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Louise Bogan’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper
was born Louise Marie Bogan in Livermore Falls, Maine, the daughter of Daniel Joseph
Bogan, a superintendent in a paper mill, and Mary Helen Murphy Shields. She grew up in
various mill towns in the Northeast, moving often with her parents and brother. Her
parents’ marriage was volatile, and her mother’s affairs haunted Bogan for much of her
Although Bogan attended Boston University for only one year in 1915-1916, her early
education at Boston Girls’ Latin School gave her a rigorous foundation. She was already
writing poetry and reading Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in its first issues in 1912.
While modernism in literature and the arts was gaining in momentum and shape, Bogan was
quietly mastering metrics and defining her style. She later wrote passionately about her
artistic awakening, describing a visit to her mother in the hospital. There in the room
she saw a vase of marigolds: "Suddenly I recognized something at once simple
and full of the utmost richness of design and contrast that was mine." Design and
contrast are at the heart of her formal poetry, and the style that she crafted early did
not vary much throughout her later years.
She married Curt Alexander in 1916, but the marriage was not a happy one. They had one
daughter, born just a year later. By 1920 Bogan was a widow (she had earlier separated
from her husband), left with a child to care for and without a reliable income. After
moving to New York City, where she would live for the rest of her life, Bogan started to
piece together the life of a working writer. She soon met other writers in the city’s
thriving literary community: William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, Lola Ridge, John
Reed (1887-1920), Marianne Moore, and, most important, Edmund Wilson, who became her early
mentor. Wilson, already a man of reputation, urged her to write reviews of literature for
periodicals, and this eventually became a steady source of income.
A year after modernism peaked in 1922 with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Bogan
published her first book, Body of This Death. In contrast to Eliot’s expansive,
associative, free verse, Bogan’s lyrics were brief, limited in theme, and highly formal.
The volume, which was well received although many reviewers found the poetry obscure,
speaks eloquently about love and grief, Bogan’s twin themes. At this time she was seeing a
psychiatrist to help her battle the depressions that relentlessly beset her and
occasionally hospitalized her. Her life and her lyrics are intimately intertwined,
although Bogan would be the last person to elucidate the connection. She was intensely
private; for years many of her friends did not know she had a daughter.
Bogan had married again in 1925, this time to the writer Raymond Holden. This marriage,
like the first, was troubled and did not last. Despite the personal turmoil, the 1920s and
1930s were Bogan’s most productive poetic years. She published Dark Summer in 1929
and her third volume, The Sleeping Fury, in 1937. Other books that followed
mainly collected previously published work and added a few new poems. The writing process
for Bogan was painful and exacting; poems came rarely and at a cost. Her poem "The
Daemon" depicts her muse as a monster demanding revelations again and again. Much of
her work, in fact, draws upon the themes of silence and language as well as upon the
failure of love.
During the 1930s, when many of her writer friends turned to the left, Bogan fought a
lonely battle for literary purity. She was adamant that politics had no place in poetry;
art called for something grander and more honest. Additionally, she saw the temporary
defection of her friends (Edmund Wilson, Rolfe Humphries, L?onie Adams) as evidence of
intellectual and emotional weakness and as a betrayal of the authority of the self.
During this decade she began reviewing poetry for the New Yorker, a job she held
for thirty-eight years. Many of these reviews, as well as others, are collected in A
Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation (1970). Her prose is
direct, nonacademic, and sharp. The series of articles on her two favorite poets, William
Butler Yeats and Rainer Maria Rilke, is particularly insightful. The poet W H. Auden
thought she was the best critic of poetry in America.
Her occasional teaching stints, which began in the 1940s, were another, more direct way
to influence the minds of young people. As the strain of writing poetry increased, Bogan
turned more and more to criticism and education. In 1951 she was commissioned to write a
short history of American poetry, eventually published as Achievement in American
Poetry, 1900-1950, in which she does not once mention herself. She also translated
poetry and prose and worked with younger writers (William Maxwell, for example) to help
them distill beauty and truth from their writing.
The reviews of her last collections were admiring, if quietly so. Her second
collection, Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (Poems and New Poems had come out in 1941),
won a shared Bollingen Prize in 1955. Nonetheless, for most of her writing life she felt
invisible in the literary world. Late in her life financial burdens eased somewhat, helped
in large part by a monetary award from the Academy of American Poets in 1959 and another
from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967. Her final and most complete collection, The
Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968), contains only 103 poems. She died alone in
her New York apartment, fighting the familiar depression she had wrestled with all her
Interest from feminist circles in the hidden lives of women writers has prompted new
assessments of Bogan. The "mosaic" of her autobiographical pieces, Journey
around My Room (1980), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Elizabeth Frank, Louise
Bogan: A Portrait (1985), have introduced her to the general public. Yet Bogan remains
a poet’s poet, yielding beauty to those whose ear, mind, and heart are open to the demands
of her poetry. Her work is particularly important in light of her place in the company of
other modernists. In a time of experimentation, of a general loosening of structures and
subjects, she held the line for formal poetry and for the precise blend of emotion and
intellect to enliven that poetry.
Bogan’s papers, including manuscripts for many of the poems, are held at Amherst
College Special Collections, Amherst, Mass. The most helpful source is Claire E. Knox’s
annotated bibliography, Louise Bogan: A Reference Source (1990). For a taste of
Bogan’s wit, her spirited letters, What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of
Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, ed. Ruth Limmer (1973), should not be missed. Important
reviews are collected in Martha Collins, Critical Essays on Louise Bogan (1984).
The only full-length studies are Jacqueline Ridgeway’s general introduction, Louise
Bogan (1984), and Gloria Bowles’s feminist reading, Louise Bogan’s Aesthetic of
Limitation (1987). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 5 Feb. 1970, and the New
Yorker, 14 Feb. 1970.
From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Copyright ? 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.
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