Louise Gluck Essays About Life

Louise Glück has been publishing poetry for nearly fifty years. This may be some kind of record, since it reflects not great age but uncommon precocity: she is not quite seventy. Her poems are flash bulletins from her inner life, a region that she examines unsparingly. Outside her poems, much noisy history has occurred, this past half century. Inside them, you find, X-rayed by an unusually analytic mind, only the kinds of thing that Emerson once said a poet needed: “day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few actions.” Though she has won almost every major award in poetry (including the Bollingen Prize, probably the most prestigious of them all) and served, in a wincing sort of way, a term as Poet Laureate, Glück does nothing very venturesome: she teaches (at Yale and in the Boston University Creative Writing Program, where we are now colleagues), reads mystery novels, gardens, and cooks. She has suffered more than some, less than many; she has nothing uniquely harrowing to report. If someone told you to make fifty years of poetry out of what Glück has kept on hand, you would say, No, I’m sorry, that’s not possible.

Glück’s “Poems 1962-2012” (Ecco and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a big book by a poet who values, above all, intensity of address, leanness of sentiment, and precision of speech: fifty years of excisions, refusals, and corrections, on longitudinal view. None of this would matter if Glück were not among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing. Only a poet susceptible to authentic rapture makes an art out of hunting down its counterfeit. Glück is a poet of first-person forensics: her autobiography is dissected rather than expressed, almost as though the facts of her life belonged to someone else.

She was born in 1943 in New York City, and was raised on Long Island. A sister died before Glück was born. “Her death was not my experience, but her absence was,” Glück writes in an essay. “Her death let me be born.” That severity of judgment is typical of Glück, who often pares experience down to brutal cause and effect. Glück sought her mother’s approval exclusively, approval that was usually withheld; her father, who had helped bring the X-Acto knife to market, was a worldly success with buried literary ambitions. A younger sister appears, in Glück’s poems, sometimes as ally, often as rival. Much of life, for Glück, is livable only when hostile factions lay aside their arms; it is a view of social life as driven not by altruism but by truce, and it was formed in that home.

“Firstborn” (1968) is the title of Glück’s first book. It rushes in to repair, in art, the rift caused by real life, but it sounds nothing like her later style. She had adopted, as her earliest version of intensity, the period manner: the soothsaying tone of Anne Sexton and her legion of vengeful kinswomen (“Today my meatman turns his trained knife / On veal, your favorite. I pay with my life”). Almost right away, she banked hard and found the unimpressionable style that she has more or less held on to, though with many extensions added over the years. “The House on Marshland” (1975), Glück’s second book, offers that style in concentrate. The hugeness of what Glück will not say is like some big masonry wall. What little is said shimmies through a narrow breach in the mortar:

Father has his arm around Tereze.

She squints. My thumb

is in my mouth: my fifth autumn.

Near the copper beech

the spaniel dozes in shadows.

Not one of us does not avert his eyes.

Across the lawn, in full sun, my mother

stands behind her camera.

And that is the entirety of “Still Life.” This is family life depicted twice: by the mother, through her camera, and by Glück, through this poem. Both “takes” depend on an observer who leaves herself out of the picture: the photograph effaces the mother, since she takes it; the poem, in painstakingly avoiding all commentary, hides its author as best it can, though there she is, sucking her thumb. Glück seems to revile, though she cannot help resembling, the mother so central to the picture that omits her. Both suppose that their own point of view can stand in for objectivity. Both end up with evidence—the mother’s photograph, Glück’s poem—that proves them wrong.

The idea that you could write poems with the subjectivity subtracted has a proud twentieth-century provenance, passing through Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the American Objectivist poet George Oppen. (Glück has written about her admiration for the latter two.) This line of poetry exists to counteract cant, bluster, and European manners, preferring the concrete “world of things,” as Oppen put it, to the murk of a poet’s moods and attitudes. Glück’s innovation, in her best early poems, was to borrow the coolest American style and apply it to the hottest material: she was an objectivist of the emotions, a practitioner of what James Joyce described, in his own early style, as “scrupulous meanness.”

Glück’s poems in this period are all winter interest, beauty thrown into relief by bleak circumstances. “The poet is supposed to be the person who can’t get enough of words like ‘incarnadine,’ ” Glück writes in her essay “Education and the Poet.” “This was not my experience.” Instead, a handful of recombinant integers—moon, evening, pond, hill—have to do all the work. The resulting poems seem spoken by some nonhuman sentience. I suspect that Glück is still best known for the widely anthologized pieces she wrote in her thirties that exemplify this method, poems from “The House on Marshland” and “Descending Figure” (1980): “Gretel in Darkness,” “The Drowned Children,” “The Pond,” and “The School Children.” It is not entirely a criticism to say that these poems often leave me cold. They are studies of the kinds of inflexibility they embody; they examine what it means to have a policy toward life but no real purchase on it. The emotion finds us, however, by weird byways and back channels:

You see, they have no judgment.

