A Gull’s Game: D.H. Tracy on Louise Bogan


Louise Bogan.  Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950.  Henry Regnery Company:  Chicago, 1951. 

Louise Bogan.  The Blue Estuaries:  Poems 1923-1968.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux:  New York, 1968. 

Louise Bogan.  Journey Around My Room.  Ed. Ruth Limmer.  Penguin Books:  Middlesex, 1980. 

Louise Bogan.  A Poet’s Alphabet:  Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation.  Ed. Robert Phelps and Ruth Limmer.  McGraw-Hill:  New York, 1970.

Critical Essays on Louise Bogan.  Ed. Martha Collins.  G. K. Hall & Co.:  Boston, 1984. 

What the Woman Lived:  Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970.  Ed.  Ruth Limmer.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.:  New York, 1973.


In 1939 Louise Bogan, then a middle-aged twice-married widow, divorcée, mother of one, and poetry reviewer for The New Yorker, received a questionnaire from a research student.  She never returned it, but she did fill it out.  Here are parts of some of the entries: 

Birthplace:  Livermore Falls, Maine, a town on the Androscoggin River, run by a paper mill. 

Dates (what do you mean “Dates”?):  August 11, 1897.  Ten years before Auden, Isherwood, and L. MacNeice, and about two thousand after Sappho.  This was quite a while to wait, wasn’t it. 

Parentage:  Need we go into this? 

Education: … I got A in everything, one year.  (Boston University gave me $5.00 in gold, too, as the finest writer of verse in the place, and you can imagine the effect that had upon me.) 

Development:  Slow and unsteady. 

Political convictions:  NONE. 

She had no taste for publicity, and bantering deflection was, for her, uncharacteristically frank.  That same year, though, the Partisan Review published a written interview in which she sat up straight. 

My “classical” education was severe, and I read Latin prose and poetry and Xenophon and the Iliad, during my adolescence.  Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement, and the French poets read at its suggestion, were strong influences experienced before I was twenty.  The English metaphysicals … provided another literary pattern, and Yeats influenced my writing from 1916, when I first read Responsibilities. 

She had attended Girls’ Latin School in Boston.  Elsewhere she spoke of romantics, William Morris and the Rosettis, as early tastes.  She had an abiding admiration for Henry James.  Whitman she grew out of at sixteen.  When asked about her “audience,” she gave a telling statement of what kind of animal she believed the artist to be: 

It has been borne in upon me, in the last ten years, that there are only a few people capable of the aesthetic experience, and that, in this group, some persons who are able to appreciate “form” in the graphic arts, cannot recognize it in writing, just as there are writers who cannot “hear” music, or “see” painting.  This small element in the population remains, it seems to me, more or less constant, and penetrates class distinctions. … I have never seen a person in whom the gift was not native actually experience the “shock of recognition” which a poem (or any work of art) gives its appreciator. 

This ‘artistic Calvinism’ led her to see poets in essentialist terms (she once remarked that Richard Wilbur was “composed of valid ingredients”), and in her criticism, which has fallen unaccountably off our radar, there is a humane, sober, and striking attention to the generating circumstances of the individual.  As for herself, she was raised in the Catholic Church, 

and was exposed to real liturgy, instead of the dreary “services” and the dreadful hymnody of the Protestant churches.  There was a Celtic gift for language, and talent in the form of a remarkable excess of energy, on the maternal side of the family. … I did not know I was a member of a class until I was twenty-one;  but I knew I was a member of a racial and a religious minority, from an early age. 

The awareness of cultural situation and the awareness of artistic loneliness somewhere coincide;  if you accept Bogan’s belief that artists are born and not made, then it is reasonable to suppose that they come to see themselves, in the fullness of time, as possessing characteristics by which, but for their talent, they would belong.  These characteristics might then participate in the artistic process as well as shape it.  Religion, sect, nation, region, education, generation, sex, and vocation she held to be meaningful determinants of a poet’s writing, and she employed them as first principles from which its qualities could be deduced.  (In practice she did not have much recourse to the opposite process, which is induction through close reading.)  Whether the poet in question is unabashedly exploiting his circumstances, or is running from them as fast as he can, or is sweeping them under the rug, the circumstances are important, and Bogan was able to discuss them in terms of some nuance, force, and generosity.  In characterizing Marianne Moore, she first notes a strain not typically esteemed in modernism:  that of the Renaissance scholar, the inquisitive connoisseur not content to recycle old learning, “to whom nothing was alien, and for whom man was the measure of all.”  She has a seventeenth-century mind.  But there is another line in her as well;  Moore 

shows – and not to her demerit – a definite influence derived from that Protestantism against whose vigor the vigor of the Baroque was actively opposed.  Miss Moore is a descendant not of Swiss or Scotch, but of Irish presbyters.  She is, therefore, a moralist (though a gentle one) and a stern – though flexible – technician. 

I cannot read this without irritation at an upbringing that has given me no means to understand that “therefore,” and I am amazed that such a short time ago the functional difference between Swiss and Irish presbyters was a matter of common knowledge – and not only a matter of common knowledge, but one understood to have moral force, with artistic consequences.  It wouldn’t be outrageous to come across such a passage today, but, in its blithe linkage of antecedent facts and observable qualities, it would seem insufficiently deferential to the subject’s capacity for self-invention, and, in invoking matters of religious and ethnic background in a way that does not necessarily lead to praise, it would make people squirm. 

In Bogan’s criticism, though, these inquiries do generally lead to praise, and she is inclined to give her subjects the benefit of any doubt about their characters.  You don’t have to collect many anecdotes about the Great Poets before you throw up your hands and write them off as a bunch of asses, twits, and maniacs.  But Bogan, attentive as she was to the nature of the clay in the personality, had a warm respect for what it took to mold it into an artist.  So, while her pedigree of Yeats is not particularly illuminating from a literary standpoint (“Yeats’s mother was a Pollexfen;  her stock was Cornish – that is to say, English-Celtic”), her tribute to Yeats’ early development has given me my first admiration for the man since learning he had himself injected with monkey glands.  Yeats appears, 

in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being:  a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses.  The young man’s more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer.  But it was during these early years that Yeats was building himself, step by step, into a person who could not only cope with reality but bend it to his will. … Realizing that he was “only self-possessed with people he knew intimately,” he would go to a strange house “for a wretched hour for schooling’s sake.”  And because he wished “to be able to play with hostile minds” he trained out of himself, in the midst of harsh discussion, the sensitive tendency “to become silent at rudeness.” 

