Louise Bogan, “Women”

To read Robert Pinsky’s post on Louise Bogan’s poem “Women,” visit the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog. Then join the discussion here. (To respond to a specific comment, click “Reply.” To post a new comment, scroll to the bottom of the screen.)

Unlike her elders T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, and unlike her juniors Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan was born into the working class. Her father was a mill worker. She won admission to Boston’s excellent Girl’s Latin public school, then college, but she dropped out after her freshman year and married a soldier. The marriage ended within a couple of years. . . . (cont.)

99 thoughts on “Louise Bogan, “Women”

  1. I was glad to hear Louise Bogan remark that ‘Women” was written when she was in her twenties and revealed what , she infers, are a not-unusual bitterness of an intelligent young women feeling frustrated, restricted, defined and contained by her gender. Reading the poem , and listening to the audio kindly provided, it was a relief knowing in advance that her views of her own sex “had improved”. What Bogan provides is a sure and slashing blade of metaphor against women in general, for their willingness to participate in their own oppression.
    “Women have no wilderness in them,
    They are provident instead,
    Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
    To eat dusty bread. … ”
    This is as an acute damnation as I’ve read, wickedly sharp, delivered in a masterfully sure stroke; there is an anger here that has sharpened her swing, The spare, cleanly delivered lines and uncluttered imagery reflect an irritation that has been mulled over and considered, pros and cons measured, the complaint reduced to a neatly consolidated statement to which response is difficult. Women have no fields in them, no inner sense of the world outside them, nor a curiosity of the lives that are outside their sphere of self reference and gratification.
    They are, rather, provident, little else but skeletal abstractions of consciousness unto which the ideas of others, by implication the doings of men of industry, political where with all and sexual domination , are grafted upon, seeded upon, constantly turned over as the musings and distractions of Masters change at the slightest whim. Bogan’s judgement is severe and short sighted as to the extent women allow men to define , contain and direct their lives, but this is an account of someone who , though perhaps too close to the contentiously emotional heart of the issue has, ironically, learned her lesson from the Master Hemingway, delivering with relish a superbly honed rhetoric that condemns a self-induced stultification of her gender. Rather than take the plough and make use of the field for their own desires and pursuits, she finds her sisters
    “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 meaningless…”
    They wait for the muse not to come them, like their own idea, hunch or inspiration, but instead to be given to them, like school uniforms and a script to follow . They are consumed with fear, the fear of a loss of security and someone else’s idea of their worth, creating a collective anxiety that converts the collective anger about the oppression into self – hatred, self-debasement. The poet sees this clearly and what Bogan does is present images that imply nothing else but a serial sacrifice of personal ambition, desire, and potential .
    The inner life of women , this poem, is barren, there is no wilderness to conquer and define in one’s own image, women exist merely as an adjunct quirk of the collective male psychology, a means to gratifying an odious male end. Bogan’s poem, years after the heat and convulsions of the blended Civil Rights movements–blacks, women, gays–has subsided and whose goals and values have lodged, to a degree at least, in the mainstream of the culture, this poem remains a potent polemic. It is political without didacticism, it is philosophical without abstraction. It has a direct language that finds profundity in the absence of profound sounding words. It is a poem of near-perfect craft. This is not craft at the sacrifice of emotional power, though; the ire has the sting of a bad memory as the narrator announces her grievances about the seductive fallacy of women making themselves lesser than men.I was just entertaining the idea of adding more to my post here , emphasing that what Bogan has done is create craftsmanship without sacrificing the heart of the matter, her heart, her feelings. I find the poem wholly convincing as felt experience; the resentment is palpable.

    So many poems, particularly those of the New Formalists , are flawless in their structure and technique but lacking in emotional resonance or even give any idea that the poet knew what it was he or she wanted to talk about. The points in that kind of poetic origami are minor at best, outlines of an experience other wise sacrificed on the altar of technique. Bogan does not vanish from the poem, her voice is there–I would that her speech in the poem, her cadence, is that of someone who , while angry, wants to make a declaration that is clear, articulate, and understood, in a spare language that is accurate. It is fire that continues to burn and still ignites passion, debates, discomfort in the reader, from then to the current day. Her accomplishment is that her craft turned into her irritation into an accurate diagnosis that has not lost its relevance. That is not an easy thing to get across.

  2. Every smart and edgy girl likes this poem; I memorized it at fifteen along with songs by Laura Nyro, making no distinction. But some of us, having come to womanhood humbled, no longer content to see ourselves as too tense or too lax, or, for that matter, to address ourselves as “They.” Thank you for making me re-read this poem and revisit my younger self: she who knew so much, once.

  3. It seems that we learn what women are by what they are not, by the voice of the narrator, perhaps the poet herself. The clue for this I feel is in the last two lines of the poem, “As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills / They should let it go by.” The line of revenge, perhaps.

    She believes the contrary to what she writes, highlighting all that what is thought of woman but knowing the contrary is indeed the truth.

    • Yes, every stanza contains a “no” (third word in the poem) or “not,” with “As like as not” detonating an interesting variation. (That aside from negative implications of “should.” Inducing, as Handsa Pockets indicates a defiant contrary. (See Lorrie Goldensohn remarks below.)

  4. So many excellent comments have been made about this poem that it feels as if there’s little to add at this point. However, my sense of the poem is that it is a kind of inner debate that Bogan is having with herself on the subject of the poem particularly as it is framed in the first stanza. There, the use of the word “provident” is meant as a counterbalance to the many absences and omissions which ensue. Not enough has been said about the decision to choose this word because to me it speaks to the bounty of womens’ hearts and generosities even if their contribution is minimal or ghettoized. The rest of the poem gives examples of ways that women fall short of themselves in various postures but the gist seems to be that the true shortness is that their gift is either unrecognized or diminished by men and the world or even by themselves.

    • Jonathan Wells’ focus on “provident” clarifies one way to classify responses to the poem here (also my own inward responses to it): on the one hand, an “inner debate” and on the other hand an outward rhetoric. “All of the above” and “both” provide a kind of standby answer to that binary distinction– but it’s a kind of vibration between the poles that, I think, generates an undepleted energy.

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