So it is natural that they should drown,

first the ice taking them in

and then, all winter, their wool scarves

floating behind them as they sink

until at last they are quiet.

And the pond lifts them in its manifold dark arms.

The first two lines quote back, as in a dream, the justifications of reason, or religion, or whatever force wants to transmute accident into law; the following five borrow the tone and deliberately misapply it to a description of these children’s bodies first sinking, then rising, in the “manifold dark arms” of the pond. Somewhere behind this poem is Glück’s missing sister, but the art here is in suppressing the facts: we are entirely in the realm of psychological paradigm. And yet something impossible to place in Glück’s tone causes us to grieve.

When she was sixteen, Glück, suffering from anorexia, nearly starved herself to death. Her formal schooling was sporadic from that moment forward. She spent seven years in psychoanalysis and, eventually, apprenticed herself to two poets: first Leonie Adams, then Stanley Kunitz, both of whom she met during a brief period at Columbia. Anorexia seems to have been a clumsy early form of writing poetry, focussing exclusively, and therefore tragically, on form; analysis, which replaced anorexia by describing it, would then be an improvement, except that it had no form—its truths were inert and abstract. Only in poetry could the formal manifestations of insight be explored, a fact that she explores, in form, in a section of “Dedication to Hunger,” from “Descending Figure”:

It begins quietly

in certain female children:

the fear of death, taking as its form

dedication to hunger,

because a woman’s body

is a grave; it will accept

anything. I remember

lying in bed at night

touching the soft, digressive breasts,

touching, at fifteen,

the interfering flesh

that I would sacrifice

until the limbs were free

of blossom and subterfuge: I felt

what I feel now, aligning these words—

it is the same need to perfect,

of which death is the mere byproduct.

“Blossom” is what grownups say little girls’ bodies do; to the girls it feels more like “subterfuge.”

That pair of words reveals so much about what drove Glück in poems like this one: “the need to perfect,” certainly, but what poet doesn’t feel some version of that need? Glück’s provocative difference was to link perfection with forms of defiance. As she writes in “Education of the Poet”:

By the time I was sixteen, a number of things were clear to me. It was clear that what I had thought of as an act of will, an act I was perfectly capable of controlling, of terminating, was not that; I realized that I had no control over this behavior at all. And I realized, logically, that to be 85, then 80, then 75 pounds was to be thin; I understood that at some point I was going to die. . . . Even then, dying seemed like a pathetic metaphor for establishing a separation between myself and my mother.

The body is contested territory upon which little duels of the will play out: the point is to win the duel, not to pay homage to the setting.

If in this formula you substitute, for the body, language, you start to appreciate the explosive origins of Glück’s poems. Every poem Glück writes seems one she has denied her adversary—that is, every other human being. This has made Glück a great poet of one-sided quarrel poems, where her voice must fend off the effaced but palpable pressure of a combatant:

It is not the moon, I tell you.

It is these flowers

lighting the yard.

I hate them.

I hate them as I hate sex,

the man’s mouth

sealing my mouth, the man’s

paralyzing body—

Both women and poets are said to be affected by the moon: this is a way of diagnosing their seeming fits. Both groups, Glück suggests, actually have quite specific cases to prosecute: our personal arrangements, like whose body goes on top during sex and which flower is chosen to “light the yard,” derive from convention, but someone, in the process, gets silenced and half-smothered. Poetry redresses the wrongs: it unseals the mouth; it gets on top.

“Mock Orange,” from “The Triumph of Achilles” (1985), is an unforgettable poem, but it is a niche poem, and Glück, up until around 1990, was a niche poet, albeit a brilliant one. Nobody did disembodied ferocity or eerie force better than she did, but life was drawing a wider and wider circumference around the fixed foot of her voice. She needed a way of being ample without sacrificing precision; she had to become generously stringent, no easy task.

