FEBRUARY 3, 2014
IN 1935, LOUISE BOGAN — in her late 30s, and by then the author of two full-length poetry collections and a poetry critic for The New Yorker (a position she was to hold for 38 years) — began a lusty affair with 26-year-old Theodore Roethke, who adored her with lavish ambition and admiration, and who is reported to have said such things to her as “Louise, you’re a great minor poet and I’m a bastard, but kiss me.”
Whatever the difference might be between a minor and a major poet (let alone a “great” one of either ilk), however subject to the fickle winds of taste, the times, and the whims of editors, academic arbiters, and anthologizers, the distinction was very much on the minds of Bogan and her circle of aspiring New York literary intimates, contemporaries, and acquaintances. These included, among others, Edmund Wilson, Morton Zabel, Marianne Moore, Margaret Mead, Hart Crane, Yvor Winters, William Carlos Williams, Léonie Adams — and, later, W. H. Auden, William Maxwell, and May Sarton. Bogan, largely an autodidact, grew up in various New England mill towns, and her family life was troubled. Bogan’s mother, a compulsive philanderer, often left the family for extended periods, and Bogan herself, who bore a child by her first husband, loved her daughter but kept her at such a distance that most of Bogan’s friends did not know she was a mother. She nonetheless became, in her lifetime, a respected poet and critic — she wrote with perspicuity about a range of poets, from W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound to Rainer Maria Rilke and Ruth Stone — who moved at the center of the New York literary scene (though sometimes with unease), serving as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, receiving honors from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Academy of American Poets, and garnering a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and the Bollingen Prize. She was only 26 when Body of this Death, her first collection of poems, many of which had already appeared in the best literary magazines of the day (Poetry, The Measure, The New Republic), was published in 1923; her second book, Dark Summer, followed in 1929, and The Sleeping Fury, her third, in 1937, the year Bogan turned 40.
Several subsequent collections of verse ensued at more sporadic intervals; most of these contained earlier work as well as a small proportion of new pieces. And while Bogan continued to write poetry reviews for The New Yorker until 1969, the year before she died alone in her Upper West Side apartment of a coronary occlusion at the age of 72, many critics feel that her career as a poet is defined by her first three books. Beset since childhood by bouts of severe depression that required, over the years, a number of stays at hospitals as well as psychoanalysis, medication, and electro-shock therapy, these periods of what Bogan called “encircling glooms” no doubt interfered with her writing life, particularly as she coped with her illness throughout several decades. Her last book, The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968, brought out by Ecco Press the year before her death, contains just 103 poems representing over 40 years of poetic apprenticeship.
Whether or not history has shown or will show that Louise Bogan is a “minor” or “major” poet, there can be no doubt that she is an important, original lyric and aesthetic innovator whose formal genius, somatic — even metaphysical — intensity, and lapidary restraint (Moore said “Louise Bogan’s art is compactness compacted”) shaped a body of work that has influenced a host of poets, including Roethke, Louise Glück, Mary Ann Samyn, and, arguably, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, among others. Bogan eschewed the overtly confessional lyric poem, preferring the “veil” of Emily Dickinson and Henry James, writers she much admired. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life,” Bogan once wrote. “He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.” In addition to calling her “the best critic of poetry in America,” Auden named her one of the four most important American poets writing at the time (the others being T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Laura Riding). Frost, too, admired her, saying, after reading a poem from her first book, “that woman will be able to do anything.”
Bogan has been fortunate in that several discerning scholars and biographers — among them Ruth Limmer, Lee Upton, Mary Kinzie, and Elizabeth Frank (whose biography of Bogan won the Pulitzer Prize) — have written about her life and body of work with fresh and refreshed vision, placing her poems — which were sometimes criticized by her contemporary reviewers for their perceived artifice, misogyny, and obscurity — and her life and letters in the context of her moment and of her poetic legacy, particularly for women poets. I refer anyone interested in Bogan’s poetry to these rich secondary texts. But I’d also like to look briefly at Bogan’s second book, Dark Summer, which, like so many sophomore poetic efforts, offers a glimpse into the poet in the act of becoming her own poet.
