Sunday Poet: Louise Bogan

My blog production will go down markedly now that baseball season has started and the fascinating (Western Conference) NBA playoffs are on, too. But I would like to point you toward a poet you will probably like if you like to read poetry. Or if you aren’t sure, or don’t quite. Her name is Louise Bogan and she’s quite accessible. Bogan was the poetry editor of The New Yorker for almost 40 years (from the early 1930s until the ’60s, I think), which makes her one of the people who turned that magazine into perhaps the best English-language publication on earth. From what I understand she was an advocate of writers like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Marianne Moore. More importantly, Bogan was a poet. Ecco Press publishes a slim retrospective collection of her stuff, The Blue Estuaries, available from the usual places.

Here is the best way I can describe her: Bogan is a weird, eerie, sometimes downright hallucinatory poet, but she is also formally conservative, preferring now to deviate much from the norms of English metrical verse. She rhymes and keeps a beat. In this sense you can see how she fits into a line of visionary weirdos that begins with poets such as Blake, Dickinson, and Yeats and continues on to people like Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, James Tate, Kay Ryan, John Ashbery, and Matthea Harvey. Formally speaking, Bogan is closer to the earlier visionaries; she is particularly good with tetrameter lines (i.e. lines that have 4 beats), using them for bleakly comedic and jerky, surrealist effect. Dickinson’s voice, again. A tetrameter line is short, so if you don’t want a series of them to take on this obnoxious, unintentionally funny bouncety-bouncety-bounce rhythm, you’ve got to be deft. Here is her 1937 poem “M., Singing” (copyright Louise Bogan, 1968):

Now, innocent, within the deep
Night of all things you turn the key,
Unloosing what we know in sleep.
In your fresh voice they cry aloud
Those beings without heart or name.

Those creatures both corrupt and proud,
Upon the melancholy words
And in the music’s subtlety,
Leave the long harvest which they reap
In the sunk land of dust and flame
And move to space beneath our sky.

How old-fashioned: Bogan capitalizes the first letter of the first word in each line!  Gives the fever-dream a certain dignity, yeah?

You can see what Plath and Roethke, for instance, learned from her—those clipped, sharp-rhymed little lines—and then modified for their own purposes (they both like to mix in free-verse, more image-rich phrases). Bogan is not a comforting poet, like Shakespeare is, and she’s not as funny as Auden or Louis MacNeice, the two European poets she most resembles. But she isn’t cold, not really. Rather her verse is just totally unsentimental. Some of this mood derives from her rhythmic practice, some of it from her refusal to let her poems become reducible to neat thematic summaries (“this poem is about. . .”), some of it from how sparse her images are, some of it from her skeptical view of things like love and calm. But a lot of beautiful poets—say, Frost—are pleasurable without being straightforwardly consoling. You admire how well they put it, and how  bravely, “it” usually having to do with disappointment or loneliness, but sometimes joy. The muted solace Bogan offers comes from the brevity, and the bizarre subconscious precision, of  her dream poems. Chances are you’ve been there.

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