Louise Bogan (1897-1970)
Contributing Editor: Theodora R. Graham
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The instructor needs to explain Bogan's often distancing herself from the poem's ideas, creating what Adrienne Rich has called a "mask" or "code." Her use of the more traditional lyric form (though not in most of the poems selected for the anthology) raises questions about her relationship to the experimental verse that poets of the prior generation and those of her own were writing. Bogan seems quite accessible--except in poems like "The Sleeping Fury" and "After the Persian," which require calling students' attention to language, imagery, contrasts.
Introducing Bogan's more general literary career--and perhaps ideas from her essays, reviews, and Ruth Limmer's edited autobiography--will enrich students' understanding of the difficulties women faced as writers and the extraordinary success some achieved as editors (cf. Harriet Monroe, Moore) and reviewers.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A number of Bogan's poems concern love and the woman's need to maintain her identity. She also writes, indirectly, of the poet's demons, the "sleeping fury" that must be addressed in its violence and appeased. Bogan also turns her attention to skillful observation, both of crafted objects (and indirectly to the crafted poem) and of natural things (such as the dragonfly). In "Women" she offers a critique of some women's choice of a restricted, passionless, and dull existence.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
A poem entitled "Rhyme" ends "But once heart's feast/You were to me." A love poem about the rhyme between a man and a woman, the poem could also be read as Bogan's tribute to rhyme itself. In "Women" and "Roman Fountain" she demonstrates a distinct ability and interest in what might have seemed in 1922 and 1935 an old-fashioned technique. (The former consists of 5 stanzas rhyming abcb; the latter, more ingenious, like the fountain it describes, rhymes aabc / aabb / abcabca.) However, other poems selected are dramatically different in formal organization and are unrhymed. Bogan's line breaks, unlike (e.g.) William Carlos Williams's, generally follow syntactic units. But in "The Sleeping Fury" and "After the Persian" she writes in long lines, form following thought. Both poems contain a kind of elegance, issuing even from the fear and violence of the former.
Bogan's scope is not grand, but her talent in crafting verse and summoning images is noteworthy.
Bogan--like Marianne Moore--was writing for a man's world. Neither made concessions to the popular audience to gain a greater readership. Yet their natural reserve and privacy turned them in a direction away from the more soul-baring tendencies of some of their contemporaries. "The Sleeping Fury" could be about the poet's demon-muse; but it could equally concern her breakdowns, the warring sides of her own personality. That she was poetry editor for the New Yorker for many years indicates that she understood a broader public's taste and chose to write a taut, lyric verse.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
It is useful to compare her treatment of natural objects and personal, cloaked subjects with that of Emily Dickinson, and with later poets such as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, who use the personal "I" in more self-revealing ways.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I prefer to give students several pages of extracts from Bogan's prose, including reviews and Limmer's biographical collection.
2. Those interested in women writers might want to explore the kinds of verse other women of Bogan's generation--particularly those who reached out to a larger audience--chose to write. What were women reading from Ladies Home Companion and other popular magazines? How does Bogan's writing compare?
See Bogan's prose and Ruth Limmer's A Journey Around My Room extracted as autobiography from Bogan's diaries and other prose.