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.

Cary Nelson: On "Women"

This is the same poet who in 1923 also spoke in the harsh persona of Medusa and who six years later stood with Cassandra, declaring herself "the shrieking heaven lifted over men, / Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves." Yet in "Women," at least on the surface, it seems she writes a poem with which Pound would find himself comfortable. Certainly it seems to elaborate the same generic metaphors of female passivity and male vitality. In this case, however, a great deal depends on whether we credit the female signature above the poem; if we acknowledge that a woman wrote the poem or that the speaker can be considered female then the poem is less stable than it appears. Yet gendered authorship cannot actually constrain or guarantee the semiotic effects a poem can have. Actually, as long as any woman who attempts to read the poem aloud is not struck dumb, an unlikely eventuality, then the gender of the speaker is at least demonstrably reversible. And as soon as a woman reads the poem almost everything the poem says is proven untrue.

If a woman speaks "Women"'s lines, then the poem in most of its figures undoes all its apparent propositions and assertions. "They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass," the line that opens the second stanza, exhibits exactly the precise visually observed detail that the line asserts women cannot see. Moreover, the detail is sufficient to equip any reader--male or female--to imagine the scene it describes. Much the same is true of the sound of snow water in the lines that follow, lines that themselves paradoxically enact and enable the very capacity they rhetorically deny. Two stanzas later we read that women "cannot think of so many crops to a field / or of clean wood cleft by an axe." Yet here too the reader of either gender is provoked to visualize exactly what the lines describe--to enumerate the crops a field can grow, to imagine the fresh wood exposed by a sharp axe. Similarly, the opening stanza, which declares that women have no wilderness in them, speaks knowingly of the wilderness that it claims women do not know. And if their hearts are really "tight hot cells," then something of wilderness energy and watchfulness has found its way into the home. Indeed, if women "stiffen, when they should bend," then they are capable of resistance, not compliant, as a more conventional image would suggest. Finally, to hear "a shout and a cry" behind "every whisper" is not simply to be fearful but to recognize a hidden wild energy in every domesticated impulse.

This is not to say, however, that there is any perspective from which the poem is likely to seem unambiguously feminist in its assertions; it mounts every feminist claim as a counter-assertion, written against the grain of (and at work within) every patriarchal cliche about femininity. The poem is poised to reverse itself, and it powerfully demonstrates how every sexist utterance is undermined from within. The poem's subject is more properly understood not as "women" themselves but rather as masculinist discourses about women, the declarations about women that our culture habitually makes. Those discourses, the poem shows, inevitably contradict and disqualify themselves. Yet it also puts these discourses in circulation again and reminds us--with excruciating precision--of women's culturally imposed self-containment and self-denial.

Moreover, the poem finally leaves these matters to our intervention, to the work readers must do. And the last lines--with their  ambiguous advice about letting life go by--remain irreducibly open to multiple interpretation.

Bogan's bid to disentangle resistance from within prevailing commonplaces--a project I believe to be too rigorous in this poem to be unintentional--has often been misunderstood. But then misrepresentation and dismissal have been the fates of many of the radical modern rereadings of gender.

From "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernism (University of Michigan Press, 1997).

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.

[. . . .]

"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.