Essay

Learning to Bear

Composed just before a long period of poetic silence, “Zone” stands as one of Louise Bogan’s last great poems.

by Mary Kinzie
The Irish-American writer Louise Bogan was, for nearly four decades beginning in 1930, one of the best-known and most powerful poets in this country. Her acuity, energy, balanced learning, and courage as a critic for The New Yorker were widely known, contributing further authority to a reputation founded on the exacting passion and eerie translucency of her poems. She established her name as an artist with two volumes of poetry in the 1920s, Body of This Death in 1923 and Dark Summer in 1929; her third volume, The Sleeping Fury, did not appear until 1937.

Much like Emily Dickinson, Bogan brought an intensity of her own to the lyric poem. But she diverged from her more prolific New England forebear in the variety of her poetic forms and voices. In her own time, when the lyric was already waning, Bogan invigorated the brief form by insisting on linguistic exactness, depth of dramatic embodiment, and a forthright and unflinching probing of the torments of jealousy and betrayal in love. In addition, she was at home in many modes of poetry, from meditation, description, and satire to imagism and song. Although her oeuvre was small, her reach was long.

A major influence was undoubtedly Yeats. Never as hieratic as he, Bogan nevertheless owed much to his model of the poet as the bulwark between the modern soul and the insidious materialism of the age. Yet Bogan was also uneasy with ideological politics, and so it is ironic that her model of a heroic poet was Yeats whose political engagement, to no small degree, defined him. In Bogan’s view, though, he stood above his own battles and his fallible allegiances: He had won out over them.

Her disdain for revolutionary regimes and the politics of parties stemmed from her uneasiness at their patent suspicion of artists: “the condescension of the political party toward the artist is always clear, however well disguised,” she wrote in 1939 in The Partisan Review, in a veritable fury that any revolutionary group would presume to grant or withhold liberation from imaginative artists. “The artist will be ‘given’ his freedom,” she mocked, “as though it were not the artist who ‘gives’ freedom to the world, and not only ‘gives’ it, but is the only person capable of enduring it, or of understanding what it costs.”

Freedom and the artist’s ability to endure freedom, to pay its cost, and to give freedom to the world—I bring up these apparently sociological themes because they come near the suffering projected in poems such as “Zone.” However odd it may seem to speak of the poem’s worldly backgrounds, the ordeal portrayed here is borne by a sensibility for whom the private had a public reverberation.

Bogan’s temperament drove her to accept deprivations on both fronts; even the diction of bearing a burden moved both ways, from the psychological to the ethical. Metaphors of worldly hardship and struggle-against helped to channel the creative act. In a draft of the poem that became “To an Artist, to Take Heart,” she wrote that, however placid the deaths of Shakespeare and Milton, in life neither was “absolved from either the courage or the cowardice / With which they bore what they had to bear.” In the same vein, the speaker ends “Zone” bearing the rude touch of the wind, along with the other treacheries, disappointments, and importunities she and her companion “have learned how to bear”:
Zone

We have struck the regions wherein we are keel or reef.
The wind breaks over us,
And against high sharp angles almost splits into words,
And these are of fear or grief.

Like a ship, we have struck expected latitudes
Of the universe, in March.
Through one short segment’s arch
Of the zodiac’s round
We pass,
Thinking: Now we hear
What we heard last year,
And bear the wind’s rude touch
And its ugly sound
Equally with so much
We have learned how to bear.
Marianne Moore thought that Louise Bogan’s poem “Zone” owed some of its compactness to the plain-style imagism of William Carlos Williams. But Bogan’s experiments in dramatic compression seldom truly moved in his direction; in fact, she was beguiled by all the linguistic possibilities that Williams deliberately resisted

  • the etymologies of words embedded in language (e.g., zone, or narrow belt, and strike, nautical term for taking soundings);
  • the metaphors linking pointedly diverging realms of experience and image (the nearness of the wind to words; the “ugly sound” that accompanies psychic shipwreck);
  • the novel yet sophisticated sound of the choice terms in the not-quite-colloquial order the poet chose for them (the adverbial phrase interrupting the sentence order in line 3, creating suspense; the nicely qualifying phrase “Equally with so much” in the penultimate line);
  • and, most important, the energy provided to language by the amplitudes and logic of syntax (so that even the brief declaration “We pass”—in its place—becomes a sustained and monumental act seen down a colonnade of precisely differentiated genitives: “Through one shore segment’s arch / Of the zodiac’s round”).

Consider, by contrast, a whole field of Queen Anne’s lace, “white desire, empty, a single stem, / a cluster, flower by flower, / a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing.” The impression made by the verse of Williams is of keenness moving aloft on the air passed through the words that he has liberated, even disowned. By contrast, the impression of a Bogan poem remains on the razor’s edge of feeling as, with an eye sharpened by a kind of delicacy, a damaged will looks on:
The wind breaks over us,
And against high sharp angles almost splits into words. . . .
In “Zone,” the will has been damaged by inexorability and by mindless repetition. The couple are violently bound toward wrack, regardless of which one of them plays the role of jagged reef and which that of the doomed vessel that steers toward it. The zone of the poem’s central metaphor is also a place of violence, an area of danger into which the two people have been driven by forces they cannot control, at a latitude where seas are particularly violent, in March, in the time of the vernal equinox.

