Bogan, Louise (Vol. 4)
Bogan, Louise 1897–1970
An American poet and critic, Louise Bogan served as poetry critic for The New Yorker for thirty years. She was a fine lyric poet whose "spiritual ancestors," according to Theodore Roethke, were Campion, Jonson, and the anonymous Elizabethan writers. Her work won many important prizes. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Miss Bogan's themes are the reasons of the heart that reason does not know, the eternal strangeness of time in its periods and its passage, the curious power of art. Her mood is oftenest a sombre one, relieved not by gaiety but by a sardonic wit. She is primarily a lyricist. Not for nothing does the word "song" recur repeatedly in her titles, as, among others, "Juan's Song", "Chanson Un Peu Naïve", "Song for a Slight Voice", "Song for a Lyre", "Spirit's Song". It is the spirit's song that Louise Bogan sings, even when her subject is the body. The texture of her verse is strong and fine, her images, though few, are fit, her cadences well managed. Her lyrics display her gifts more happily than do her excursions into free verse, yet even an imperfect example of this shows of what durable stuff her poetry is made.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, p. 266.
This fine gathering of poems [The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923–1968] gives us Louise Bogan's selections from the five books of poetry she has produced since 1923, and to these selections is added a collection of new poems. Evident up and down the line is Miss Bogan's dedication to the strictest demands of poetry. Never is there a sign of frantic casting about for catchy modes; the voice has been her own throughout a half-century of work. And yet, as the new poems will bear witness, she has refused to allow her voice to become static…. Here, too, can be seen the economy and cleanness which have been consistent qualities of Miss Bogan's lines. These same technical qualities are faithful to the emotions which subsume the poems. As the late Theodore Roethke pointed out, Miss Bogan is a woman "who scorns the open unabashed caterwaul so usual with love poets," a woman "who shapes emotion into an inevitable-seeming, an endurable, form." None of the emotions called on are exempt from her requirements. In a new poem, "Night," she finds among "the cold remote islands/And the blue estuaries" a metaphor for life's inescapable progression, but the emotions evoked by night's coming are held in check by her insistence on an ever-renewing nature: "—O remember/In your narrowing dark hours/That more things move/Than blood in the heart." Tight lines on emotions which threaten clarity. It is this kind of power under control that has marked her as one of our most accomplished poets.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1969, p. xviii.
I think that one of the things poetry ought to do is prepare us for what is ahead. This is one of the senses in which poetry is prophecy. I have to have the feeling that a poet is living in the same world I'm in, that he walks on the ground, that he knows the scenes of his own crimes and the images of his own hope, that he has been where I'm headed. Louise Bogan's poems tell me what I only half want to know. I mean this, of course, as a compliment….
In Bogan life is neither all one thing or another. The life force giveth and the life force taketh away. Hers is a poetry of meditation. Where to stand in a changing world, a world in which both our desires and the objects of our desires change?—this is the question….
The great strength of Louise Bogan's poetry is its compression. No poet has been more adamant than she in demanding the uncluttered line and the precise image. Some of her early poems, I believe, blur in the mind. There is too much abstraction, too many big, bumbling nouns in "Fifteenth Farewell," "Winter Swan," and "The Alchemist," for example…. But in The Blue Estuaries this kind of poem is certainly in the minority. At her best Miss Bogan achieves what she has described as "effects truly fitted for the condensation of language and the production of 'memorable speech.'"…
Blue Estuaries is a cold, comforting book.
William Heyen, "The Distance From Our Eyes," in Prairie Schooner (© 1969 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1969, pp. 323-26.
Louise Bogan is a poet who generates affectionate approval…. [The] feeling pervades that Miss Bogan never received the recognition due her work; and those who write about her verse go extra weight to correct the imbalance….
A Poet's Alphabet is a delight to read. The arrangement takes us from Auden to Yeats, from American Literature to the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The dates of composition take us from 1923 to 1969, the year before Miss Bogan's death in February, 1970. The chief experience one undergoes in A Poet's Alphabet is admiration for Miss Bogan's generosity, which however is bestowed never at the expense of truth. Miss Bogan finds the strengths of her writers and emphasizes these in deft, bright, compact, and perceptive analyses. It is instructive to any critic or reviewer that Miss Bogan, in assessing the work of over 120 authors, approves (my count was casual) a round 100…. Miss Bogan almost never is negative completely. Some of these censured are admired elsewhere in her reviews….
