Word Cloud: ALCHEMIST

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

There’s a wide spectrum of relationships between poets and readers. Some poets write with a searing clarity, and some write as if daring you to make any sense of their poems. Some write poems so personal you feel like a voyeur reading them, while others obscure their personal feelings almost completely. And there are poets whose poems are not easily understood in one or two readings, but the extra work they ask of readers is well worth the effort.

Louise Bogan (1897–1970) is a poet who does require that extra effort. The 120th anniversary of her birth is this month. She has been called a minor poet of the “reactionary generation,” derided as a woman writer, yet was frustrating to feminists, and has been lauded as one of the most accomplished American poets of the last century. She was never fashionable, largely ignoring free verse. Instead, she used rhyme, traditional verse forms and classical allusions, while making use of the less ornamented language of the 20th century.

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Bogan often wrote in the ‘voice’ of her protagonist – or antagonist. She was a reclusive and private person, wanting her work to speak for her, yet even when she is writing as a character, something of herself is revealed. In this poem, she writes about seeking refuge in intellectual pursuits, but being unable to escape from the emotion-bound body.

The Alchemist

I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief. 

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh —
Not the mind’s avid substance — still
Passionate beyond the will. 

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Bogan’s childhood was not an easy one. Her father was a New England mill worker, but her mother was mentally and emotionally unstable, flaunting an unending series of affairs, and mysteriously disappearing for days or even weeks at a time. The family moved from mill town to mill town, which, combined with the ongoing scandal surrounding her mother, isolated Louise from her peers. Her relationships, as well as her poetry, would be full of suspicion and fear of betrayal for the rest of her life.

She put her energies into her schoolwork, something at which she excelled, and was rewarded by help from a benefactor to enroll in the Girls’ Latin School in Boston. After her first year at Boston University, she won a scholarship to Radcliffe, but she had already married her first husband, a soldier, at age 19, so she turned down Radcliffe to move with him to New York City. Their daughter was born in 1917. A second move brought them to Panama, where she wrote some of the poems that would appear in her early collections. Then Bogan and her husband separated, after just three years of marriage, in 1919. He died of pneumonia in 1920.

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Betrothed

You have put your two hands upon me, and your mouth,
You have said my name as a prayer.
Here where trees are planted by the water
I have watched your eyes, cleansed from regret,
And your lips, closed over all that love cannot say,

My mother remembers the agony of her womb
And long years that seemed to promise more than this.
She says, “You do not love me,
You do not want me,
You will go away.”

In the country whereto I go
I shall not see the face of my friend
Nor her hair the color of sunburnt grasses;
Together we shall not find
The land on whose hills bends the new moon
In air traversed of birds.

What have I thought of love?
I have said, “It is beauty and sorrow.”
I have thought that it would bring me lost delights, and splendor
As a wind out of old time . . .

But there is only the evening here,
And the sound of willows
Now and again dipping their long oval leaves in the water.

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Bogan decided to make an entirely fresh start, and moved to Vienna, turning inward and writing steadily. Her daughter, Maidie Alexander, was left behind in the care of Bogan’s parents. In 1923, she came back to New York, publishing her first book of poetry, Body of This Death. Bogan managed to make ends meet with part-time jobs, one in a bookstore and another working for cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. She made friends among New York’s literati, including Léonie Adams, William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, and Edmund Wilson, who became a mentor, and helped her gain work as a critic, which provided her with a steady income. But she was seeing a psychiatrist for depression so severe that she was sometimes hospitalized. She was so secretive about her private life that her new friends didn’t even know she had a daughter.

Words for Departure

Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten.
When we awoke, wagons were passing on the warm summer pavements,
The window-sills were wet from rain in the night,
Birds scattered and settled over chimneypots
As among grotesque trees.

Nothing was accepted, nothing looked beyond.
Slight-voiced bells separated hour from hour,
The afternoon sifted coolness
And people drew together in streets becoming deserted.
There was a moon, and light in a shop-front,
And dusk falling like precipitous water.

Hand clasped hand
Forehead still bowed to forehead–
Nothing was lost, nothing possessed
There was no gift nor denial.

2
I have remembered you.
You were not the town visited once,
Nor the road falling behind running feet.

You were as awkward as flesh
And lighter than frost or ashes.