Not only are the winds of March proverbial, they are widely believed to produce what are called “equinoctial gales” at sea along the path of the zodiac (whose narrow zone, or sash, encircles the earth along the apparent annual path of the sun). Although the persons in Louise Bogan’s poem have entered a region of seasonal disturbance that is recurrent, the poem points beyond nature to emotional revisitings that are yet more indelibly severe. Weight of feeling gathers and presses down with a familiar, almost physical relentlessness . . . familiar, but perhaps a little irksome too, as if irritability were the other face of despair. (1) Both features emerge in Bogan’s 1962 comment that it was “in a transitional period” in the late 1930s, “both of my outer circumstances and my central beliefs,” that she composed “Zone,”
a poem which derives directly from emotional crisis, as, I feel, a lyric must. And I think that the poem’s imagery manages to express in concrete terms (the concrete terms which poetry demands), some reflection of the relentless universal laws under which we live—which we must not only accept but in some manner forgive—as well as the fact of the human courage and faith necessary to that acceptance.

Odd that Bogan should speak of the need not only to accept the burden of “relentless universal laws” but even to forgive them. If these were like other “laws”—axioms in science or a set of rules in a republic—the attitude of forgiveness would be most peculiar. But in “Zone” (as in a somewhat earlier poem, “At a Party”), Bogan is summoning the imagery of the planets and the zodiac to represent the laws that propel us toward interpersonal mismatches:
Over our heads, if we but knew,
Over our senses, as they reel,
The planets tread, great seven, great two
Venus, Uranus, in a wheel.
     (“At a Party,” The Sleeping Fury, 1937)


Astrology would have it that these “great two” planets—Uranus, visible mid-month to the upper right side of the much smaller Venus, whose light is far brighter because closer to the earth—combine with effects of savage appetite, willfulness, and destruction. Whereas alone Uranus projects a strong individuality, and Venus effects of harmony (“Brief planet,” Bogan had called her in the 1935 poem “Evening-Star,” “shining without burning”), together these planets entice one toward explosive frictions, a manic social round, sudden attractions, and illicit broken love affairs. (2)

“Zone” emerges at the end of a period in Bogan’s life defined by loss and isolation. Since late 1933 she had been separated from her second husband, Raymond Holden (their divorce became final in 1937). Her mother, against whom Bogan had mightily struggled (until the daughter’s struggle carried over into other confrontations that similarly resulted in renunciation), died in 1936, impoverished, with Louise “unable to [afford to] provide her mother with private care” (as her biographer Elizabeth Frank points out).

Then, yet more crushing, it seemed that Bogan’s poetic gift was being withdrawn. In the period from 1936 to 1940, during which she spent great efforts on her literary journalism, she wrote fewer and fewer poems, completing “Zone” in March 1940, making it one of the last poems she wrote before she was overtaken by a dry period that lasted from 1941 to 1948. Even after that silence was broken, Bogan produced, during the final 20 years of her life, no more than a handful of poems—and none with the same mixture of tranquil eloquence, resignation, and distress.

* * *


(1) As Bogan suggests in a short poem whose speaker chafes against the task of speaking to those who are not thoughtful, and who bear little hardship; the “It” is the daemon that lashes her to begin again:
Must I speak to the lot
Who little bore?
It said Why not?
It said, Once more.
     (“The Daemon,” Poems and New Poems, 1941)



(2) In her greatest sonnet, also from 1935, the time of her affair with Theodore Roethke, Bogan commands herself to “Take up the burden” (as in a theme or refrain traditional for this kind of song), a word punningly allied to the theme of crushing weight (the Latin pondus): “No stone, slate, metal under or above / Earth is so ponderous, so dull, so cold.” Then comes the third quatrain, with its paradox of erotic force applied without movement, and the diction of bearing this weight to the breaking point:
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 for their kiss,
Felt bitter force cohering without motion.
     (“Single Sonnet,” The Sleeping Fury, 1937)
Originally Published: June 18, 2007

COMMENTS (1)

On June 21, 2007 at 5:15pm awa diddyluwsky wrote:
that poemetrys hard

alright

what with that

rythmin and rhymin of

words from thin air

and participles that

dangle and hangle

and such

why i think ill just

go ahead and paint me

a picture of a apple

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Biography

Honored as a teacher and critic, Mary Kinzie has published several collections of critical essays as well as poetry. She has an MA from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and a PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University. Her collections of poetry include Autumn Eros and Other Poems (1991), Ghost Ship (1996), Drift (2003), and California Sorrow (2007). In 2008 Kinzie received the Folger Shakespeare Library’s O.B. . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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