1997 Winner: Eavan Boland of Dublin

Citation read at the presentation of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Eavan Boland on Thursday, March 20, 1997 at University of St. Thomas (Minneapolis Campus).

By honoring Eavan Boland this evening, we borrow for a moment her preeminence not only among the most accomplished of Irish poets now writing, but also among the most distinguished of women poets – from Jane Cooper to Louise Glück in North America, from Akhmatova to Szymborska in the new Europe.

Until the publication of her work by Ontario Review Press in 1980, Boland’s poetry was little known in the United States. That book, Introducing Eavan Boland, collected the most metamorphic of her collections: The War Horse (1975) and In Her Own Image  (1980).  In those poems, Boland found the “new territory” she had sought in 1967 in her first published collection. And in those poems are the foundations for the fine explorations, the renewing articulations of her 1987 volume The Journey.

In these poems Boland has claimed for women in the new Ireland an empathic, moral and articulate energy that has renewed and nurtured the writing of so many of Ireland’s younger poets. As she asserts in Object Lessons: “All good poetry depends on an ethical relation between imagination and image,”  for “Images are not ornaments; they are truths.”

Distinctively, Boland’s writing has employed all the classical resources of the Irish and English canons to renovate nationality and domesticity. Her poem “An Old Steel Engraving” represents Boland’s generosity to that past and her delicacy of manner to the spirit of it:

                                  we have found

                                  the country of our malediction where

                                  nothing can move until we find the word,

                                  nothing can stir until we say this is

                                  what happened and is happening…. 

By making herself so passionately present in Irish traditions, Boland has forever enhanced their scope of moral feeling.

American readers know Boland’s poetry best through her 1990 selected poems titled Outside History and her 1996 collected poems called An Origin Like Water. And they and European readers know a little of her critical scope from her 1995 memoir and essay Object Lessons, published just after her 1994 collection In a Time of Violence.

Irish readers know, of course, her long, instructive, and continuing service as a critic for The Irish Times since the 1960s. In that way, too, Boland has helped shape and reshape Ireland’s once tardy and now tigerish literary culture.

And, like most critics and many poets, Boland has become a teacher in the regular ways at Irish universities and at those abroad, and now at Stanford University in California.

But, as best befits a poet, the irregular ways count more, and in these ways Boland has not walked away from her nation. Irish poets are zealous stewards of their traditions, but few have practiced such insistent mentorship via the workshop as has Eavan Boland. Her care for the Cork Women’s Poetry Circle since 1979 is but one example of this. In years to come, the accomplishments of a whole generation of Irish women writers may justly be credited to Boland’s own achievement.

For three decades in Ireland and abroad, Eavan Boland’s care throughout her writing has been, in her words, to “compel … some recognitions” of others, of the less fortunately voiced. For that, for her charismatic craft, for the fine endurance of her art, we now have the honor of thanking Eavan Boland with the first poetry award of the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies.