Bogan was born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). Her father worked for paper mills and bottling factories, and she spent her childhood growing up in mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, mostly living in working-class hotels and boardinghouses. Her mother was unstable and had numerous affairs, which left Bogan distrustful of relationships for most of her life.
A private benefactor paid Bogan’s tuition for the prestigious Girls’ Latin School in Boston, where she devoured the pages of Poetry magazine and began writing her own poems. She loved Rilke, but grew out of Whitman by the age of 16. Bogan gave up a scholarship to Radcliffe to marry a colonel in the U.S. Army, but they separated after two years (1919), and he died a year later of pneumonia. She left their daughter in the care of her parents and went to Vienna for three years, where she lived a solitary literary life.
When Bogan returned to the U.S., she went straight to New York City, where she fell in with fellow writers William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson. She worked in a bookstore with Margaret Mead, who would later find fame as a cultural anthropologist. It was Wilson who suggested she start writing reviews to make money. Her reviews were terse, astute, and sometimes very funny. She lambasted Robinson Jeffers for his “bitter earnestness” and said Richard Wilbur was “composed of valid ingredients.” About poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, she said: “They will never surprise anyone again. They will never break down or up or take to drink or religion or run off with anyone’s wife or husband. They are half-dead already.” She became the poetry editor of The New Yorker in 1931.
Bogan’s poetry was published in The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic. She wrote and published the majority of her poetry before 1938, including the collections Body of This Death (1923), Dark Summer (1929), and Sleeping Fury (1937).
She was intensely private and most of her friends didn’t even know she had a daughter from her first marriage. In the 1930s, she had a brief, raucous affair with the poet Theodore Roethke. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs.) and he writes very, very small lyrics. 26 years old and a frightful tank. We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. … Well! Such goings-on! A woman of my age! […] I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about.” They remained dear friends after the affair ended.
In 1945, Louise Bogan was named the fourth poet laureate of the Library of Congress. When she retired from The New Yorker in 1969, she said: “No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be a square.” She died a year after leaving the magazine.
Bogan’s New Yorker reviews are collected in the book A Poet’s Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation (1970). W.H. Auden thought she was the best critic of poetry in America and gave the eulogy at her funeral.