Fight with your work, but let the world go on

Words of wisdom from Louise Bogan

The past couple of months have been hectic and stressful, but I’m pleased to say that my unintended hiatus has now come to an end. Thanks for bearing with me, and for not reading any other newsletters in my absence.


Born in Maine in 1897, Louise Bogan was 48 when she became the first woman to be appointed Poet Laureate in the U.S. These letters of advice were written ten years earlier to Theodore Roethke, a friend and fellow poet who had lost his way and turned to drink, and who, in 1954, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Should you love these letters even half as much as I do, I strongly recommend getting hold of the criminally under-appreciated book, What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan. It’s up there with the best.


September 4, 1935

Dear Ted:

Darling, you left me a great opening for a great inspirational letter, and I am not going to take it, in the way you expect, perhaps. But let me say one or two things. In the first place, the loss of face is the worst thing that can happen to anyone, man or woman. I know, because I have lost mine, not once, but many times. And believe me, the only way to get it back is to put your back against the wall and fight for it.

You can’t brood or sulk or smash around in a drunken frenzy. Smashing around gives the world’s insects and worms the upper hand, and if you smash yourself dead, they won’t give a damn; it won’t impress them in the least; they’ll get up every morning and gargle with Listerine, just as though you never had been. I, too, have been imprisoned by a family, who held out the bait of a nice hot cup of tea and a nice clean bed, and no questions asked, until the mould starts in effacing the last noble lineaments of the soul. (That’s wonderful, isn’t it?) And let me tell you right now, the only way to get away is to get away: pack up and go. Anywhere. I had a child, from the age of 20, remember that, to hold me back, but I got up and went just the same, and I was, God help us, a woman. I took the first job that came along. And there was a depression on, as there is now, not quite so bad, but still pretty poor, and I lived on 18 bucks a week and spent a winter in a thin suit and a muffler. But I was free. And when, this last time, I couldn’t free myself by my own will, because my will was suffering from a disease peculiar to it, I went to the mad-house for six months, under my own steam, mind you, for no one sent me there, and I got free. When one isn’t free, one is a thing, the thing of others, and the only point, in this rotten world, is to be your own, to hold the scepter and mitre over yourself, in the immortal words of Dante.

I don’t know what to say about the drinking. If you didn’t have such a good, happy and sensitive mind, I’d say, go on and drink, if you want to. Lots of excellent people have drunk and drunk and produced. But drinking seems to have you down, at the moment, and to hell with anything that gets a person of your potentialities down. If, as someone once said, Kenneth Burke is one of those providential characters put into the world to show how the human mind should not be used, you may well be a person put into the world to show how it should. I’ve already written to Malcolm, telling him he’s a damned fool if he doesn’t give you some poetry to review. And what would you do if you got it? Throw it against the wall, most likely, and go back to your pie, rye and sauerbraten mit nudeln, washed down with a little beer and ice-cream. I don’t know, Ted. I don’t indeed. You’re 26 and should know your own mind. But believe me, I saw my brother, from the age of 26 to 33, when death providentially took him, and he stayed at home and didn’t put up a fight, except toward the last, when he used to knock down doors and smash windows with chairs, and be brought home, beaten to a pulp, and I tell you, anything in God’s world is better than that.

You are thoughtless and unhappy and spoiled, and I wish I had $10,000. Perhaps I could shake you out of it, on that sum. You could shake yourself out of it, for much less. And, take the word of one who has lain on the icy floor of the ninth circle of hell, without speech and will and hope, it’s the self that must do it. You, Ted Roethke, for Ted Roethke. I, Louise Bogan, for Louise Bogan.

Forgive me if I sound melodramatic, my pickled pear. I am fond of you, and I think there are so few of our kind that you should stay in the ranks.

Ever,

Louise


December 1935

Dear Ted:

I am so sorry that you are still under the weather, but I am glad that you’re having good, sensible professional care. There’s nothing like it, when one gets really down, and isn’t able to make the motions by oneself. Believe me, my dear, I’ve been through it all; not once, but many times (twice, to be exact). And after the first feelings of revolt and rage wear off, there’s nothing like the peace that descends upon one with routine, lovely routine. At the Neurological Center, here in town, at one time I went through three weeks of high-class neurology myself. I had a room all done up in noncorrosive greens, and a day and a night nurse, and a private bath, and such food as you never ate, and hydrotherapy, including steam-cabinets, and a beautiful big blond doctor by the name of McKinney.

I had a great triumph with McKinney: I made him shed a single tear and when you can make a neurologist shed a tear, you’re doing well, as you probably know by now. You wouldn’t be able to bring off that feat, because you’ve had a comparatively happy life, and because you haven’t got the Irish gift for histrionics—not that I don’t feel assured that you do pretty well in your Pomeranian way.

Well, there I was, and I got worse and worse, rather than better and better, because I hadn’t come into myself as a person, and was still a puling child, hanging on to people, and trying to make them tell me the truth. You won’t be that foolish. The good old normal world is really a lot of fun, once you give in to it, and stop fighting against it. Fight with your work, but let the world go on, bearing you and being borne by you: that’s the trick. As old Rilke said:

Und wenn dich das Irdische vergass,

zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.

Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.1

Ever with love,

L.

1

From Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: ‘And if the world has ceased to hear you, say to the silent earth: I flow. To the rushing water, speak: I am.