Freda Laughton and the Critical History of Women’s Poetry: an Interview with Emma Penney

Who is Freda Laughton, and what trail has led you to her?

There are very few ‘facts’ about Laughton. She was born in Bristol in 1907, moved to Co. Down early in her life and married. Her first and only collection of poetry, A Transitory House, was published in 1945 and she was a regular contributor to The Bell magazine. Despite this, there is no available death record for Laughton.

This lack of critical interest in Laughton reflects the selective vision of literary traditions which often exclude poets who do not fit with the contemporary moment or who may trouble the formation of new movements. Irish critics during the 70’s and 80’s held Eavan Boland to be the first writer to express what ‘poetic being’ was for a woman; the first to express the domestic; motherhood; the first to map Dublin city as a woman. Laughton expresses all of these experiences in her work decades before Boland.

When I first read Laughton I had the sense of an embodied woman in control of her craft and not afraid to reveal her own sensuality. Her bodily form is visible in ‘Woman with Child’ just as her curious and frightened creative mind comes alive in ‘Now I am a Tower of Darkness’. In ‘The Welcome’ she maps the landscape in which she lived – the dog, the cat, a child, her home in the suburbs, the geometry of Dublin city, those cogs which kept it moving and the sinister modernity that comes in through “the yellow grins/Of bold advertisements”. When I first read her I was reminded of Beckett’s early poetry and prose, (they map Dublin in a similar way), and I also thought of Eliot.

That Laughton revealed so much about herself in her poems is important because so little information about her actual life exists. It’s clear that she knew Dublin city intimately and I imagine she lived in it’s suburbs for a long time before publishing her first collection. I know that she had at least one child and probably lived with her family in Howth. I am attempting, through my research, to piece together an image of her life by reading her work. I can also tell you that she was a talented illustrator.

I first came across Laughton’s poems in Lucy Collins’ Poetry by Women in Ireland, (2011). I believe this was the first time Laughton was published in an anthology since 1947, so there is no clear trail leading to her. Her absence is partly due to the rhetoric of a ‘Second Revival’ which was vigorously promoted by some critics and writers in the 70’s. This rhetoric supported the idea that before Boland there was only the nationalist 19th century lyric poetry of Emily Lawless and that in-between these two women was a period of stagnation, of silence. Laughton is not mentioned anywhere in the huge endeavor that constitutes the Field Day Anthology‘s fourth and fifth volumes. This oversight illustrates the rhetoric of a ‘Second Revival’ because it excludes the expressive, powerfully subversive style of Laughton’s poetry – a style we have all been taught was reserved for men during the mid-century.The ‘silence’ which Eavan Boland discovered in the history of poetry by women in Ireland is not actual. In Boland’s negotiation of woman’s place within the male-centred literary tradition, she erased the first great subversion of it.

In your theses you speak of the subversive potential of the poetry of Laughton and other marginalized mid-century women poets. What is this potential? Is their work as subversive now as it was in the 1930s and 40s, or has time blunted its edge? What’s the point in reviving interest in Freda Laughton?

The presence of these poets is subversive because they reveal a critical reticence to properly contextualise, socialise and historicise poets like Eavan Boland. Without them, the literary history of poetry by women in Ireland attains a mythical character.

Just as Boland received recognition for making her life as a woman a worthy subject for Irish poetry, so should Freda Laughton. Freda Laughton, Blanaid Salkeld, Sheila Wingfield and Rhoda Coghill have been systematically written out of the canon, this is despite gaining critical recognition during the 1940’s and 50’s. In his 1948 forward to Rhoda Coghill’s, The Bright Hillside, Seamus O’Sullivan remarked that “some of the best poetry being produced is the work of women poets”. There is a line of critical thought in Ireland which considers women’s poetry to be more easily ‘blunted’ by time than men’s poetry. Something which is rarely spoken of is the impression Boland gives of earlier women’s poetry being ideologically inhibited; that, before her, women wrote poems about experiences, not poems that are experiences. In order to support this claim Boland has to leap-frog over almost a century of women’s writing. She insists that all she could find in the history of poetry by women in Ireland was Emily Lawless’ “small elequence”. Boland tells us that she found no evidence of the “living craft” in the history of poetry by women in Ireland. Freda Laughton subverts such claims – which have been echoed by the canon makers for almost fifty years.

