on 23 December 1997
All her life, Louise Bogan exerted almost complete control over which of her poems were published and which were not. Her habit with each of her books, beginning with the Body of This Death (1923), was to exclude any previously published poems which no longer met her standards. Thus, Body of This Death included only one of five poems that had originally been published in the Chicago-based magazine Poetry just two years before. The following book, Dark Summer (1929), included poems Bogan wrote between 1923 and 1929, as well as several from Body of This Death -- but some poems were discarded. And so on: with each new volume, Bogan included poems which survived the winnowing of her rigorous eye, but discarded those with which, for whatever reason, she was no longer pleased. Bogan's final book, The Blue Estuaries, published a year before her death in 1970, collects in one volume all the poems she selected for her personal oeuvre.
The theme of psychological frozenness seemed to have exerted an early fascination for Bogan. "Medusa," for example, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of horrific changelessness. The speaker has seen something terrible -- represented by the Medusa, with her "stiff bald eyes" -- that has becomes transfixed in memory. It is the scene the speaker witnesses, not the speaker herself, that becomes frozen as a result of the encounter with the Medusa. Nothing in process at the beginning of the scene will be fulfilled, nor will anything follow: "The water will always fall, and will not fall."
By comparison, the lines in "The Sleeping Fury," a poem written several years later, are longer and looser than Bogan's usual controlled, formal lines, and they impose a structure fitting to the poem's content of freedom and redemption. The three Furies of Greek myth were responsible for punishing persons guilty of crimes that disturbed the social order -- murder (particularly of family members) or sexual crimes, for example. Here the speaker, whose crime we never learn, has tried to placate the enraged Fury with a burnt sacrifice; but while the sacrifice satisfies the society of which the speaker is a member, the Fury herself is unappeased. The speaker, whose repentance was half-hearted and false -- "The ignoble dream and the mask, sly, with slits at the eyes, / Pretence and half-sorrow, beneath which a coward's hope trembled." -- is still haunted by guilt and the Fury's scourges. It is only when the "scourged advances to meet" the Fury, turning back toward her to accept full punishment, that the Fury's rage come to an end and the speaker feel peace. This is a poem about guilt and expiation, self-confrontation and peace. It is also a poem about justice: "You, who give, unlike men, to expiation your mercy." "Men," says the speaker, will forgive even those who do not atone for their crimes -- but not the Fury, who is undeceived by the speaker's mask of "half-sorrow."
Though hearkening back to different mythological beings and written years apart from each other, "Medusa" and "The Sleeping Fury" are companion pieces, demonstrating Bogan's emotional range: in one poem, the depiction of pschological frozenness; in the other, the breaking open through a difficult self-confrontation to a peace in which even the frightening monster ceases to be frightful. One might speculate on the events in Bogan's life that gave rise to these poems, but we are unlikely to ever know for sure -- Bogan was not a confessional poet.
Most of Bogan's poems are short lyrics. Rarely do they exceed one printed page in length; rarely do they step outside the constraints of "closed" forms. Within those bounds, her close and careful attention to word choice makes even her shortest poems -- "Sub Contra," for example, or "Cassandra" or "The Drum" -- resonate with meaning. Many poets could write five times as many lines, each line twice as long, and not capture what Bogan captures half so well. "Her poems can be read and reread: they keep yielding new meanings, as all good poetry should," wrote Theodore Roethke.
Many of her poems may, however, present difficulties for the first-time reader. "Women are not noted for terseness," wrote Marianne Moore, "but Louise Bogan's poetry is compactness compacted," and Martha Collins has noted how reviewers of Bogan's poetry have frequently referred to Bogan's "craftsmanship" but almost in the same breath to her "obscurity." But given patience, close attention, an alert mind, and a good dictionary, her poems are not only penetrable, but among the best work American poetry has to offer.