But she had lived enough adult life to have a new relation to her own spoken voice: her poems had, up to that point, seemed like wary extensions of mental life into language. Now Glück was getting around more, giving lectures and commencement addresses, many of them collected in a volume of her prose, “Proofs and Theories” (1994). She had a great gift for prose; she had always written letters, but the essay opened up as a new venue, requiring a new range of tones. It seemed unthinkable for the poet of “Still Life” to write the kinds of poem that Glück wrote in “Ararat” (1990), her book about the death of her father. All the commentary withheld from earlier poems arrives, sharpened by its time inside the mind:

As I saw it,

all my mother’s life, my father

held her down, like

lead strapped to her ankles.

She was

buoyant by nature;

she wanted to travel,

go to theater, go to museums.

What he wanted

was to lie on the couch

with the Times

over his face,

so that death, when it came,

wouldn’t seem a significant change.

Glück isn’t the first poet to be opened up by the death of a parent; having your subjects alive to read about themselves is no great convenience. But these judgments led to other judgments, and soon the living were also caught up in Glück’s analytic web. Her young son won’t play with his overcompetitive cousin:

She accepts that; she’s used to playing by herself.

The way she sees it, it isn’t personal:

whoever won’t play doesn’t like losing.

It’s not that my son’s inept, that he doesn’t do things well.

I’ve watched him race: he’s natural, effortless—

right from the first, he takes the lead.

And then he stops. It’s as though he was born rejecting

the solitude of the victor.

My sister’s daughter doesn’t have that problem.

She may as well be first; she’s already alone.

Since the publication of “The Wild Iris,” in 1992, Glück has made steady gains on the world of circumstance and accident that she once ignored, while turning almost entirely to what you might call the primary ironies: our vaunted mind is stuck inside a rickety body; our happiness is in others’ hands, and knowing that theirs is in ours, too, doesn’t make us any nicer; we are surrounded by inanimate objects whose one big advantage over us sentient fools is that they will outlast us. You cannot express these ironies unless you tell your reader something about your speakers that they themselves don’t know; but this is difficult in poetry that is so uncompromisingly set in the first person.

For Glück, the solution to this problem has been to set her contemporary-seeming speakers in mythical narratives. We know these stories by heart; we see what’s coming for these poor souls. Glück had used mythical speakers before—including, in one memorable early poem, Persephone—but she made them as stiff as statues. In “Meadowlands” (1996), she became fully, elastically human inside these inflexible templates; that’s how the irony registers. Milton knew Homer, one early biographer wrote, almost “without book”; Glück seems to need little more than the CliffsNotes. Her Dido sounds like Glück, her Penelope sounds like Glück, her Persephone sounds like Glück; even the bad guys in these stories get to talk, and, when they do, they sound—surprise—a lot like Glück.

There is no impersonation in the Homeric poems in “Meadowlands.” Here is Glück as Penelope, doing some soul-searching:

Whose most demonic appetite

could you possibly fail to answer? Soon

he will return from wherever he goes in the meantime,

suntanned from his time away, wanting

his grilled chicken.

And here is what sounds like the philandering Odysseus, a “lover of the world,” on the attack:

You don’t love the world.

If you loved the world you’d have

images in your poems. . . .

Look at John, out in the world,

running even on a miserable day

like today. Your

staying dry is like the cat’s pathetic

preference for hunting dead birds: completely

consistent with your tame spiritual themes,

autumn, loss, darkness, etc.

And here, having a little too much fun mentally drafting his father’s epitaph, is Telemachus:

I know

what he wants: he wants

beloved, which is

certainly to the point, particularly

if we count all

the women.

These poems distribute one voice across contesting perspectives, to show the balletic way in which minds in close contact with each other act in consort, even as they are growing apart. Glück’s poetry once had the intensity of hoarded power; her poems from the nineties spread the power around.

The great subject, if you’ve decided we’re all careering toward oblivion, is joy: how and why do we feel it? What difference does it make? The primary joy for a poet is writing poems, and so, against the bleak backdrop of fate, the poems now often register the surprise of their unbidden arrival. Glück’s gift is fluky and intermittent; she spends years adrift, where she has, in her own words, “not written badly” but, rather, “written nothing.” Any poet who writes this way looks agog at the natural world, with its showy periodicity, the flowers reborn every year, right on time. Often, as in the title poem of “The Wild Iris,” she transfers human sentience to the natural world, imagining that it suffers her own cycles. “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:

Then it was over: that which you fear, being

a soul and unable

to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth

bending a little. And what I took to be

birds darting in low shrubs.

That’s no flower; that’s a poet speaking. Indeed, the elation now often comes across in propria persona. In “Orfeo,” from “Vita Nova” (1999), Glück quotes, as an epigraph, a snippet from her namesake Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera—“J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”—then sings her own aria:

I have lost my Eurydice,

I have lost my lover,

and suddenly I am speaking French

and it seems to me I have never been in better voice;

it seems these songs

are songs of a high order.

