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"I'm every woman." Whitney Houston sang that, Shmoopers. This was long time after our poet Louise Bogan died. Still, had she been alive to see Whitney's video, we're guessing she would have taken off her shoe and thrown it at the screen.
If that seems like an odd reaction, well, you don't know Louise Bogan and sure as sugar haven't read "Women," one of her more famous poems. Born in 1897, Bogan's early life was pretty un-poetic, as it turns out. She had a troubled family life that kept her family on the move. Luckily for Louise, she was sent off to private school by a benefactor. This got her out of her rocky circumstances and pointed her toward literature and a career in poetry.
She published her first book, Body of This Death, in 1923. "Women" and a few other of her more famous works appear there. She kept writing poetry, as well as prose and criticism, and eventually wound up reviewing poetry for the The New Yorker—a pretty weighty position for a woman of her time to occupy.
But "Women" is definitely not a rah-rah, go-team, "let's put on some Whitney and dance" kind of poem. It actually reads more as a criticism of Bogan's fellow females than a defense of them. Of course, there's still more to this poem than just a critique. In fact, like many of Bogan's poems, this one is dense and difficult to pin down. Ultimately, what you take from it probably says more about you than it does about the author's intentions. For Bogan, a notoriously private person in life, that's probably just how she likes it.
Women—hear them roar, right? By now, of course, all that roaring's paid off. We can now sit back and enjoy the total equality that women have with men in our society…except, you know, in terms of salaries…or chances for promotion…or representation in beer commercials.
Okay, okay—so when it comes to equality, women still have a long way to go to be on equal footing with men. And when Bogan published this poem, they were ninety years further removed than they are today. But Bogan's not exactly calling for a fair shake here.
In fact, on the surface of the poem, she's writing mainly about women's shortcomings. Now, that might not seem very PC, but then again this is a woman writing. So, maybe she's criticizing the shortcomings she sees in other women in the hopes that they might someday change.
In other words, think of this poem as the equivalent of your gym coach ranting at you. "You call that a pull up? My chihuahua Mr. Pickles has more upper-body strength than you!" Now, what do you do? Do you run away and quit? Or do you go home, practice, pump iron, and eventually show that coach that you can do what he says you can't? Then you get to spike Mr. Pickles right off the gym floor in your victory celebration.
Sometimes poems want to give us a kick in the pants, so take this as a chance to get inspired. Just, you know, please leave Mr. Pickles out of it.
If you're just starting to read her poetry, this is a great introduction to Louise Bogan and her work.
Modern American Louise
Read more about Bogan's work from a host of critics.
Bogan was decidedly pre-YouTube, but here's one of her videos illustrated. As a bonus, it features her reading the original poem.
What she might lack in a video presence, Bogan more than makes up for in audio recordings. Here she is reading our poem.
Don't…miss Bogan reading this poem. (Get it? Miss? Mark? Hello? Is this thing on?)
Louise would like to talk to you about nature's helicopters.
Louise in Black and White
Here she is, looking a little perturbed.
Don't smoke, kids, even if Louise did.
Louise Among the Palms
Louise looks a little suspicious of whoever took this photo.
Pinksy on Bogan…on Women
Check out former Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy discussing "Women."
The Body of This Death
This is where "Women" first appeared.
The Blue Estuaries
Want more Bogan? Here is 45 years' worth of poems.