While poets in Bogan’s picture were blessed with the gift of the aesthetic experience, they were also people who, through work and struggle, wrought the necessary spiritual conditions for the flourishing of their gift.  In her own case, the presiding obstacle was the middle-class imperative to pander, and aspire, to Waspiness, notwithstanding the bigotry she found in that stratum, and the disappointment at learning it was no more enlightened than her own.  (“These tendencies,” she wrote, “I have wrung out of my spiritual constitution with a great deal of success, I am proud to say.”)  So, in her consideration of poets, a nobility keeps peeping through where literary history has since seen fit to declare pettiness.  Frost, for example, I have received as a sort of conservative, relative to his contemporaries, a fundamentally worldly man affecting ruralisms to draw on the powerful sense of dispossession in pastoral myth.  But Bogan buys the Farmer Brown bit more or less at face value, and comes out for him as a regional poet who made good, and who was canny enough to snatch one of the last artistically viable folk traditions in the industrializing West.  He was a true rejuvenating agent, particularly in Britain, and an Imagist pendant la lettre.  She quotes Eleanor Farjeon, a friend of Edward Thomas, who visited the Frosts at their cottage during their stay in Herefordshire: 

His manner was friendly and demonstrative.  He looked at you directly;  his talk was shrewd and speculative, withholding nothing and derived from nobody but himself.  His New England speech came readily and leisurely, and of all the writers of worth I had met, he spoke with the least sophistication.  [He was] unhurried in all he said and did. 

On coming across this, it occurred to me that I had never read anything sympathetic to the man before, and indeed Bogan includes it for no other reason than to show us a person at equilibrium, not falling over himself to prove his authenticity, or to attract attention.  Bogan reads him as a bard of “a dying region’s ingrown life,” of “its terrors and stratagems;  its common sense and its groundwork of human dignity,” and praises his ability to achieve intense effects with dialect and dramatic situation “although his material is continually working against this intensification toward a lower level, that of the sentimental-colloquial.”  She often tried a materialist tack on poets, which in Frost’s case leads to talking about omission:  the mills and the immigrants come to feed them have no presence to speak of in his work, and although his characters do go one-on-one with the machine, he does not care to examine the larger consequences of industry on the community.  Bogan does not place any fundamental limitation here – a readership that goes to him for pastoral nostalgia, she says, has only itself to blame – but, in the stoic philosophizing that he gave himself over to, she espies a setting and hardening that is no less damaging for being true to his own vision: 

“Let what will be, be” became his creed;  he reinforced this stoicism, which in itself had a certain dignity, with an active insistence upon burrowing under and digging safely in.  We see in this attitude the ancient conservatism of the man who depends upon the earth for his living;  but Frost’s later work seems to base its skepticism less upon intelligent common sense than upon unthinking timidity.  The appeal Frost made to large numbers of people began to be attached to a series of refusals rather than to a set of affirmations. 

She hogtied poet after poet like this, with an untrickable sense of how powers enable and disable, how shticks undo themselves and become liabilities.  There is seldom a need for a full frontal critical assault.  It’s as if Bogan’s alertness to the dynamics of artistic formation lends itself just as well to the dynamics of artistic dissolution, so at every turn there is a resonant appraisal of the compromises, Hobson’s choices, and desperate psychic deals that poets make to stay in the game.  

For Hart Crane’s idealistic materialism, his project to make a sacrament out of modernity and find a god in the machine, she gave this eulogy: 

Crane’s symbol broke down not merely because Crane’s vision was inadequate, but because his faith in his precarious imaginative connections was never steady.  Despair and the facts of evil kept breaking into his pure design.  He himself could not help but realize that his wish to construct extenuating spiritual faith from physical facts was mistaken from the first;  and his knowledge of his initial mistake keeps breaking through, in flashes of poetic insight. … The truth, soon to be recognized by poets who closely followed him in time, that the more man is mechanized, the more he is alone, was a truth that Crane sensed intuitively;  it is upon his unconscious knowledge of this truth that his best work is based.

The assessment gives him about as much credit as it is possible to give, while still maintaining the unsoundness of his method.  Success and failure interlace;  his best work is based on intermittent knowledge of a truth that, if clearly grasped, would have resulted in no Hart Crane at all, as we know him. 

As for Carl Sandburg, he was a Scandinavian mystic dropped on Illinois to praise its packing houses, mills, and factories, and hold them up to the cities that were a little embarrassed by them.  His sin was the elevation of the folk idiom at the expense of poetry’s: 

Sandburg’s chief insight was his understanding that folk material never ceases to be produced – that it flows and renews itself continually in popular forms and in common speech.  His chief fault was his romantic insistence on the complete and all-embracing worth of this folk material. 


His tribute to the power resident in the common man, his recognition of the indestructible human virtues layered between the waste, the disorder and violence of an industrial society, were well-founded.  His celebration of these truths, however, became increasingly diffuse and sentimental as time went on. 

Bogan was deeply interested in the intersections between folk and high art traditions, and her criticism (though not her poetry) pursues the matter in the particular and the abstract.  Lorca and Yeats (as well as Frost) she seemed envious of, for their having had access, as late as they did, to a usable body of earthy lore. 

As for Wallace Stevens, the enchantment of his funhouse and calliope began to pall as it became clear what he was up to (he himself did a lot of the clarifying), and his substitution of symbol manipulation and juxtaposition for flesh-and-blood began to look like exactly that. 

And there is something theatrical in much of his writing;  his emotions seem to be transfixed, rather than released and projected, by his extraordinary verbal improvisations.  Now that he is so widely imitated, it is important to remember that his method is a special one;  that modern poetry has developed transparent, overflowing, and spontaneous qualities that Stevens ignores.  It is also useful to remember (as Apollinaire knew) that since the imagination is part of life, it must have its moments of awkwardness and naïveté, and must seek out forms in which it may move and breathe easily, in order that it may escape both strain and artificiality. 

