WHEN AN AMERICAN POET reaches un certain âge, publishers like to mark the occasion with expensive omnibuses. Recently we have had John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956–1987, Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959–2009, and Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems. Now Louise Glück, nearly 70, has a premature tombstone of her own: Poems 1962–2012, a brick of raw feeling collecting all of the poet’s books, from 1968’s Firstborn to 2009’s A Village Life (the title is thus something of a puzzle).
Glück is as important and influential a poet as we have in America, a tagline whose strangeness deepens the more one reads her. She has won every major award; she served as Poet Laureate (how incongruous to think of this bleak, private poet in such a smiling, public role). Her work is an occasion for something like rapture among her admirers. Maureen McLane describes the fervor with which Glück first gripped her in terms thousands could second:
Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris was a companion more intimate than any living friend, a murmur and rasp and balm in the mind those months the structures of living you yourself had erected were now collapsing, the foundations battered by you yourself.
I’ve encountered this devotional attitude in unexpected places, a shared and paradoxical sense that Glück’s stark, insular verse speaks to you insofar as you are the worst enemy of “you yourself.”
Now that we can read Glück’s poetry as a lifework, both her greatness and her limitation become more evident. Both might be summarized by these lines from The Wild Iris (1992), her most famous and adored collection:
The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
These lines, like many in The Wild Iris, are spoken by a flower; nevertheless, someone with a mind has produced them. Glück’s principal weakness — it mars all of her books to some extent — is that she too often allows herself to be so governed by her feelings she forgets she has a mind. If she weren’t aware of this tendency — the lines above prove she is — she’d be insufferable. Instead, she’s a major poet with a minor range. Every poem is The Passion of Louise Glück, starring the grief and suffering of Louise Glück. But someone involved in the production knows how to write very well indeed.
This tension animates almost every page of Poems 1962–2012. After the apprentice work of Firstborn — Glück later claimed to feel only “embarrassed tenderness” toward the volume — there is an unnerving consistency of tone. I’d be tempted to call it a flatline if it didn’t so often lurch into the beeping peaks and valleys that indicate life, however attenuated. From the first, Glück has been half in love with easeful death. “This will be the death of me,” she writes in Firstborn, but it never is. Forty years later she’s writing that “It’s natural to be tired of earth.”
For her sins — the melodrama, the litanies of intim...read more