Louise Bogan, Award-Winning 20th-Century Poet
By Taylor Jasmine | On March 7, 2023 | Updated March 9, 2023 | Comments (0)
Louise Bogan (August 11, 1897 – February 4, 1970) was a multi-award-winning American poet, essayist, and literary critic. Born in Livermore Falls, Maine, and educated in Boston, Massachusetts, she overcame numerous challenges throughout her life.
Her poetry is acclaimed for its subtlety, restraint, masterful use of crossed rhythms, economy of words, and use of lyrical forms. Many of her works explore the contradictions of the heart and mind.
Rising above childhood difficulties, divorce, and depression, she went on be selected as the fourth Poetry Laureate by the Library of Congress in 1945, the first woman to hold this position.
She received the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts,’s and two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation.
Early life and education
Born in Maine in 1897, Louise’s father was a mill worker. Her mother struggled with mental health issues. Throughout Louise’s childhood, her family moved around to many small towns around New England.
Her mother had extramarital affairs, frequently disappearing for long periods of time. This greatly troubled Louise and led to feelings of mistrust, betrayal, and grief, which became prominent themes in her poems.
After attending Mount St. Mary’s Academy, Louise entered Girls’ Latin School in Boston. Having written fantasies in her earlier years, she transitioned to writing poetry in her mid-teens.
These early works were modeled after the poems of Christina Rossetti, W.H. Auden, Rainer Maria Rilke, and William Butler Yeats. Several selections were published in the school journal and the Boston Evening Transcript.
University studies and marriage
Louise attended Boston University from 1915 through 1916. Declining a scholarship to Radcliffe, she fell in love and married Curt Alexander. The couple lived in New York and Panama, and their daughter, Mathilde (called Maidie), was born there.
Sadly, the marriage deteriorated after Louise’s older brother died in combat. In another tragic turn of events, after suffering complications from surgery, Curt passed away in 1920. Louise used some of her widow’s pension to study piano in Austria.
Upon her return to New York, she met Edmund Wilson, one of her first mentors. With his encouragement, Louise began earning money by writing literature reviews that were published in various periodicals. In addition, she was employed at a public library and a bookstore.
Louise struggled with raising her daughter on a low income. Eventually, Mathilde was sent to live with Louise’s parents.
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Body of This Death: Poems by Louise Bogan (1923)
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First publications; productive years
In 1923, Louise’s first book of poetry was published. Titled Body of This Death, it was notable for its short, formal lyrics about love, betrayal, and grief.
“Medusa,” which became one of the best-known poems from this collection, speaks of a traumatic event in Louise’s life that has become frozen in time. While writing this poem, Louise was receiving psychiatric treatment for depression, an illness that she continued to cope with for the rest of her life.
In addition to her writing, Louise served as the associate editor of The Measure: A Journal of Poetry from 1924 to 1925.
In 1925, Louise married Raymond Holden, a fellow writer and poet. As with her first marriage, this one was troubled, and Louise and Raymond divorced in 1937.
However, these years were some of Louise’s most productive ones, and she published two volumes of poetry. Dark Summer was published in 1929 and The Sleeping Fury followed in 1937.
The Sleeping Fury helped cement Louise’s status as a master of poetry. Writing in Books, a reviewer praised the collection’s “mastery of form” and “creative architecture,” lauding her for her talent as a sculptor of words.
Louise triumphed over many setbacks on the journey to publishing these works, including a 1929 fire that destroyed her manuscripts, the loss of Raymond’s inheritance, and hospitalization for depression.
Awards and new positions
Louise continued to gain critical recognition in the 1930s. She won fellowships for creative writing and poetry from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1933. She was hired as a poetry editor at the New Yorker, a job she held for 38 years.
Her reviews were celebrated by many in her field. W.H. Auden, a poet she greatly admired, declared that Louise was the finest poetry critic in the United States.
Throughout the 1940s, as Louise progressed with her writing, she earned more accolades. Poems and New Poems was published in 1941. William Rose Benét, a Saturday Review critic, wrote that this volume showed that Louise “has inherited the Celtic magic of language, but has blended it somehow with the tartness of New England.”
As further recognition of her immense talent, Louise was chosen as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1945. She was the first woman to hold this prestigious post, now known as U.S. Poet Laureate.
As the 1940s unfolded, writing poetry became more difficult for Louise. Although she still worked as a reviewer, her focus shifted to education. She took occasional teaching jobs and was a mentor to many younger poets.
Over the years, she served as a visiting professor at the University of Washington, Brandeis University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Arkansas.
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Later life; the legacy of Louise Bogan
In the 1950s and 1960s, Louise was honored for her achievements in her field. She won the Bollingen Prize in 1954 and earned an award from the Academy of American Poets in 1959.
She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her final collection of poetry, The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923–1968, was published in 1968.
After suffering a heart attack at her home, she passed away on February 4, 1970.
As Wendy Hirsch notes in American National Biography, while Louise Bogan felt invisible for most of her life, she stands today as “a poet’s poet.” Her works are rich sources of beauty and inspiration for those who are open to them.
While she lived at a time when other poets were experimenting with looser structures, Louise boldly breathed new life into traditional forms. Choosing and sculpting each line with precision, her poems were compact, every word imbued with the weight of raw emotion.
Although she faced challenges and tragedies in her life, she used each experience to grow, finding meaning in misfortune and creating beauty from sorro. That beauty lives on in each of the masterful works she crafted, waiting for new generations of readers to discover it.
More about Louise Bogan
- Body of This Death (1923)
- Dark Summer (1929)
- Collected Poems (1923–1952)
- The Blue Estuaries (1968)
Nonfiction and autobiography
- The Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation by Louise Bogan (1970)
- A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005)
- Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (1980)
Letters, Biography, and Criticism
- Louise Bogan: A Woman’s Words by William Jay Smith (1971)
- What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970 (1973)
- Louise Bogan: A Portrait by Elizabeth Frank (1985)
- Louise Bogan’s Aesthetics of Limitation by Gloria Bowles (1987)
More information and sources
- Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
- Poetry Foundation
- All Poetry
- Poet Seers
- Poetry Archive
- My Poetic Side
- Library of Congress