Sunday, October 01, 2023

'And Hears of Life's Intent'

“. . . I’ve had it. No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be square. Etc.” 

Louise Bogan is writing to her friend Ruth Limmer on October 1, 1969, announcing her retirement as poetry reviewer from The New Yorker after thirty-eight years. This was the late autumn of Bogan’s career as a poet and critic – later than she realized. She would die on February 4, 1970 at age seventy-two.


Bogan’s poems are personal, often devoted to love and romance, and her fragile mental health, though seldom baldly confessional. The reader never feels embarrassed by Bogan’s admissions, unlike the poems of Anne Sexton. Take the first stanza of “A Letter” from her first collection, Body of This Death (1923):


“I came here, being stricken, stumbling out

At last from streets; the sun, decreasing, took me

For days, the time being the last of autumn,

The thickets not yet stark, but quivering

With tiny colors, like some brush strokes in

The manner of the pointillists; small yellows

Dart shaped, little reds in different pattern,

Clicks and notches of color on threaded bushes,

A cracked and fluent heaven, and a brown earth.

I had these, and my food and sleep—enough.”


She judged the poem too personal, too revealing, and never included it in later volumes. At the time Elizabeth Frank tells us in her biography of Bogan, the poet was undergoing Freudian-style psychoanalysis. The fifth stanza begins, “I must get well” – an atypical Bogan admission in verse. One of her finest poems, a sonnet, is “Simple Autumnal,” first published in The New Republic in 1926:


“The measured blood beats out the year’s delay.

The tearless eyes and heart, forbidden grief,

Watch the burned, restless, but abiding leaf,

The brighter branches arming the bright day.


“The cone, the curving fruit should fall away,

The vine stem crumble, ripe grain know its sheaf.

Bonded to time, fires should have done, be brief,

But, serfs to sleep, they glitter and they stay.


“Because not last nor first, grief in its prime

Wakes in the day, and hears of life’s intent.

Sorrow would break the seal stamped over time

And set the baskets where the bough is bent.


“Full season’s come, yet filled trees keep the sky

And never scent the ground where they must lie.”


There’s plenty of competition for title of finest poem on autumn, starting with Keats. This one is in the running. It seems like a natural subject for Bogan: “grief in its prime / Wakes in the day, and hears of life’s intent.” This is from her 1934 journal:


“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remarks (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry or the cahier.”


[See A Poet's Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005).]

1 comment:

Gary said...

Her poem, "Women", is very good.