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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Elizabeth Dodd: On "Women" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elizabeth Dodd Criticism Target Louise Bogan
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 May 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück
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