Do you pick a destination in order to have a reason to take a walk, or do you take a walk in order to get to a place you have in mind? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Are the words a poet uses essentially a means to convey a thought or feeling he or she has in mind, or is the poem’s subject chosen mainly as a way of helping generate the poem’s language? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But I confess to being more attracted to the second kind of poetry — or maybe it’s fairer to say I prefer reading poetry as if it were written that way. That doesn’t mean the walk’s endpoint (the poem’s subject) is finally irrelevant to the pleasures of the stroll (the poem). You might not want to end up in some alley where you’re going to get mugged. But the destination is only a small part of the journey you’ve embarked on.
I started thinking again of the poem’s relation to its subject after reading a review of Louise Glück’s Poems 1962–2012 in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, accessible online to subscribers. Glück is one of the best-known American poets, a native New Yorker who has won just about every prize and honor available — Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle, U.S. Poet Laureate — and taught at all the famous places to be taught poetry; better still, as I’ve just learned from Wikipedia, her father helped create the X-Acto knife, a tool I’d recommend to every poet who hopes to carve more precise verses out of the thick and messy matter of our speech. But I’ve never been able to get interested in Glück’s work, and that’s too bad, because I’m always willing to go out of my way in search of a new pleasure. So I started reading the review with real curiosity, hoping that it would show me how to begin liking this poetry.
But no such luck. Why? Because the essay’s author, Gillian White, an English professor at the University of Michigan, writes about Glück’s poetry as if the most important thing about it is its subject matter. So I know pretty early on in the piece that Glück writes quite a lot about death, and that more broadly she consistently seeks out melancholy subjects. A bit further along, I gather that the stakes of this melancholy are often raised to the pitch of melodrama — that Glück’s is a “gothic” imagination. Well, that sounds entertaining. There’s so much poetry of understatement around (I might even be guilty of it myself) that a bit of blood and guts could be refreshing. But then it seems a rather mundane, even understated, daytime drama kind of gothic: “Marriages fail, tragedy hides beneath pastoral innocence; in a photo taken by one speaker’s mother, ‘not one of us does not avert his eyes.’” In any case, to speak of the gothic is to invoke a set of conventions, but an authenticating detail grounds convention in the poet’s biography: In her youth she suffered from anorexia.
So we seem to know what Glück is about, but still, what is the form of her poetry? About a third of the way into the piece, the critic finally begins to say something about the sort of language through which Glück adumbrates her fraught themes. It is implied that her early writing was kind of fancy — in what way we are not told — but that the consistent development of her work as she’s matured has been toward “a more authentic vernacular; ‘a longer breath’; an enlarged vocabulary; a poem ‘less perfect, less stately.’” Ok, but what makes one vernacular more authentic than another? And doesn’t the expanded lexicon slightly gainsay the idea that poems are turning toward the vernacular, assuming that the Wordworthian “real language of men” (and women) is relatively poor in relation to the studied artifices of poets? The seeming contradiction can surely be argued away, but one would like to see what particular form this critic’s argument would take. But she’s not interested. Rather than expanding on these points, White quickly turns back to thematic matters without pausing to consider what these “technical and stylistic” aspects have to do with the poet’s subject matter: Why is it that Glück has found a more disheveled, expansive, and down-to-earth style better suited to her themes of suffering and loss than the richer, more elegant manner of her early work? The answer: This “plainspoken quality suggests, at one extreme, an oracular, even demonic frankness that exceeds the merely personal.” This is very suggestive, but also puzzling. “Frankness” is a personal trait, so how does it get transfigured into something impersonal? Since “Glück’s poems are written in the first person and cycle through a limited repertoire of places, nouns and themes, including the real names of her ex-husband and son,” it’s hard to credit White’s claim that the poet’s work is in something other than a confessional mode. Glück writes, “When I speak passionately,/that’s when I’m least to be trusted,” but to confess to being an unreliable narrator is still a confession. And her use of mythical figures might work less to universalize these personal issues than to aggrandize them; the difference would all be in the details of the poems’ language, which we still haven’t heard too much about.
Reading on in the review, as White traces the shifts in subject matter from each of Glück’s collections of poems to the next, I find occasional mentions of linguistic matters — of the poet’s “lexical wit, her skill with tone, her knowledge of the Anglo-American poetic canon” — but only by the by, without any analysis of specific passages given to illustrate how these virtues manifest themselves. At one point White backtracks to reiterate how the “thick, stacked diction and taut, chewy syntax” of Glück’s early writing “is unlike the plain style that follows” and notes that her lines as well as the poems themselves have grown longer with time. We learn, too, in the next-to-last paragraph of the review, that (despite the enlarged vocabulary mentioned earlier) Glück’s mythicized personal dramas are presented with minimal props and highly abstract settings: “There are no classrooms, bars, supermarkets, highways, restaurants, cars, governments (local or national), hospitals, televisions, radios or gum wrappers.” What are all those different words being used for then, I wonder? Are there really that many words for middle-class discontent?
Those are real questions I have, not what are commonly called rhetorical ones. And if I seem to be picking on White or on Glück, that’s not my intention. White’s review struck me as typical of the way poetry is discussed in the mainstream press, not unusual, and I just want to tell reviewers of poetry that there’s at least one reader out there who’s mostly less interested in what someone’s poems are about than in what kind of linguistic experiences the poems make out of what they are about. That’s what it would take to get me to start reading a poet whose works are mostly unfamiliar to me. It’s true that Edgar Allan Poe considered the death of a beautiful woman to be “the most poetical topic in the world” but really, it’s not the subject that makes for poetry, it’s the work on language that the subject enables the poet to do. Until a critic can explain how Glück is reworking our language, I’m not ready to start tackling the 634 pages of her oeuvre. But I’m still ready to be enticed. Is there a critic out there who’s willing to try?
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.