DECEMBER 4, 2012
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 intimate, first-person life — Glück has often been grouped with the confessional poets. But the best of the latter (Plath, Lowell, Berryman) are word-drunk and always onstage. Their inner lives, their embarrassing personal revelations, are proscenia that enclose a sold-out performance (“The big strip tease,” Plath calls it). Insofar as they seek exculpation, to attain which is the purpose of confession, they do so theatrically: proud, not able truly to repent. But this is not Glück; unlike Plath or Berryman, she depends upon the fiction of privacy. The poems exist within the illusion that their speaker is addressing precisely nobody but herself — and perhaps some flowers. Even in their frequent apostrophe, they seem letters never sent; even God, when he appears, seems to be only a less accessible region of Glück’s psyche. She doesn’t care who, if she cried out, would hear her: “It doesn’t matter / who the witness is, / for whom you are suffering.”
Of course this is a fiction: poems are written to be read by others. But it’s a fiction that sustains the poems’ confined tone, their weirdly detached intimacy. What saves the confessionalists is their care for the words on the page, which in their best poems they place before the funerals in their brains. In this, Glück is like them, but it’s the vocabulary that does the strip tease: “everything is bare.” Even the soggiest early work — before the twin pinnacles of The Wild Iris and Meadowlands (1996) — contains lines that stop you cold in admiring recognition of her right placement of right words. “The moon throbbed in its socket,” she says in “12.6.71,” a poem so bare it can support only a date above it. The ending operates on the smallest scale of perfection, like Webern’s microtextures or one of the Thorn miniature rooms:
And the snow
which has not ceased since
The uncharacteristic lack of punctuation mimics the beginning of unceasingness described. Glück achieves a union of form and content that would seem Zen if it weren’t so cranky: of course the snow hasn’t ceased; even the weather is a bummer. (“There is only the rain, the rain is endless,” a poem in A Village Life ends.)
By Ararat, Glück has mastered an austere, self-punishing style, almost an antistyle. She wrings the necks of scrawny nouns and verbs until they flop unnaturally to one side, tongues lolling out. “From this point on, nothing changes,” she writes, and it’s true. Except she gets stranger and better. In The Wild Iris, Glück’s flayed, indignant artistry finally provides recompense for the poetic pleasures she refuses (adjectives, description, breadth, joy). What a weird little book it remains after 20 years. The poet’s voice is still Old Testament in its lamentation, but other sensibilities are allowed to temper it. There are talking flowers and an arch god, both of whose lines dramatize Glück’s awareness of her own susceptibility to self-pity. The poet herself is a gardener whose marriage is failing, blighted like the tomatoes she tends (somehow, this allows her to be witty for once: “I must report / failure in my assignment, principally / regarding the tomato plants”). In bitterness and anguish, she addresses the god:
What is my heart to you
that you must break it over and over
like a plantsman testing
his new species? Practice
on something else …
The flowers are having none of it: “What are you saying? That you want / eternal life? Are your thoughts really / as compelling as all that?” The flora’s sarcasm frees the poet-gardener to address the god wryly, witheringly: “I see it is with you as with the birches: / I am not to speak to you / in the personal way.” She is outraged by divinity’s “absence / of all feeling”:
… I might as well go on
addressing the birches,
as in my former life: let them
do their worst, let them
bury me with the Romantics,
their pointed yellow leaves
falling and covering me.
This passes, on Glück’s sparse stage, for delicious irony. Of course she knows that she invites the charge of Romanticism as she lies bleeding on the thorns of life. It is precisely such knowledge that acquits her.
Glück thus allows the god to be as exasperated as the reader by his creation’s hysteria; the brief poem “April” provides a précis of the entire drama:
No one’s despair is like my despair —
You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.
Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.
This caustic, snippy god clearly owes something to the Judaism Glück has mostly disavowed, but he also suggests a debt to the not-exactly-Judeo-Christian mysticism of Rilke. In the original, cancelled version of the tenth Duino elegy, Rilke describes the angels’ inability to do more than mimic “the tiresome outward signs” of grief:
you would call down, shout down, hoping they might still be curious,
one of the angels (those beings unmighty in grief)
who, as his face darkened, would try again and again
to describe the way you kept sobbing, long ago, for her.
Angel, what was it like? And he would imitate you and never
understand that it was pain, as after a calling bird
one tries to repeat the innocent voice it is filled with.
[trans. Stephen Mitchell]
Once you’re attuned to Rilke’s influence, you see it everywhere in Glück: the obsession with classical myth; the metaphysical yearning; the world-weary death fetishism. (William Logan, in his review of A Village Life, calls Glück Rilke’s “secret mythographer.”) But where Rilke is often as florid as D.H. Lawrence on peyote, Glück’s language is ordinary as Oppen’s. Rhetorical flights would simply distract her from “How lush the world is, / how full of things that don’t belong to me.” Glück manages to be overwrought without any filigree, paring down language while ramping up emotion, opposing to the lushness of the world the few words that do belong to her.
This is a risk only certain poets should take. It pays off for Glück in the merciless, darkly comedic Meadowlands, in which the marriage finally crashes and Homer takes over metaphorical duties from the Yahwist. (Genesis is about exile; The Odyssey is about trying to find your way to a home you no longer recognize.) Glück makes comic verse from the bickering that dominates conversation at the end of a relationship. “Ceremony” begins in the middle of an argument, ostensibly between Glück and her then-husband John, about dinner: “I stopped liking artichokes when I stopped eating / butter. Fennel / I never liked.” The exchange that follows is a small triumph of realism, as one partner’s (presumably the wife’s) responses lag behind the other’s accusations:
One thing I’ve always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.
