The Lines of Truth and Feeling
A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan
Edited by Mary Kinzie
Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005, 394 pp., $19.95, Paperback.
Reviewed by Carol Bere
Poet and critic Richard Howard commented that the poetry of Louise Bogan (l897-1970) will endure as “the great lyric achievement of her time, the line of truth exactly superimposed on the line of feeling.” Often referred to as a “poet’s poet”—a somewhat clichéd term that almost guarantees that a poet will not be read as much as some of the so-called confessional, splashy, or contentious poets—Bogan was in fact highly regarded among her peers, and won all the major poetry awards. Her reputation, however, or at least the number of people reading her work, seems to have slipped in recent years. While Mary Kinzie’s valuable, well-edited collection of excerpts from Bogan’s prose certainly needs no justification, one of the volume’s subtexts appears to be to revitalize the poet’s reputation.
The groundwork for this collection was prepared by Ruth Limmer, Bogan’s literary executor, who in the l970s published selections from Bogan’s unfinished memoir and her stories, critical essays, and letters. Bogan was also extremely fortunate in her biographer Elizabeth Frank, whose excellent Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1985) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Bogan’s lower-middle-class beginnings in Livermore, Maine, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her various resentments about her education, broken marriages, affairs, and breakdowns could have become a gold mine for second rate psychologists. Instead, Frank looks at her subject whole—flaws, extreme intelligence, superior poetic talent—and discusses the relationship between her life and her art persuasively, probably because she clearly understands poetry and recognizes the high level of Bogan’s accomplishments.
Kinzie’s compilation evolves naturally from the work of Zimmer and Frank. She has brought together an impressive range of Bogan’s writing—short fiction, published and previously unpublished material from the memoir, journal entries, letters, poetry, and work from the New Yorker, where Bogan was a poetry reviewer for 38 years. Bogan often guarded against direct revelations of her personal life in her writing, but the collection provides a useful window into Bogan’s remarkable ability to translate autobiography into formal, transcendent poetry. Moreover, it demonstrates the depth of Bogan’s learning and continuing exploration of poetry; her wit, which is rarely remarked upon; and her obvious capacity for friendship.
The selections from Bogan’s journals and autobiographical writing, which cover the years l927 through late l969, are particularly moving. Her profile of her mother, Mary Shields Bogan, written initially in 1931 and l934 and revised almost thirty years later, shows Bogan’s growing understanding if not acceptance of this “tender, contrite woman, with, somewhere in her blood, the rake’s restlessness, the baffled artist’s despair.” In “Childhood in Boston,” written in l965, Bogan attributes the start of a recent depression to a visit to her old neighborhood in Boston, where she felt “the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of her family’s complete helplessness in the face of their difficulties.”
Bogan’s correspondents included a wide range of literary critics, professors, editors, and friends: Edmund Wilson, Rolfe Humphries, Allen Tate, William Maxwell, Ruth Limmer, Katharine White, poetry and fiction editor of The New Yorker, Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, and the poet May Sarton. Her letters are generally warm, illuminating, and straightforward; occasionally gossipy, and humorous. Somewhat surprised to find herself involved with a considerably younger poet, she writes to Wilson, “I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rosebush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name.” Bogan’s letters sparkle with her considerations and reconsiderations of Henry James, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot, among others. She makes little attempt to soften her opinions. Of John Crowe Ransom’s The New Criticism, which was ultimately regarded as a seminal work, Bogan remarks to Maxwell that it is a “dreadful and truly vicious and insolent book….The New Criticism, indeed! It’s plain Neo-Classicism over again….The whole attitude smells of snobbery and death.” After reading a “great speech” by Archibald McLeish on poets, she comments to Humphries that it is “awful tripe,” and in capital letters declares: “I STILL THINK THAT POETRY HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE IMAGINATION; I STILL THINK IT OUGHT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN.”
Bogan recognized that her own approach to writing poetry, particularly her reluctance to produce overt autobiographical work, might limit her readership. Bogan’s thoughts about how a poem should be made, or at least her belief in her own creative processes, never changed, but with a bit of wry wit, or perhaps self-deprecation, she wrote to Ruth Limmer in l966, “A new book by Anne Sexton has just arrived….O why can’t I write psychotic verse! Neurotic verse pales into insignificance beside what those girls—Sexton and Plath—can (could) turn out.”
Bogan’s criticism for the New Yorker contains some brilliant insights and some well-argued analyses of poets, and Kinzie made a wise editorial decision to publish several of Bogan’s complete reviews and articles on individual poets, rather than a large compendium of many writers. Bogan generally takes the long view, and she seems preoccupied by the later phases of writers’ work: their ability to engage with their time, to jettison early “virtuosities” yet still change and develop, and not to burn out in repetition. She responded to the poetry of García Lorca, and rightly connected some of the success of both his early poetry and that of Yeats to their access to folk traditions. But whether Lorca was actually a surrealist, as Bogan claims, is open to debate. Bogan was one of Auden’s early champions, and by 1945 she concluded that he had succeeded Eliot as the major influence on British and American poetry. Auden’s exuberance, wit, seemingly natural dramatic and lyric gifts, “inventive powers, both in language and form,” and ability “to avoid either self-repetition or self-parody,” continued to impress Bogan. Auden and Bogan actually had a mutual admiration society: he valued her poetry criticism, and in l941, also claimed that there were only four significant American poets: T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Laura Riding, and Louise Bogan. This was heady stuff for Bogan, who was not always confident of the reception of her work.
Her articles on Yeats are perhaps the most incisive in the volume. In l934, she ranked him unequivocally as the “greatest poet writing in English today,” and he was an important influence on her work. With Yeats, she again concentrates on his late style, on the unusual and steady development of his writing throughout his life, the range and strength of his technical ability, and his conviction that he would continue to develop. She concludes: “What impresses us most strongly in Yeats’s late work is that here a whole personality is involved,” a complex temperament that “advanced into the world he once shunned, but in dealing with it … did not yield to its standards.”
Kinzie’s inclusion of about forty pages of uncollected or unpublished poems and drafts, both dated and undated, is problematic. Bogan herself guarded against revealing the details of her life, and Kinzie concedes that Bogan would probably not have approved of publishing these works. She suggests that they are valuable as indications of Bogan’s early themes in the stage of incomplete transformation, as well as of her experiments with the verse line. Yet Bogan was a purist, who explained, “I cut and cut my sentences, right up to the last version; always keeping the adjectives down to a minimum, and the adverbs practically down to zero.” The recent publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, drafts, and fragments in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box again raises the debate about whether all writings of a poet should be published, whether publication adds to our understanding of the poet’s creative process, and whether all of a writer’s work, however unfinished, is fair game for editors. There is no universal response to these questions. In the case of Bogan, however, these early, occasionally trite, unfinished and/or mediocre poems add little to our understanding of her achievement.
Kinzie’s collection of Bogan’s prose, particularly the letters and criticism, should lead readers back to the work of a poet who believed that “poetry is an activity of the spirit…and it withers if that nature is denied, neglected, or negated”—one who often struggled against intractable odds, yet produced memorable lyric poems such as those Bogan selected for her final collection, The Blue Estuaries, Poems 1923-1968:“Medusa,” “The Sleeping Fury,” and the late, powerful “Song for the Last Act”:
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.”
Carol Bere, a freelance writer, taught English literature and writing at New York University and Rutgers University, and was also an officer at a New York investment bank. Here articles and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post Book World, the Boston Review, The Literary Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes; Sylvia Plath: the Critical Heritage, and in many international finance magazines.