You Hear This Voice? This Is My Mind’s Voice: A Tribute to Louise Glück
By Callie Siskel, Paul Tran, Katie Peterson, Spencer Reece, Elisa Gonzalez, Richie HofmannNovember 9, 2023
And yet, in all of Louise’s poems, the enunciation of an idea, an epiphany, a confession, still leaves room for mystery. In fact, the speaker’s tonal certainty belies the plurality of meaning, or of meaninglessness, a demotion of meaning in favor of thought—the mind’s voice, not its conclusions. She warned against being too sure of oneself in a poem, too self-aware. She wanted the mind to move on the page. Seeing as her poems are her mind’s voice, she comes back upon reading them—fiercely, quickly, and (as is true of the mind) privately, silently, implicitly. Rereading her work is not only to be reconnected to her mind but also to live inside it, to remember what she remembered—“how the earth felt, red and dense, / in stiff rows” (“October”); “after so long how to open again / in the cold light / of earliest spring—” (“Snowdrops”); “the attempts of the mind / to prevent change” (“Birthday”).
With my co-editor Elizabeth Metzger, I asked five poets who were close to Louise to reflect on their favorite poem of hers. Reentering her poems’ uncanny power, we hope you are reconnected to her everlasting mind.
She’s not gone. Just this morning, the phone rang, and I heard her voice from the other end. We talked about the chocolates I sent, which ones she liked and didn’t, and the miracle of her garden in bloom this far into the fall. When we last sat in that garden, she noticed I’d seemed lately unlike myself. I didn’t like myself, I told her, and I didn’t know whether revenge against my life, or love for it, would take me where I dared to go. Fixing her hair, Louise Glück said they were the same.
In “First Memory,” the last poem in Ararat, the speaker discovers the pain she lived since childhood to revenge herself for was not because “[she] was not loved” but because “[she] loved.” Without description or devices usually used decoratively, this poem uttered from pure interiority helped me understand why I persist and what makes a poem: patterned language, or form, that enacts content to create meaning.
“First Memory” is stichic, a single-stanza poem insisting utterances be considered in relation to each other without strophic compartmentalization. The nine lines of varying length mirror the unpredictable tumult of self-reflection. The three sentences, enjambed not only to parse complex thought but also to show the mind working through that complexity, recall another unit of three: the beginning, middle, and end of a heroic journey. That journey is the speaker arriving at transformational knowledge marked by exact rhyme, the emphatic repetition of “loved.” That phonic echo recalls the heroic couplet in an English sonnet. Invoking that often ornamental tradition, the poem implicitly argues for its spare yet intimate poetics—for interior investigation that reaches beyond what Louise calls “the first circle of revelation.”
As a survivor who copes by detaching and dissociating, I found in “First Memory” how to make poetry during periods when living, and remembering the details that make life real in writing, proved insurmountably difficult. The speaker, which is to say the poet, must be changed. Change requires radical inner revelation that liberates us to perceive ourselves differently and pursue different choices. Liberation is the meaning of our poems and, more importantly, our lives.
This morning, after waking, I stared into space a while before admitting I dreamt her call. Her caller ID, a meme I’d shown her of Britney Spears as the Mona Lisa, blasting through the fleeting dawn darkness. Her voice telling me like she did in the garden behind the blue house that the real miracle is realizing how wonderful being alive had been all along. The miracle is finding a way to like and live with ourselves. Remembering that, I decided it doesn’t matter that I now talk with Louise in dreams. Remembering everything I learned from her, I decided she’s still here.
Louise Glück’s last published book of poems, Winter Recipes for the Collective (2021), is strangely buoyant. The parables of the book are wonderfully unfinished, just as parables should be, turned outward, towards uncertainty. The 16 lines of “A Children’s Story” begin as a fairy tale comes to an end: “Tired of rural life, the king and queen / return to the city, / all the little princesses / rattling in the back of the car.” Not only have these royals abandoned the pastoral, that freedom-granting province of poetry where all is possible and restlessness is supposed to be curable; they’ve also acquired (numerous but never numbered) children and a car—the fairy tale has become, in a few words, the American dream! A few lines later, the oracular narrator says what all parents know: “Who can speak of the future? Nobody knows anything about the future, / even the planets do not know. / But the princesses will have to live in it.” The day after Louise left us, I watched a posse of six-year-olds of all genders, garbed in princess dresses, pummel a bright piñata the shape of a geometric star into confetti at a birthday party—I suspect everyone I was with was thinking this exact same thing. I love the sigh of the real inside these lines, how they elevate an ordinary worry into grandeur. “A Children’s Story” narrates a moment of growing up—who can say if it’s the parents or the princesses who need to grow up, or both? Likely both. It’s a poem about that strange reentry into life that parents face when their children leave the cocoon of babyhood and enter a larger world. Jury’s out on when exactly this is, but we pandemic parents got to enjoy and suffer it a little longer. It’s also a post-pandemic poem for anyone, a parable of all of us returning to the world, such as it is. So much of our current poetry concerns grief. Louise Glück’s poetry feels brave to me because it offers only consolations that refuse self-deception. “A Children’s Story” bestows, in its last lines, a consolation finer than hope—I might call it self-discovery: “All hope is lost. / We must return to where it was lost / if we want to find it again.”