You were the rind,
And the white-juiced apple,
The song, and the words waiting for music.

3
You have learned the beginning;
Go from mine to the other.

Be together; eat, dance, despair,
Sleep, be threatened, endure.
You will know the way of that.

But at the end, be insolent;
Be absurd–strike the thing short off;
Be mad–only do not let talk
Wear the bloom from silence.

And go away without fire or lantern
Let there be some uncertainty about your departure.

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Knowledge

Now that I know
How passion warms little
Of flesh in the mould,
And treasure is brittle,–

I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.

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To a Dead Lover

The dark is thrown
Back from the brightness, like hair
Cast over a shoulder.
I am alone,

Four years older;
Like the chairs and the walls
Which I once watched brighten
With you beside me. I was to waken
Never like this, whatever came or was taken.

The stalk grows, the year beats on the wind.
Apples come, and the month for their fall.
The bark spreads, the roots tighten.
Though today be the last
Or tomorrow all,
You will not mind.

That I may not remember
Does not matter.
I shall not be with you again.
What we knew, even now
Must scatter
And be ruined, and blow
Like dust in the rain.

You have been dead a long season
And have less than desire
Who were lover with lover;
And I have life—that old reason
To wait for what comes,
To leave what is over.

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In 1925, Louis Bogan married again, this time to poet Raymond Holden, recently divorced, but it was another unhappy union. They filed for divorce by 1937.  But in the years between marriage and divorce, she published her second book of poetry, Dark Summer: Poems, followed by The Sleeping Fury. She was also hired as the Poetry Editor for The New Yorker, a position she would hold for 38 years.

Bogan broke with writer friends who were using their work as a platform for expressing political views, which mostly leaned to the Left. She felt politics were too sordid have a place in poetry. As the popularity and acceptance of free verse grew, she fought against the tide, and continued to write her poems using more traditional forms and conventions.

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Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom

Men loved wholly beyond wisdom
Have the staff without the banner.
Like a fire in a dry thicket
Rising within women’s eyes
Is the love men must return.
Heart, so subtle now, and trembling,
What a marvel to be wise,
To love never in this manner!
To be quiet in the fern
Like a thing gone dead and still,
Listening to the prisoned cricket
Shake its terrible dissembling
Music in the granite hill.

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Sonnet

Since you would claim the sources of my thought
Recall the meshes whence it sprang unlimed,
The reedy traps which other hands have times
To close upon it. Conjure up the hot
Blaze that it cleared so cleanly, or the snow
Devised to strike it down. It will be free.
Whatever nets draw in to prison me
At length your eyes must turn to watch it go.

My mouth, perhaps, may learn one thing too well,
My body hear no echo save its own,
Yet will the desperate mind, maddened and proud,
Seek out the storm, escape the bitter spell
That we obey, strain to the wind, be thrown
Straight to its freedom in the thunderous cloud

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To Be Sung on the Water

Beautiful, my delight
Pass, as we pass the wave.
Pass, as the mottled night
Leaves what it cannot save,
Scattering dark and bright.

Beautiful, pass and be
Less than the guiltless shade
To which our vows were said;
Less than the sound of the oar
To which our vows were made, –
Less than the sound of its blade
Dipping the stream once more.

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She was, however, not above being a little mean-spirited if it suited her mood and message.

Women

Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell 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.

They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.

They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaninglessness
Too tense, or too lax.

They hear in every whisper that speaks to them
A shout and a cry.
As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills
They should let it go by.

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Bogan published Poems and New Poems in 1941. William Rose Benet wrote in his critique in Saturday Review, “She has inherited the Celtic magic of language, but has blended it somehow with the tartness of New England.”

Exhortation

Give over seeking bastard joy
Nor cast for fortune’s side-long look.
Indifference can be your toy;
The bitter heart can be your book.
(Its lesson torment never shook.)

In the cold heart, as on a page,
Spell out the gentle syllable
That puts short limit to your rage
And curdles the straight fire of hell,
Compassing all, so all is well.

Read how, though passion sets in storm
And grief’s a comfort, and the young
Touch at the flint when it is warm,
It is the dead we live among,
The dead given motion and a tongue.