Evidence of a certain conservatism is found frequently in the early materials…. In her reviews of the 'fifties and 'sixties, Miss Bogan appears to have come to some terms with the experimentalists and vers librists, whom for a long time she held off…. Yet her need of form dies hard. One of the longer essays in her book is a defense of formal poetry under the guise of espousing its delights….
Perhaps the service that Miss Bogan has done for letters during her life is discernible best in her constant approval of the significant literary movements on the continent and her vigorous support of translation as a means of making available, no matter how imperfectly, the thought of the influential cultures of France, Germany, Spain, and to a lesser extent of modern Greece and the Orient.
Harry Morris, "Poets and Critics, Critics and Poets," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1972 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1972, pp. 627-29.
[When] I was writing poetry myself and was young enough to be looking for signals that women wrote and wrote well [,] I had no notion then of whether or not they wrote as women—or even of what that might mean. If the question had been put to me, I would have dismissed it, for I would not have understood it as a desirable quality. To write as a woman of things that concern woman would have meant to me then soft prose, fine writing and poetical musings by three-named lady writers. I intended to avoid all of it. But Louise Bogan suggested something deeper: a lack of options as part of the condition of being a woman, a narrow life chosen by women because they were unwilling, if not unable to take risk. And yet wasn't there something of a risk in the act of being the person who wrote the poem?…
I thought … her anthologized poems seemed too careful; they lacked bite. I do not mean to imply that she was no academic poet—for she believed deeply in the lyric as a cry—only that too often she weakened her poems by tidying them up in the final lines, thereby undercutting their full strength.
Because she wrote well and because she had a critical honesty as unmistakable and durable as granite she knew this perfectly well….
I would have given a great deal in those days of forming myself as a writer … to have found "Little Lobeila's Song," "Masked Woman's Song," "The Sorcerer's Daughter" and "After the Persian."
For these are the cries of a woman—cries against the turning of luck or of bad timing, and they speak of the ability to face the mirror or the bottle, of the courage to go to the "mad-house" (as she called it in a letter to Theodore Roethke) when life went down on her and she could not pull herself up alone any more. There is a loss implied in these poems for all women who are alone and aging….
Nancy Milford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 16, 1973, pp. 1-2.
An elegant lyric poet and the New Yorker's highly influential poetry reviewer through most of four decades, Louise Bogan poured out a tireless flow of letters, keeping her friends informed of everything that went on in her complicated mind and life. That mosaic of dailiness has now been put together by her close friend Ruth Limmer, and ranks with the letters of Keats, Henry James and Rilke. For What the Woman Lived is not simply the informal accounting of events one expects from such a collection. Ardent, opinionated, eloquent, self-mocking, often wonderfully funny, the letters should be read, as Miss Bogan herself remarked of Rilke's correspondence, as "part of the body of [the poet's] imaginative work." William Maxwell observed in his New Yorker obituary of Louise Bogan: "In whatever she wrote, the line of truth was directly superimposed on the line of feeling." No book of hers more perfectly accomplished this than What the Woman Lived….
In the poems of her old age, Louise Bogan took a dry, unsentimental look at women who face the dwindling hoard of years vulnerably on their own. If she allowed herself a rare stifled cry ("She is possessed by time, who once/Was loved by men"), her poems remained as passionately reticent and spare as ever. And her letters continued, for the most part, to tap a vein of careless panache, of hyperbolic and reckless abandon which was never permitted into her poetry and criticism (this may be the reason she wrote so many letters—that side of her had to come through somewhere). Nonetheless, during her 60s she sometimes sounded rather strained in her correspondence, indeed a trifle cautious—particularly in comments to her friend, the poet and novelist May Sarton. To Ruth Limmer, she complained, "If [May] would only stop writing sentimental poems!" Yet she was kinder and more circumspect when corresponding with Miss Sarton, less exuberantly outspoken and therefore less interesting. One misses the swift unself-conscious chop that in her youth she delivered straight to the jaw without a second thought. Of course, it had always been men, not women, who brought her to the top of her form as a letter-writer: She was a beguiling, if ironic, flirt.
Pearl K. Bell, "A Woman of Letters," in New Leader, February 4, 1974, pp. 23-4.