You judged the Bakeless Prize in 2003. Only time you judged that prize. The prize celebrated a first book of poems. Submitted my book over 300 times to national competitions, lost every time, was in my early forties. Worked at Brooks Brothers for over a decade. The Bakeless Prize was it. Was done. Quitting. Didn’t know anyone in poetry. Worked in a mall. Who paid attention to salesclerks?
Out of 1,000 books. Out of cartons. You sifted and sifted and found my book. We did not know one another. One could win a prize from a judge one never met. For 20 years we talked, met, ate in a restaurant called the Hungry Mother, joked, laughed, wrote, sent books, sent flowers. Acts of love.
I am 60: the age you were when you changed my life. Spoke to you this September, from my office, where I am the vicar of Wickford, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rhode Island. Poetry led to priesthood. Your response? “You’re churchy.” What didn’t change between us was love. You told me to come to Cambridge soon for dinner.
You didn’t like “Memoir” as a poem. I did. The poem, written in the middle of your career, signaled a change. “Memoir” as a title was ironic because you wouldn’t be caught dead writing a memoir. Yet, your poems came from the center of your life. Years of psychoanalysis informed the work with a charged intimacy you shared with the only other American-born Nobel Laureate in Poetry, T. S. Eliot. You loved Eliot. “His voice is so intimate,” you said.
Your later books came lightning-quick like seizures, gifts to balance the epilepsy you medicated. Later poems flipped the switch to expand a voice that was anti-memoir.
By the time you got to A Village Life (2009) you wrote the memoir of a village: “On market day, I go to the market with my lettuces.” I loved that line: the voice pierced me and your “point of view” had disappeared. I said: “You leapfrogged over Plath.” You said: “Write that down.”
After The Clerk’s Tale was published, remember? Showed you poems in Cambridge: you paused, looked out the window. Your speech unparalleled: sentences fully cast with ancillary clauses and no “ums” sticking to the words, you said: “These are outtakes from your first book, you can continue to write poems that imitate your first book; or you can wait for a new sound.” Your eyebrow signaled the comma, a pause indicated the semicolon. Love is best when direct and, God, were you direct. Twelve years later, my new book didn’t sound like the first.
I took your dare to explore beyond my first book.
Thank you, Louise. You nourished, sustained, attacked. Mama bear. Jewish stage mom. Confidante. You were generous. Generosity expanded your art. You helped many. You pushed your poems until they surprised you. You wanted the same for everyone. I loved you. Said that to you every time we talked. This September, New England leaves turned gold and church bells rang as I said, “I love you,” one last time. And you answered, “I love you, too.” That’s the memoir I’ll keep.
Since I first read “The Denial of Death,” when it appeared in The Paris Review in 2018, it has confounded me. It reads like a dream, a real dream, not an invented one, grasping after symbols: In two long sections (“A Travel Diary” and “The Story of the Passport”), the poem placidly pursues a storyline through the words of a speaker who comments on many things, but never the world of the poem, which is taken for granted, like any dream by its dreamer. (As Glück writes in another poem, “In the Café,” a dream is entered “without volition” and one lives in it “however long it lasts.”) Until she wakes, that is. But in “Denial,” this speaker remains suspended. And though it is a dreamlike world, the poet avoids any conceit of dreaming. If the unconscious is at work here, the narration proceeds as if it isn’t. The narration is, in fact, hyper-conscious of the elements of storytelling, starting with its unperturbed opening: “I had left my passport at an inn we stayed at for a night or so whose name I couldn’t remember. This is how it began.” From there, the language of time, which often provides the little hinges that open the next part of any story, repeats: “By day,” “by night,” “after a time,” “sometimes,” “once,” “from time to time,” “one day,” “all this time,” “when.” It is a simple, albeit strange, story: the speaker cannot continue the journey without the lost passport, but the friend with whom she travels goes on without her “casually” and “merrily,” while she makes her home on a blanket in the orange grove outside a hotel. This becomes her life; this is the setting of the rest of the poem, and much time seems to pass, at least “a month,” in her words. Enough time for habits to form and for each day to seem “exactly like its predecessor”—and to form new friendships, with the hotel’s busboys, and with the concierge, with whom she converses the way you would if your only friend were an oracle. But, the speaker admits, “really I had no idea of time.”
