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Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, by Eavan Boland.

March 18, 2014

Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, by Eavan Boland.  W. W. Norton & Company (2012), Edition: 1, Paperback, 288 pages.

A fascinating account of how an Irish woman became a poet, true to herself and to poetic traditions.

Eavan Boland is a poet and someone sensitive to writing of poetry.  In this book she discusses her own personal history within the context of the history of poetry. For her poetry involves recognizing contradictions and holding them balance, rejecting neither side.  She rejects the idea of chosing between I and we, the personal and the communal, the political and the domestic.  As an Irish woman who began writing in the middle of the twentieth century, she is particularly sensitive to the internal restraints that acted against her writing poetry as a woman.

Being Irish has always been critical to Boland’s identity.  Growing up, she listened to her father talking about the Irish literary tradition, a public rhetorical tradition grounded in nationalism.  She seldom saw herself in that tradition, however, except when he told stories about her grandmother.  As a young woman, a mother with infants living in a Dubin suburb, she began to put together what it meant for her to write in a way that linked the dailly realities of her life with traditions surrounding poetry.  In this book, she analyzes in critical detail particular poets and poems that she found useful.  I am not a poet or a literary critic and knew few of the poems she discussed.  Part of her writing went over my head.  But I understood what she was saying because in the years she describes women were simultaneously accepting what was traditional and challenging it.  That’s what I did as an historian and other women other fields were also doing.

The inclusion of women as full participants in literature is a frequent topic among book bloggers.  Boland gives us a detailed account of what that change meant to her as a writer.  She would never claim that women are so essentially different from men in ways reflected in their writing, and she gives no fiery rhetoric about male domination.  She simply describes how  women who wrote poetry in the nineteenth century, especially among Romantics, became stereotyped as poetesses and discounted by male poets.  In her own Irish tradition, poetry was fundamentally nationalistic and excluded the realities of home and hearth.

Boland became alert to the process by which other women poets challenged this tradition.  Part of her books is devoted to analysis of the women whom she considered friends; the ones whose work helped her to become a poet who united what seemed like irreconcilable differeence.  She include Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Mews, Sylvai Path, Edna St Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstree, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Paula Meehan.  As group, she and the others expanded the scope of poetry, elevating the particulars of women’s lives into a literature that had often omitted or trivialized them.

I strongly recommend this book to all who are curious about inner working of poetry, even to those who are outsiders, like myself, to the literary establishment.  Boland’s prose is touched with poetry and explains how and why women have struggled to expand literature beyond a limited male account into a truly universal one.  Any one who still believes that women’s writing is by definition trivial needs to read this book.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2014 5:00 pm

    This sounds intriguing! I read a memoir by a woman poet at the beginning of the year& found it challenging but ultimately satisfying. BTW I’m reading Jung Chang’s new bio of Empress Dowager Cixi right now & I definitely would recommend it to you!

  2. March 24, 2014 11:20 am

    Yes, it is. and I think you’d enjoy it. I read and review the Empress Dowager Cixi recently and I did enjoy it immensely.

  3. March 29, 2014 8:02 am

    Oh I’m sorry I missed your review! I’ve been so erratic in my blog reading lately.

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