Our library at the University of Virginia holds a first edition of Dark Summer, beautifully embodied by Charles Scribner’s Sons, with a bicolored title page decorated with a small green motif of leaves and fruit of which Bogan was justifiably proud. The library purchased the book (I learn from a stamp on the copyright page) on “Jan 16 ’35.” The lending sheet pasted to the back cover shows that the book was first borrowed or renewed four times in 1935, and then twice in 1938. The book was not borrowed again until 1982, then once in 1984, thrice in 1989, and once in 1992, 1995, and 1996, respectively, when, presumably, the library shifted over to computer recording of book lending and renewal and I lose the trail. I iterate all of this only to show that, as with many poets, interest in Bogan has fluctuated, perhaps coinciding with the appearance of ancillary biographies, editions, reviews, and so forth.
Bogan’s first book, published by Robert M. McBride in 1923, was 30 pages long and contained 23 poems, 11 of which (nearly half) form part III of Dark Summer (which is divided into 4 sections). These early poems are elegant, formal, imagistic (although Bogan would not discover Rilke until after Dark Summer appeared, she was always interested in Dinggedicht, allowing flowers, fruits, mirrors, and other objects to reveal personal obsessions and states of mind and emotion), whose careful surfaces and mythic contexts belie a seething, deeply buried but nonetheless physically felt repression, obsession, and violence, as in “Sub Contra,” which strikes me as an incipient ars poetica for Bogan:
Notes on the tuned frame of strings
Plucked or silenced under the hand
Whimper lightly to the ear,
Delicate and involute,
Like the mockery in a shell.
Lest the brain forget the thunder
The roused heart once made it hear, —
Rising as that clamor fell, —
Let there sound from music’s root
One note rage can understand,
A fine noise of riven things.
Build there some thick chord of wonder;
Then, for every passion’s sake,
Beat upon it till it break.
The new lyrics in part I of Dark Summer continue in this first-book mode. There is rarely a first-person in any of them, but rather the sense of a self in hiding as specular, (dis)embodied, and subtle forces of effacement, disappearance, brutality, and desire are played out in the lyric’s compressed theater of myth and the seasons, as in the sonnet “Simple Autumnal”:
The measured blood beats out the year’s delay.
The tearless eyes and heart, forbidden grief,
Watch the burned, restless, but abiding leaf,
The brighter branches arming the bright day.
The cone, the curving fruit should fall away,
The vine stem crumble, ripe grain know its sheaf.
Bonded to time, fires should have done, be brief,
But, serfs to sleep, they glitter and they stay.
Because not last nor first, grief in its prime
Wakes in the day, and hears of life’s intent.
Sorrow would break the seal stamped over time
And set the baskets where the bough is bent.
Full season’s come, yet filled trees keep the sky
And never scent the ground where they must lie.
Though this is a self-protective, even deflective poem (the somatic and militant “arming” in line 4, for instance, signals that the speaker is caught in a kind of inner battle), its psychological, almost choked anguish is crystal clear, and the agony of the speaker who is paralyzed and unable to openly grieve (an emotional state perhaps inherent in the eternal stasis or chasteness of a certain kind of artifice) is present physically and sonically throughout the poem.
Parts II and IV warrant our special attention as we consider the importance of this second book to Bogan’s evolution as a poet. Part IV closes the volume with “Summer Wish,” a long contrapuntal piece in two disembodied voices that Harold Bloom has called Bogan’s most ambitious poem, “mark[ing] the crisis and mid-point of her career.” It is a poem that addresses, in a meta manner, the paradox of the pairing of “dark” and “summer,” and their relation to the speaker’s sensibility as a woman and a poet; this passages refers to winter:
We call up the green to hide us
This hardened month, by no means the beginning
Of the natural year, but of the shortened span
Of leaves upon the earth. We call upon
The weed as well as the flower: groundsel, stellaria.
It is the month to make the summer wish;
It is the time to ask
The wish from summer as always: It will be,
It will be.
That tool we have used.
So that its haft is smooth; it knows the hand.
Again we lift the wish to its expert uses,
Tired of the bird that calls one long note downward,
And the forest in cast-iron. No longer, no longer,
The season of the lying equinox
Wherein false cock-crow sounds!
This poem suggests a dialogue (Bogan’s own divided self?) in which throats open. Through them, the poet begins to confront the “lie” of an overly symbolized and controlled world (“The mind for refuge, the grain of reason, the will, / Pulled by a wind it thinks to point and name? / Malicious symbol, key for rusty wards, / The crafty knight in the game, with its mixed move, / Prey to an end not evident to craft. . . .”).
