Louise Bogan 1897–1970
American poet, critic, editor, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Bogan's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 39, and 46.
A major American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by traditional poetic structures, concise language, and vivid description, Bogan is known particularly for her honest and austere rendering of emotion. Douglas L. Peterson noted that she wrote "mainly of highly personal and painful experience—of personal losses suffered through death and the betrayal of intimate and deeply valued personal relationships, of time passing and of her acute awareness of the fragility of all things caught in time." Bogan's work is often compared with the short lyrics of such seventeenth-century poets as Thomas Campion, John Dryden, and Ben Jonson, and she shares with these writers an emphasis on musicality and craftsmanship as well as a subdued sense of grief and despair. Also a distinguished critic who served as a poetry editor for the New Yorker from 1931 to 1970 and authored numerous works of literary criticism, Bogan is known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analyses of many of the major poets of the twentieth century.
Born in Livermore Falls, Maine, Bogan's early life was marked by turbulence and instability. Her mother was prone to unpredictable and often violent behavior and would periodically abandon her family, sometimes to engage in extramarital affairs. By age eight Bogan had become what she once described as "the semblance of a girl, in which some desires and illusions had been early assassinated: shot dead." Bogan's father eventually moved the family to Boston, where she attended Girls' Latin School and was trained in Greek, Latin, and classical verse. She went on to attend Boston University, but left in 1916, after only one year, to marry a young soldier. Bogan entered this marriage in part to escape her unstable home life, but the relationship ended shortly after the birth of a daughter, Mathilde, in 1917; a 1925 marriage to Raymond Holden, managing editor of the New Yorker, also failed. Bogan went to New York City in 1919, where she became friends with such writers as William Carlos Williams, Margaret Mead, and Edmund Wilson. Her poems were first published in Poetry in 1921, and in 1923 her first collection, Body of This Death, was released. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Bogan experienced severe depression, for which she underwent psychoanalysis and was voluntarily institutionalized more than once. During this time she also began to experiment with prose, producing an autobi-ographical trilogy and writing stories and reviews for the New Yorker. Bogan won numerous awards during her lifetime, including a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1933, the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1955, and the Creative Award from Brandeis University in 1962. She died in 1970. Extolling the significance of Bogan's verse at a memorial tribute, W. H. Auden stated: "What, aside from their technical excellence, is most impressive about her poems is the unflinching courage with which she faced her problems, her determination never to surrender to self-pity, but to wrest beauty and joy out of dark places."
Bogan's first poetry collection, Body of This Death, concerns such themes as family, betrayal, the limitations of time and beauty, and the psychology of sexual conflict. In "Medusa," for example, Bogan describes the emotional and psychological impact of a traumatic childhood incident: "This is a dead scene forever now. / Nothing will ever stir. / The end will never brighten it more than this, / Nor the rain blur." Dark Summer (1929) gathers the most significant poems from Bogan's first book as well as several new poems. Progressing toward a more purely lyrical mode, the new pieces expand upon her concerns with love, betrayal, passion, and wisdom. Included among the new poems are "The Mark," "Come Break with Time," and "Seasonal Autumnal," works which Yvor Winters once stated would "demand … comparison with the best songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." The collection The Sleeping Fury (1937), Bogan's last whole book of original verse, contains some of her most highly regarded and frequently anthologized poems, including "Italian Morning," "Roman Fountain," and "Kept." Cheryl Walker has noted that The Sleeping Fury is "a volume in which [Bogan's] several conceptions of mind—as psyche, as intellect, and intuition—come together." Poems and New Poems (1941) comprises works gathered from Bogan's three previous books and a selection of sixteen new pieces in which she occasionally experiments with meter and rhyme. Bogan's most successful writing from her previous volumes appears with several new poems in Collected Poems, 1923–1953 (1954). The last volume of poetry Bogan published during her lifetime, The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–1968 (1968), adds twelve pieces to Collected Poems. In addition to her poetry, Bogan published numerous volumes of literary criticism, including Achievement in American Poetry (1951), Selected Criticism (1955), and A Poet's Alphabet (1970); a collection of letters, What the Woman Lived (1973); and an autobiography, Journey around My Room (1980).
Early in her career, Bogan received attention primarily for the technical expertise of her verse. In 1937 Allen Tate stated: "In addition to distinguished diction and a fine ear for the phrase-rhythm she has mastered a prosody that permits her to get the greatest effect out of the slightest variation of stress." Most critics have observed that later in her career Bogan expressed an increased concern with weighty psychological and emotional issues, particularly in an attempt to confront difficult personal themes relating to inner conflict. Bogan's verse is not identified with any particular poetic school or movement, and for this reason some commentators have asserted that she has received less extensive critical appraisal than she would have otherwise. Recent criticism has tended to focus on Bogan's poetic voice, her contributions to the development of feminine verse, and the complexity of her themes. Cheryl Walker has stated that "all we can state with certainty is that Louise Bogan succeeded in creating some superb lyrics. She never prostituted her talent and what she has left us has a granitic edge. If her opus is small, it is also durable." Reaction to Bogan's critical works has been favorable, with reviewers praising her knowledge, clarity, and comprehensiveness. One review of Achievement in American Poetry stated that "like all Miss Bogan's criticism, this book is full of acute, spirited, and authoritative judgments of writers and works, expressed with grace and wit." Bogan's collection of letters and autobiography, although posthumously published, were also well received, with critics noting they provide invaluable insights into Bogan's life and writings. Writing about Journey around My Room, William Pritchard has stated: "Louise Bogan wanted her poetry to stand alone, free from the facts of her biography though deeply informed by them. But this mosaic, in some of its juxtapositions of prose and poems, helped me to a sharper sense of how good a poet she could be."