Bartender Wisdom 4
Originally published in FlagLive on July 24, 2014
At the Northern Arizona Celtic Fest, I recently presented a workshop discussing the poetry of Irish writer Eavan Boland. On a sunny afternoon, under a canopy on the grass at Foxglenn Park, I talked poetics and Irish Literature with a couple dozen folks from ages six to seventy-something. It was a hoot. I sipped on my Guinness in a plastic cup while we read brilliantly crafted lines and brought our varied range of experiences and knowledge to the conversation. The whole park felt like a huge pub with conversation as far as you could see.
At our tent, we read six of Boland’s poems. The talk was lively, and one of the statements that quickly struck me (and I couldn’t exactly answer) was along the following: This poem feels to me like it was written by a woman poet, but not the others. I don’t know why. The person proposing this concept knew full well that the notion of a woman poet was a loaded term, and she was speaking about a hunch, a vague or general feeling that one might get. It was good for her to note. I fielded the idea from the angle of what it might mean to be a woman poet and what the proper topic or style we assume with that title might very well be. Even as I was doing so, I knew that I’d need a few days (as is often the case) to figure out my best reply, or at least better one until I think on it some more.
A few nights later Richard Hugo, like a loafing apparition, came to me to help answer the question. Hugo was the founder, in the 1970s, of the creative writing program at the University of Montana where I would attend in the mid-90s. He’d died by the time of my arrival on campus, but his influence lingered like a statue in the park. He was a big man with a wide forehead like the front of a Buick. He worked for decades at Boeing. He wrote about bars and abandoned towns; the working class and fishing– topics, perhaps, that one assumes a male writer covers. Even when a female writer covers the very same topics, it seems like the publishers present her as an anomaly. Something along the lines of: she writes like Charles Bukowski, AND she’s a woman. You best by this crazy lady’s book.It’s reactionary. Even if the poet might not intend this, the publisher and their influence on the expectations of the reader push this concept.
So Hugo with his huge bald head could be (and was oftentimes) sensitive, tender, full of sentiment, concerned with the details of our day-to-day lives; yet, he never was described as a “domestic” poet. His ugly mug and blue-collar background shielded him from such diminutive adjectives. Critics such as Dave Smith in the New York Times Book Review could still assert: “[Hugo] made the poem a state of mind and a force field” – masculine descriptors that equate with international or universal appeals.
Back to Eavan Boland. She has managed to escape the velocity of feminine descriptors or reactionary terms. David Walker in Field, for instance, argues that “[Boland is] an original, dazzlingly gifted writer… Uncompromising intellect, wry perception, and verbal brilliance.” Her intelligence and brilliant craft outshines and has managed to outlast descriptors that would seek to make her less. When we sit on lawn chairs in a park thousands of miles away from her place of birth in Dublin, we find her writing in her own style, on her own terms. Her topics include myth, politics, the day-to-day details of life, family, and history. She writes about what she pleases, what interests her and has so for her entire career – even if the critics need a chance to catch up a little. This, in turn, allows us, as readers, to see her work on its own terms and to rethink any of those titles we might put on a writer or any person’s occupation for that matter. Boland’s writing is international in its appeal, universal.
Whether her writing focuses on the home or the pub, its quality allows us to experiences its richness on its own terms. At the Celtic Fest this weekend her work transformed the lawn into a grand public house for all of our minds to wander in and out of. To that, I’ll toast you a pint, and I won’t even mind if the vessel containing the beer is plastic. Slainte.