Naturalness, humanism, and truth-to-life are the upheld virtues.  But there is also a wish to retain means and possibilities of method when it appears they may be slipping out of the collective repertoire – the sporting critique of a style must include a bid for the transmission and retention of its alternatives.  It sounds like Stevens might have been excused for his quirks, if he hadn’t been so widely imitated.  Bogan is, in this sense, a conservative critic, monitoring the striving of opposing principles, arguing for balance, and pulling the art back from its gaffes rather than pushing it into one of its possible futures.  She never bludgeons poems with a principle, preferring to orient herself on “good horse sense” (as she put it) and skepticism.  The kind of systematization that leads to and from such principles is rare.  She avoids received names for schools and movements (‘Black Mountain,’ ‘Beats’).  She kneels unshod before the poet and the poems, and, barring an articulated interest in form, does not use her critical position to come out for her own poetry in any way I can detect.  She differs in this from a poet-critic like Yvor Winters, who seems to be cheering for his poetry in his prose and for his prose in his poetry, who marks the same territory with each.  The sensibility of her criticism – catholic, broad-spirited, wishing well with a cocked eyebrow – is not precisely aligned with that of the poems, which quite patently have a palette:  they value certain effects over others, are obsessive, and apply a set of terms to experience consistently.  The stupendous short anthology at the end of Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950 shows a taste that has attained its cultivation without souring or closing itself to pleasure coming from various and unexpected directions;  but for Bogan we would never have had, cheek by jowl, Dickinson’s “Exclusion,” Edgar Lee Masters’ “Petit, The Poet,” Robinson’s “Bewick Finzer,” two poems of Gertrude Stein totaling three lines (about the right amount), John Crowe Ransom’s “Piazza Piece,” Léonie Adams’ “Country Summer,” Eliot’s “Mélange adultère de tout,” Crane’s “The Air Plant” and “The Hurricane” (what weird choices!), Moore’s “The Paper Nautilus,” Karl Shapiro’s “Troop Train,” Auden’s “Cattivo Tempo,” and Pound’s “Liu Ch’e.” 

As for the latter’s descent out of the family of man, culminating in his 1943 indictment for treason, she gave this objective reconstruction: 

Pound’s loyalties are directed toward the Good and Stable State and the Noble Leader.  Against his Good (which is always “earth-bound”), Wickedness rather than Evil is arrayed.  In a materialist universe, Change becomes the enemy of Permanence;  Time is shut away from the Timeless.  In the absence of any concept of fundamental Evil, some human conspiracy against the Good Life must be constructed;  this conspiracy finally objectified itself in Pound’s thought as money, and the manipulation of money known as usury.  His passion for the Great Man led him, as Eliot has warned that it must lead anyone, to the worship of Dictatorship. … The future must judge whether his crude mistakes in theory and conduct entirely negate his frequent triumphs as a writer. 

The future has judged.  In my library copy of the book, someone has circled the word “conduct” and written, in the margin, “Shit.” 

Not everyone got let down easy.  Robinson Jeffers, in his pulpit on the California coast, overindulged in disappointment in the species, and found himself inflating his ego where he meant to make it disappear.  “The Romantic poet,” Bogan wrote, “should not continue, over a long period, to excoriate the humanity of which he is a member.”  His “bitter earnestness,” like a pair of tongs with which he handled fire and brimstone, separated him from the supple expressiveness that could have been meant, for him, alleviation and maturation. 

“In very truth, the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.”  Such a man is also protected against ultimate confusion and obsession.  Jeffers’ great talents, allowed some humble relation to the race, which, whatever its faults, can at least laugh and change, might have escaped the limits that now increasingly distort them. 

(She was less diplomatic in private – in a letter she wrote, “What an ass that man is!  Him and his Pacific Ocean!”)  It is a particularly Boganese damnation, to know no sorrow, to be denied ultimate confusion and obsession, and to fail to change.  Her poems thrive with the fear of it, and the threat of it provoked, in her correspondence and journals, strenuous responses.  Bogan visited Ireland in 1937, making an agreement with her friend Morton Zabel that she would not keep a diary, but write him daily, on the condition that he would give the letters back to her when she returned.  They apparently forgot about the letters, or Bogan assumed he had discarded them, and when in 1941 Bogan discovered that he had kept them, she was livid.  She rebuked him for a professorial tendency to “chill people into literary figures,” and, by way of explaining that this was a bad thing, reminded him of a discussion at their last meeting in which he had done a hatchet job on Auden while outlandishly praising Moore and Stevens: 

M. Moore is a remarkable writer;  and so is Stevens.  They will continue to write good poetry, I hope, for a long time to come.  But the thing that attracts you to them, instead of to Auden, is THAT THEY ARE FIXED AND FINISHED.  They will never surprise anyone again.  They will never break down or up or take to drink or religion or run off with anyone’s wife or husband.  They are half-dead already;  whereas Auden might surprise everyone by becoming a either a circus clown, a caterer, a caitiff, or a killer or a clergyman, tomorrow.  He might do anything. 

Bogan closed quite finally, prepared never to speak to him again.  “I pack a heavy, living wallop,” she said, and would abide no implications to the contrary.  They did eventually reconcile, and Zabel threw this letter in the pile with the rest of them.  The episode remains one of very few cases where what she did is more illuminating than what she said about what she did.  The settled, private life that was necessary for her balance – much of which, presumably, was spent in contemplation of fixed and finished literature – produced a toxin, in that it made it difficult to keep alive a sense of possibility.  There was no danger of her joining the circus.  The fear of being done truly upended her, and there is perhaps one other instance in her letters where she seems set off like this, handled rather than handling.  Auden and Isherwood were in town, and she wrote to Edmund Wilson asking him to keep them away from her (she hadn’t met them before): 

I have no interest in seeing them, in their present phase, and I certainly don’t want to be displayed to them as a curiosity:  a female criminal-poet.  Being a poet, I am of course automatically a criminal;  but I can’t say that I want to spend an evening being examined by two visiting Englishmen, as a queer specimen.  So let’s forget it. 

There is more going on here than protection of privacy, or Anglophobia, or the poet’s self-consciousness at being useless (on that score, she was no more useless than Auden or Isherwood).  She feared their attention would be in some sense summary, that it would not cross the obstacles of sex and nationality (and perhaps age – they were ten years younger) to find a living rapport.  She saw herself, before their gaze, as pickled in formaldehyde or pinned on corkboard, and this was as grim a fate as being tucked in an envelope. 

