Lee Upton

Lee Upton: On "The Dragonfly"

It is important that Bogan wrote often of the body--bodily appetites, bodily knowledge, bodily resistance to inchoate or complexly organized coercion. Yet in her late poems the body is diffused, made benignly strange, at times a source of symbol in retrospect.

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In "The Dragonfly," for instance, the insect's body is "made of almost nothing / But of enough / To be great eyes / And diaphanous double vans." The body that she chooses to describe is translucent and finally a "husk," emptied out by having fully spent itself in its environment and through the short span of its allotted lifetime.

From Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses

Lee Upton: On "Cassandra"

In "Cassandra," first published in the Nation in December 1924, Bogan explicitly writes of the lyric cry as violent. In an eight-line stanza of alternate rhymes she makes Cassandra, like the "fury" of her third book, an inciting presence whose madness is a kind of knowledge inseparable from her isolation. Like Daphne, Cassandra is also Apollo's victim, her prophecies cursed by Apollo to be disbelieved. Yet it is not the disaster she foretells so much as the very act of speech that preoccupies this speaker, not the content of her speech so much as recognition of the disruptive power projected by her own voice as a dismissed prophet, a position of particular significance for the woman poet. Adopting an opposite position to Daphne, Cassandra is "shrieking" rather than dumb. In this mythological figure Bogan makes manifest the essential violence of her poetic. Language performs oppositionally; it is itself a violence (a "wing" that "tears"). Indeed, the "wing" that "tears" will be echoed decades later in Bogan's late poem "The Daemon," in which a woman is compelled to speak of the origin of her inspiration: "The bruise in the side." In "Cassandra," the poet must herself, at the moment that she perceives violence, recognize a culture's "tricks of lust and pride."

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Cassandra denigrates a hierarchy of traditional authority and, like Leda and Danaë, disrupts allegiance to a male divine. Through Cassandra, Bogan projects a furious alter ego who reverses the traditional dyad uniting women and earth, men and sky, and creates her own apotheosis as "the shrieking heaven." Cassandra purveys the voice of urgent life rather than an earth of "dumb" graves. Her role is to create the poem as prophecy: "I am the chosen no hand saves."

Bogan meets cultural violence, whether such violence denigrates its Cassandras or paralyzes its female poets, with violence of feeling and an enactment of revolt. In discussing "Cassandra," Elizabeth Frank notes that "from its hidden source poetry creates speech which is profoundly other and opposed to the received notions of men." If the myth of Daphne and Apollo serves as Bogan's voicing of crisis in the face of power, the power of patriarchal presence embodied in Apollo as law, Bogan further dramatizes the inadequacy of capitulation to cultural consensus in "Cassandra." Her reputation as a poet of austerity and reserve may obscure the innate turbulence of her vision. Yet in the oppositional sphere of her poetry, she chooses a role similar to Cassandra's, for whom "song, like a wing, tears"; through the intensity of her language Bogan would assume an aesthetics of violence and difference.

From Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses

Lee Upton: On "Women"

If a body of work could be said to contain a culprit, "Women" is Bogan's most perversely seductive culprit. Readings of the poem have contributed to a calcified presentation of Bogan's poetics as inimical to women. In a number of ways, the poem refuses a stable position, accounting for a plethora of contradictory readings. The poem has been seen as a burlesque of gender, a broadside of self-hatred, a celebration of difference, a critique of culture, a disguised rebuttal to men, and a savage criticism of women. No doubt the poem retains its power because it holds such possibilities in tension, refracting its conceptual hues broadly for each reader. Unfortunately, the poem is seldom acknowledged as a conceptual victory, even though it proves a remarkably accomplished appropriation of a censorious cultural voice in its surface dynamics. The poem is especially compelling for its aesthetically sustained framing of the assignment of women's and men's roles in culture and, more specifically, in its extemalization of male presence. In the poem Bogan achieves the inverse of the internalization of male values that a number of her critics decry, for her poem, however critical it may be of women's accommodations to patriarchy, renders extraneous to women those forces that may appear to circumscribe them.

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"Women"--with its distancing use of the third person they and its seemingly accusatory parallels--has been cited as symptomatic of Bogan's adoption of masculinist assumptions that denigrate women. Pope finds the poem "devastating" and argues that Bogan puts forward "the utterly bleak proposition that women are by gender unable to love, to move, to be free, that it is neither landscapes, partners, nor roles, but women's very selves that are ultimately 'the body of this death.'" Elizabeth Frank asserts that the poem depicts women as "by nature tinged with defective wills" and cites the poem for "its obvious envy of maleness." Taking a different approach altogether, Ronald Giles argues for an ironic reading, noting that Bogan's speaker, "appearing to itemize attitudes and attributes of womanhood, . . . actually reveals, in a tone of cynical understatement, the masculine imperfections from which men take such perverse satisfaction." The speaker shows women to be "provident, sentient, benevolent," and "more sophisticated" than men. Giles's reversals call attention to the poem's ostensible values ("If men can think of 'so many crops to a field' or of 'clean wood cleft by an axe,' so what?"). While Giles's essay opposes critics who present the poem as representative of Bogan's sympathies with patriarchy, his reading strains the poem's rhetoric and largely overlooks its genuine denunciation of women's acculturated status.

