Louise Bogan: a portrait.
Bogan's own poetry was read and admired--and of course also attacked--within the narrow circle of poetry's cognoscenti. Auden hailed her as one of the best poets writing, and her lyric verse won her Guggenheims, membership in the Academy of Arts and Letters, and a host of other honors from her peers. But her output was not enormous, and her poems remain difficult--chiseled, often bitter little riddles in which the poet's rational mind makes cynical (or resigned or brave) sense of the vagaries of the human heart. For all her poetry's well-tailored chic, its unmistakable power inheres in its resistance to its own good manners. But however remarkable her poetry, today not many remember, if they ever knew, who bogan was.
Elizabeth Frank's biography contributes much to our knowledge, though rather less to our understanding, of Bogan. Her childhood, which was the source of incredible trauma, exerts a grim fascination, something like the morbid chill of a Lizzie Borden trial as told in newspaper accounts of that time. Nothing quite so sensational afflicted Bogan's small, lower-middle-class family, but her mother did take lovers, which the child was aware of, and she did muster about her a circle of furtive confidantes whom the child despised and feared. The father was foreman in innumerable paper mills; the family moved often, perhaps one step ahead of scandal, from one New England manufacturing town to another. Louise was sent to one of the best preparatory schools in Boston, Girls' Latin, and she entered Boston University in 1915. After one year, against her parents' wishes and throwing over a scholarship to Radcliffe, she married a soldier and abandoned her formal education for good.
The biography is also valuable for its chronicling of Bogan's life in literary New York, where she moved in 1920 after her first marriage ended in divorce. One of her closest friends of the 1920s and 1930s was Edmund Wilson, and she was also friendly with Margaret Mead, Eleanor Wylie, Malcolm Cowley--the whole group. (Later important associations included Theodore Roethke, Morton Zabel and John Hall Wheelock, her editor at Scribner's for many years.) Wilson was a mentor and a goad, and in later years Bogan liked to tell the story of how he had locked her in a room and forced her to write her first critical essay. She was beautiful, tall, thin and high-strung, alternately charming and abrasive, hard-working but also beset by self-doubt. She worried about her personal life, as a succession of love affairs culminated in a stormy, decadelong marriage to the writer and editor Raymond Holden. And she worried about her poetry, which emerged only slowly and painfully.
Bogan's troubles prompted her to seek psychiatric help, and on a few occasions she was hospitalized for the depression that dogged her all her life. Her emotional instability contributed in large part to the jealous rages that marred her marriage, but it is clear from Frank's portrait that Bogan's anger had a positive function as well. Two extracts from Bogan's journals: "I can feel rage, but I am never humiliated, any more." "Do not shrink from your hatreds. They may be a cover for other emotions--let that also stand. If I did not hate, if I had not hated pretense and falsehood in others, how false, how pretentious IP should have been myself!" Anger and hatred provided a backbone for this vulnerable woman and fueled her relentless efforts to distinguish the true from the sham. With all her faults placed squarely before the readers of this book, Bogan emerges troubled, tormented and cruel. (That she is also vindicated, at least in this reader's eye, is more or less in spite of the treatment she receives here.)
Where Frank's biography fails--and its failure is substantial--is in its woolly lack of purpose. This is what led, I am sure, to the meticulous over-documentation that drones through rich and bare patches alike. In a spasmodic way, Frank exerts a certain amount of "critical" authority, pausing now and again to interpret Bogan's verse, usually by means of tediously detailed correspondences between the "subject matter" of the poems and the poet's life at the time they were written. Taken too seriously, this method is perilous, especially in the case of a writer like Bogan, whose poems attempted, and often achieved, transcendence through thought imposed on feeling. Criticism that insists on linking the work to the life does an implicit disservice to such poems. There is much more to be said about Bogan's poetry, but it does not get said here.
Frank is also impeded by an unavoidable reliance on letters, diaries and memoirs. Excepting the criticism and the badinage in some letters, Bogan's prose is laborad and often boring. This liability would have weighed on any biographer.
Rather like a teacherhs "topic sentence" tacked to a young student's paper, this biography does claim to have a purpose. In the foreword, Frank asserts that "something stopped Louise Bogan dead in her tracks, not once but many times," and she proposes to discover "this principle of arrest." But by the end of this thoroughly long book, the search has failed on two scores: Frank never broaches a coherent answer to her question, and it becomes clear that the question of poetic "arrest" was not the right one to have posed.
Why a biography at all? So many biographies seem gratuitous, but the fault does not lie with the genre. To look at a few relatively recent examples of successful biographies, Richard Sewall's of Emily Dickinson and Walter Jackson Bate's of Samuel Johnson are enthralling because the authors were driven by a passionate engagement with their subjects. And that engagement need not be sympathetic. Lawrance Thompson's venomous, despairing portrait of Robert Frost Wrestles with the poet, but always with passion. Such a book needs no excuse for having been written, even if the life explored never acquires a satisfying from and the author never unravels the puzzles left behind by the dead.
Bad biography, on the other hand, is always looking for an excuse. One prevalent type uses a life to prove a point--either Freudian or sociological. The subject is sacrificed for the greater good of theory, and the only thing to be said in favor of such exercises is that they usually remain mercifully short on documentation, since too much detail throws the game. Other sorts of weak biography may begin with good intentions--fulfillment of a dissertation, say--and even a measure of passion, but somewhere in the course of research the biographer loses the spark and comes to feel saddled by the life being chronicled; the result shows all the signs of familial exasperation. You can choose your lovers but not your relatives, and such a biographer no longer feels he has the freedom to cast his subject aside. Hence Ian Hamilton's condescension toward Robert Lowell, Diane Johnson's fatigued embarrassment with Dashiell Hammett.
Elizabeth Frank has fallen into this trap. Although she expresses admiration for Bogan, it does not seem to be particularly deep. Her overpowering wish that Bogan had been more productive, less troubled, is that of a hand wringer at the graveside. Frank Writes: "The possibility, often said to be feared by people who are both creative and neurotic, that psychiatric treatment would cure their neurosis but in the process kill their creativity, may well have been, for Louise Bogan, uncannily close to the truth." If there were only one or two such passages in the book, one might discount them as a mild complaining to which the author was entitled. But they are legion. Perhaps I do Frank an injustice, but the flat, querulous tone does not suggest anything like a "felt" response to the poet or her work. Louise Bogan: A Portrait begins in enthusiasm for the woman and condescension for her early writing. It ends with praise for what work there was ard with contempt for the woman. (The harsh way in which Frank disposes of Bogan's final days is ugly to read.) In this way, the book mirrors the habit of the world, to love the young only for what they cannot help being, and to love the old only for what they have done.
Is this book the appropriate vehicled for bringing the poet back into our gaze? How dare anyone blame such a writer for what she did not do? Bogan's poems will survive, and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968, the definitive collection of more than a hundred poems spanning her career, is still in print. Read "After the Persian," "To Be Sung on the Water," "Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom," "If We Take All Gold"--read them all. Here is the final verse from "Roman Fountain": O, as with arm and hammer, Still it is good to strive To beat out the image whole, To echo the shout and stammer When full-gushed waters, alive, Strike on the fountainhs bowl After the air of summer.
We must, for now, content ourselves with that, and that is much.