The other ninety-nine percent of the letters have a breezy self-possession that precedes whatever joy, sorrow, irritation, or bemusement she happens to be writing about, and her journals, even when they tremble, carry the poise of the cahier.  She eventually became chummy with Auden (he delivered her eulogy at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in 1970) and found virtues in him that lay underneath his talent.  She wrote to Zabel, 

I do think him a real and natural person.  Complicated as all hell, of course;  and I should hate to cross him;  but fundamentally sound, tender and full of Recognitions, and AMOR.  He … said of Allen [Tate]:  “If you’re going to set yourself up to be the greatest highbrow on earth, you must at least be a tremendously clever man.”  He couldn’t get over my obscurity;  and I told him that it was because I wasn’t respectable.  “But that wouldn’t count among members of the academic world,” SAID HE, INNOCENTLY.  –He left me with the gift of a package of Lucky Strikes;  and didn’t drink up all his share of the Scotch. 

Many have remarked on the ‘timeless’ or ‘Elizabethan’ idiom of her poetry, but insofar as it is there, it cannot be put down to a retirement or shrinking from spoken American, whose frisky, one-step-ahead-of-you, Bogart-and-Bacall variant reached its high water mark at the heart of Bogan’s career.  She reveled in it, and was quick in her reviews to point out artificiality of slang and colloquialism.  More hidden is her wit, which, given all of her poetry and criticism on a platter, you would still pretty much have to guess at.  She wrote to Wilson with a poem she had just discovered: 

The Vision of Willie Yeats

Suddenly into my chamber, I certainly would be at a loss to say from where,
A large roomy animal with mad abstract eyes, and considerable concrete hair
Advanced toward me with astronomical slowness, as I sat glued to my Byzantine
While the sizzle of either Mrs. Yeats frying sausages, or sausages frying Mrs. Yeats,
slouched up the winding stair.

 Thoore Ballylee and Coole (about 70 degrees F.)
 St. Patrick’s Eve, 1937 

She had also gushed to Wilson in 1935 about an affair she was having: 

I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name.  He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs) and he writes very very small lyrics.  26 years old and a frightful tank.  We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. … Well!  Such goings-on!  A woman of my age! … –I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about. 

My favorite crack is probably in a letter to John Law Wheelock, an editor at Scribner’s, chiding him for blurbing Raymond Holden with a nonexistent book, and providing a list of her own nonexistent titles, including 

Five Fingers (1902)

The Werewolf of Amalfi (1905)

Guide to the Bowery Savings Bank (1930)

My Ornaments Are Arms (1935) 

She was suspicious of this facility and perhaps doubted she could make anything literary of it.  “The gift of wit,” she wrote, “as unmistakable (and as inescapable) as a gift for chess or higher mathematics, has its limits and its dangers.”  To indulge it can lead to brittleness;  to ignore it is to ignore all of humanity’s goofy side, and court a debilitating sonorousness.  Her wariness won out, and the wit in the poems, though present (“Hypocrite Swift” might be the best example), is judiciously submerged.  This and the other striking qualities of her poems – brevity, density (Moore titled her article on Bogan “Compactness Compacted”), polished surfaces, aversion to description and narrative – encourage an overly clean creation myth, in which the gems are fetched whole from the mine and placed in their settings with no intervening steps.  But the sibyl’s private life emerges as one of some material and artistic difficulty.  Two days after Pearl Harbor, her eighty year-old father ill, she wrote to William Shawn, hat in hand: 

I find myself, this winter, in the most precarious financial position … I have been forced to economize down to subsistence level … Since 1936 I feel that I have made the Verse department, step by step, into a real influence.  … And I was touched, last winter, to hear that W. H. Auden had spoken his mind freely, saying to many people that I was the best critic of poetry in America. … [I]f the magazine thinks it can add something to my weekly check, I should feel that I could see my way out of my encircling glooms;  and, next summer, begin to pay back what I still owe to the magazine. 

And in 1934 she wrote to Zabel, aghast at the toll writing was taking on her: 

Morton, I produced two poems, and sold them both for bread and shoes.  I shall produce two or three more … But thereafter the fountain will be sealed for good, I’m thinking.  With Eliot, I pronounce poetry a mug’s game (I called it a gull’s game for years).  I can no longer put on the “lofty dissolute air” necessary for poetry’s production;  I cannot and I will not suffer for it any longer.  With detachment and sanity I shall, in the future, observe;  if to fall to the ground with my material makes me a madwoman, I abjure the trade … Forgive me for not being a female Dante … 

In the event she did not abjure the trade, and suffered for it for thirty-six more years (she did not quit The New Yorker until the year before her death).  I cannot tell how much of a sneer there is in the ‘forgive me’;  she cannot have believed that he believed that she was writing to please him, or anyone, nor does her ambition often surface in overt, comparative terms (she does at one point aspire to be the “Christina Rosetti of our day, only not so good”).  Her mid-thirties were tumultuous – she separated from her second husband in 1934 and finalized the divorce three years later, when The Sleeping Fury was published – and she seems, around this time, to really come into her own.  In one letter from that period, there is a glimpse of the mess and froth of her life caught in the act of being rendered down.  Onto a letter to Wilson she tacked a poem, hardly more than a draft, called “Lines Written After Detecting in Myself a Yearning Toward the Large, Wise, Calm, Richly Resigned, Benignant Act Put on by a Great Many People After Having Passed the Age of Thirty-Five”: 

For every great soul who died in his house and his wisdom
Several did otherwise.
God, keep me from the fat heart that looks vaingloriously toward peace and
Protect me not from lies.
In Thy infinite certitude, tenderness and mercy
Allow me to be sick and well,
So that I may never tread with swollen foot the calm and obscene intentions
That pave hell.
Shakespeare, Milton, Matthew Arnold died in their beds,
Dante above the stranger’s stair.
They were not absolved from either the courage or the cowardice
With which they bore what they had to bear.
Swift died blind, deaf and mad;
Socrates died in his cell;
Baudelaire died in his drool;
Proving no rule. 

It is a prayer to keep changing, and, with its bombast and its swollen feet, it stinks.  Elbow grease turned this, eventually, into “To an Artist, to Take Heart”: 

Slipping in blood, by his own hand, through pride,
Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus fall.
Upon his bed, however, Shakespeare died,
Having endured them all. 

