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Louise Bogan’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Wendy Hirsch


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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