Monday, August 30, 2010

`The Mountain Comes and Goes'

Louise Bogan taught at the University of Washington in Seattle for three months in 1960. The poet suffered periodically from depression and was for much of her life a city dweller. Her responses to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, from flowers to mountains, are touching and precise. In a letter to the poet May Sarton written in April (What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer, 1973) she says:

“Here, I live in close proximity to a cherry tree in full flower. I never had this experience before. I look out my window, and there it is: some of the blossoms already hanging in clusters, like cherries, and others like little white muffs, on the upright racemes. So lovely; so chic! Nature’s elegance….The sun has come out and all is in bloom. [My landlady] brings me tiny bouquets—I have had garnet roses, freesias, and now a mixture of grape hyacinths, with yellow and lavender-purple primulas. English daisies grow well, along with dandelions. Camellias grow on bushes….”

Bogan sounds almost giddy. She uses botanical terms with precision – raceme and primula -- and includes the lowly dandelion. In the same letter she composes a haiku titled “Rainier”:

“The mountain comes and goes
Like a watermark
On celestial paper.”

This is clever and visually precise. Mount Rainier, indeed, “comes and goes” as atmospheric conditions change. Its colors, luminescence and size vary. We go for days without seeing it and suddenly, as we turn a corner, it looms. Bogan surely knew her friend Marianne Moore, almost forty years earlier, had written a great and far more ambitious poem about Mount Rainier, “An Octopus.” After the haiku Bogan adds: “…It is a lovely mountain. And, in spite of bouts of mild homesickness, I think things will work out well.” In a May 8 letter to Sarton, Bogan writes:

“Here, the red hawthorn (a tree!) [As opposed, presumably, to the cultivated shrub, a more modest plant.] is in full bloom. Also, dogwood and auricula. Do you know auricula? They turn up in flower prints, but I’ve never seen them in Eastern gardens.”

Bogan bolsters my conviction that poets ought to know the precise names of flowers, trees, birds, clouds and minerals – the stuff of the world. She writes in the same letter, “The weather continues to be spectacular: rare sunlight, with many showers, and tremendous cloud-effects,” and in one dated May 8 to Ruth Limmer:

“The mountain is out today! A cloud has just made floats above it. It is v. good at making clouds….”

An attentive writer encourages comparable attentiveness in readers. I see a new Mount Rainier since reading the passages above. Hopkins in his poems and notebooks, and Thoreau in his journal – both Bogan favorites – similarly renew our senses. In A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan, editor Mary Kinzie includes a selection from Bogan’s journals, “The Time of Day.” It begins with a passage from Thoreau’s journal, dated Feb. 5, 1855, that Bogan transcribed into her own in 1933:

“In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.”

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Shelley said...
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