In the visual arts, iterations (like making the same figurine a hundred times) lead to abstraction;  here the working and reworking have abstracted the core principle from the original, that is, that the artist is not exempt from life, but doubly and trebly liable.  It has also turned the self-address outward (nominally), and disposed of all the Writers but one, who weren’t proving any rule in the first place.  And a little bit of mystery has entered.  If you breeze through the poem, you might gather that the artist is supposed to take heart in the fact that he will die in his bed, while others with worldly ambitions meet untidy ends.  But the verb is “endured,” not “outlived.”  Like a coward, the artist dies a hundred deaths, and he can take heart in this, as it means he is, in his abjectness, not merely a commentator. 

Bogan collected all the poems she wished to preserve in The Blue Estuaries, which appeared in 1968.  It runs to all of 136 pages, including ten previously uncollected poems, and is chocked from one end to the other with the type of bitter consolation and sharp study of dénouement found in “To an Artist.”  It is a strangely visual title for a writer who kept her painterly faculty tightly reined;  the body of work does not derive its force from sensuousness, but from the compelling irony and inexorability of a syllogism that runs something like this: 

  • The promise of the eternal, whether in the form of love, beauty, eroticism, knowledge, or spiritual perfection, is perpetually alluring.
  • The eternal is, by nature, a static state, reached by a consummation that can have no further ramifications.
  • The eternal is perforce life-denying and repulsive. 

So it is that our hero tramps off, in stanza one, poem one (“A Tale”), to make a mark – 

This youth too long has heard the break
Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange. 

His life has come to seem precious; 

The arrowed vane announcing weather,
The tripping racket of a clock; 

are driving him crazy, but even the poet must guess at exactly what he is looking for.  He breaks with his old life, 

Seeking, I think, a light that waits
Still as a lamp upon a shelf,—
A land with hills like rocky gates
Where no sea leaps upon itself. 

It is a land where Constancy has deposed Mutability.  He is in for it – the poet is sure of that much: 

But he will find that nothing dares
To be enduring, save where, south
Of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beauty with a rusted mouth,—

Where something dreadful and another
Look quietly upon each other. 

She purports, effectively, to have been to this country, and seen this.  The closing image is truly terrible – I would not call it unduly aestheticized – and would promise violence if it were capable of motion.  The fire, like the sea, cannot be arrested;  it has been torn from the land of the living, and does not belong.  The rust represents decay more than decaying.  Pursued to its lair, beauty has no prize, and offers no wisdom;  does nothing, in the end, but challenge you to an unwinnable staring contest.  Elsewhere (“Medusa”), beauty is literally cast in the figure of a gorgon, and on beholding her the poet is left with only her own petrifaction to consider, and her view of the earth as it was at the moment they met: beauty brings end without ending. 

Love fares no better than beauty.  In “Betrothed,” she sits on a riverbank, meditating on the end or the beginning of an affair.  It scarcely matters which;  proximately love promises tumult, and ultimately it delivers – if all goes well – the stasis of its own perfection:  

What have I thought of love?
I have said, “It is beauty and sorrow.”
I have thought that it would bring me lost delights, and splendor
As a wind out of old time….

But there is only the evening here,
And the sound of willows
Now and again dipping their long oval leaves in the water. 

The psalm-like cadences sit well with these free lines;  it seems to be a case where a tighter form would not have gotten the sense of emptiness, the sense of trailing off, quite right.  But if love leads to this, what does lack of love lead to?  In “Ad Castitatem,” she calls on Chastity, harboring no illusion that it will lead her somewhere love has not:  “Struck by the same withering/Lie the fruitful and the barren branch.”  She invokes it nevertheless. 

Hear me, infertile,
Beautiful futility. 

I almost overdose on assonance here, but the strangeness of the gesture taking place distracts me from it.  Chastity is futile because, in time, either the temptation and appeal of love will resurface and win, or one will have arrived, by other means, at the same place that love delivers one to.  So, by her own reckoning, she has chosen a path that is more difficult than love, that will yield to love, or produce the same self-defeating result as love.  These abnegating gestures are Bogan’s spiritually preservative acts, her inverted carpe diems – in a personality fundamentally life-seeking and -affirming, but terribly aware of the consequences of that affirmation (a sty of contentment), her will could assert itself by at least trying to step off the treadmill of seeking her own erasure in love, beauty, and knowledge. 

These poems, for all their talk of love and beauty, are rather grim, and if you pay any attention at all to what she is saying, it is like staring into a very bright bulb.  When she puts her voice in another mouth, though, she’s often able to get across the full complexity of her predicament without an excess of intensity.  The five couplets of “Juan’s Song” comprise the creed of a serial lover’s temperament, which she does and does not wish for: 

When beauty breaks and falls asunder
I feel no grief for it, but wonder.
When love, like a frail shell, lies broken,
I keep no chip of it for token. 

Juan expects no delivery at the hands of beauty, and receives none;  he is numb of heart and clear of mind.  He would no more keep souvenirs of his conquests than he would bring oyster shells and steak bones home from a restaurant.  In his callow way, he is a vital being because he has not invested love with the power to change him. 

I never had a man for friend
Who did not know that love must end.
I never had a girl for lover
Who could discern when love was over. 

A world of ethics is brought in to supercede love and sit over and above it, as if it were a sporting event, with judges.  But the girls do not seem to know the rules, and, indeed, they have their own:  love, for them, is not over.  He is whole in motion and they are whole at rest.  Their schematics of love are incommensurable.  The only remaining question is whether he will have contempt for them, or for himself;  so the poem ends delicately in posing a question: 

What the wise doubt, the fool believes—
Who is it, then, that love deceives? 

Where he has construed love as ephemeral, the girls have construed it as eternal – and they may be right.  In that gesture I feel the poem reaching ignition – in Bogan’s showing her lack of contempt for Don Juan by showing his lack of contempt for her.  He is an emotional hunchback, ‘protected from ultimate confusion’ by incapacity and the banality of his desire. 

“The Alchemist” is also in this vein, and I still read its first two lines wide-eyed, as if watching a guru stick a needle through his cheek: 

I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind, 

All alchemists are frauds, as we now know, and lead can’t be turned into gold;  we cannot think 

Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief. 

