Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth Frank: On "The Dragonfly"

In "The Dragonfly," . . . written sometime in the fall of 1961, she worked with short free-verse lines in a delicate line of Thoreauvian naturalism. Its inspiration was a picture postcard of a dragonfly Ruth Limmer had sent her from Detroit, but she wrote the poem on commission for the Corning Glass Company--wrote it to order, that is!--and a piece of Steuben Glass was carved to illustrate it. She was fond of the poem, which, she informed Miss Limmer, was completely "based on FACT."

From Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth Frank: On "Cassandra"

"Cassandra" is . . . an impassioned outburst by the woman who feels the terrible burden of her gift of poetic speech. The mode is emblematic or quasi-allegorical, as it had been in "Stanza" ("No longer burn the hands that seized"), as if the poem were inscribed or engraved as a motto underneath a picture of the doomed Trojan prophetess. Warning those who pursue their own destruction, Cassandra can speak only in the accents of madness, the speech of truth but not of persuasion or belief. She is cursed by clairvoyance, cut off from the ordinary lot of her sex:

[. . . .]

She is the voice of fury itself, "The shrieking heaven lifted over men, / Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves." Her knowledge is apocalyptic, her urgency daemonic, the symbol of that part of the psyche which drives the conscious mind to recognize truths it is reluctant to accept. For Cassandra, poetry assaults and afflicts her, setting her off from humankind and rendering her the doomed and solitary witness of "the shambling tricks of lust and pride." Thus the poem serves as evidence for what Harold Bloom was the first to say--that Louise Bogan, while "usually categorized as a poet in the metaphysical tradition or meditative mode ... is a Romantic in her rhetoric and attitudes." From its hidden source, poetry creates speech which is profoundly other and opposed to the received notions of men.

From Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth Frank: On "Medusa"

Bogan is highly specific about women's shortcomings. Their senses are stunted, their imaginations dull, their claims upon the world meager and modest. They put up with their lot; they miss the pleasures of planning, work, and rest. They are limited, misplaced in their kindness, and out of step with the true nature of feeling. They blunder, misjudge, hold back, and in every way defeat themselves. Bogan may have been thinking about another poem; in "Women," Lizette Woodworth Reese had written:

Some women herd such little things--a box Oval and glossy, in its gilt and red, Or squares of satin, or a high, dark bed-- But when love comes, they drive to it all their flocks; Yield up their crooks; take little; gain for fold And pasture each a small forgotten grave. When they are gone, then lesser women crave And squander their sad hoards; their shepherds' gold. Some gather life like faggots in a wood, And crouch its blaze, without a thought at all Past warming their pinched selves to the last spark. And women as a whole are swift and good, In humor scarce, their measure being small; They plunge and leap, yet somehow miss the dark.

While it is gentler than Bogan's "Women," Reese's poem also projects women as self-diminishing, and both poems share the notion that women are by nature tinged with defective wills, "their measure being small." The unexpected point of view in Bogan's poem, and not in Reese's, and the unavoidable problem, is its obvious envy of maleness. Bogan's poem is full of it. Only men, it implies, are capable of broad, unfettered, unselfconscious action. Behind the invidious comparisons lurks the familiar spectre of paralysis; women, it seems, are given to formlessness, ineffectuality, and, therefore, immobility.

From Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank

Elizabeth Frank: On "Medusa"

This Medusa is known and recognized; she has been seen before. The speaker violates some unknown taboo by entering this site of freedom and movement, and in punishment is turned to stone. Afterward, like the voice of Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death," she speaks from the "dead scene" which had once been alive with "Sun and reflection." Recounting the experience and thereby reenacting it, the speaker is no longer a living body, but "like a shadow," arrested in the equally deadened landscape. This is the dreadful equilibrium of stasis:

[. . . .]

Bogan was so little given to invention that we do no violence to the poem to regard it as a transcribed dream. Theodore Roethke called it "a breakthrough to great poetry, the whole piece welling up from the unconscious, dictated as it were." Interpreting it in psychoanalytic (chiefly Jungian) terms, he saw it as a struggle with the Anima, according to which the house in the cave is a "womb within a womb," and the Medusa the "man-in-the-womb, mother--her mother, possibly." Certainly it makes sense to see this terrifying figure as a much-transformed memory of the desired and destructive mother. From this central meaning flows yet another, in which the poem can be read as an allegory of the fate of the imagination when it goes forward to meet itself unprotected. Art requires the shield of form, of the mature personality's defenses, of experience. The speaker transformed into a statue or thing, imprisoned in memory, closes the poem, as Roethke points out, on "the self-revelation, the terrible finality of the ultimate traumatic experience." She is locked inside her own speech.

From Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank