Born in Maine in 1897, Louise Bogan was the daughter of a mill worker and a mentally and emotionally unstable mother. Her childhood was restless: as the Bogans moved from one New England town to the next, May Bogan indulged publicly in extramarital affairs and baffled her family with frequent and lengthy disappearances. These affairs were to haunt Bogan for most of her life and became the preoccupation of her poetry which speaks eloquently of love, grief, mistrust and betrayal.

Bogan’s early education at Boston Girls’ Latin School gave a good foundation in the craft of writing, and in her early teens she wrote poems which preferred traditional English verse forms and metrics over the modernist styles which were gathering momentum in the early part of the twentieth century. She later wrote of the epiphany that led her to distinguish the poetic voice which once established, remained steadily unchanged throughout her writing life. Describing a visit to her mother in hospital and a chance sighting of a vase of marigolds, she said: “Suddenly I recognized something at once simple and full of the utmost richness of design and contrast that was mine.”

By the time Bogan published her first collection, Body of This Death(1923) she was a widow struggling to bring up her daughter on a low income, and beginning to seek psychiatric help for the depression she was to battle for the rest of her life. Critic Brett C. Millier describes her poetry as being “made of meticulously distilled experience, distanced from the source by objective language”, which enabled her to address these raw and difficult personal issues. He refers to poems in Body of This Death that “address specifically female concerns and point to Bogan’s ambivalent relationship with the tradition of female lyric poets,” adding: “Her poems are by no means dogmatically feminist; Bogan held a deep distrust for all ideological commitment. In fact, she has been castigated somewhat unfairly by contemporary feminists.”

Collected Poems, 1923-1953 was reviewed in the New York Times by Richard Eberhart, who wrote: “Louise Bogan’s poems adhere to the center of English with a dark lyrical force,” and continued: “What she has to say is important. How she says it is pleasing. She is a compulsive poet first, a stylist second. When compulsion and style meet, we have a strong, inimitable Bogan poem.” The Saturday Review elaborated on this: “Louise Bogan is mistress of precise images and commands an extensive range of poetic accents and prosodic effects; she is also a musician, whose notes are as crystalline as those of Chopin’s Preludes. More than this, one cannot read far in her pages without realizing that at the core of her poetry is mind-stuff which it is fashionable to call metaphysical.”

‘Medusa’, one of Louise Bogan’s best known poems. depicts the speaker frozen in dead landscape by the hissing head of Medusa. Theodore Roethke called this poem “a breakthrough to great poetry, the whole piece welling up from the unconscious, dictated as it were”. Interpreting the poem in Jungian terms, he saw it as a struggle with the Anima, where the house in the ‘cave of trees’ is a “womb within a womb,” and the Medusa the “man-in-the-womb, mother – her mother, possibly”

Bogan’s reading of the poem here is restrained and self-controlled, but her lilting Maine accent draws our attention to the subtle ways in which each poem’s units of sense are musically joined together.

'Medusa' and 'Statue and Birds' - The recording was made on 17 November 1944 at the Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington DC, and is used with permission of the Library of Congress.

Song for the Last Act - the recording was made18 on November1968 at the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress. Washington DC, used with permission of the Library of Congress

Poems by Louise Bogan

Song for the Last Act - Louise Bogan
Statue and Birds - Louise Bogan

Books by Louise Bogan



Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress

Prize website

Two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships

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Bollingen Award from Yale University

Prize website