Last summer there was an event at the Peacock Theatre to mark Eavan Boland’s 70th birthday and the launch of her new book A Poet’s Dublin, edited by Jody Allen Randolph. Here I sat and listened to the same fables which denigrated the true history of women’s poetry; that Boland was the first to communicate woman’s experience; the first to map a domestic interior; the first to make any serious challenge to patriarchy and, as Jody Allen Randolph pointed out, the first women poet who felt “comfortable trying to make a text and context of the city [Dublin]”. What is lost in this critical assessment is the fact that, decades earlier, Freda Laughton had created her own poetic map of Dublin, complete with “musty cabs”, “waterfalls of lace dripping/ Elegantly in tall windows” and “a house with a child in it” where “the mouth of Dublin gulps at the sea”. In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon talks about Octavio Paz’s idea of a poem as a “translation of a translation of a translation”. I believe this is true of poetry and I feel that reviving interest in Laughton will widen the frame within which contemporary women’s poetry can be read and assessed.

In 1992 Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s essay, ‘What Foremothers?’, positioned Boland as the authority on the direction Irish women’s poetry should take; after discussing past women poets, (while not mentioning any modernist women), Ní Dhomhnaill concludes that “not one of them holds up as what Eavan Boland is looking for – the lived vocation, the craft witnessed by a human life”. This declaration could only be made by ignoring poetry like Laughton’s. ‘Now I am a Tower of Darkness’ is a definitive expression of the “craft [of poetry] witnessed by a human life”. The relation in style, theme and structure between this poem and Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’, (a poem which explores the poet’s relation to his craft), is undeniable. They are thematically connected; a dialogue on the creative practice of poetry itself. Laughton allows us to read Heaney’s seminal work as a “translation of a translation of a translation”. The sheer intensity with which the lives of women poets such as Laughton were felt is measurable in their work. While Kavanagh instructed poets in 1940 that they were “driving your horses through the mist where genesis begins”, Rhoda Coghill, four years later writes – Place me on a cliff/and tell me now where to leap/for the horses are pulling on the reins. – I have no wish to hold them”.

The fact that Boland could still maintain that the craft of poetry had never, in the history of this country, been witnessed by a woman, is troubling. But given that these women were forgotten, I want to acknowledge the importance of Boland’s voice and her contribution to poetry by women in Ireland. However, it is time that we also acknowledge how presences like Laughton’s alter the way in which poets such as Eavan Boland can be read and evaluated. Irish women’s poetry has a complex history of its own, it did not begin to become subversive in 1970; women poets who began writing subversive verse then, such as Eavan Boland, were part of a tradition, not the founding members of one.

You identify the 70s and 80s as critical moments in the framing of women’s poetry in Ireland by feminist literary criticism. What, from your perspective, is wrong or incomplete about the critical approach then developed?

The criteria developed at this time, by which to judge women’s poetry. was specific; a direct, overtly confrontational challenge to patriarchy was considered feminist and subversive. Not only did this occlude the alternative feminist consciousness of early poets it actually overlooked the feminist consciousness of contemporary women poets. For example, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has stated that, during the 1970’s, she felt as though she was not the right kind of woman writer society was looking for. The limited critical approach developed in the 70’s was a political reaction to the perceived ‘silence’ of women poets throughout history. What makes this approach incomplete is that it cannot account for voices such as Laughton’s and, as a result, the complexity and range of poetry by women in Ireland has been significantly under-observed.

As well as promoting certain women poets, the feminist movement has heavily shaped the critical reception of their work. The critical approach was heavily influenced by Anglo-American feminist theory – a school of thought which often used binary logic, the divide between masculinity and femininity for example, to explore social and cultural structures in which women are systematically dominated.Take for instance the application of Anglo-American feminist binary logic in the critical response to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem, ‘The Second Voyage’. Both Claire Wills and Patricia Boyle Haberstroh read it as a poem wherein the “male need to fix, measure and control objects is represented as a fear of flux”, a poem wherein the male hero is seen as a figure of “sexual domination”. The traditional dualism of masculinity and femininity is reinstated here by the critical response; a response which is directly influenced by the feminist theorist Luce Irigaray. In my opinion, the poem is actually a demonstration of how what we perceive as feminine attributes are also expressions of male identity. I believe that Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry unsettles Anglo-American feminism’s binary rationality. Her’s is a feminist consciousness which differs from the one adopted by the women’s poetry movement in the 70’s and 80’s. The fact that Ní Chuilleanáin has received some critical attention does not mean that the complexity of her work has been properly explored.

The critical criteria developed in the 1970’s became a powerful prescription under which the voices of earlier women poets were regarded as less powerful. This resulted in a simplification wherein the term ‘feminist poetry’ became narrowly associated with an overt confrontation of patriarchy.

You talk of ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ challenges to patriarchy in Irish women’s poetry. Can you elaborate on what these terms mean in terms of poetic structure, style and theme, and give some examples of each approach?

