‘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. 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 to lovers of poetry and non-fiction, by those who 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 here .

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 lack of critical and intellectual reviews of poets like Alice  Oswald  are 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 marketted 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, so 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 , the same consistent group of books reviewed within the same confining parameters that please their bosses, and indeed that small group of writers who accept a formulaic critique as a matter of course.

Related Links

“Sonnet” by Alice Oswald


I can’t sleep in case a few things you said
no longer apply. The matter’s endless,
but definitions alter what’s ahead
and you and words are like a hare and tortoise. 
Aaaagh there’s no description — each a fractal 
sectioned by silences, we have our own
skins to feel through and fall back through — awful
to make so much of something so unknown.
But even I — some shower-swift commitments
are all you’ll get;  I mustn’t gauge or give
more than I take — which is a way to balance
between misprision and belief in love
both true and false, because I’m only just
short of a word to be the first to trust.

 by Alice Oswald  from The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (Oxford 1996).

I am adding here the Library Thing  link for  The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile by Alice Oswald. I wrote a brief polemic last week about the decision of the two poets , Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, to leave the T.S Eliot Prize, but I do hope that people will do their own reading on the issues surrounding their decisions. There are a  some sonnets on this blog and a few of these are taken from the magnificent Norton Anthology,  The Making of a Sonnet , edited by Eavan Boland and Edward Hirsch , which I’d recommend to lovers of the  sonnet form. 

The Thing in the Gap-stone Stile (Oxford Poets)

T.S Eliot and the death of poetry

The Hughes Memorial at  'Poet's Corner'

The image is from this BBC report.

Poetry was once  important as a part of  our culture,  and as an  art.  

This week , the Ted Hughes memorial-stone  made headlines , it  is sited near to T.S Eliot’s memorial-stone in Poet’s Corner  at Westminster Abbey.  I have linked the report above here. Unfortunately, T.S Eliot’s memory, and  his work for poetry has reached the headlines for entirely different reasons this week. Two poets had withdrawn from the T.S Eliot Prize , as of Wednesday the 7th of December. Alice Oswald withdrew on the 6th of December, citing her ethical refusal to accept the sponsorship of Aurum (a hedge-fund group), she was closely  followed in what amounted to an ethical boycott of the prize by John Kinsella on the following morning (7th of December).

The T.S Eliot Prize was targeted for ACE funding cuts in 2011 by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition, alongside nine other poetry publishers or groups. I blogged about this at the time, but I am adding here a Guardian report on the issue. It interests me that small groups dedicated to the art of poetry were treated with such disdain in England, although it happened in Ireland also (in 2010). Here’s a poethead post on same.

Those amongst us who read poetry and indeed the biographies of poets like Ted  Hughes, Richard  Murphy, T.S Eliot and others ( William Trevor) will be aware that the idea of poetry was supported by the BBC, by successive U.K  governments and by the reading public. Poetry was a recognised art form, uncheapened by celebrity-status , or the red-carpet treatments meted out to the sorriest attempts at biography here in Ireland (for instance). I expect that this was because poetry’s  place was recognised as having a literary value, which cannot be equated to a monetary-value. 

When I looked at the Hughes memorial  images ,  although it does not show the proximity of the Hughes and Eliot stones, I truly wondered if it were not actually poetry that was being memorialized as a literary-form ?  Societies like the Poetry Book Society have for the current government in the U.K  little or no value. I believe that the same thing is happening here under the aegis of the 2003 Arts Act which saw cuts to two Irish Writer’s Centres,  and a city  council cut to the Poetry Now Festival !  These festivals and centres provide the life-blood of small press buying and selling,  and thus fund poets. There are quite a few pages and posts on this site about the unwonted closeness that exists between funders and politicians,  which I believe was created in the 2003 Arts Act and that I discussed here. It would really be tragic if poetry as a form was set to cultural ossification because government (who support and appoint arts organisations) saw it as not a seller.

Already too much art is caught into utilitarianism here in Ireland, and what was not considered art is being supported by government in the form of tax-reliefs and other incentives. I do believe that we are gone quite topsy-turvy in how we read , or do not read, in this instance.  I’d be scrutinising the lobby-groups that got arts money…..

BBC Film here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16055750 

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T.S Eliot and the death of poetry by C Murray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

A poet-companion; Tess Gallagher translates Liliana Ursu.

