A Consideration of Louise Bogan’s Poetry
One of the striking features of Louise Bogan’s poetry is how little of it there is. Another is how short those poems are. No more than twelve of her poems are over a page long. Even when compared to the modest work produced by poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Howes and Philip Larken, Bogan’s body of work is small and her poems short. Yet her voice is as powerful as her vision is unique.
It’s impossible to read such poems as “The Romantic,” “The Portrait,” “Statue and Birds,” and not see that Bogan attempts to break down the stereotypes of deified female beauty. In doing so, she struggles toward something more profound than a sociopolitical statement. In an early poem called, “The Alchemist,” the subject of the poem searches for “a passion wholly of the mind,” but ultimately discovers:
With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.
These are the first traces of a pursuit encompassing most of Bogan’s poetry: the pursuit of a concept of the eternal different from the deification of female beauty and also different from the projection of the mind or will into infinity.
The search for a new concept of the eternal was common to her time in poets like Rilke, H.D. and Wallace Stevens. However, more radically than any of these poets, Bogan sought to find a concept of the eternal that outstripped the mind’s tendency to create a mere projection of itself and especially to outstrip the heart’s tendency to find false comfort. The mind and the heart are both temporal. The eternal endures far beyond either of them. It is a landscape that excludes them.
In an apostrophe to her dead brother she says she can reassure him that everything endures, “save of peace alone.” We are forever restless and suffering the grief of things passing away. The heart wraps itself tightly for protection, so tightly, in fact, it suffocates itself in the body.
See this fine body, joined
More cleanly than a thorn.
What man, though lusty-loined,
What woman from woman born,
Shaped a slight thing, so strong,
Or a wise thing so young?
This also applies to Bogan’s style. Her poems are slight and strong like the homunculus. Her typically short lines are slowed and tensed by clusters of equally-stressed monosyllables. Reciting Bogan’s poems out loud the voice strains, thrown to a pitch very near to breaking. Her lines burn with the rage to endure, with the fury of what it means to suffer.
Now, only to mock
At the sterile cliff laid bare,
At the cold pure sky unchanged,
You look upon the rock,
You look upon the air.
Thinking: Now we hear
What we heard last year,
And bear the wind’s rude touch
And its ugly sound
Equally with so much
We have learned how to bear.
The limit already traced must be returned to and visited,
Touched, spanned, proclaimed, else the heart’s time be all. . .”
Her most forgiving poems, like “Cartography,” “Musician,” and “Roman Fountain,” move with the pressure and caution of someone in a laboratory. Enjambed lines encumber the heart with all it must bear. At other times they mirror the heart’s withdrawal before its new vision of the eternal, the “permanence of the impersonal.” The phrase is Richard Eberhart’s but easily could have been Bogan’s. Her poems attempt to reveal a world beyond the heart and beyond the eyes.
Few poets have so thoroughly conceived of a universe that doesn’t include them. But “the heart’s time” is all we know. A world whose essence is the absence of a witness cant’ be revealed. So the comfort offered by a poem like “Night” isn’t accessible and, paradoxically, that inaccessibility is offered as comfort.
Where the pulse clinging to the rocks
Renews itself forever;
Where, again on cloudless nights,
The water reflects
The firmament’s partial setting;
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.
The limits of Bogan’s pursuit are its realization, the limits of exclusion itself. One cannot avoid comparing these limits to those that Cartesian science set by factoring out human perception from its picture of the universe. The Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrel said, “Science has made for man a world to which he doesn’t belong.” Perhaps Bogan paid a similar price for a correspondent poetic vision. Her own vision excluded her. Her own voice tended toward silence. We are left with but a small sampling of her nearly perfect experiments.