Louise Bogan and the Pleasures of Formal Poetry
edited: Friday, May 31, 2002
By Dena L. Moore
Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002
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A look at and discussion of Louise Bogan's essay "The Pleasures of Formal Poetry." This article enters the poetic fray of whether or not form is restrictive.
In “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry,” Louise Bogan discusses the turn away from formal poetry and why such abhorrence of form is detrimental to the growth of creativity. Bogan argues that there is much pleasure and originality to be found within the structure of formal poetry, and she takes a stance against what she perceives to be the common view of form--that it binds and limits freedom and originality.
To further her argument, Bogan asks, “…is any return to form a relinquishment of freedom?” (206). She then attempts to answer this question by examining meter, time-sense, and rhyme throughout the centuries.
According to Bogan, meter is rhythm. She quotes a short paragraph from an eighteenth-century Rhyming Dictionary that explains how prose and poetry differ, and how man’s sense of time is what gives us pleasure in reading or hearing poetry. Time-sense, as Bogan explains, is bodily rhythm used to walk, row a boat, even breathe (206-207). Her argument for rhythm is passionate and somewhat startling upon first reading, perhaps because I have never personally associated breathing with music or poetry. However, the connection is quite obvious and the deep sense of truth her words bring to the subject is comforting and encouraging. Through Bogan’s words, poetry has suddenly taken on a whole new nature--that of nature itself.
On the importance of rhyme, Bogan says, “Rhyme becomes necessary in poetry as rhythm weakens” (209). Regarding this statement, I must agree. Rhyme was not a part of Pre-Christian formal poetry to any great degree. The creation of poetry was reserved for the elect few who were looked upon as nearly divine. With the spread of Christianity and the vision of the one true God, with enforced worship, more members of the lower classes were taught to read and write. This was particularly true in the convents and monasteries. Chant was a part of Christian ceremony and it was easier for the non-literate to remember rhyme. The music and chant of the church was such an integral part of life to so many that it echoed out into the streets and integrated itself into vernacular literature and music. Rhyme thus became customary in the literature of the “so-called vulgar tongues” (209).
It is rhyme that so many associates with formal poetry, but perhaps those who have this association have not looked back far enough into the past. However, I feel that rhyme is an important feature of poetry, and after the fine-tuning of verse in the hands of such poets as Shakespeare, Blake, and Bogan herself, it seems to me that poets would learn to embrace rather than shun such techniques.
Although Bogan uses rhyme, she felt that poetry is primarily a matter of rhythm (Ridgeway 16). This belief is apparent in her conclusion on the use of meter and rhyme: “A failure in any discoverable beat is a failure in tension” (211). Without beat, there isn’t any tension; taking this a step further, we can say that without tension there isn’t a poem.
It is important here to understand Bogan’s view on form and how she used it. Bogan used form to control and transform her emotions into a vehicle that allowed her to express herself, through archetypal images, clearly to her audience (Ridgeway 16). In this way, the emotion is no longer that of the writer, but a universal feeling readily embraced by all. This universal quality shapes poetry throughout the ages; although each generation faces new challenges and generally rebels against the former, elements of the past still remain. Words change, styles change, yet emotion remains emotion.
Formal poetry may seem restrictive to those who fear it. The very word formal may call up specters of antiquity or visions of stumbling through thick layers of medieval English verse. Inexperienced poets and readers may lack a working definition of what formal poetry is. Perhaps this lack of definition is the most significant factor influencing the fearful and repulsive response to the very mention of formal poetry. Formal poetry is simply poetry that uses form, be it conventional or organic. Indeed, it could be argued that all poetry is formal. Conventional formal poetry is poetry in which the form is decided upon first and the emotions and meaning are thrust into it, like squeezing a lemon through a plastic straw. Organic formal poetry, on the other hand, is poetry that uses form to express the emotions and meaning. Proponents of free verse in the past have failed to recognize that even poems written in ‘free verse’ develop their own rhythm and beat, and yes, even form. If we examine Bogan’s work closely, we see that Bogan is following her own ‘free verse’ style; that is to say that Bogan’s poetry is organic in form and not conventional, as the term formal poetry seems to imply (Ridgeway 2). Having said this, Bogan does work well within tight structure, including the sonnet.
In “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry,” Bogan points out that the dislike of form is not only based on fear and revulsion, but also on visions of morality that go back to the nineteenth- century (204). Bogan states that in the Victorian era “Poetry was used: as a means of consolation, to bolster up flagging spirits…to back up middle-class social ideals as well as certain philosophical ideals concerning human perfectibility” (204). In this statement, I feel that Bogan is getting back to the technicality of the definition of formal poetry. If poetry is used, then the writer’s form is conventional; he or she is taking a shape and finding words to fit instead of allowing the words to take the form best suited for the expression. According to Bogan, it was during the nineteenth-century when a “split occurred between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ verse” (205). The serious poets struggled with meters that just didn’t work in English and the light poets became affiliated with nonsense verse (205). The difficulties presented by this split in poetry had significant bearing on the views of the poets of the early twentieth century and the turning away from formal poetic meter and rhyme. Shunning techniques of the past can hamper the evolution of creativity, which must continue to move, to flow, throughout time. Integration of the new and the old is a much more realistic vision of true growth; indeed, it is impossible to be completely original.
Although Bogan’s essay was written in 1953 as a response to William Carlos Williams rejection of formal aesthetics, her argument is still contemporary in the sense that even now, as a student of poetry in the year 2002, I am uncomfortably aware of the opposing views (Moldaw 180). Bogan says, “It is still the task of the modern poets to bridge the divisions between serious and light forms,” and I feel the weight behind her words and the truth, a truth as needed today as it was nearly fifty years ago (205). Recently, however, there has been some stirring of interest for a revival of the more difficult forms of poetry. I have heard whispers of delight among fellow students upon their first exposure to the intricacies of the sonnet, whispers Louise Bogan would be pleased to hear.
Does Louise Bogan’s Poetry Support Her Argument?
Louise Bogan argues in her essay, “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry,” against the dismantling of form in poetry. She was a major proponent of working with formal structure, using meter, rhythm, and rhyme when many, if not most, of her contemporaries were turning toward new, so-called free forms. Bogan did experiment with free verse, but she never abandoned the use of the formal techniques she praises in her essay. Although some poets may argue for one vision and freely contradict themselves in their own work, Louise Bogan was “consistent in her criticism and her practice” (Ridgeway 20).
Bogan’s earliest published works were examples of 19th century romanticism in their optimistic, romantic language (Ridgeway 23). Although Bogan was to quickly turn away from the optimism of her adolescence, the form and style of her early works shows the formality of technique she would continue to work with throughout her life. In her poem, “The Betrothal of King Cophetua,” the following lines show her use of rhyme:
I am a king,
He said, “But if I give you jewels, lands,
And you spurn all, I have no other thing,
No more to give, if it be not love you seek…”
Leaning, he took her face between his hands;
She turned her eyes to him, and did not speak.
Bogan’s poetry does change, due in particular to a “breakdown” in her idealistic outlook, but the change is not in her form or in the way she expresses herself (Ridgeway 26). In Bogan’s first collection, Body Of This Death, her content moves from optimism to the black wells of betrayal, hopelessness, and even self-hate, as exemplified in her work “Women.” This hate expands beyond the boundaries of the individual to embrace the whole of the female gender (Esselman 52). Yet, even in this work, Bogan embraces her vision of form, expressing her hate in rhyme and quatrains:
Women have no wildness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cells of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.
They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear…
This is not conventional, forced-form poetry. With its inner feeling of desolation and lost hope, its bitterness of the juxtaposition of the male and female role as Bogan perceived it, “Women” draws fiercely on the alternating short lines and rhythmic movement itself. Could a poem written in a looser form express the tightly controlled power inherent in “Women?”
The poetry in Bogan’s second collection, Dark Summer, depicts a shift in theme but not in form. Many poems within this collection deal with the subconscious as a theme; the works “struggle to understand the self as well as to understand the universe” (Ridgeway 57). Although the work within Dark Summer seems to be “marked by severe austerity and formality,” Bogan expresses herself “with a real range of feeling” (Zabel 36). As Bogan explores the subconscious, she manages to remain true to the condensed lyric of her earlier work. In “This Song for a Slight Voice,” Bogan again writes in rhyme and structured quatrains:
If ever I render back your heart,
So long to me delight and plunder,
It will be bound with the firm strings
That men have built the viol under.
