Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968, Louise Bogan’s final collection, contains 105 poems and spans the entire body of her adult work. The book’s six-part division corresponds to the six volumes of poems that Bogan published between 1923 and 1968. As a body of work, the poems express the poet’s quest for the secrets of the buried self, or unconscious, specifically to make her peace with the frustrations of romantic love (and the persistent sense of loss and betrayal associated with it) and with her traumatic childhood.

The opening poem, “A Tale,” establishes the quest theme and the sea voyage as its metaphor and introduces the reader to Bogan’s landscapes of the unconscious. The speaker is a youth who sets out on the voyage of life. The poem predicts that the youth will discover in this uncharted psychological territory hellish landscapes of fiery deserts and enigmatic presences, “Where something dreadful and another/ Look quietly upon each other.” The Blue Estuaries concludes with an enigmatic poem, “Masked Woman’s Song.” The poem and its placement at the end of the volume suggest that at journey’s end, the woman still wears the mask of sexual obsession, as she encounters the dangerous erotic “other,” which in this poem takes the form of a male statue. Other poems throughout the body of her work try to come to terms with childhood violence, especially in relation to her mother, by exploring the terrain of the unconscious mind in dream and nightmare and, more rarely, by direct or oblique reference.

Bogan considered herself a formalist poet, writing brief, intense lyric poems in rhyme and meter, though she also worked in longer narrative forms as well. Her poems deal with the most intimate and painful personal details, but they are often carefully distanced from their subject by the mask of persona as well as by their compressed lyric forms. Form and persona, metaphor and symbol, rather than directly autobiographical address, combine to produce the beauty and power of these lyric poems, but also make them obscure and perhaps keep the reader at a distance.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Louise Bogan came of age in the 1920’s, the period known as high modernism in literature and dominated by such male poetic giants as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Bogan’s ambition to become a major literary figure led her to model her poetry on the work of these men. This necessitated a rejection of women poets, whom Bogan saw as inhabiting a sentimental tradition which denied them the status that she sought. Two dominant features of modernism were its reliance on the unconscious as the source of poetry and the idea that the poet should be an indirect presence, speaking through a mask or persona. These two ideas, the importance of the unconscious and the impersonality of the poet, formed the basis of Bogan’s poetics, but she adapted them in profound and striking ways to express her woman’s sensibility. She is now regarded as one of the most powerful voices of the first generation of twentieth century women poets.

Determined to make her career in letters, Bogan became a literary journalist in 1924, reviewing books, writing, and lecturing on a wide range of literary topics. She began her long association with The New Yorker magazine as poetry reviewer in 1932, a post that she held until 1968. Bogan’s early volumes were highly acclaimed, and she was immediately recognized as one of the foremost women lyric poets of the era. Later, her books won all the literary prizes, (except the Pulitzer Prize), she was awarded prestigious visiting professorships, and she served as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. In 1969, a year before her death, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Seven women held chairs in the academy at the time, but only two were poets, Bogan and Marianne Moore.

Women poets have found in Bogan’s poetry and in her criticism a powerful female voice and the record of a fiercely independent woman’s life. Her refusal to compromise her stringent poetic beliefs and her courage in telling the painful truths of her life in her poems have served as a model for succeeding generations.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bogan, Louise. A Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation. Edited by Robert Phelps and Ruth Limmer. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970. Includes the contents of Bogan’s Selected Criticism (1955) and most of the prose—articles, reviews, and essays—published up to her death in 1970. Of particular interest is her essay “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry,” from 1953.

Bowles, Gloria. Louise Bogan’s Aesthetic of Limitation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Argues that Bogan’s strict formalist aesthetic, informed by a male poetic tradition, limited her development, and consequently her poetic output. Useful as one type of feminist reading of Bogan’s work.

Collins, Martha, ed. Critical Essays on Louise Bogan. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Each of the six essays in the volume examines a major theme or idea present in Bogan’s poetry, demonstrating the richness and complexity of her work. In addition, the editor reprints twenty-seven brief reviews and commentaries on Bogan’s work by her contemporaries—poets and critics such as W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Stanley Kunitz, Harold Bloom, and Ivor Winters.

Frank, Elizabeth. Louise Bogan: A Portrait. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. A comprehensive critical biography with many photographs, this book is invaluable to students of Bogan’s work, not only for its clarity and insight but also for its enlightening discussions of her poems alongside the facts of her life.

Middlebrook, Diane, and Marilyn Yalom, eds. Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. An excellent background work on the problems of women poets in finding expression. The essay “ ‘My scourge, my sister’: Louise Bogan’s Muse,” by Mary DeShazer, is an illuminating discussion of Bogan’s use of powerful female figures from mythology to embody her own voice—and hence, to become her own muse.

Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. A provocative study of six different female personae (such as androgyne, passionate virgin, and warrior), using one poet to illustrate each persona. Chapter 6 is devoted to Bogan as the example of the stoic persona.