We understand from the fussy diction and from the jokes that this is not a person given to spasms of rapture; as with many such passages in her poems, a fundamental asperity, never surrendered for very long, makes her sudden joy all the more moving.

There’s plenty to be sad about in Glück’s recent work; we expect her to be adept at delivering bad news. But all that severity is paying some tremendous dividends now, in a poet who has been on record about misery all along. These new poems are funny, abundantly social, and often, where we expect a bitter judgment, merciful. Here she is, in “Fugue,” a poem from “Averno” (2006), remembering a child’s game of family:

I was the man because I was taller.

My sister decided

when we should eat.

From time to time, she’d have a baby.

Later in the same poem, she retells a dream:

I had a dream: my mother fell out of a tree.

After she fell, the tree died:

it had outlived its function.

And in “Crossroads,” one of many sublime lyrics in “A Village Life” (2009), after a lifetime of combatting her body, she makes the most unlikely truce of all:

My body, now that we will not be travelling together much longer

I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,

like what I remember of love when I was young—

This is a boast: wherever the body ends up, this voice is not going to go away. ♦

Louise Glück is considered by many to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. The poet Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing,” and her poetry is noted for its technical precision, sensitivity, and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death. Her poems are frequently described as “spare.” James K. Robinson in Contemporary Women Poets also noted that “Glück’s poetry is intimate, familial, and what Edwin Muir has called the fable, the archetypal.” Rosanna Warren has described Glück’s “classicizing gestures”—her frequent reworking of Greek and Roman myths such as Persephone and Demeter, for example—as necessary to her lyric project. According to Warren, Glück’s “power [is] to distance the lyric ‘I’ as subject and object of attention” and to “impose a discipline of detachment upon urgently subjective material.” Glück’s early books feature personae grappling with the aftermaths of failed love affairs, disastrous family encounters, and existential despair, and her later work continues to explore the agony of the self. In the New York Times, critic William Logan described her work as “the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse—starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.”  

Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. Her first book of poetry, Firstborn (1968), was recognized for its technical control as well as its collection of disaffected, isolated narratives. Helen Vendler commented on Glück’s use of story in her New Republic review of The House on Marshland (1975). “Glück’s cryptic narratives invite our participation: we must, according to the case, fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can utter her lines, decode the import, ‘solve’ the allegory,” Vendler maintained. But she added that “later, I think…we read the poem, instead, as a truth complete within its own terms, reflecting some one of the innumerable configurations into which experience falls.”

Glück’s poems in books such as Firstborn, The House on Marshland, The Garden (1976), Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Ararat (1990), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris (1992) take readers on an inner journey by exploring their deepest, most intimate feelings. “Glück has a gift for getting the reader to imagine with her, drawing on the power of her audience to be amazed,” observed Anna Wooten in the American Poetry Review, and Stephen Dobyns maintained in the New York Times Book Review that “no American poet writes better than Louise Glück, perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own nature.” Glück’s ability to create poetry that many people can understand, relate to, and experience intensely and completely stems from her deceptively straightforward language and poetic voice. In a review of Glück’s The Triumph of Achilles, Wendy Lesser noted in the Washington Post Book World that “‘direct’ is the operative word here: Glück’s language is staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech. Yet her careful selection for rhythm and repetition, and the specificity of even her idiomatically vague phrases, give her poems a weight that is far from colloquial.” Lesser went on to remark that “the strength of that voice derives in large part from its self-centeredness—literally, for the words in Glück’s poems seem to come directly from the center of herself.”

Because Glück writes so effectively about disappointment, rejection, loss, and isolation, reviewers frequently refer to her poetry as “bleak” or “dark.” The Nation’s Don Bogen felt that Glück’s “basic concerns” were “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it…She is at heart the poet of a fallen world.” Stephen Burt, reviewing her collection Averno (2006), noted that “few poets save [Sylvia] Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.” Readers and reviewers have also marveled at Glück’s gift for creating poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subjects. Holly Prado declared in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece on The Triumph of Achilles (1985) that Glück’s poetry works “because she has an unmistakable voice that resonates and brings into our contemporary world the old notion that poetry and the visionary are intertwined.” Glück’s Pulitzer prize-winning collection, The Wild Iris (1992), clearly demonstrates her visionary poetics. The book, written in three segments, is set in a garden and imagines three voices: flowers speaking to the gardener-poet, the gardener-poet, and an omniscient god figure. In the New Republic, Helen Vendler described how “Glück’s language revived the possibilities of high assertion, assertion as from the Delphic tripod. The words of the assertions, though, were often humble, plain, usual; it was their hierarchic and unearthly tone that distinguished them. It was not a voice of social prophecy but of spiritual prophecy—a tone that not many women had the courage to claim.

