For Poetry Day Ireland 2019, we republished Eavan Boland’s memorable editorial for an issue of the Poetry Ireland Review...
What does a poet look like? That question, which seems so out of place now, was once less so. Years ago poets’ appearances were noted, their likenesses commented on in letters, novels, poems. Often the poet was the mirror of the moment. Or at least thought to be. ‘I am of those weak women who reverence strong men’, wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a letter to a friend. A strange statement from this deeply independent poet, but not an unusual one in the Victorian era. ‘The greatest men, whether poets or historians’, wrote Ruskin, ‘live entirely in their own age’.
In fact, for 150 years each society, each decade, seemed to dress a poet in its own hopes and concerns. In this context poets, almost exclusively male, were slightly less respectably costumed than the mainstream variant. For all that, their departures from the norm, their apparent freedoms, were on a short leash. The ages they lived in were leashed as well.
Women, minorities, communities on the margins of a society – at first none of them looked like poets. Therefore, the logic went, they couldn’t be poets.
Then and later, appearances mattered. The American poet, Louise Bogan, who wrote poetry reviews for The New Yorker, commented on Yeats. ‘William Butler Yeats’, she wrote ‘first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses.’ Appearances also seemed to denote the inner world as well as the outer one. ‘Come to lunch’, Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend. ‘Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.’
What does this mean? For the working poet, for the active reader? And was there anything wrong with describing what poets wore fifty years ago, how they looked, how they were observed? I think there was. Lying under those sentimental or sardonic comments, littered throughout novels, newspapers, letters, was a darker outline. A different query lay under the more obvious one. If asking what a poet looked like was one variant then another was a shadow-shape in the water, unspoken but related: Who didn’t look like a poet?
Watch a tribute to Eavan Boland, via the Irish Book Awards:
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In the last two centuries, that shadow question has had a difficult history. Women, minorities, communities on the margins of a society – at first none of them looked like poets. Therefore, the logic went, they couldn’t be poets. None of them were included in the inventory of descriptions, word-portraits, commentaries on a poet’s life in the world. To be poets they had to be approved. And they weren’t.
Because poetry is associated with free expression, many people resist thinking a society could have the power to issue or withhold permissions about a poet’s identity. That such permissions, or their denial, could be mediated through comments about appearance. But they could and they were.
New energies have come to the threshold of an old art. Clearly, they should be welcomed.
One of the pleasures of editing Poetry Ireland Review – the same is true of the Stegner workshop at Stanford – is the chance to see close-up these categories disappearing, and just how little tolerance is left for them. There are no easy definitions now, no agreed cut-outs. Part of the reason is that the social consensus that underpinned those divisions has broken down. The woman in traffic, the man at the gym, the teenager seeming to limp along with a sporting injury, the trans writer, the hermetic one, the emerging writer of colour – any or all of them could be poets.
Maybe the larger reason for this is that poetry has grown tired of its own exclusions. New energies have come to the threshold of an old art. Clearly, they should be welcomed. In Poetry Ireland they certainly have been. The democratic sparkle of spoken word platforms, the intensity of inter-disciplinary collaborations where music and language meet, the power of performance, and the proper loneliness of the page – all of these are factors in our much wider sense today of who is a poet, who can be a poet, who looks like a poet. This may seem like a small thing. But small things in the arts can sometimes turn out to be saving graces. This may be one of them.
Published three times a year, the Poetry Ireland Review includes the work of both emerging and established Irish and international poets, essayists, critics and visual artists - find out more here.