Louise Bogan’s Poem, ‘Tears in Sleep’

Louise Bogan, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.

There are two things that jump out to me most about Louise Bogan’s poem Tears in Sleep, and which compelled me to share it tonight. But first the poem

Tears in Sleep

All night the cocks crew, under a moon like day,
And I, in the cage of sleep, on a stranger’s breast,
Shed tears, like a task not to be put away—
In the false light, false grief in my happy bed,
A labor of tears, set against joy’s undoing.
I would not wake at your word, I had tears to say.
I clung to the bars of the dream and they were said,
And pain’s derisive hand had given me rest
From the night giving off flames, and the dark renewing.

Bogan’s life is almost more fascinating to talk about than the poem itself (and that’s not a slight against the poem; it’s more an acknowledgement of just how interesting her life was). According to the Academy of American Poets, she was born in Maine in 1897, married in 1916, was widowed in 1920, married a poet in 1925, and divorced in 1937.

By 1945, she was elected as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the precursor to the United States Poet Laureate), and was the first woman to hold such a position. She also had a position reviewing poetry for The New Yorker for 38 years.

Finally, two years before her death in 1970, she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

What a dang life, huh?! I mean, it’s frustrating that someone of immense talent has to be centered on or looked at through the lens of, “Look at what she accomplished as a woman in a male-dominated field, particularly of that time period,” and fighting that current instead of focusing energies on the talent in and of itself, but alas, that’s the world. But seriously, trying to emerge as a formidable talent of poetry in the 1930s and 1940s, enough to then be recognized by Congress and then later get a lot of lofty media positions, is an incredible arc to understand.

The second thing that stood out to me about this poem is that I’m not typically someone who likes rhyming poetry. Every now and then I’ll dabble in it myself, and every now and then I like to read it (usually when it’s being comedic), but this is a great use of the rhyming structure.

But let’s look at the poem itself now. The Academy said Bogan maintained a high emotional pitch with her poetry, as she was “preoccupied with exploring the perpetual disparity of heart and mind.” I read this poem, at first blush as someone unhappy with their station in life, i.e., the “disparity of heart and mind.” For example, whether it’s a literal stranger or a romantic partner who might as well be a stranger, she seems to be in the “cage of sleep,” a “false light, false grief,” juxtaposed to what should be a “happy bed.” Again, in other words, the tug-and-pull of heart and mind.

Despite what outwardly seems good and joyful, she has a “labor of tears, set against joy’s undoing.” Gah, what a great line that is!

I’m also fascinated by the reversal, or at least, what seems to be: First, the image of the “cage of sleep,” but by poem’s end, she’s clinging to the bars of the dream, until pain (not joy) gives her rest. Like some other poems I’ve reviewed recently, it’s almost as if sorrow and darkness is what really sets aflame our lives (“dark renewing”) rather than a false sense of joy and happiness. Or rather, expectations of what ought to make us joyful and happy.

Finally, a note on the title itself. As I think about it, I think about sleep as being the moment at which we are the most … naked to ourselves? In that gray area between consciousness and unconsciousness, right before we drift off into the latter, we tend to be most honest with our emotions and most attuned to them. Perhaps that’s giving rise to this tug-and-pull between heart and mind that’s manifest in the poem.

I like Bogan’s style and a rather subtle ferocity to her work, as shown in this poem. I’m going to seek out more of her work for sure.

What do you think of this poem?

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