Follow Harriet on Twitter
Louise Bogan’s ‘Women’
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.
For many decades, Louise Bogan was the regular poetry reviewer and editor at The New Yorker, in an American literary culture that was even more male-dominated than it remains.
These biographical facts should be kept in mind by anyone inclined to make hasty judgments about Bogan’s poem “Women.” The poem’s quick, shifting and looping moves and reversals lead me to find “irony” an inadequate term, especially if one thinks of irony as a binary toggle, on or off, rather than a matter of degrees and kinds.
On the one hand, the poem begins with “Women have no wilderness in them”; on the other hand, “They cannot think of so many crops to a field.” The conflict between these two deficiencies—not wild enough and not practical enough—casts doubt upon proceeding by means of “on the one hand and on the other hand.” This passionate, many-angled poem generates an ardent skepticism not only about gender stereotypes but about generalities in general. With its rhymes on only alternate lines, tempering the quality of formal mastery with an informal, almost casual surface, the poem is assertive, but not reductive.
As Bogan says in the audio of her reading the poem, she was twenty-four years old when she wrote “Women.” In her introductory remarks the poet also speaks of her youthful “bitterness” in contrast with her later, mature “enjoyment.” Possibly those nouns, too, should be understood as qualifying one another with an alert, scintillating irony.
As I put it in the headnote to this poem in Singing School, “What assignment might she have given herself, fulfilled by this poem?”
[Editor’s Note: Please head to Robert Pinsky’s Poetry Forum for a discussion of Louise Bogan’s “Women,” moderated by Robert Pinsky.]
(If you would like to pitch an idea for “Open Door,” please contact us)