'Still it is good to strive': The poetry of Louise Bogan
I first became acquainted with Louise Bogan when I accidentally memorized the opening lines of her poem "Putting to Sea." I'd run across the poem in some anthology, and the unexpectedly dramatic beginning caught my attention.But I didn't realize how much I'd been attracted to the poem until a few days later, when in the middle of a class I suddenly heard those four lines parading through my head: Who, in the dark, has cast the harbor-chain? This is no journey to a land we know. The autumn night receives us, hoarse with rain; Storm flakes with roaring foam the way we go.
The seemingly unanticipated journey the darkness, and the adversary storm conveyed to me a sense of mysterious necessity: the four lines were a small allegory of life itself. I realized that, if these lines had decided to lodge themselves in my mind, I'd better follow them up. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was on my way to discovering one of my favorite poets.
Louise Bogan's work, by and large, strikes me as being attractive "first to the ear. I'm sure that part of the reason I memorized those lines so easily is their rhetorical splendor: though basically iambic, the lines contain significant rhythmic variations that coincide with paticularly important meanings. In the first line, for example, the first foot (the first pair of syllables) is inverted. Instead of stressing "in," as in the iambic "who IN," the reader is naturally inclined to stress the "who" and rush over the "in the." Thus "who" and "dark" slip off the tongue quickly and powerfully, forging a memorable urgency.
Beyond the attractiveness of the sound, however, Bogan's work is inviting because of the way it manifests the finer attributes of her character. Bogan was mentally and emotionally a strong woman. She faced deep private and universal sorrows courageously. She refused to sacrifice personal questing and conscience to the easy comfort of unchallenging philosophies or theologies. She valued both safety and daring -- in thought and in living -- but loved daring more, and lived and wrote with a daring acuteness. And she valued experience over abstraction: she discovered what was important to her by pondering what happened in her life. She "learned by going where [she] had to go," as Theodore Roethke would say. Her deep concern for meaning, and her suspicion of prepackaged theologies, come through strongly in this passage from Journey Around My Roomm , a collection of her prose: What it it that you sought? I sought love. And you sought love for what reason?
Those about me, from childhood on, had sought love. I heard them and saw them. I saw them rise and fall on that wave. I closely overheard and sharply overlooked their joy and grief. I worked from memory and example. . . .
You wished. . . To live without apology. . . . To live my life, at last delivered from ambition, from envy, from hatred, from frightened love, to live it until the end without the need for philosophy; that is all I ask.
Bogan's criticism of philosophy is essentially a criticism of dogma, which moves away from, and falsifies, experience for a set of preconceived principles, Bogan shows no skepticism about spiritual experience; in fact, her poems reveal her own deeply questing nature. But she is skeptical of those who appease their own egos by.seeking grand abstractions -particularly those dogmas relating to divinity. One of her greatest strengths is her celebration, not of the ego, but of the exaltation of humility in the face of beauty.
Two of Bogan's poems in particular -- "Roman Fountain" and "To Be Sung On the Water" -- reveal this strength. "Roman Fountain" opens with a slow-motion rendering of water, which rises and falls in a fine balance of upward momentum and gravity. On this occasion, however, the water is not all that pleases. "An element man-made" defines this water's course; and although "beauty" is not mentioned in the poem, the combined efforts of man and nature suffuse the scene with aesthetic pleasure. Furthermore, if the cyclical water is taken as a common metaphor for life, the poem shows how the fountain shapes that life, giving it a special form, a special elegance and charm. Life becomes new at the touch of a human hand.
Though Bogan emphasizes the shaping power of the human being, "Roman Fountain" is hardly egotistical; in fact, the word "I" is never used in the poem. Yet this poem is energetic, confident, even exuberant. It chronicles the creation of beauty and excellence -- the fountain -- which summons those same qualities from the heart of the author despite centuries of time and change.
"To Be Sung On the Water" is a more complicated poem -- more complicated than it at first appears. It begins with an abstraction -- "delight" -- and recognizes that delight mustm be elusive and transitory; for delight, when pursued, rests on preconceptions of how things should be, and thus cannot always match experience. In the second stanza of the poem, however, Bogan deseribes the scene into which delight, as an abstract goal, has faded: Beautiful, pass and be. . . Less than the sound of its blade Dipping the stream once more. This last detail is, paradoxically, delightful. But by this time we have forgotten all about the abstraction, absorbed with the fine particulars of the occasion itself. The simple quiet motion of the oar blade, the implication of peaceful repetition, and the scene upon the water that the imagination draws from a few details are perfectly satisfying The perfection of the momentm -- no matter what other goals we have, no matter how mundane our lives are, how long or short, these perfect moments are the essence of living. They bring us sudden fulfillment, making time simply irrelevant. And yet, far from ecstatic, they are filled with peace -- the quiet of the water" on which our vows were made. "
Both "Roman Fountain" and "To Be Sung On the Water" commemorate a specific, powerful occasion. "Roman Fountain" provides a set of details in which the heart finds the essence, but not the self-conscious naming, of joy. "To Be Sung On the Water" is a study of how the transformation from abstraction to experience can occur. To be able to offer such insight so unpretentiously is a gift; but it is only one of several gifts that Bogan possesses. As I read her poems, year after year, I become more convinced of her vital legacy: a courage not to sacrifice the discrete experiences of life to lofty abstractions, and a willingness -- even a commitment -- to confront the unknown, and to return with a fire-tried confidence in love.