Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Louise Bogan

Louise Bogan is one of those countless minor poets with which the field of literary history is strewn. That’s not intended as an insult; I’ve browsed her complete works, and so far as I can tell, she never made a serious attempt to extend her poetic reach or overthrow her established idiom.

This was not a woman to splatter herself all over the page. Instead, she wrote concise, well-crafted verse that is almost painfully restrained. She wrote a lot of love poems, but they’re vexingly anodyne. Something about them feels weak and emaciated, as if she was fearful of letting the language veer into the uncontrolled territory implied by her subject matter. I think it is this inhibition that damns her to eternal minor poet status.

Her personal life was apparently pretty sad; she married twice, both times unhappily, and had a daughter that she never much discussed with anyone. She and the decade-younger poet Theodore Roethke had a rather torrid affair in the mid-1930s; apparently, she didn’t think much of his work (though my sources are conflicting), but he immortalized her with a lovely lyric poem which will be forthcoming in another post on this blog.

This poem has been fluttering around in my head ever since we toured the underground cistern in Istanbul with the Medusa's head columns. I think it’s Bogan’s best. The tension between the immobilized stone figures created by the Medusa and the unrestrained fury and passion encapsulated by monster herself echoes the conflict in Bogan’s own poetry between tone and subject.


I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved -- a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.

Louise Bogan on Wikipedia

Louise Bogan on Poets.org

All of this mythology is making me think of another myth-checking work, The Furies.  Janet Hobhouse, the author, died around the age of 40 of ovarian cancer. The last third or so of the novel isn’t as good as the first two thirds, as she hadn’t finished writing and revising when she passed away, but the novel is spot-on in its analysis of intergenerational family dynamics among women.

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