Reading the Lyrics: Louise Bogan’s Ascendant Unconscious

“Friendship” makes, with its absence and its presence, realities of all the realities we encounter. -Joshua Beckman

 

The act of reading a lyric poem­—the expression of a single voice—is less and more than a universal experience. Less than universal, it concentrates the efforts of an exchange that often has, as its prerogative, the resolution or correction of an implied rhetorical relationship that is deeply and personally explored, imagined, and felt. Treading into this exchange can yield a sense of exclusion as its initial effect. But that exclusion is what allows the reader into more than a “universal” situation, that is, a situation that is not broadly actualized, but one that renders the familiar, the emotionally true.

 

The sensation of truth in a poem steals into the reader when what she has read agrees with and energizes her subconscious ability to experience empathy.

 

An apple and the moon are both universal; any reader will recognize these objects and form, from hearing the words, a mental composite. In doing so, every reader will also bring connotative baggage along and flesh out each of these archetypes from without and within—the apples she has eaten and the apple Eve ate, the moon itself in the current sky and the moon of nursery rhymes, cheese, Neil Armstrong, and werewolves. But since these universal composites are universal, they do nothing to elicit empathy. Only when the poet introduces a lyric relationship, with all of its surrounding inner and outer forms and devices, does the universal transcend into the emotive realm.

 

Take Louise Bogan’s “The Crossed Apple”

 

I’ve come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples.
Of every sort:

Clear, streaked; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple’s from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet, –

So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side’s hue
Is clear and snowy. It’s a lovely apple.
It is for you.

Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind:

To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,

Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.

Eat it, and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,

The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that’s for me.
You take the rest.

 

Bogan’s elaborate rhythms and her use of color and texture and technique at first blush obscure the subtle way in which this poem makes its emotional inroads. The speaker comes from a vast, lush orchard “of wide report” to make a gift of a “yet unbeholden” apple to a maiden. With the sweet language “It is for you” and “Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,” the speaker sneakily introduces—without overt explanation—us to the fullest range of human emotion—pride, tenderness, sensuality, and eventually the envy and protectiveness of the maid’s claim to the “fire” and the “earth we came to” when the speaker takes half the apple’s promise away. The ending of the poem produces an emotional impact that you would not expect given the relatively simple setting: an apple given, an apple taken away.

 

 

In one of Bogan’s late poems, “July Dawn,” the lyric enters a meditative mode. In his essay “Meditative Modes,” Eric Pankey writes:

In the meditative mode, a poet can undermine the lyric’s drive toward, and love of, closure, without ever giving up on the moment of lyric insight, what Wordsworth calls “spots of time,” James Joyce calls “epiphanies,” and Virginia Woolf calls “moments of being.” Lyric insight within the lyric moment.

 

Here is the poem.

 

 

 

 

July Dawn

 

It was a waning crescent

Dark on the wrong side

On which one does not wish

Setting in the hour before daylight

For my sleepless eyes to look at.

 

O, as a symbol of dis-hope

Over the July fields,

Dissolving, waning.

In spite of its sickle shape.

 

I saw it and thought it new

In that short moment

That makes all symbols lucky

Before we read them rightly.

 

Down to the dark it swam,

Down to the dark it moved,

Swift to that cluster of evenings

When curved toward the full it sharpens.

 

In his talk from the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, Joshua Beckman discusses how

The movement of a taking a walk can guide you through a poem—the kind of walk where, when asked what you are doing, you would reply “taking a walk.”

Making intuitive and sensual decisions

Sometimes you’re taken by something

Parts of the walk elevating in meaningfulness and parts of it floating away almost unnoticed, the endless mystery of its uncontrolled and unfolding perspective, can feel like the poem. While we easily recognize their stable characteristics, we can feel, especially in the acts of deeply encountering them, some aspects of the accumulated moments of the poem’s experience.

Little connections knock against you throughout your day.

 

In reading and re-reading “July Dawn” we are knocked against by these ‘little connections’ if we have, in fact, walked with them. I am taken by something—that short moment that makes all symbols lucky before we read them rightly—and have been taken by it as it has knocked against me year over year. I cannot say that I have understood it, but that has not made it less true, nor less evocative of a truth I have yet to discover. Instead, the empathic reach of this meditation has ingratiated itself as a subconscious tool that I seem to use as I interpret the symbols I do not expect to see in the world. This use of the audience as an implied connective tissue to complete the elegiac quality of the poem without which it could not succeed is what sets lyrics like Bogan’s apart from poetry that could be characterized as narrative, confessional, pastoral, or speculative.

 

 

“The artist’s task, then, involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity. …

To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.”

 

“The advantage of poetry over life is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last. We are unnerved, I suppose, by the thought that authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity. We incline, in our anxiety for formulas, to be literal”

Louise Glück, “Against Sincerity”

 

 

Let’s take one of Bogan’s early poems, “Girl’s Song”

 

Winter, that is a fireless room

In a locked house, was our love’s home.

The days turn, and you are not here,

O changing with the little year!

 

Now when the scent of plants half-grown

Is more the season’s than their own

And neither sun nor wind can stanch

The gold forsythia’s dripping branch,—

 

Another maiden, still not I,

Looks from some hill upon some sky,

And, since she loves you, and she must,

Puts her young cheek against the dust.

 

And a mature poem, “Song for a Lyre”

 

The landscape where I lie

Again from boughs sets free

Summer; all night must fly

In wind’s obscurity

The thick, green leaves that made

Heavy the August shade.

 

Soon, in the pictured night,

Returns—as in a dream

Left after sleep’s delight—

The shallow autumn stream:

Softly awake, its sound

Poured on the chilly ground.

 

Soon fly the leaves in throngs;

O love, though once I lay

Far from its sound, to weep,

When night divides my sleep,

When stars, the autumn stream,

Stillness, divide my dream,

Night to your voice belongs.

 

 

In both of these poems, we learn a great deal about the way in which Bogan’s view of womanhood changed. Her use of lyric despondence in “Girl’s Song” betrays a vision of woman as overly emotional, incapable of loving in a controlled way, destined to being abandoned by a male lover whose very existence necessitates sacrificial devotion and full corporeal submission. Both poems make use of the pastoral as a pivot point that anchors and frees the woman from her obligation to chain herself to the torrent of Feeling. In each case, the vantage point of the speaker is defined by remove: “some hill upon some sky,” “wind’s obscurity.” Each poem makes overt use of the word “must.” But only in the second poem does the lyric fail to resolve. Rather than closing the poem up tight, as she does in “Girl’s Song,” Bogan leaves “Song for a Lyre” open and divided.

 

In A Poet’s Prose, Bogan is cited as writing “if you are to have the full benefit of the richness of the Subconscious, you must learn to write easily and smoothly when the Unconscious is in the ascendant” and “It is hard for me to remember anything by an act of will. It is my tendency to live critically, even hysterically, in the moment, without review or reference. But when I was not alone, I had a dream of nourishing loneliness.” In the dreamer’s dream of loneliness, an other is always implied. Bogan’s lyrics offer that other place to us, to take up and explore. It is our own empathy, as we wander away from her poems, that fulfills their realities.

 

 

Sources:

Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries (Poems 1923-1968)

Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry

Louise Glück: “Against Sincerity”

Joshua Beckman: Bagley Wright Lecture Series

A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan

 

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