About Louise Gluck

Image: João Nitsche
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By MICHAEL ROBBINS*

Commentary on the work of the poet recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

When an American poet hits un certain age, publishers like to mark the occasion with expensive anthologies. We recently had the John Ashbery's Collected Poems 1956-1987, the Poems by Frederick Seidel 1959-2009 e Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert. Now, Louise Glück, in her late XNUMXs, has her own premature headstone: Poems 1962-2012, a brick of raw emotion bringing together all the poetess's books, from Firstborn from 1968 to Village Life 2009 (the title, therefore, has something enigmatic).

Glück is one of the most important and influential poets we have in the United States, a slogan whose strangeness becomes deeper the more we read it. She has won all the big prizes; she was chosen Poet Laureate (how incongruous to think of this dark and private poet in such a laughing and public role). Her work is the occasion for a kind of ecstasy among her admirers. Maureen McLane describes the fervor with which she was seized by reading Glück's work in terms thousands could agree with: "The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück, was a companion closer than any friend, a murmur and a harshness and a balm to the mind in those months the structures of life you yourself had erected were collapsing, the foundations shaken by yourself.

I came across this devotional attitude in unexpected places, a shared and paradoxical sense that Glück's dry, insular verse speaks to you, insofar as you are the worst enemy of "yourself".

Now that we can read Glück's poetry as the work of a lifetime, both its greatness and its limitation become more evident. Both can be summarized by these lines of Wild Iris (1992), his most famous and beloved collection:

the grand thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, i have these: they
rule me

These lines, like many in Wild Iris, are said by a flower; yet someone with a mind produced them. Glück's main weakness – she marks all her books to some extent – ​​is that too often she allows herself to be so ruled by her feelings that she forgets she has a mind. If she wasn't aware of this tendency – the lines above prove that she is – she would be unpalatable. Rather, she is a great poet with a limited range. Each poem is The Passion of Louise Glück, starring Louise Glück's grief and suffering. But someone involved in the production actually knows how to write really well.

This tension animates almost every page of Poems 1962-2012. After learning work Firstborn – Glück later claimed to feel only “embarrassed affection” towards this book – there is a disconcerting consistency of tone. I would be tempted to call this consistency dead, if it didn't tend to be hidden among the peaks and valleys that indicate the existence of life, however attenuated. From the beginning, Glück was half in love with appeasing death. “This will be the end of me,” she writes in Firstborn, but it never is. Forty years later she is writing that "It is natural to be weary of the earth".

Because of her sins – the melodrama, the litanies of intimacy, the first-person life – Glück has always been included among confessional poets. But the best of these (Plath, Lowell, Berryman) are wordsmiths and always on stage. Their inner lives, their embarrassing personal revelations, are backdrops for a sold-out performance ("the great strip tease”, as Plath puts it). Insofar as they seek atonement, to achieve what the purpose of confession is, they do it theatrically: proud, not quite capable of real repentance.

But this is not Glück: unlike Plath or Berryman, she relies on the fiction of privacy. Poems exist in an illusion that the speaker is addressing precisely no one but himself – and perhaps some flowers. Even in their frequent apostrophe they sound like letters never sent; even God, when he appears, appears to be just a less accessible region of Glück's psyche. She doesn't care who, if she screamed, they would hear her: "It doesn't matter / who is the witness, / for whom you are suffering".

Of course this is fiction: poems are written to be read by others. But it is a fiction that sustains the poems' confined tone, their strangely detached intimacy. What saves the confessionalists is their care for the words on the page, care that in their best poems they put ahead of the funerals in their heads. In this, Glück is like them, but it is the vocabulary that makes the strip tease: "all is laid bare."

Even the initial works – before the heights of Wild Iris e Maadowlands (1996) -, more soggy, contain lines that make you stop short, in awed recognition of how she puts the right words in the right places. “The moon pulsates in its orbit,” she says in “12.6.71,” a poem so deflated it can only bear a date above it. The ending operates on the smallest scale of perfection, like Webern's microtextures or one of Thorn's miniature rooms:

  and the snow
          which has not ceased since
          started

The uncharacteristic absence of punctuation mimics the beginning of non-ceasing that is described. Glück achieves a union between form and content that would look like Zen if it weren't so snotty: of course the snow hasn't stopped; even the weather is a disappointment. (“There is only the rain, the rain is endless”, is how a poem by A Village in Life).

Around Ararat, , Glück already mastered an austere, self-punishing style, almost an anti-style. She twists the necks of skeletal nouns and verbs until they hang unnaturally to one side, their tongues sticking out. “From that point forward, nothing changes,” she writes, and it's true. Except it gets weirder and better. In Wild Iris, Glück's skinned and indignant talent finally offers a reward for the poetic pleasures she refuses (adjectives, description, breadth, joy). What a strange little book it still is after twenty years. The poet's voice is still Old Testament in its lamentation, but she allows other sensibilities to temper it.