Flaubert was crazy: he lived
with his mother.
Living with you is like living
at boarding school:
chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.
I have deep friendships.
I have friendships
with other recluses.
* * *
Another thing: name one other person
who doesn’t have furniture.
We have fish Tuesday
because it’s fresh Tuesday. If I could drive
we could have it different days.
I know of nothing else in contemporary poetry, besides James McMichael’s Each in a Place Apart, that portrays this minutely the inane friction of falling out of love. Much of it is surely invented, but, as Plath says, it feels real.
That in itself isn’t enough to make a good poem, of course, but the poems in Meadowlands seem to me the best Glück has written. It’s as if she’s internalized her husband’s critique; letting his voice, or her impression of his voice, into her poems allows her to sustain the critical perspective gained in The Wild Iris: “You don’t love the world. / If you loved the world you’d have / images in your poems.” So, in the next poem, we get a rare image, attached to a rarer simile: “the white blossoms / like headlights growing out of a snake.”
This is how Glück’s sparseness transmits: in small signals of mastery, the dots and dashes of a lifetime’s learning. A lawn in moonlight becomes “a whole world / thrown away on the moon.” “White fire” is “leaping from the showy mountains” — you can imagine her elongating the upright of the n of “snowy,” transforming an adjective anyone might use to one that encodes an epistemology. Or, just when you’re starting to wish she’d never read a word of Homer or Ovid, she might let in a little light from a century you’ve walked in:
How could the Giants name
that place the Meadowlands? It has
about as much in common with a pasture
as would the inside of an oven.
Yes, Phil Simms shows up in a Louise Glück poem. And the outside world cracks these poems open, lets a little air out of their inflated sentiment. An early poem in Meadowlands begins, “A lady weeps at a dark window.” Well, of course she does — and a lady, not a woman; weeping, not crying; a dark window, not a Burger King. But a few lines later, “next door the Lights are practicing klezmer music. / A good night: the clarinet is in tune.” Meadowlands is a bitter but funny book. “Anniversary” begins, “I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean / your cold feet all over my dick,” which elicits the retort:
You should pay attention to my feet.
You should picture them
the next time you see a hot fifteen year old.
Because there’s a lot more where those feet came from.
“We can all write about suffering / with our eyes closed,” John tells the poet, so Glück writes about it more obliquely, with her eyes open:
I want to do two things:
I want to order meat from Lobel’s
and I want to have a party.
You hate parties. You hate
any group bigger than four.
If I hate it
I’ll go upstairs. Also
I’m only inviting people who can cook.
Good cooks and all my old lovers.
Maybe even your ex-girlfriends, except
If I were you,
I’d start with the meat order.
I have to say, I’m sorry they got divorced. I like this guy.
Glück’s felicity in such registers is the flipside of her tendency to grandiose utterance. Glück has a fine ear for the obvious, for what might strike a lesser poet as not worth noticing: the name of a football stadium, a couple’s in-jokes. The obvious is what we most often overlook — “It takes genius to forget these things” — concerned as we are with smaller pictures: “Life is very weird, no matter how it ends, / very filled with dreams.” It’s true that this can lead Glück to forget that poetry should be at least as well written as a Hallmark card:
I can verify
that when the sun sets in winter it is
incomparably beautiful and the memory of it
lasts a long time.
When she writes like this, you’re not even frustrated, really, just confused. “What?” I said to the page. (I think that dry “I can verify” is supposed to save the banality that follows, but self-parody doesn’t work if the reader has to hope that’s what it is.)
But there is something admirable about such devotion to the obvious, and it might be that dreck about the beauty of winter sunsets is a small price to pay for Glück’s vision at its cleanest. In her late work, especially Averno (2006) and A Village Life, she’s adopted a conversational tone that happily resists her attraction to summary wisdom: “Snow began falling, over the surface of the whole earth. / That can’t be true.” She knows what little things to notice, and how to notice them: “the streetlight becoming a bus stop” in the dawn; a neighbor calling her dog. “The dog’s polite; he raises his head when she calls,” but he’s busy rooting in the garden, “trying to reach a decision about the dead flowers.” If we’re lucky, we get a poem that leaves these things well enough alone, unencumbered by deadening morals:
Child waking up in a dark room
screaming I want my duck back, I want my duck back
in a language nobody understands in the least —
There is no duck.
But the dog, all upholstered in white plush —
the dog is right there in the crib next to him.
Years and years — that’s how much time passes.
All in a dream. But the duck —
no one knows what happened to that.
Reading this collection from cover to cover is exhausting but purifying (see, it’s contagious), like sitting through a Robert Bresson marathon. Critics like to use scalpel metaphors to describe the poems’ effects (Glück’s father, everyone notes, helped to invent the X-Acto knife). Glück slices, she dices; she cuts and stabs herself, her readers, the words she has to use but mistrusts, the illusions she despises but relies on. A scalpel damages in order to heal. In a late poem, Glück dreams of
a harp, its string cutting
deep into my palm. In the dream,
it both makes the wound and seals the wound.
Her teacher Stanley Kunitz once asked “How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?”, but it’s Kunitz’s close friend Theodore Roethke whom Glück, at least in spirit, more nearly resembles:
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks — is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
Glück’s work is all edges — some, it’s true, rather blunt. But the sharper ones can inflict heavenly hurt, where the meanings are. If you want to know about the last half-century of American poetry, you need to read these poems.