Saturday, May 10, 2008

What I'm Reading: "Islands Apart: A Notebook" Eavan Boland

This essay appears in the May 2008 issue of Poetry and asks important questions about poetic identity. The second section begins by questioning, "Who exactly is a poet? How do we recognize one, even when circumstances seem to deny the possibility of such an existence?" (Boland 136).

In the essay Boland takes an historical look at several Irish poets with certain opposing viewpoints and follows up with a look at a type of split in today's poetry world. She describes a type of poet today who is "skill-based." As Boland says, "He or she can -- or should -- lecture, lead a workshop, run an introductory class, teach composition, write a review, give a conference paper. In pursuit of all this, they are also expected to travel neatly, punctually, and soberly" (141). Let's be clear, Boland is not opposed to this set of skills; however, she calls attention to the "small minority ... of poets out in the world who don't want to do any of these things" (141). Ah, after reading the first half of the essay with a somewhat distant interest, I was now at full attention. Yes, I felt compelled to do all of the things listed for the skill-based poet. Why? Who had ever told me that I "needed" to travel, read, lecture, lead, etc.? I'm not sure anyone sat me down and instructed me in this. Having read one too many articles on self-promotion, once Blood Almanac became a reality, I just dove in without thinking too much about it.

Boland goes on to discuss the fact that the above skills are crucial to economic survival as a poet; however, she flips the coin and takes a look at those poets who cannot or wish not to be "skill-based." She asks, "Is it possible to suggest a category ... even an individual poet who might be marginalized by such an emphasis?" (Boland 142). Here the word "marginalized" lept from the page for me, having come of age in an undergrad English dept filled with feminist and post-colonial scholars. The first members of Boland's marginalized category are avant-garde poets, but it is the next set that interested me the most. She calims, "The down-to-earth question of availability might affect women poets" and goes on to discuss the difficulties of travel and time for women who are mothers and poets (Boland 142-143). I wish she might have included men who are fathers and poets as well, but from everything I've seen, the burden on mothers is still greater than on men in most cases. Boland finishes her category of non-skills-based poets with those who are shy, private, antisocial, introverted, etc., and then she discusses a refuge for these writers that can be found in prizes, retreats, fellowships, etc. She concludes where she began, with the idea that there have always been some poets who fit easily into the public persona of "writer" and some who have not (Boland 143). So, the essay doesn't offer any call to action; rather, it questions and illuminates and offers a new perspective...perhaps it is okay to slow down a bit on the "skills" and refocus on the private work of making poems.

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