The Poetry and Poets of Ireland and America

By Eavan Boland on 4.10.09

I began to write poetry in Dublin when I was a teenager. It was an intimate, charged literary place back then, even for a student. When I walked out of the gates of Trinity College I relished the atmosphere in the city—grey, rainy, and self-confident. There seemed to be a broad appreciation of poetry. Many people could quote it; and they did. Somebody at night might start a poem by Yeats; someone else would finish it. Poetry permeated even casual conversation.

At the time, I took this for granted. Later, less so. Later again when I began to work and teach in the United States I weighed the differences between the two countries, the two poetic cultures. It wasn’t easy to track them down, to define them. Neither seemed to have the edge on the other. Instead, there were rich contrasts between them. And in a month like National Poetry Month, when so many aspects of this art are being celebrated, it’s that difference that’s also being celebrated.

Photo by Andre Kertesz from On Reading

When I tried to think about those contrasts, one or two kept pushing forward. Particularly the influence of an oral culture on the making of both poet and poem: Irish poetry came into being and found its audience in another language and at a time when it didn’t have readers. Instead, it had listeners. It had reciters. It had speakers and repeaters and memorizers. In the eighteenth century when Irish poetry truly became a language of resistence, the literacy rate was low. Even in the twentieth century, Irish poets remained powerfully shaped by those circumstances; powerfully connected to that old acoustic.

In the United States however, both poetry and poets—I am thinking especially of Whitman and Dickinson—came into existence at a time when the literacy rate was high. This meant that the poem could be read as soon as it was written. That also was a shaping force. It made the poem at once more accessible and more private. The solitary act of reading, unlike the public ones of reciting, made it possible for the poem to become a singular and individual possession.

To this day, these circumstances sparkle under the surface. They affect poets and poems subtly in the two countries. To start with, the audiences were different in each case. Both attentive, but each receiving the poem through a different history, a different method of transmission. And that, in turn, made the poet different. The Irish poet bound to community, bound to that old ocean swell of repetition and son, is a different poet as well as having a different audience. The bonds are different. The expectations are different as well.

The American poet, by not having those old oral bonds, has seemed to me more likely to experiment than their Irish counterpart. The community can’t lay the same claim of a shared source and suffering of the poet. There may be some loss in that, but there is also, undeniably, some freedom as well. I don’t think you could have an Irish Wallace Stevens. I’m not sure you could have an American William Yeats. The wonder is, that with the ease of travel and exchange become, it is now possible to have both.

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