The regret is so lyrical, has had so much time to take itself apart, that it is as if we were speaking to the Alchemist of Spoon River.  There is no suspense;  it is only a question of how he fails.  As it develops, not tragically – 

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.

– but with the shrug of a scientist’s negative result.  The mind’s avid substance will not yield itself up to abnegation, which presents itself as the surest way to shut out the flawed light of love and grief.  I respond to the absoluteness of the alchemist’s commitment, the confidence of his metrical contract (though both “utter fire” and “sudden thresh” strike me as padded).  The poem is content to end in mystery, but I am not quite content to leave it there.  Where does this standoff between upward-wishing purification and the recalcitrance of human sensuousness leave us?  Diane Middlebrook points out in an essay the similarity between the alchemist and the voice of “Sailing to Byzantium,” keen to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.  But, where Yeats finds his spiritual domain and lives there happily ever after, Bogan declares it a fiction, and will have none of it.  

William Heyen, also writing about this poem, bridled at the roster of mushy nouns deployed here:  “[a]ll this flesh, will, mind, passion, love, grief, breath, desire add up to an imagined garden without toads.”  All of these, alarmingly, do occur in the poem.  Part of the objection to them is that they are phanopoetically weak, which is true, but probably understood and intended.  Another part of the objection to them is that they collectively add up to a canned aesthete’s idiom (combing out some of her other poems, I would probably add “mirror,” “sea,” “shell,” and all four seasons) that operates at the level of garden statuary.  And this is deeply ironic, because in their living fiber the poems have a deep revulsion to prettification, and fight tooth and nail the romantic impulse to languish.  Barring the rare travel poem (“Italian Morning,” maybe) there is nothing in her work that you could call recollected in tranquility. 

“Cassandra,” Bogan’s anthology piece, is probably the best of her monologues.  It could be the ur-Glück poem, in which the unheeded prophetess of Troy articulates her peculiar damnation.  As with “Juan’s Song,” we have some grasp of the speaker’s predicament at line one, and a large amount can be accomplished in a small space: 

To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride.
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Song, like a wing, tears through my breast, my side,
And madness chooses out my voice again,
Again.  I am the chosen no hand saves:
The shrieking heaven lifted over men,
Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves. 

She is not particularly interested in her own predictions (“one silly task is like another”), which bear on men just wearing deeper ruts in ancient sins.  She has no regret regarding her lack of influence, and does not fume at the inability of the world to make good use of her;  her thoughts are for how her humanity and femininity are ruptured by her curse — that is, by virtual exile, by childlessness, and by the taint of madness, all of which leave her at an untouchable remove.  Even her dealing in trickery, lust, and pride cannot muddy her.  The poem is camouflaged as a plain statement of Bogan’s condition (or just about anyone’s condition) as a working poet;  underneath that, it is something very different – the utterance of a psyche that, like Juan’s, is caught in circumstances alien to the poet.  If Juan was cursed by an inability to grasp the eternal, Cassandra is cursed by an inability to grasp anything but. 

Auden hit Cassandra’s mix of modesty and pride on the nose in his 1942 Partisan Review piece, “The Rewards of Patience,” which remains the most elaborate and powerful cheer I have found for Bogan’s work, and is a white-hot essay in its own right.  He begins with Kierkegaard: “[i]t is modest of the nightingale not to require anyone to listen to it;  but it is also proud of the nightingale not to care whether anyone listens to it or not….”  The faculty of the nightingale is like the faculty of genius, and because the public “wish genius to express that it exists for their sake,” they do not see its modest side, and a hunger develops to which the artist is perpetually tempted to cater.  The hunger is public, as opposed to communitarian.  The terms receive a near-mathematical definition and scrutiny (he might have done better to make up two new ones): 

A public is a disintegrated community.  A community is a society of rational beings united by a common tie in virtue of the things that they all love;  a public is a crowd of lost beings united only negatively in virtue of the things that they severally fear, among which one of the greatest is the fear of being responsible as a rational being for one’s individual self-development. 

Out of this fear, a public is, in principle, rabid for art.  But it repudiates it in practice, because what art offers can be enjoyed only individually, since the public has nothing affirmative in common.  So forces conspire to turn the poet into a journalist – that is, a being whose song is conditioned not by changes in himself, but by changes in public taste.  In the good old days, when communities existed, the poet would have found his meaning within one or in rejecting one;  absent this substrate, he must drift along, either pandering to the public or picking at his own autobiography: 

it was in the community that he formerly found a source of value outside himself, and unless he now can replace this vanished source by another, or at least search for it, his only standard for appreciating experience is The Interesting, which in practice means his childhood and his sex-life, so that he escapes being a journalist who fawns on the public only to become a journalist who fawns on his own ego;  the selection and treatment of experience is still conditioned by its news value.  In the case of much ‘advanced’ poetry, the public is therefore, though quite unjustifiably, quite right in repudiating it;  not because, as the public thinks, it is too difficult, but because, once one has learned the idiom, it is too easy;  one can translate it immediately and without loss of meaning into the language of the Daily Press.  Far from being what it claims to be, and is rejected by the public for being, 

            The shrieking heaven lifted over men 

it is, what the public demands but finds elsewhere in much better brands, 

            The dumb earth wherein they set their graves 

So Bogan’s work wins twice:  once for defeating public temptation, and once for defeating private.  So far so good.  Auden mentions poets (including Housman and Dickinson) who never get beyond this stage, they so dread change in their life and their art – “for a change in the former threatens the source of the latter which is one’s only consolation, and the latter can only change by ceasing to console.”  Bogan required change and dreaded the lack of it, so there was little danger of her stopping here.  But another shoal is already looming.  The poet who escapes the correspondence of between life (public and private) and art now 

falls into the error of denying that there need be any relation at all, into believing that the poetry can develop autonomously, provided that the poet can find it a convenient Myth.  For the Myth is a set of values and ideas which are impersonal and so break the one-one relationship of poetry to experience by providing other standards of importance than the personally interesting, while at the same time it is not a religion, that is to say, it does not have to believed in real life, with all the effort and suffering which that implies. 