The dead, long trained to cruel sport
And the crude gossip of the grave;
The dead who pass in motley sort,
Whom sun nor sufferance can save.
Face them. They sneer. Do not be brave.

Know once for all: their snare is set
Even now; be sure their trap is laid;
And you will see your lifetime yet
Come to their terms, your plans unmade,—
and be belied, and be betrayed.

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Her final poetry collection, The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923-1968, was published 17 years after Poems and New Poems, although her collected poems had been issued in 1954. In the intervening years, she had turned more to writing critical studies, essays, lecturing and teaching. In 1944 she was a fellow in American letters at the Library of Congress, and in 1945–46 she held the chair of poetry (now Poet Laureate consultant in poetry) there.

After the Persian

I.

I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents’ disguise
and home.

I am the dweller on the temperate threshold,
The strip of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.

Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the
sun
What may be more than my flesh.

II.

I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
I know what winter brings.

The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).

III.

All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the rose’s thorn.

Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell’s iridescence
And the wild bird’s wing.

IV.

Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon flowers.

V.

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

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Louise Bogan died of a heart attack in New York City on February 4, 1970, at the age of 72.

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

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Since her death, there has been a new interest in Louise Bogan’s work among feminist scholars and writers interested in the New York Literary Scene of the Mid-20th Century. New editions of some of her work have been issued. So a different relationship may be forming between this poet and a new generation of readers.

Epitaph for a Romantic Woman

She has attained the permanence
She dreamed of, where old stones lie sunning.
Untended stalks blow over her
Even and swift, like young men running.

Always in the heart she loved
Others had lived,—she heard their laughter.
She lies where none has lain before,
Where certainly none will follow after.

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Biography and Sources

Bibiliography

POETRY

  • Body of This Death, McBride, 1923.
  • Dark Summer, Scribner (New York, NY), 1929.
  • The Sleeping Fury, Scribner, 1937.
  • Poems and New Poems, Scribner, 1941.
  • Collected Poems, 1923-1953, Noonday Press (New York, NY), 1954.
  • The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923-1968, Farrar, Straus (New York City), 1968.

OTHER

  • Women, Ward Ritchie, 1929.
  • Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950 (criticism), Henry Regnery (Chicago), 1951.
  • (Translator) Yvan Goll, Elegy of Ihpetonga [and] Masks of Ashes, Noonday Press, 1954.
  • Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry, Noonday Press, 1955.
  • (With Archibald MacLeish and Richard Wilbur) Emily Dickinson: Three Views, Amherst College Press (Amherst, MA), 1960.
  • (Translator with Elizabeth Mayer) Ernest Juenger, The Glass Bees, Noonday Press, 1961.
  • (Translator) Goll, The Myth of the Pierced Rock, Allen Press (Lawrence, KS), 1962.
  • (Translator with Mayer) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, Henry Regnery, 1963.
  • (Editor and translator with Elizabeth Roget) Jules Renard, Journal, Braziller (New York, NY), 1964.
  • (Editor with William Jay Smith) The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People, Reilly & Lee (Chicago), 1965.
  • (Author of afterword) Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, New American Library (New York City), 1968.
  • A Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation, edited by Robert Phelps and Ruth Limmer, McGraw-Hill (New York City), 1970.
  • (Translator with Mayer of verse) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther and Novella, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
  • What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
  • Journey around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan, a Mosaic, edited by Limmer, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Five Lyrics of Louise Bogan: For Mezzo-Soprano and Flute, Presser (Bryn Mawr, PA), 1984.
  • (With Mildred Weston) Our Thirty Year Old Friendship: Letters from Louise Bogan, Conversations with Mildred Weston; and, Legacy: Poems from the Twenties to the Nineties / Our Thirty Year Old Friendship Legacy, with an excerpt from her interview with Leon Arksey, Eastern Washington University (Cheney, WA), 1997.

Visuals

  • Exhortation – Harlequin, Commedia dell’Arte
  • Epitaph for a Romantic Woman – Louise Bogan photo

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud


 

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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3 Responses to Word Cloud: ALCHEMIST

  1. In recognition of the Word for the Day: Alchemist:
    The elements song by Tom Lerher:

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