Elizabeth Dodd

Elizabeth Dodd: On "Women"

In her 1947 essay "The Heart and the Lyre," Bogan suggested certain limitations with which women were faced intrinsically. The title alludes to Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's poem "Ode to Sappho" in which the speaker addresses the dead poet, "What has thou left, proud one? what token? / Alas! a lyre and a heart-both broken!" Bogan says of women writers, "They are not good at abstractions and their sense of structure is not large . . . women are capable of perfect and poignant song. . . . Though she may never compose an epic or tragic drama in five acts, the woman poet has her singular role and precious destiny." These thoughts all point to Bogan's hesitations about what women may aspire to; the "singular role and precious destiny" is a condescending nod toward women's acknowledged, or permissible, achievements. The same begrudging attitude informs a poem from Bogan's first book, "Women," wherein women "have no wilderness in them," and are both blind and deaf to the natural world around them. The women in this poem are hapless characters, unable to participate appropriately with the world around them, and even possessing inappropriate emotions: "Their love is an eager meaninglessness / Too tense, or too lax." How could a serious poet wish to make such emotions the clear focus of the work? Herein lies some of Bogan's antipathy toward the romantic lyric.

Bogan extended this same attitude toward women poets throughout much of her professional life: they chose subjects or means of expression that were inappropriate, given their own limitations. When asked in 1935 to edit an anthology of women's poetry, she found the idea distasteful. She explained to John Hall Wheelock, her editor at Scribner's, "As you might have expected, I turned this pretty job down. The idea and the task of corresponding with a lot of female songbirds made me acutely ill. It is hard enough to bear with my own lyric side." Interestingly, Bogan associated women with lyricism--a tie to romanticism that she hoped to unknot in her own work.

I do not mean to suggest that Bogan was eccentric or overly defensive in her wish to distance herself from nineteenth-century women writers. Even a sympathetic critic like Cheryl Walker, trying to rediscover a nineteenth-century "tradition" of American women poets admits that with the important exception of Dickinson, "We may, I think, justly judge most of this poetry as amateurish." Bogan was determined not to remain an amateur, and to distinguish herself from the very gender-specific "tradition" that such an anthology would suggest. Walker discusses the period's "sentimentality," involving "an over-fondness for idealizing children or the dead, a tendency to take comfort in simplistic conceptions of life and pious platitudes." Bogan wished to have nothing to do with such attitudes in literature.

By 1962, Bogan had modified her position slightly from that taken in her 1947 essay. In a talk given at Bennington College, she again lists what women must not do in their writing, but this time her list reflects an awareness of the mate literary world's attitudes toward women's art as being a limitation imposed from without, not from within. She quotes a phrase from Roethke's review of her own work: women must not "stamp a tiny foot at the universe." In his review, Roethke says Bogan avoids this danger, and in her talk, Bogan shows that this is a failure that readers of women's work will be watching for, and that to avoid censure from the largely male literary establishment, a woman must avoid gender-specific "failures" in her writing. Indeed, while a part of Bogan would surely have been gratified to be distinguished from the "scribbling horde" of women sentimentalists, another part of her--perhaps less fully conscious--could have been chilled at the way a man would so easily and offhandedly discount women writers. Roethke was her friend, had been, briefly, her lover, and had been something of a student, sending his early poems to her for advice. Her correspondence shows that she was both demanding and generous in her comments, making recommendations for his reading, urging him to get on with his work, and constantly showing that she believed wholeheartedly in his capabilities. Roethke was, in fact, complimentary toward her own work. Yet his review, although it praises her, implies something like surprise at her accomplishments, given her gender.

Bogan's talk to the young women at Bennington College does not renounce the idea of limitation specific to women's poetry; it does, however, suggest that the limitation is not solely due to shortcomings in women's character, but to the attitudes prevalent concerning "women's" poetry. As Bowles points out, Bogan and her contemporaries faced "condescension and arrogance" from the time that they began to write, and to achieve literary recognition they had to contravene through various strategies, one of which was to "dissociate themselves from the prevailing view of women poets." Bogan's talk urges the young women of Bennington College likewise to dissociate themselves from women's specific poetic "failures" through careful control or veiling of gender-identified emotion, the kind of techniques she has practiced in her own poetry to win approval from the (largely male) literary world.

From The Veiled Mirror and the Woman poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

Elizabeth Dodd: On "One Art"

"One Art" is Bishop's one example of a villanelle, a form she admired and tried to work with for years. It is widely considered a splendid achievement of the villanelle. . . . Loss is its subject, but the poem begins almost trivially. The first line, casual and disarming, returns throughout the poem. The natural-sounding contraction helps to create the semblance of real speech even within this complex form, and the details and examples that follow immediately do not, indeed, seem like great losses. Door keys, a wasted hour, even forgotten names certainly do not warrant the term consistently invoked by the rhyme: "disaster." But the poem builds, until "cities" and "realms" -- of great import to this geographically inclined poet implied by this and all her books -- have been lost.