Part II, “The Flume,” is another long poem, rare for Bogan, this one in four parts (a structure that parallels the overall organization of the volume). “The Flume” was first published in June 1925 in The Measure; Bogan included it in this second book but dropped it from all subsequent collections. Elizabeth Frank calls it the most “openly autobiographical” of Bogan’s poems, and although the female persona in the poem is rendered in the third person, the issues of terror, sexual possession, and jealousy that arise closely ally with biographical details from Bogan’s experience, which may be the chief reason she ended up removing it from later editions. About this withdrawal of the poem, Bogan wrote,
I have never been quite sure about “The Flume.” It came from the right place, and I worked hard on it, and it has some nice moments […] which were actually observed and lived with, at one period of my life. Perhaps I have the feeling that one doesn’t get out of that kind of obsession so easily — the “facts” are false, at the end. When I’m dead, someone will gather it up and insert it in the works, I suppose. With notes!
In addition, then, to her anxiety about the poem’s subject matter, we see her thinking quite consciously, as she queries the poem’s merit, of her legacy and the position her poems will hold (“the works”) for posterity (major? minor?). Frank believes, and I concur, that “The Flume” (which refers to the rush of water over a falls in a mill town not unlike those in which Bogan spent her childhood) perhaps ends too easily, with the female protagonist — who has struggled throughout the poem with fugal impulses and strong, conflicting, difficult emotions about her own desires, jealousies, and wish to extricate herself from a static relationship — finally (“laying a palm over the ebb and return / Of her warm throat […]”) unable to move beyond her circumstances:
Soon he will find her,
Still dressed for flight, quiet upon his bed,
When he has hurried from the weighted cold
Toward the faint lamp upstairs. She will lie there
Hearing at last the timbre of love and silence.
And although the speaker in “The Flume” does not leave her room (the rhyme can be no accident in Bogan) but rather registers the noise of the falls (sometimes rushing, sometimes frozen and still) from the vantage point of the interior, the poem is rife with startlingly frank and revelatory admissions of the most complex and wide-ranging motions of the heart, as in:
She had a madness in her for betrayal.
She looked for it in every room in the house.
Sometimes she thought she must rip up the floor to find
A box, a letter, a ring, to set her grief,
So long a rusty wheel, revolving in fury.
She had some guilt in her to be betrayed,
She had the terrible hope he could not love her.
Her woman’s flesh, rocking all echoes deep,
Strains out again toward ravenous memory.
He lies in sleep, a broken seal,
The strong wrists quick no more to the strong hand,
The intent eyes dulled, the obstinate mouth kissed out.
Outside the dam roars. He is perhaps a child,
With a child’s breath. He lies flexed like a child,
The strong ribs and firm neck may count for nothing.
She will think him a child. He is weak and he will fail her.
Bogan’s second book, then, shows us a poet of temperamental interiority subtly maturing into a writer of risk and volition. Her daring mix of restraint and passion, of veil and revelation, stasis and motion, classicism and the baroque — formally and thematically — was provocative and surprising in her time, and remains so in ours.
In the introduction to Jessica Fisher’s first book, Frail-Craft, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 2006, contest judge Louise Glück writes:
For all the music, the sensuous detail of Fisher’s art, her demeanor is essentially cool, measuring, intellectual — speculative may be a more accurate term. When such composure takes on, as it does in a number of shorter poems, explicitly passionate or erotic subjects, what results are poems so pure, so violent, so absolute, they seem like choral laments in Greek tragedy.
Glück could, of course, be describing a Louise Bogan lyric here — or, for that matter, a Glück poem. Among the many affinities these poets share is a specular, luminous interiority, and an intuitive knowledge of the ways in which the rhythmic instresses of the closely observed make thinking visible. Both Fisher and Bogan are obsessives who trust words (rhymes, etymologies) to reveal what might otherwise remain repressed. There is a baroque saturation to their plain speech. Like Bogan’s poems, Fisher’s write not so much out of pain as into it.
What strikes me most profoundly, reading Fisher’s beautiful, formally experimental second book in tandem with Bogan’s Dark Summer, is how much the idea and fact of the mother — the absent mother, the longed-for mother, the admired mother, the terrified and terrifying mother, the loving mother — stalks the work of both women. Bogan buries and effaces her deeply imprinted, conflicted emotions about her own mothering and motherhood, manifesting them in a host of paralyzed girls and mythic figures like Medusa, or in a matrix of sexualized anxieties (fear of abandonment, betrayal and fear of being overwhelmed, possessed, or constrained), her displacement of maternal guilt onto relationships with men a feat heightened, no doubt, by her particular sensibilities and ambitions as a writer in the times in which she lived (“Hear me, infertile,” she writes in “Ad Castitatem,” “beautiful futility.”). Inmost, on the other hand, is interested in casting what light it can even in our most private rooms, words, and syllables — the womb among them. Many of the poems in Fisher’s first book are lullabies; the poems in Inmost are less lullabies than they are soundings, often polyphonic, with a call to waken — even if, as the book’s epigraph from Hopkins suggests, what we wake to is darkness.