So perhaps the poem is less a dream, in which time has no significance, than a work of fiction, which forces time’s passage into a timeless form. “Timeless,” I mean, as in “without time.” This is, I’d argue, more the territory of fiction rather than poetry for reasons of length as much as any supposed traditional focus on the lyric moment. In “The Denial of Death,” a hybrid emerges: here we have characters, a setting, dialogue, and a plot—a plot that moves, in the concierge’s words, not “in a straight line as time / suggests we do, but rather […] / in a circle, which aspires to / that stillness at the heart of things, / though I prefer to think it also resembles a clock.” If, at the end of the poem, when the concierge and the lost friend seem to collapse into a single “you,” an address, the speaker notes slyly, that “is, I believe, / a convention in fiction.” Slyly, I say, because the convention of intimate address is much more common in poetry.
At first, I thought that the story hiding within the story—the reason to tell it in the manner of a dream—was a story of grief: the friend who stands “pelting” the speaker “with foil-wrapped chocolates” and then resumes “the journey we would have taken together” is dead. Later, I thought that it was actually the speaker who had died, and that this was a version of an afterworld. Two different denials of death. Now I think the indeterminacy is central to the poem: it is not a riddle; it is not a dream recounted for an analyst to interpret; it is a brush against mystery—the mystery of poetry itself, the mystery of death, the mystery of why we might invent fictions when we know how all stories end.
A Village Life is a late, but not the last, book from Louise Glück. It is a collection as attuned to the weirdness of human attachments as it is to the cycles of seasons, to the deaths and rebirths of the natural world. I’ve been returning to its poem “Crossroads” because it is a valediction. A goodbye, in a sense, to life, to the body and soul, to oneness with self and world. The speaker, anticipating death, seeking forgiveness, addresses her own body:
My body, now that we will not be traveling 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—
love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities.
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised—
The body is a travel companion on the journey of life, now somehow, at the end, beautiful, like a lover from youth. The poem is extraordinary in its compression and intensity, as well as in its mixture of registers: from the direct (“My body”) to the arch and euphemistic (“now that we will not be traveling together much longer”), as the speaker searches for the words (“I begin to feel,” “like what I remember”).
My soul has been so fearful, so violent:
forgive its brutality.
In a short poem, Glück stages an interplay between the sensuous and the cerebral, between philosophical meditation and cri de cœur. Of course, the title of the poem is “Crossroads”: the speaker and reader both find themselves at a convergence, an intersection, of what? Life and death, flesh and spirit, agency and fate …
In “Crossroads,” Glück shakes off the late parable style of her favorite, final poems to reveal something sparer, more direct, “raw and unfamiliar” as first love. The world of pains, of course, is a “vale of Soul-making,” as Keats puts it in a letter from spring 1819. In her own essay, “Against Sincerity,” Glück argues that Keats’s poems “describ[e] a soul’s journey.” She writes, “His desire was to reveal the soul, but soul, to Keats, had no spiritual draperies. […] To Keats, the soul was corporeal and vital and frail; it had no life outside the body.”
“Crossroads” is such a beautiful poem, in part because of Glück’s mastery of diction. She stretches the poem to its most abstract and inhumane, only to yield to its simplest, and somehow most intimate, conclusion; the poem’s final, immortal lines are a release from the knotty and intellectual to pure spirit, from thinking to feeling, from the grip of complicated life to what remains and outlasts:
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.
Paul Tran is the author of the debut poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, 2022), and their work appears in The New York Times and The New Yorker. Paul is an assistant professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Katie Peterson’s sixth book of poetry, Fog and Smoke, is forthcoming from FSG in early 2024. She is the director of the graduate creative writing program at the University of California, Davis, where she is professor of English and a Chancellor’s Fellow.
Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. The recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, she is the author of the poetry collection Grand Tour (FSG, 2023).
Richie Hofmann is the author of two collections of poetry, A Hundred Lovers (2022) and Second Empire (2015).
Featured scan of “Louise Glück poster (1977)” is in the public domain. Image has been cropped.
Callie Siskel lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at USC, where she is working on a PhD in creative writing. She received her MFA in 2013 from Johns Hopkins University and her poems have appeared in The Yale Review, 32 Poems, Passages North, The New Criterion, The Hopkins Review, and other journals. She is currently working on her first book of poems and is poetry editor at Los Angeles Review of Books.
LARB Staff Recommendations
C. Francis Fisher reviews Elisa Gonzalez’s “Grand Tour.”
Katie Peterson interviews Walt Hunter about his new book, “Some Flowers.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!