Meadowlands (1996), Glück’s first new work after The Wild Iris, takes its impetus from Greek and Roman mythology. The book uses the voices of Odysseus and Penelope to create “a kind of high-low rhetorical experiment in marriage studies,” according to Deborah Garrison in the New York Times Book Review. Garrison added that, through the “suburban banter” between the ancient wanderer and his wife, Meadowlands “captures the way that a marriage itself has a tone, a set of shared vocal grooves inseparable from the particular personalities involved and the partial truces they’ve made along the way.”

Vita Nova (1999) earned Glück the prestigious Bollingen Prize from Yale University. In an interview with Brian Phillips of the Harvard Advocate, Glück stated: “This book was written very, very rapidly…Once it started, I thought, this is a roll, and if it means you’re not going to sleep, okay, you’re not going to sleep.” Reviewing Vita Nova for Publishers Weekly, a critic remarked: “Glück’s psychic wounds will impress new readers, but it is Glück’s austere, demanding craft that makes much of this…collection equal the best of her previous work—bitter, stark, careful, guiltily inward…It is astonishing in its self knowledge.” Although the ostensible subject matter of the collection is the examination of the aftermath of a broken marriage, Vita Nova is suffused with symbols drawn from both personal dreams and classic mythological archetypes. Glück’s next collection, The Seven Ages (2001) similarly takes up both myth and the personal.In the New York Times Book Review, Melanie Rehak stated: “It’s a book in which repetition functions as incantation, forming a hazy magic that’s alternately frightening and beautiful.” The Seven Ages contains forty-four poems whose subject matter ranges throughout the author’s life, from her earliest memories to the contemplation of death. While Rehak acclaimed “every poem in The Seven Ages [as] a weighty, incandescent marvel,” a Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked: “Considering age and aging, summer and fall, ‘stasis’ and constant loss, Glück’s new poems often forsake the light touch of her last few books for the grim wisdom she sought in the 1980s.”

Glück’s next book, Averno (2006), was a critical success however and many judged it to be her finest work since The Wild Iris. Taking the myth of Persephone as its touchstone, the book’s poems circle around the bonds between mothers and daughters, the poet’s own fears of ageing, and a narrative concerning a modern-day Persephone. In the New York Times, Nicholas Christopher noted Glück’s unique interest in “tapping the wellsprings of myth, collective and personal, to fuel [her] imagination and, with hard-earned clarity and subtle music, to struggle with some of our oldest, most intractable fears—isolation and oblivion, the dissolution of love, the failure of memory, the breakdown of the body and destruction of the spirit.”

William Logan called Glück’s A Village Life (2009), “a subversive departure for a poet used to meaning more than she can say.” The book is a marked formal departure for Glück, relying on long lines to achieve novelistic or short-story effects. Logan saw A Village Life as a latter-day Spoon River Anthology in its use of “the village as a convenient lens to examine the lives within, which counterpoint the memories of her [Glück’s] life without.” Dana Goodyear, reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times found A Village Life “electrifying,” even as it presumed to tell its “polite” story of a “dying agriculture community, probably in Italy, probably some time between the 1950s and today.” Goodyear added: “Ordinariness is part of the risk of these poems; in them, Glück hazards, and dodges, sentimentality. The near miss makes us shiver.” Glück’s selected Poems 1962-2012 (2012) was published to great acclaim. While highlighting her work’s fierceness and “raking moral intensity,” in the words of New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner, the collection also allowed readers to see the arc of Glück’s formal and thematic development. According to Adam Plunkett, reviewing the collected poems in the New Republic, “Very few writers share her talent for turning water into blood. But what emerges from this new, comprehensive collection—spanning the entirety of her career—is a portrait of a poet who has issued forth a good deal of venom but is now writing, excellently, in a softer vein.” Poems 1962-2012 won the Los AngelesTimes Book Prize, and Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014) won the National Book Award.

In 2003 Glück was named the 12th U.S. Poet Laureate. That same year, she was named the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her book of essays Proofs and Theories (1994) was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction. In addition to the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, she has received many awards and honors for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, a Sara Teasdale Memorial Prize, the MIT Anniversary Medal, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2008, she was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award.

Glück currently teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[Updated 2014]


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