Not until the final quatrain, bringing the villanelle to the completion of its required form, does the real occasion of the poem appear. Here the loss is very personal, a person, "you." Yet the details and attributes here too are muted. Only parenthetically does Bishop reveal the importance of the you: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)," yet love is evident through the speaker's difficulty in revealing herself. There is a slight change, too, in the refrain line: "the art of losing's not too hard to master," qualifying that original assertion that loss "isn't hard to master." And in the final line the speaker must even exhort herself to complete the rhyme – (Write it!) -- since disaster looms very large indeed. Yes, says the poem, this is a great loss, which I am still working to master. After the suicide of Macedo Soares, Bishop returned to the United States, and so the loss of lands and love compound one another. At least in part, "One Art" is a deeply felt elegy, but Bishop uses both a strict and difficult form and a casual, conversational tone to hush the emotional intensity. In this fine poem, her attempt to mute serves also to heighten the poignancy.

from The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

Elizabeth Dodd: On "In the Waiting Room"

While there is a quiet, even suppressed presence of homoeroticism in some of Bishop's work - most notably in some uncollected poems - for the poem Edelman examines in greatest detail, "In the Waiting Room," a study of lesbian awakening does not appear to be the most fruitful reading of this poem. . . what the speaker, Elizabeth, reads in the copy of National Geographic is more than the pictures and descriptions of naked women, but also the possibility of cannibalism and decoration of babies through mutilation.

Osa and Martin Johnson dressed in riding breeches, laced boots, and pith helmets A dead man slung on a pole --"Long Pig," the caption said. Babies with pointed heads wound round and round with string; black, naked women with necks wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs. Their breasts were horrifying. I read it straight through. I was too shy to stop. And then I looked at the cover: the yellow margins, the date.

Certainly the poem shows gender awareness here and later when Elizabeth says

Why should I be my aunt, or me, or anyone? What similarities-- boots, hands, the family voice I felt in my throat, or even the National Geographic and those awful hanging breasts-- held us all together or made us all just one?

Yet the gender awareness is tied up with the larger awareness of humanity in general; the young Elizabeth is not really discovering her sexuality so much as she is discovering her own participation in the human race -including her gender identity. The result, therefore, is an epiphany on a larger order than awakening of sexual orientation, and the poem's subject is larger than a careful encoding of lesbian identity. It does not exclude the connections among human beings that are homosexual in nature, nor does it those that are heterosexual. In fact, the poem does not seem interested in excluding human relations at all but rather on noting their peculiar, "unlikely" tenuousness. The poem does not close, after all, focusing on those breasts but rather on a deadly political issue:

The War was on. Outside, in Worcester, Massachusetts, were night and slush and cold, and it was still the fifth of February, 1918.

This is quite unlike, for example, Adrienne Rich's poem "Trying to Talk with a Man," where the imagery of nuclear bomb-testing is not the major issue at stake but is rather a trope for understanding the combative relations between the sexes. For Bishop, World War I suggests a danger, as does nuclear testing for Rich. But that danger is not one that arises because of gender-identification or sex roles, unlike the "danger" Rich specifically mentions. Instead, it is the possibility of violence done by any human being to another, on an individual, tribal, or global level: a woman to her baby, a man to another man, etc. Bishop wishes to make a large suggestion about the perplexity - the "unlikeliness" -of being human. And she wants to be sure to make it through the perception of an individual, an "Elizabeth."

from The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

Elizabeth Dodd on "One Art"

"One Art" is Bishop's one example of a villanelle, a form she admired and tried to work with for years. It is widely considered a splendid achievement of the villanelle. . . . Loss is its subject, but the poem begins almost trivially. The first line, casual and disarming, returns throughout the poem. The natural-sounding contraction helps to create the semblance of real speech even within this complex form, and the details and examples that follow immediately do not, indeed, seem like great losses. Door keys, a wasted hour, even forgotten names certainly do not warrant the term consistently invoked by the rhyme: "disaster." But the poem builds, until "cities" and "realms" -- of great import to this geographically inclined poet implied by this and all her books -- have been lost.

Not until the final quatrain, bringing the villanelle to the completion of its required form, does the real occasion of the poem appear. Here the loss is very personal, a person, "you." Yet the details and attributes here too are muted. Only parenthetically does Bishop reveal the importance of the you: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)," yet love is evident through the speaker's difficulty in revealing herself. There is a slight change, too, in the refrain line: "the art of losing's not too hard to master," qualifying that original assertion that loss "isn't hard to master." And in the final line the speaker must even exhort herself to complete the rhyme – (Write it!) -- since disaster looms very large indeed. Yes, says the poem, this is a great loss, which I am still working to master. After the suicide of Macedo Soares, Bishop returned to the United States, and so the loss of lands and love compound one another. At least in part, "One Art" is a deeply felt elegy, but Bishop uses both a strict and difficult form and a casual, conversational tone to hush the emotional intensity. In this fine poem, her attempt to mute serves also to heighten the poignancy.