If your life gets too far ahead of your work, you are doomed to write about the Interesting.  If your work gets too far ahead of your life, you are doomed to produce “Occasional poems lacking any resonance beyond their frame.”  Bogan did not buy the Myth, either, and so in reaching this point has attained a very high level of development, and sits in rarefied company – ahead, by this measure, of Yeats, Housman, and Dickinson.  The price paid in loneliness to reach this point is almost prohibitive, but “[i]t is, for the strong, a joy to know that now there are no longer any places of refuge in which one can lie down in comfort, that one must on or go under, live dangerously or not at all.” 

What type of maturation is possible for a poet who has built a cage out of her own condition?  Serene resignation is off the table, as she has made it clear that the end of change is tantamount to death.  When resignation does appear in the poems, she is making do with crummy indications of change, not going without them.  If she can propel herself forward by jettisoning the bountiful, the promising, the gentle, the comely, she will.  “The Crows”: 

The woman who has grown old
And knows desire must die,
Yet turns to love again,
Hears the crows’ cry. 

Crows herald nothing but their own presence.  They do not sing because of the season, or because hawks are near, or out of joy;  it is merely in their constitution to 

… slide in the air with the same voice
Over what yields not, and what yields,
Alike in spring, and when there is only bitter
Winter-burning in the fields. 

The pinched, bleak life of the crow is, after all, a kind of life.  Winter-burning is, after all, a kind of burning.  As it becomes clearer that Bogan has no place to lay her head, nowhere to rest, her work becomes more and more harrowing.  Her paradise – ‘paradise’ coming to us from the Persian for ‘walled garden’ – was an uneasy place at best, like Donne’s in “Twicknam Garden”: 

And that this place may thoroughly be thought
   True Paradise, I have the serpent brought. 

She carried the serpent with her.  “Statue and Birds”: 

Here, in the withered arbor, like the arrested wind,
Straight sides, carven knees,
Stands the statue, with hands flung out in alarm
Or remonstrances. 

The statue remonstrates, the arbor withers, the wind is snagged;  as the poem goes on, a fountain falters, pheasants drag their tails, and the “inquietudes of the sap and blood are spent.”  It bears more resemblance to a cemetery, or even a field hospital, than to a place of rejuvenation and collection.  Something drew her there – she is like Odysseus, trying out the Sirens – but its reality is absolutely unnourishing, and its stillness makes it shallow rather than profound.  

As a figure for this stalled spiritual state, a garden is, once you get used to it, a sitting duck, but the effect is more obscure and more interesting when she chooses stranger targets.  Autumn, accustomed to suiting up for poetry as an all-purpose stand-in for Change, becomes, in Bogan, a figure for not changing enough.  She holds her breath, waiting for it to get on with itself: 

The tearless eyes and heart, forbidden grief,
Watch the burned, restless, but abiding leaf,
The brighter branches arming the bright day.

The cone, the curving fruit should fall away,
The vine stem crumble, ripe grain know its sheaf.
Bonded to time, fires should have done, be brief,
But, serfs to sleep, they glitter and they stay. 

Sorrow has become a state of being, and she grows antsy at this, because, absent consummation, it is becoming a caricature of sorrow, a statue of it. 

Sorrow would break the seal stamped over time
And set the baskets where the bough is bent. 

It is a well-thought-out, emotionally coherent response, but it has found a somewhat brittle execution.  It is not archaic so much as terminally prim.  Although her sorrow would break the seal stamped over time, her meter shows no inclination of doing so, and so if one reaches this point in analyzing the poem, one almost likes it in spite of itself.  The entire thrust of its content is away from fixity, and the entire thrust of its form is towards it. 

Robert Pinsky discusses “Simple Autumnal” (in The Situation of Poetry) as a poem that mistrusts description, a technique generally “so pervasive that even to avoid it may demand an act of invention.”  Bogan’s ostensibly visual details, either tautological or not visual at all, do not play well in the theater of the mind – branches arm, fruit curves, stems crumble, grain knows, and fires are serfs.  Sorrow at once performs a highly figurative act (breaking a seal over time) and a literal one (placing baskets).  But they probably were not intended to play at all.  She evinced some frustration at this capacity of language, feeling it to be an enervating distraction.  Here is a journal entry, collected in Ruth Limmer’s mosaic-biography, Journey Around My Room

How preposterous, how unbearable is literature:  reality dished up in the phrase;  men and women inflated out of recognition by the noun, verb, adverb, adjective.  “The willows stood by the stream, their boles gray and pewter in the early light.”  And under them stands a creature without pores in its chin or growing hair or fingernails or teeth (unless they be “discolored” or “beautiful”), and over them hangs “a moon like a slice of melon” or “the million icy points of the stars.” 

This is a different thing from admitting inability.  She could pull description cannily out of a hat, as in “Women”, chastising those who would take her to task for not doing a thing, by doing it: 

They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear. 

That “red,” like a glinting stone, caught Marianne Moore’s attention;  she saw in it a keen eye that had subjected itself to superlatively strict discipline. 

The vision expressed in “Simple Autumnal,” and embedded generally in her thinking, is one in which change that is not aligned with self-interest, or even with survival, may be the best of all available comforts.  It is a wise and idiosyncratic tack, opposed in some important sense to the generally combative Western attitude to mortality, and I think it would appear much stranger without the high degree of polish on her poems’ surfaces, which lulls readers into thinking the matter must draw from emotional convention as it does from formal.  It is not at all unique, and occurs here and there.  There is something like it in Stevens’ “The Poems of Our Climate.”  And in Walcott’s “The Morning Moon,” Walcott is watching the moon set at dawn; 

It’s early December,
the breeze freshens the skin of this earth,
the goose-skin of water,

and I notice the blue plunge
of shadows down Morne Coco Mountain,
December’s sundial,

happy that the earth is still changing,
that the full moon can blind me with her forehead
this bright foreday morning,

and that fine sprigs of white are springing from my beard. 

I partake of, and understand, Walcott’s bittersweet moment and Bogan’s thoroughgoing fear of waking death;  I, too, am afraid of calcification, though I think it is more likely to come from a failure to exercise my faculties than from an obliterating success.  The commoner fear, I gather, is that one’s friends will lose one’s letters;  that one will not mount the stair;  that one will become a shade of what one hoped to become, and that one will shrink before the acts of courage – some silly, some profound – that lie between oneself and love, between oneself and religious experience, between oneself and peace with the dead, between oneself and deep artistic achievement.  Bogan’s ability to see a hell in Nirvana – all the time – represents a fruitful and truly odd inversion of character, and a wholesale rejection of the romanticism she was weaned on.  She scorned elegy, refusing to luxuriate in the very thing (death) the loss of whose opposite (life) is supposed to be insufferable: 

Shall I be made a panderer to death,
Dig the green ground for darkness underneath,
Let the dust serve me, covering all that was
With all that will be?  Better, from time’s claws,
The hardened face under the subtle wreath. 