A mother herself, the speaker in many of these poems wants to see not only into the heart of objects, but also her own called-upon heart as well. Here is the poem “Winter,” offered in its entirety for the ways in which, like Bogan’s long poem “The Flume,” it confronts its psychic stakes less through the delicious, intelligent deflections of wordplay but rather more directly, through the counterpoint and stereoscopy of memory, “dismembering,” and experience:
Almost the age I
Fell from the window
The earth a home
The homeless autumn its
Fairness its gorgeous rattling
Leave-taking a compound
Thing a fracture not
Anticipated like fever at
Midnight like blood or
Bruise beneath the lobe
If idyllic the oak
Branching to the kingdom
If overcome the rheumatic
King and his donkey
Riding homeward the dove
In the nighttime garden
In the starry water
Unearthed the forgotten sound
A ringing bell like
Death on foreign sands
Where was she when
Blood bloomed its star-
Shaped banner when dark
Fell on the wakeful
Children what the answer
To the fitful question
Why ask it so
Fretfully every other car
Carries a baby that’s
Why she was tired
O and drove away
Far from the dishes rashes
Flew with her lover
To the foreign shore
Ate and drank elsewhere
Its azure sea or
Swept the strand with
A dove’s wing how
Else to imagine the
Mother elsewhere just stop
Beneath me the baby
Busied with car keys
My daughter the age
When I when she
O what use why
I fell from the
Window that is to
Say I was inside
What else to say
No not a door
Not a path leading
Firstfruits of your body
Wilting flower what will
Or heed the warning
Of the sailors drifting
On the sunlit sea
Their sails slack their
Faces burned the wax
In their ears foreknowledge
Of harm they know
The body is made
To suffer the children
Are made of it
From ferre to bear
The unwieldy weight that
Goes before you a
Cargo or stowaway these
Nine changes of the
Watery star your body
Chartered to no one
Belonging and so when
You leave the dark
Room you are not
Really to go this
Is a leaving remnant
Or scent a rememrancer —
O but we lucked
Out you never could
Guess how the turning
Leaves turn to hear
The homeless sound of
A voice no body
What else is lyric
But a dismembering of
The beloved it takes
Time it gives back
One at a time
Veined hands the soft
Breast your erstwhile pillow
Blazon of lips eyes
Is this what you
Wanted the mother made
Cunningly of matter an
Automaton wind her she’ll
Sing O a sad
Tale’s best for winter
With its resonantly ambiguous enjambments, fluid syntax, and mnemonic and pronominal slippages, “Winter” allows the condition of the speaker’s own motherhood and the anniversary of a fall (literal and figurative) from the symbiosis of the relationship with her own mother (who once, it seems, fell in love and sailed temporarily away from the “firstfruits” of her body — a mother who is absent when the speaker, as a child, literally tumbles out of a window) to float over one another in emotionally unsettling ways. This remembered fall is the punctum of the poem and relates to the issues of “inmost” that move throughout the collection: “I fell from the / Window that is to / Say I was inside // Then, not // What else to say / No not a door / Not a path leading.”
It would be easy to let the rue and sad irony of this stereoscopic counterpoint become the central tension of the poem, but Fisher pushes further. It is no accident that she evokes Shakespeare’s “miracle” play, The Winter’s Tale, with its magical bringing back to life of a dead mother and her reunion with her child. What are the sources of such acts of forgiveness and grace (“O but we lucked / Out you never could / Guess how the turning / Leaves turn to hear”)? “It is requir’d / you do awake your faith,” Paulina says in Shakespeare’s Tale, just as, earlier, she says “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief.” The felicities and acts of forgiveness by which we reassemble what is broken are inseparable for Fisher from the impetus and processes of the lyric project:
What else is lyric
But a dismembering of
The beloved it takes
Time it gives back
“Winter” is a crucial poem in this second collection, and an important poem for Fisher — a “major” poem, I would say. And Inmost, like Bogan’s Dark Summer, is a must for all readers who care about the interior radiance of the lyric poem.