Although the poet's position as a woman problematizes our reception of the poem, her gender does not annul her actual uneasiness with women's status. Bogan is indeed an accomplished ironist, yet objections to women's strategies of accommodation to male privilege inform the poem and provide for much of its critical power. In the logic of the poem, women occupy an internal realm, men an external one. Ironically, as the poem's assumed "other," men, like women, "have no wilderness in them," for their activities revolve around rural domestication; they tend cattle, plant fields, chop wood. Although superficially representing her central gender as "content in the tight hot cell of their hearts," Bogan portrays women's discontent and restlessness: "they hear in every whisper that speaks to them / A shout and a cry." The object of their love (presumably men) cannot satisfy, for men's love is the origin of "an eager meaninglessness." The references to maleness (Is men's love the "dusty bread" women eat in their cells? Are men simply to be "let ... go by?") are specific only in regard to men's avoidance of generosity: Women "use against themselves that benevolence / To which no man is friend" (emphasis mine). The one quality explicitly repudiated by men, benevolence, is placed in critical focus. Characteristically, Bogan indicts cultural ideology that leads to women's self-sacrifice. She repudiates traditional cultural expectations of women's kindnesses--kindnesses that women have traditionally been discouraged from practicing toward themselves. If employed against selfhood, such negative benevolence allows any "life" to enter, even that which should be rejected. At the conclusion, men are expelled from the site of the poem, presumably as "life" that should be "let go ... by."

"Women," then, is an overt critique of women's acculturated behavior and an implicit critique of men's. In particular, Bogan explores the physical and psychological constriction of women and the extemalization of men in regard to women's intimate concerns. Even should men physically enter women's realm rather than be "let ... go by," in the poem they are experienced by women as a curious absence. Justifiably, the poem is one of Bogan's best known, for it challenges the reader's desires for harmony and affiliation. Its conceptual separations are conceived in the dramatic terms that generate Bogan's characteristic oppositional posture in her early career.

From Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses.

Lee Upton: On "Medusa"

In "Medusa," first published in the New Republic in1921, Bogan enacts a break from living being to deadening stasis, precisely rendering the moment of division. The poem is in five stanzas, four of them quatrains. The second stanza is composed of five lines, as if the stanzaic form must enlarge slightly to accommodate the Gorgon's ability suddenly to change conceptions of time and space. The repeated sibilants emphasize Medusa's threatening, snakelike power. With the poem's alternating line lengths, the first and third lines of quatrains often more than doubling in syllables the second and fourth lines, the poem mirrors the effect of foreshortening, contracting upon itself as the speaker in the poem experiences an abrupt halt in motion.

Initially, the woman who speaks is a threshold figure who sees the Medusa's head "through a door." The Gorgon herself would appear curiously without volition, suggesting that what may be viewed is her decapitated head, which will share the same fate as her victim, for her eyes, likewise, will be stiff and "bald," unable to turn from an offending sight. In his 1961 essay on Bogan, Roethke points out the connection between the speaker and the Medusa, noting that the Medusa is herself located in womblike maternal space, "the house in a cave of trees." Roethke was the first to suggest that the Medusa of Bogan's poems is "the anima, the Medusa, the man-in-the-woman, mother--her mother, possibly. . . ."  Medusa paralyzes beings who are then confined forever to her yard and, by extension, to the matemal. Immobilized, the speaker remains attached to her "creator" within "the great balanced day."

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"Medusa" is marked by Bogan's central conflicts: a threateningly permeable consciousness; ruptures between will and action; and ambivalence toward matemal power as the speaker is, in a sense, "Shot dead." Beyond such conflict, the poem emerges, despite its ambiguities, as a paean to maternal power even when that power is dislocated and cut from its source. As Karen Elias-Button has contended, the Medusa encloses "female creative energies." Such a "Terrible Mother" proves a "metaphor for the sources of our own creative powers." In "Medusa" Bogan creates a testament to the frightening power of the matemal and, in subterranean form, intimates her own identification with her mother, for Gorgon and speaker assume similarities through sight as the "stiff bald eyes" of Medusa are mirrored in those of the speaker. Ensnared in Medusa's gaze and duplicating the Gorgon's perceptions, the speaker must continually gaze ahead, her own eyes rigidified by staring. Finally, she is a "shadow" Medusa:

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The poem's network of assonance and and word repetitions (bell, fall, shadow) further emphasize mirroring, the effect of alliteration between lines allowing us to experience an aural identification, linking sound and semantics. And from the depth of the poem's ambiguity, the mother emerges as both a bonding and a blinding force.

From Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses.