Tuesday, April 07, 2015

`An Authentic Current'

The only book of Louise Bogan’s I hadn’t read was Achievement in American Poetry 1900-1950, a critical survey she was commissioned to write in 1951 by Henry Regnery Co. Since 1931, Bogan had served as the poetry reviewer for The New Yorker, a job she held until 1969, less than a year before her death. She was a good critic and a better poet, whose judgments are worthy of a serious reader’s attention. Achievement consists of nine chapters ordered chronologically, and a concluding sampler of poems by thirty writers surveyed in the book. Bogan is seldom shy but she can be tricky. Never a revolutionary, neither was she a poetic reactionary, though her verse is formally masterful. (See “Autumnal Simple” and “Hypocrite Swift.”) 

Here is the book’s opening sentence: “Formal poetry in America in the year 1900 seemed benighted in every sense: it was imitative, sentimental, and `genteel.’” Melville and Whitman had died in 1891 and 1892, respectively, and the “brief flurry of interest” in Emily Dickinson (dead in 1886) around 1890 had already subsided (recognition of her standing as America’s greatest poet was many decades away). Granting obvious differences, Bogan is expressing criticisms of American literature circa-1900 earlier sounded by H.L. Mencken, whose principal interest was in prose. American writers stifled themselves under “British Victorian tradition,” Bogan writes. She dismisses the “strong native moralizing bent” of the approved nineteenth-century New England poets. In Bogan’s understanding, Robinson and Frost, not to mention less well-known and influential poets, came along just in time. She writes: 

“It is all the more remarkable, in view of this redoubtable and often completely ridiculous feminine attitudinizing in verse, that true, compelling, and sincere women’s talents were able to emerge. Sentimental poetry on the middle level was never destroyed—it operates in full and unimpeded force at the present day [still true in 2015]; but an authentic current began to run beside it.” 

In the mini-anthology at the back of her book, Bogan includes poems by Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) and Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856-1935), two poets I had never heard of before, both of whom carry on the proudly redundant triple-named tradition established by James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier. Guiney, represented by “In the Reading-Room of the British Museum,” writes in “a gallant spirit which foreshadowed the more masculine attitudes of certain woman poets of the twenties.” Go here to read some of her essays. 

Based on Bogan’s selection and her assessment, Reese is the more interesting and “modern,” less Victorian, poet. Here is Reese’s “In Time of Grief” (A Quiet Road, 1896) and her “Inscription for a Library” (A Victorian Village, 1929): 

“I who am thin with hunger,
I who need bite and sup,
Come to you with my platter,
Run to you with my cup.” 

Bogan’s praise for Reese’s work is generous: “Even the slightest affectation becomes evident, as basic emotional simplicity begins to find basic technical facility. Miss Reese might be a young woman talking to herself in a garden, but this colloquy with the self is accomplished in form. Her pure and delicately repetitive gift remained unchanged throughout her long lifetime (she died in 1935); her later works showed only a further distillation and concentration of form and material.” 

Two reactions: “delicately repetitive” is splendid praise for a quality too often misunderstood and dismissed. Some of the best writers return obsessively to their small plots of real estate, finding them richer and more rewarding than most continents. Likewise, lazy readers and critics will dismiss Reese as a minor writer. Blame it on the fashion for reading as shopping exclusively for name brands. No one’s claiming Reese is the Baltimore Sappho. Joseph Epstein once called Max Beerbohm “the world's greatest minor writer, with the full oxymoronic quality behind that epithet entirely intended.”

1 comment:

terryteachout said...

Lizette Woodworth Reese (if memory serves) was favored by Mencken