible task and an unrealistic hope.  But that power within poetry to offer its resources of language and music so that the experience can still be experienced, so that the feeling is still as fresh as the first moment it was felt – and the chance that I might avail of it – makes me grateful every day to be a poet.

THE BLACK LACE FAN MY MOTHER GAVE ME

It was the first gift he ever gave her,

buying it for five francs in the Galeries

in prewar Paris.  It was stifling.

A starless drought made the nights stormy.

They stayed in the city for the summer.

They met in cafés.  She was always early.

He was late.  That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan.  He looked at his watch.

She looked down the Boulevard des Capucines.

She ordered more coffee.  She stood up.

The streets were emptying.  The heat was killing.

She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.

These are wild roses, applliqued on silk by hand,

darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.

The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,

clear patience of its element.  It is

a worn-out underwater bullion and it keeps,

even now, an inference of its violation.

The lace is overcast as if the weather

it opened for and offset had entered it.

The past is an empty café terrace.

An airless dusk before thunder.  A man running.

And no way now to know what happened then –

none at all – unless, of course, you improvise.

the blackbird on this first sultry morning

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,

feels the heat.  Suddenly she puts out her wing –

the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

Comment

This poem is about a black lace fan.  The fan actually exists.  As I write this, I know it is downstairs in a glass-fronted cupboard, all folded in, a bit crumpled and definitely faded.  But in its first existence, as I imagine it here, it was fully spread out.  The lace was crisp and scratchy.  The tortoiseshell at the base of it had a yellow sheen.  The women and tasselled cord looked silky and ungrimy.

This fan was the first gift my father gave my mother.  They were in a heat wave in Paris in the ’thirties and, as she once told me, he went to the Galeries Lafayettes, a big cluster of shops – and bought the fan just before he went on to keep his appointment with her.

Eventually my mother gave me the fan and told me its story.  But the poem began in an image and not a story.  The image was of an object which was entirely silent.  I could hold it and feel its mixture of smoothness and friction.  But it would never be able to tell me whether my father rushed down the Boulevard des Capucines to be there on time.   Did he rush?  It would never be able to tell me what they said, or when the storm broke.  What did they say?  What did the storm look like?

Just asking these questions made me want to re-create the event: the storm, the man and the woman, the drama and poignance of the first steps in a courtship.  But first I had to make the fan vivid again: not the crumpled object I owned but the beautiful, surprising gift it had once been.  To do that, I had to make some choices: practical technical choices. These can be hard to describe in hindsight, but here are two examples of those choices.

Firstly, I decided to make the opening stanza of the poem slip and slide a bit:  to make the pronouns shimmer and disappear.  To make the reader feel the ground of grammar shift and tip in a disconcerting way.  So I used the word it twice.  The first it of course, is the fan. It was the first gift he ever gave her. The second it is evidently about the weather.  It was stifling.  But it looks back a little bit, like something disappearing in a car mirror, to the other it.  And so the fan, the weather, the heat, the mystery are deliberately confused and merged by those pronouns.

In the second stanza I change the caesuras around.  Perhaps the word is hardly used any more.  And yet there hasn’t been a replacement for it, so I will use it here.  No one should be afraid of it.  All a caesura means is where you break the line as you are writing it: after two beats, or three, or even one.  Or not at all.  Where you pause, or don’t pause, in other words.  The name may be rather artificial and off-putting.  But the actual practice of breaking the line can yield very useful results for a poet and be instantly picked up as a slight but important shift in speed by the readers, even if they don’t use that name for it.  It’s a little like the controls on a video; slowing down or speeding up the tape.  Here I write four lines where I move the action along a little: to show they stayed in the city, were meeting in the cafés, were sometimes late for one another, and this time he was delayed by buying the fan.  I use no caesura in the first or last line.  Then in the following three lines I put the caesura or internal line-break after the second stress.  That way I get a jerky, grainy feel to the stanza: a little like the frames of an old film.  And that’s what I wanted.

They stayed in the city for the summer.

They met in cafés.  She was always early.

He was late.  That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan.  He looked at this watch.

The fan, the story, the history of the object all had and have great meaning for me. But sometimes a poem’s existence is decided in a split second.  And that happened here.  I had the fan; I knew the story.  And still I hadn’t the poem although I had thought about it.  Then one late spring morning I was looking out my back window into the garden.  A female blackbird was just in front of our apple tree, moving around, looking for worms.  It was sunny and clear and the light was moving directly to that part of the grass.  Suddenly, as I watched, she put out one brown wing: a wonderfully constructed fan-like movement,  Now open, now shut.  There and then the existence of the poem was guaranteed. I had wanted to write about the fan, the past, the lost moment. I lacked the meaning.  Now here, in this evocation in nature, of the man-made object of courtship I found the meaning I needed and the final image for the poem.

the blackbird on his first sultry morning

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,

feels the heat.  Suddenly she puts out her wing –

the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.