Unfortunately, within the restrictive criteria developed in the 1970’s it became difficult to read certain women poets as subversive. For example, John Goodby points out that Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin received less critical attention because she offered “a very different attempt to deal with the male-dominated tradition”. So I make the distinction between the direct and indirect modes of address because I want to foreground how directness, which became synonymous with subversion in the 1970’s, is not the only way in which poetry can offer a challenge to patriarchy. Recognising the more subtle challenges to patriarchy in Laughton’s poetry allowed me to see the same in the poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin; that women’s poetry can be powerfully subversive without being confrontational. Finding the work of Laughton and her contemporaries increases the critical capacity of the canon to assess contemporary poets outside of the parameters set down in the 1970’s and 80’s. It also confirms for us that a tradition of subversion in Irish women’s poetry had already been firmly established by 1950.
Although neither Laughton or Ní Chuilleanáin stage the body, the city and the poetic consciousness as a challenge to patriarchy, their poetry is no less of a challenge to its structures. Laughton was writing about children, a house in the suburbs, her own pregnant body, the pressures of patriarchy and the sublime terror of the creative process. These were subversive themes in De Velara’s Ireland -and these are themes which, we have been told, were unexplored by women poets until Boland’s Night Feed.

So the distinction is theoretical, though it certainly relates to style, theme and structure as it is applied.

Is the cultural silence over the group of women poets you highlight unique or is it part of a wider silencing (i.e effective censorship) of the experience and cultural expressions of the majority of Irish people.

How can writers be part of challenging such cultural silences?
The silence over Freda Laughton has a unique history to be probed and written – a history which is very much connected to the formation of what has been called the women’s poetry movement in the 70’s and 80’s. Essentialising woman’s experience in poetry at this time was politically strategic, people wanted to bring ‘woman’ into view. Let me detour here and recall a conversation I had last summer at the closing event of The Poet’s House in Donegal with the poet Stephen Sexton. Stephen is currently studying for a PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queens and he told me a story about a seminar he took in women’s poetry. The lecturer read out a poem by a new woman poet in which she describes her experience of giving birth. The response from the class was that this theme had been done before – heard – clocked. The fact is, they were bored by it. Imagine – Heaney getting this same response! – that rural life had been done before – heard – clocked by Kavanagh. Here I believe we can explore the tensions and inequalities, as well as the issues surrounding the reductive search for the woman’s voice which began in the 1970’s, and the resulting critical reticence to explore difference.

There was a politically strategic idealism at this time which failed to historicise, politicise or contextualise its subjects. Eavan Boland occupies the territories of white, western, European, heterosexual, middle-class and suburban. This impacted hugely on her ability to feed her children, keep a home, get a good education, find time to write etc. These textures are unique to Boland. They are social factors which directly impact her ability to write and influence the subjects of her work. Her experience was her own. Every woman’s experience of childbirth is unique because every woman is differently affected by factors outside the body and outside the home.

Historically, women have been excluded from ‘public’ landscapes (politics, civic society etc.) and have instead been relegated to the private sphere of the home, but there is still little debate on how the domestic experience, the experience of childbirth and child rearing can be effected by forces outside of the home. I understand that Boland succeeded in blurring these boundaries but it also seems to me that promoting diversity within the canon of literature by women was secondary to establishing ‘woman’ as a political and literary force in Ireland during the 1970’s. But again, this order to find a distinctive woman’s voice could only be given in the absence of voice’s like Laughton’s. I try to imagine how Laughton must have felt at this time and I wonder why she did not speak out. She would have been in her early 60’s, perhaps still living in her family home in Dublin. Did she wonder why her achievement was being written out, her life forgotten?

Perhaps challenging the cultural silence means actively and independently seeking out lost voices. Not only lost voices but current voices which we are at risk of losing or worse, never hearing. It is a question of access to poetry. I have considered that there is probably another Laughton-like figure in Ireland today; an important but unheard voice. This is why events such as ‘Double Shot’ which support new and upcoming poets are very important – last week I was able hear Jessica Traynor, Graham Allen and a new poet, Kate Quigley, reading at Books Upstairs. In August, at The Poet’s House, I heard Stephen Sexton and Chris Allen reading  alongside Ciaran Berry as part of the ‘New Voices’ event. Blogs like Chris Murray’s Poethead are also invaluable for the promotion of poetry in Ireland. These initiatives encourage new poets and also help conjure a reading public for them. I wanted to make my case here without touching on deterministic ideas of literary inheritance, but I do believe that poetry has a generative force of its own. I see this in the clear reflection of Freda Laughton in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’, and I’d like to believe that if we are open to these reflections we can harness them.

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