Your stubborn piteous heart, that bent
To be the place where music stood,
Upon some shaken instrument
Stained with the dark of resinous blood,
Will find its place, beyond denial,
Will hear the dance, oh be most sure,
Laid on the curved wood of the viol
Or on the struck tambour.
The quatrain and alternating end rhyme appear to be a favorite form of Bogan’s. Another example from Dark Summer supporting this idea is this short stanza from “Fiend’s Weather”:
Oh, embittered Joy,
You fiend in fair weather,
Foul winds from secret quarters
Howl here together…
Another form found throughout her life’s work as a poet is the sonnet. In The Sleeping Fury, Bogan’s third collection, the poem “Single Sonnet” expresses “what form says that she cannot otherwise say” (Ridgeway 83).
Now, you great stanza, you heroic mould,
Bend to my will, for I must give you love:
The weight in the heart that breathes, but cannot move,
Which to endure flesh only makes so bold.
Take up, take up, as it were lead or gold
The burden; test the dreadful mass thereof.
No stone, slate, metal under or above
Earth, is so ponderous, so dull, so cold.
Too long as ocean bed bears up the ocean,
As earth’s core bears the earth, have I borne this;
Too long have lovers, bending to their kiss,
Felt bitter force cohering without motion.
Staunch meter, great song, it is yours, at length,
To prove how stronger you are than my strength.
In a review of The Sleeping Fury, Morton Dauwen Zabel stated, “…these poems bring the finest vitality of the lyric tradition to bear on the confusions that threaten the poets who, by satire or prophecy, indignation or reform, have reacted against that tradition and cast it into contempt…” (48). Bogan’s response to those poets Zabel refers to in this quote was her essay, “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry.”
In Louise Bogan’s last two works, Poems and New Poems and The Blue Estuaries, she remains true to her vision of what poetry meant to her personally. In a review of Poems and New Poems, Babette Deutsch wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Books, “…the character of Miss Bogan’s work has not altered noticeably in nearly twenty years” (60). Although this statement was derogatory in context, it shows Bogan’s steadfast loyalty to meter, rhythm, and form throughout her life.
Remaining true to herself was not an easy task for Bogan, who faced tremendous adversity as a formal writer. In a letter to May Sarton on April 24, 1940, Bogan wrote: “What can be done concerning the general distrust and even hatred shown toward lyric poetry, so prevalent now, I can’t think. Nothing, I suppose” (Ridgeway 98). Another, more poignant, letter to John Wheelock, which was written before the creation of Poems and New Poems, underscores just how difficult it was for a lyricist at the time Bogan was writing: “The American cultural situation is now lower than it has ever been before, so far as conscious art is concerned…I am so out of the general line, now, and I really have been so battered about that I don’t care anymore” (Ridgeway 99). Although she said she didn’t care anymore in her letter to Wheelock, Bogan continued to write in the lyric tradition in her final two collections. One such poem was “The Daemon,” included in Poems and New Poems, where we see again the alternating end rhyme and quatrain:
Must I tell again
In the words I know
For the ears of men
The flesh, the blow?
Must I show outright
The bruise in the side,
The halt in the night,
And how death cried.
Must I speak to the lot
Who little bore?
It said Why not?
It said Once more.
Despite the hardships of writing formal poetry in the twentieth century, Bogan never submitted to the external pressures posed by her readers, critics, or other poet’s ideology. Her work lives on, a living, breathing entity that will tempt the poets of the twenty-first century to try their hand at writing lyric.
Bogan, Louise “The Pleasures of Formal Poetry.” In The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets On The Origins And Practice Of Their Art, ed. Reginald Gibbons, 203-214. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Deutsch, Babette. “Review of Poems and New Poems.” In Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, ed. Martha Collins, 180-194. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984.
Essleman, Mary D. and Elizabeth Ash Velez, editors. The Hell With Love: Poems to Mend a Broken Heart. New York: Warner Books, 2002.
Moldaw, Carol. “Form, Feeling, and Nature: Aspects of Harmony in the Poetry of Louise Bogan.” In Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, ed. Martha Collins, 180-194. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984
Ridgeway, Jaqueline. Louise Bogan. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “The Flower of the Mind.” In Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, ed. Martha Collins, 34-36. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “Lyric Authority.” In Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, ed. Martha Collins, 48-49. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984.