November 21, 2010

Louise Bogan, Consultant in Poetry, 1945-'46

(My series on the Poet Laureates (Consultants in Poetry) continues below with a review of Louise Bogan’s aesthetic and works. By way of introduction: Bogan was a notable poetry critic at The New Yorker for almost forty years. In her reviews, she refused to mince words to spare anyone’s feelings, not even those of her friends. The practice of writing “negative” (or critical) reviews of books of poetry is so out of fashion today that honest criticism has all but disappeared. Contemporary critics and editors evidently think of poetry as a small, precarious raft floating on an ocean, crowded with a handful of castaways. The smallest of criticisms might unbalance the raft and result in the drowning of everyone. This ill-conceived attempt at self-preservation has resulted in a glut of Pollyanna reviews, and a general inflation of praise. Unsurprisingly, the number of “positive” (or sycophantic) reviews has caused readers to flee poetry. Soft-handed critics cause the disillusionment of readers and writers, alike. Of course, the bitter critic, too, may pursue self-serving agendas; I do not suggest that we confuse negativity with honesty. But if poetry is ever to escape the boutique it has become ensconced in, the escape must begin with critics and editors. I like to think Bogan would agree.)

The obscurity and obsessiveness of Louise Bogan’s work is often flirtatious and only sometimes consummatory. The reader departs her poems in a fog, disoriented by the brightness of her voice and the obliqueness of her song. At her best, Bogan produces lines that conjure up Rilke or Yeats: “I burned my life, that I might find / A passion wholly of the mind.” She is capable of disarming frankness, though she often recoils from the exposure, retreating into a tangle of abstractions and symbols.

She is a syntactical savant; her lines are garden paths that become mazes that becomes thickets. Other than the occasional reference to classical mythology, her work is devoid of proper nouns; the scene is generic and only populated by the characters “I” and “you.” Unlike Robert Penn Warren who used the “you” to huddle the reader nearer, when Bogan addresses the “you,” the reader is certain that she is speaking over their head to someone out of view. Bogan's obsessions are unapologetic and often sophomoric; she is a proud broken heart, but keeps her psyche on a short leash, as evidenced by her limited sentiments and sardonic gestures.

Bogan’s poems are difficult and bullish. The reader who persists is rewarded with moments of profundity and wonderful turns of phrase, as is evidenced by her poem, “Question in a Field.”
Pasture, stone wall, and steeple,
What most perturbs the mind:
The heart-rending homely people,
Or the horrible beautiful kind?
While there are revelatory moments, especially related to the subjects of beauty, love, and the nature of femininity, Bogan’s preference for abstractions and symbolism keeps readers at arms length, and the arcane qualities of her voice and subjects make her appear priggish. She seems a poet who aged but did not grow; a poet who fears exposure but who is still drawn to the burlesque show.

Bogan favored a narrow stripe of themes, and is probably best remembered as a poet of classical myths. In truth, her poems about Medusa, Cassandra, and Leda are good, but they don’t transcend the genre. If, for example, you don’t know that Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold and (inexplicably) raped Danae, the conclusion of her poem “Stanza” makes no sense.

And the truth of the matter is, Bogan chiefly used myths as a way to encrypt her favorite theme. The most pronounced theme in her poems is love, and more particularly the life-cycle of the relationship, from initial flirtation, to the torment of the daily domestic negotiation, to the inevitable abuses and collapse of passion, to the recovery there from. While her poems lack personal detail (and do so defiantly), the quality of her poems about relationships suggest that they originate in experience rather than observation. From “Portrait:”
What she has gathered, and what lost,
She will not find to lose again.
She is possessed by time, who once
Was loved by men.
Often her poems on the subject of love will be developed or resolved by allusions to nature. Unlike Warren, Bogan handles nature as a symbol, an emotional alphabet, rather than as an essence of location or an object deserving study. When her poems turn towards nature, it often seems merely a gesture: a feigning attempt at perspective. But the strength of Bogan’s poems is not their perspective, but rather their lyrical, metrical, and syntactical obsessiveness; qualities well represented in her poem, “Simple Autumnal.”
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.
Despite her preoccupation with love and nature, Bogan was no romantic. Indeed, Bogan offers a criticism of romanticism which seems to herald the feminism of the ‘60s. In Bogan’s hands, romanticism is characterized as a poetic ornament of chauvinism: a formalized process of dehumanizing a woman to produce a misogynist ideal. In her poem “The Romantic,” Bogan illuminates the true romantic process:
In her obedient breast all that ran free
You thought to bind, like echoes in a shell.
Allusions to claustrophobia and seclusion are often employed by Bogan to characterize the oppression of women. In “Women,” Bogan combines the claustrophobic trope with her characteristic sarcasm.
Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.
Bogan seems at her bristling best when she addresses the domineering nature of men. The oppression of women cannot be curtailed by love, because it is the idea of romantic love which essentially legitimizes the oppression. The failure of a relationship is often attributed by Bogan to an insidious misogyny, as in her poem “For a Marriage:”
She gives most dangerous sight
To keep his life awake:
A sword sharp-edged and bright
That darkness must not break,
Not ever for her sake.
Even so, Bogan is the first to admit that reason and knowing do not inoculate a person from passion. She explores the baffling compulsion of love in her poems, “The Alchemist,” “The Crows,” and “Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom,” which includes the lines, “Heart, so subtle now, and trembling,/What a marvel to be wise,/To love never in this manner!”

Much of her poetry is not so coherent. Often her verse is turned opaque by abstractions and lyric, leaving readers with a sense that they are reading an awkward translation of a non-English poem. On such occasions, reader’s can easily discern the tone and gist of the work, but it is difficult to not feel that Bogan is being coy. In her ironically titled poem, “Didactic Piece,” she concludes with the riddling lines:
We wait, we hear, facing the mask without eyes,
Grief without grief, facing the eyeless music.
Such moments suggest that Bogan is bearing down on her poem much as she is bearing down on us. In her attempt to purify her poem of self-reference and exuberant error, Bogan’s work begins to seem inhuman. Bogan is easiest to enjoy on the rare occasions when she allows herself a little liberty, as is the case with “I Saw Eternity,” “Poem in Prose,” and “Several Voices Out of a Cloud,” which should be enjoyed in its entirety, and which notably concludes with the bad-ass lines:
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
And it isn’t for you.
This poem alone is enough justification for Bogan being made Consultant in Poetry. Her verse may have been repressed and arcane and labyrinthine at times, but she was fearless. I admire those who can be bold despite their vulnerability, and Bogan is a great example of such bravery.