There are two posts on this blog which link to short poems by Lilian Ursu.  The poems are from the Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation of The Sky Behind the Forest, by Liliana Ursu. The volume had two translators, Adam J Sorkin and Tess Gallagher. Interestingly, the volume does not initial the translators work beneath the text , so  it is very hard to identify which poems were translated by Gallagher. This blog is dedicated to the work of women writers, editors and translators, so I thought to examine Gallagher’s approach to the poet and to her work.  I am referring to  the  published notes on the translations throughout.

Liliana Ursu is Romanian, she was born in Sibiu in 1949 and  lived in Bucharest during the Ceaucescu regime. She graduated in English at Bucharest University and taught part-time there for ten years. Ursu has published two books of short stories, six books of translation and  books of poetry. She travelled as a  visiting professor to Pennsylvania State University on a Fulbright Grant in 1992-1993. I have decided to include here a Bloodaxe page about Ursu, as well as a link to Lightwall.

 Tess Gallagher describes herself as “a poet-companion” in her preface to the Poetry Book Society edition of Ursu’s The Sky Behind the Forest. It is an apt description for a fellow-traveller in the arts.Bad translation has been a bugbear of mine for some years, given that  wide internet dissemination has  sometimes led to appalling and quite inflexible machine-spewed translation. The ability to translate  from an academic, collaborative or empathetic base is what wholly contributes to the poetry reader’s pleasure in coming as close as it is possible to the spirit of the poem and to the intent  of the author.

I chose The Gallagher translation of Ursu as an exemplar of collaborative translation, but I could just as easily point to Hugh Maxton’s wonderful  translations of Ágnes Nemes Nagy’s Between , or Marion Glascoe’s edition  of Julian of Norwich. Gallagher is a collaborator  both  as a poet and as a woman, and her ability to communicate the Ursu text , along with Sorkin, hinge on collaborations and on  poetic sympathy.

Her approach is not solely academic but  occurs at a  level of universality, which is indicated in her approach to the work here ,

In the Dusk.

In the dusk the statues smile more enigmatically.
Not a breath of wind troubles their gaze.
You look at me and know how autumn makes its way.
In the dusk, under our bodies the hill sinks to ruin –

weightless, at last.

from The Sky Behind the Forest. Publ. Bloodaxe ,  1997.

Dispossessions: News of the Fightback against Poetry Cuts in the ACE 2011.

This morning it is reported that nine poets  are disputing the Arts Council cuts in England. Poetry is an encounter, and always surprising, so I am adding in here the links and reports on what is (imo) a most utilitarian and pedestrian set of decisions regarding funding cuts across the water.

Nine leading poets call for ACE rethink on PBS cut.


“Nine of the UK’s leading poets, including laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Blake Morrison and Don Paterson, have called for Arts Council England (ACE) to “urgently reconsider their decision” to withdraw funding from the Poetry Book Society (PBS). The ACE has scheduled a meeting with PBS board members for Monday [4th April].

In a letter published in today’s Times, the poets said they were “shocked that the Arts Council has decided to withdraw all funding from the Poetry Book Society, a widely respected and unique organisation that selects outstanding poetry collections for readers and libraries.

The PBS also administers the T S Eliot Prize, an award for new collections of poetry in English, and has supported works in translation. It was established by Sir Stephen Spender, with T S Eliot and Philip Larkin among previous board members.

In the letter, the poets, which also included Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, David Harsent, Jo Shapcott, Christopher Reid and George Szirtes, added: “We ask the Arts Council to urgently reconsider their decision which will have a devastating impact on poets, publishers and, especially, on readers of contemporary poetry.”

Vice-chair of the PBS board, Desmond Clarke, said ACE has now contacted the PBS and arranged a meeting for Monday [4th April]. He said: “Clearly the PBS and the T S Eliot Prize are the most high-profile casualty of the Arts Council cuts. This letter is very powerful and it’s great that nine of our country’s leading poets have come out in support. To lose the T S Eliot Prize, the highest profile prize in the English language, would be very very sad.”

Save the Poetry Book Society

Here is the Poetry Book Society Petition-link, both Salt Publishing and the Poetry Book Society have suffered 0% funding, similar indeed , to the cuts to our Irish Writer’s Centres, which are areas of resource for writers :