Louise Bogan’s well-known reticence about the details of her personal life extended to her poetry. She said that she had written down her experience in detail, omitting only the rough and vulgar facts. This dichotomy of fact and experience lies at the heart of her poems: They are about experience, not about facts. Four basic thematic concerns emerge in Bogan’s work. Many poems center on women or womanhood. This was a theme to which Bogan returned often in her criticism, and her history of modern American poetry is one of the few to acknowledge the contributions of women. A second theme emerges in the many poems that explore the universal human condition of fleshly existence and the disasters and delights of love. Another preoccupation is art, the process of making art, and the artist and his commitment. Finally, the struggle of the mind and spirit for sanity and consolation in the face of insanity, chaos, and meaninglessness inspired the greatest of her poems.
Women as theme
“Women” may be Bogan’s most frequently anthologized poem, and it has certainly troubled feminist critics more than any other. The poem is cast as a diatribe by a male speaker who generalizes about women as “they.” This catalog of faults outlines the stereotype of “woman” that Bogan herself referred to impatiently in several of her essays. The speaker’s harsh tone modulates toward pity for women’s habit of using their own benevolence against themselves, but he does not speculate on the causes of the many flaws in women. Neither did Bogan, as evidence by her letters and criticism: She inherited, without question, the Victorian and Romantic view that applied the dichotomies of emotion and intellect to woman and man, respectively, and then raised those parallel associations to the status of natural law.
In her poems, however, Bogan’s perception of stereotypes of gender reflects a more complex vision. “The Romantic,” for example, mocks the sentimental ideal of the passionless woman. The romantic had sought to impose his vision of femininity on the young woman and lost both woman and ideal. In both “Women” and “The Romantic” the poet distances herself from the subject. In the first, a presumptively male voice discourses, not about any real woman but about the idea of women, while in the second, a voice of unspecified gender addresses a man about a woman who has vanished.
Other poems confront more directly the particular heartaches, upheavals, and joys of being a woman, but in these, too, the approach is ordered and the thought kept coherent by various techniques of distancing. In each of the three poems, “The Changed Woman,” “Chanson un peu naïve,” and “For a Marriage,” an anonymous speaker talks about a woman who also remains unspecified and anonymous. “Chanson un peu naïve” expresses an ironic, despairing pity at the destructive results of frequent childbearing and an apparent self-deception that permits its continuance. In “For a Marriage,” a dispassionate onlooker reflects on intimacy as a sharing of pain, in this instance the woman’s revelation of her pain to be shared by her husband. “The Changed Woman” is more obscure, referring perhaps to a miscarriage or abortion; the quality of the experience, the dream denied and driven, supersedes factual references. Another treatment of the theme is “The Crossed Apple”: Here an older person, man or woman, directly addresses a young girl and offers the gift of an apple. The poem invokes the creation myth in Genesis, as the voice suggests that eating the fruit means knowledge as well as sustenance: She will taste more than fruit, blossom, sun, or air.
Such distancing brings order to the chaotic, impulsive, often outrageous realities of women’s lives, placing those realities within the bounds of an art that can illuminate and make them meaningful. Those poems in which Bogan uses a woman’s voice to articulate a woman’s point of view also find means to distance and thus order her subject. “Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom” generalizes about men and women according to familiar stereotypes. For the first five lines, women love and therefore demand love excessively, and in the remaining eight lines, the speaker resorts to harsh suppression of her emotions as the solution to the dilemma presented by her feelings and her perceptions of them. “Girl’s Song” implies the same problem: The speaker addresses the man who has abandoned her in favor of another woman who, it is implied, will likewise love him in a sacrificial, even destructive way. Although this poem expresses resignation rather than the fierce despair of “Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom,” the view of women’s nature and circumstances is the same: Women love excessively, to their sorrow and destruction.
Women in later poetry
Both of the foregoing poems come from Bogan’s early work, and they, like many of the early poems, express the tension between matter and form, instinct and reason, in terms of the relationships between women and men. In three poems published much later in her life, she spoke less generally and more directly in the persona of a particular woman with a specific history.
In “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” and “Little Lobelia’s Song,” women speak of their own experience, and both poems spring from recognition of that most fundamental of connections, the relationship between parent and child. The sorcerer’s daughter, who can read signs and auguries, finds herself bound to an unfortunate fate. The poem echoes the prophetic pessimism of “Cassandra” without the formal restraint and emotional tension of the earlier poem. “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” is no tragedy; from her father the speaker inherits, chiefly, bad luck. In “Little Lobelia’s Song” the piteous, helpless, inarticulate voice is an infant addressing its mother. Reflections on Bogan’s tumultuous relationship with her own mother are inevitable, although the poem contains no details. The speaker’s expression of identity with its mother, and the agony of separation, invite Freudian interpretation. Bogan’s own acquaintance with modern psychology emerged from experience as well as theory, and the poem, published not long after her last stay in a mental hospital, is one of a group of three including “Psychiatrist’s Song.” Seldom did Bogan permit expression of such unalloyed pathos, yet the poem achieves power precisely through its rigid form and the distancing created by the artificial persona; the poet even succeeds with that commonest of clichés, flower as metaphor for child.
“Masked Woman’s Song,” the third poem of this trilogy, speaks most specifically yet most enigmatically about Bogan’s own experience. Although the other poems use personas as disguise, the masked woman acknowledges her disguise and thus disarms skepticism. The singer seems to disown her previous sense of the value of artistic and moral order. The poem contains more physical description than most: The man is tall, has a worn face and roped arms. These are matters of fact, not experience, and the poem remains virtually impenetrable. The poet has moved beyond the classical values and virtues to a realm so resistant to description that it defies metaphor, where the familiar images of male and female no longer serve.
Love as theme
As is already evident, Bogan made love in its many varieties a major theme in her poetry. She framed her exposition generally in the Renaissance terms of flesh and spirit, passion and reason. The classical understanding of passion, derived from passio (suffering, submission) and related to “passive,” regarded the lusts of the flesh not as mere sentiment or feeling but as the fundamental, chaotic, instinctual life of man that provides all force for ongoing life and regeneration, but that also constantly moves to overwhelm and subsume the cognitive being. Thus, the great human enterprise is to balance and harmonize both the instinctual and the mental, the flesh and the spirit.
Bogan’s poems express disdain for excess in either direction. In “Several Voices out of a Cloud” the drunks, drug-takers, and perverts receive the laurel, for they have—whatever their flaws—been committed, they have used their creative energy. The pallid, the lifeless, punks, trimmers, and nice people—all those who denied life in favor of empty form—forgo eternity. The conception, the thesis, and even the terminology are Dantean.
Two poems about men suggest the peculiar dangers of trying to avoid confrontation with passion. In “The Frightened Man” the speaker explains that he feared the rich mouth and so kissed the thin; even this contact proved too much as she waxed while he weakened. His shattered image of the docile woman implies a self-destructive loathing of the real and the fleshly. “Man Alone” explores the subtle complexities of this solipsistic position. The man of the title seems to exist in a hall of mirrors; unable to confront and...
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