The closest thing to an elegy in her body of poems is “To My Brother,” subtitled, with some particularity and tact,  “Killed:  Haumont Wood:  October, 1918.” 

O you so long dead,
You masked and obscure,
I can tell you, all things endure:
The wine and the bread;

The marble quarried for the arch;
The iron become steel;
The spoke broken from the wheel;
The sweat of the long march; 

It doesn’t sound like an address to a brother, and it isn’t, really.  From any other poet, the litany of made and unmade things, of the continuing business of the living, would paint a picture of a renewed and renewing world, healing, if stupidly, from the loss of its wasted lives.  Surely the scab is closing over the wound.  For Bogan, though, “endure” is a tyrannical verb, and the repetitive froth of life in fact keeps the wound of her brother’s death open.  

Though struck by the hooves

Of disaster, of time due,
Of fell loss and gain,
All things remain,
I can tell you, this is true.

Though burned down to stone
Though lost from the eye,
I can tell you, and not lie,—
Save of peace alone. 

It appears superficially that the turning of the world will eventually metabolize her brother’s death, but it turns out something like the opposite of this is true.  Even destruction and time (isn’t time supposed to be omniscient, in poetry?) are not powerful enough to effect a consummation of grief.  It is among my favorites – there is something very good in the candor of “I can tell you” – but the last line is not as strong as it needs to be to bear the weight of being the sole exception to “all things endure,” which is a powerful claim. 

Perhaps my favorite Bogan poem is the late (1954) “Song for the Last Act,” which her friend Rolfe Humphries helped revise (it was originally in four stanzas), and whose repetition device and strongly themed stanzas are, for her, atypical.  You feel an intense shaping intent at work in it – not to be true to form as a concept, but to be true to the form discovered.  After long years, her beloved (herself?) becomes before her eyes a painting, with an orchard and a garden in the background: 

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden.  There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look. 

Gardens alone exercised her;  a painting of a garden must indicate extreme atrophy or decadence.  It is not a conventional image of decay;  but for her, privately, fruition is exactly that, and so the song, felicitously, has celebratory and desperate voices in it. 

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence.  In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift.  The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read. 

It is the weakest of the three, if only because music, in poetry, exists in a no-man’s land between allusion and evocation.  They are the two proverbial people who have too much in common to get along well.  As she enters the double dream, the metaphor drifts;  but it is clear enough that, even having your voice by heart, she cannot make the final, authoritative statement that she wishes to.  The poem recovers well: 

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves,
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the 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. 

Other evocations of sea voyages in Bogan feel sterile, as if she were writing ad copy for cruise lines, but here she does not stint on the visuals (architraves!), and the figurative terms of the voyage – that is, the arrival – and its attendant, defeating melancholy, are, by now, more or less understood.  The poem hatches, line by line, a true journey from a literary egg.  It is saddening that Bogan can go nowhere with perfect knowledge of a person – to have something by heart is, for her, to end.  But whole and forceful poetic statement has come out of the dynamics she spent her career exploring, and one feels that there was no part of them she did not grasp.  She has been true to her premises. 

Bogan wrote to Humphries thanking him for his help, elated at having finished the poem and having proved that the wells had not run dry.  “[A]t least one more poetic work will be published,” she wrote, “proving that women can carry on to some slight degree, in their 50’s!”  She had a pessimistic view of women’s senescence that runs exactly counter to my own impressions – back in 1932 she had written to Zabel about having tea with Willa Cather: 

She is already an old woman, querulous and set in her ways.  She bullies the waiter.  She bewails the good old days when gentlefolk had the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall all to themselves.  (Women collapse so thoroughly, so soon.) 

What she felt, she felt, and following “Song for the Last Act” in The Blue Estuaries there remain only the ten new poems:  she picks up the voice of Miranda (or at any rate a sorcerer’s daughter) and of a young mage, who are perhaps relatives of the alchemist.  In a poem called “March Twilight” she marks the end of the beginning, and, in “July Dawn,” the beginning of the end.  All are tinged with her strange mix of exhortation and abnegation, taking comfort in the terrible, as in “Night” 

—O remember
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart. 

If she had been blessed with another twenty years, I would have wished for more poems in the vein of “Hypocrite Swift” and the explicit Auden imitation “Evening in the Sanitarium,” both of which trade intensity for space, and venture into the wider world with wit and warm curiosity.  Each contains more than two people.  One can only say now that they presented a fruitful direction, and that she had perhaps not exhausted her resources as deeply as she thought.  Her poetry, as it stands, has annealed into a strange alloy of the timeless, the objective, and the idiosyncratic;  it is not particularly ductile or malleable, but it will not tarnish.  Its maker was one who fell in love with beauty, but could not stand the mother-in-law, death, and in the dramatization of this triangle, she, as Malcolm Cowley put it, “has added nothing whatever to our inexhaustible store of trash.” 

It is late spring in New England as I write this.  The forsythia and daffodils have disappeared already, and we have had perhaps a week or two of mild weather, all told.  A cardinal has been up and down the yard puffing his chest.  Bogan’s sense of time is not altogether alien to me – there were weeks in the late summer, particularly as an adolescent, when I would have given blood to have the world get on with itself, to continue.  I am now at an age where my peers have exhausted their explorations and are quickly becoming what they are forever going to be, and that old frustration at the passage of time has swung completely around to fear.  But it has been astonishing, and not difficult, to see the season with Bogan’s eyes, to stir oneself to such an anticipation for its coming beauties and such an impatience for its passing ones that, against one’s training to seize the day and rage against the dying of the light, one does not mind, and almost encourages, time to pass.  I would not have thought that the petals falling from the pear tree could be made to fill one with a sense of gratitude and possibility, of disaster avoided, and of renewal.

About D. H. Tracy

D. H. Tracy is a working poet, critic, and translator. He currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
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