There are talking flowers and an archgod; both lines dramatize Glück's awareness of his own susceptibility to self-pity. The poet herself is a gardener whose marriage is on the rocks, spoiled like the tomatoes she is tending (somehow this allows her to be witty for a change: “I must report / failure of my task, especially / concerning the plants of tomatoes”). In bitterness and anguish, she addresses the god:

     what is my heart for you
          that you have to break it several times
          like a planter testing
          your new species? practice
          on something else...

The flowers don't want to know any of this: “What are you saying? What do you want / eternal life? Are your thoughts really / as convincing as all that?” Flora’s sarcasm frees the gardener-poet to address God ironically, in a humiliating way: “I see that with you it is like with birch trees: / I must not speak to you / in a personal way”. She is outraged by the deity's "absence / of all feeling":

         …I can also go ahead
          heading to the birches,
          like in my previous life: let
          let them do their worst, let
          let them bury me with the Romantics,
          its pointed yellow leaves
          falling and covering me.

This passes, in Glück's meager setting, as a delightful irony. Of course she knows she invites the charge of romanticism when she's bleeding from life's thorns. It is precisely this awareness that absolves her.

Glück thus allows the god to be as exasperated as the reader with the hysteria of his creation; the brief poem “April” offers a summary of the whole drama:

Nobody's despair is like my despair -
You have no place in this garden
thinking this kind of thing, producing
the pesky outward signs; The man
emphatically weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or washing your hair.

you think i care
if you talk
But I wanted you to know
I expected more than two creatures
endowed with minds: if not
that you really cared about each other
unless you understood
the sadness is distributed
among you, among all your kind, so that I
knew you like the deep blue
marks the wild scilla, the white
the violet.

This caustic, blunt god clearly owes something to Judaism, which Glück has largely disowned, but he also suggests a debt to Rilke's not-quite-Judeo-Christian mysticism. In the original and canceled version of Duino's tenth elegy, Rilke describes the angels' inability to do anything other than imitate "the wearisome outward signs" of sadness:

would you repress, shut up, hoping they might still be curious,
          one of the angels (those powerless beings in sadness)
          that, as his face darkened, he would try again and again
          describe the way you continued to cry, for a long time, for her.
          Angel, how was that? And he would try to imitate you and never
          would understand that this was pain, like after calling a bird
          one tries to repeat the innocent voice that fills it.

Once you're aware of Rilke's influence, you see it everywhere in Glück: the obsession with classical myth; the metaphysical yearning; the death fetishism of the world-weary. (William Logan, in his review of Village Life, calls Glück’s Rilke a “secret mythographer”). But while Rilke is normally as flowery as a DH Lawrence on peyote, Glück's language is as commonplace as [George] 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 over-elaborated without any filigree, attenuating the language while heightening the emotion, opposing the exuberance of the world to the few words that really belong there.

This is a risk that only certain poets must take. For Glück he makes up for it in the merciless, darkly comic Maadowlands, in which the marriage finally breaks down and Homer assumes the metaphysical duties of the Jahwist. (O Genesis it's about exile; The Odyssey it's about trying to find your way to a home you no longer recognize) Glück comically lines up the fights that dominate conversation at the end of a relationship. “Ceremony” begins in the midst of an argument, ostensibly between Glück and her then-husband John, over dinner: “I stopped liking artichokes when I stopped eating /butter. Fennel / I never liked it.” The ensuing conversation is a small triumph of realism, as one partner's responses (presumably the wife's) come after the other's accusations:

One thing I've always hated
          about you: i hate that you don't admit it
          have people in the house. Flaubert
          had more friends and Flaubert
          he was a recluse.

          Flaubert was crazy: he lived
          with the mother.

          Living with you is like living
          at a boarding school:
          chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.

I have deep friendships.
I have friendships
with other prisoners.

***

    Another thing: say the name of another person
          who has no furniture.

                    We eat fish Tuesday
                    because it's cool on Tuesday. If I could drive
                    we could eat it on different days.

I don't know anything about contemporary poetry, other than Each in a Place Apart by James McMichael, who so thoroughly portrays the futile friction of dispassion. Much of it is certainly made up, but as Plath says, it feels real.

That in itself is not enough to make a good poem, of course, but the poems of Maadowlands sound like the best Glück ever wrote. It's as if she has internalized her husband's criticism; letting his voice, or her impressions of his voice, into the poems allows her to sustain the critical perspective gained in Wild Iris: “You do not love the world. / If you loved the world you would have / images in your poems”. Then, in the next poem, there is a rare image, linked to an even rarer smile: “the white flowers / like headlights emerging from a snake”.

This is how Glück's exiguity is conveyed: in small signs of mastery, the points and dashes of a lifetime's learning. A moonlit lawn becomes “a whole world / thrown away on the moon”. “White fire” is “springing from the showy mountains” – you can imagine her changing the “nevosas”, transforming an adjective that anyone would use into one that contains an epistemology. Or, just when you're starting to wish she'd never read a word of Homer or Ovid, she lets in a little light from a century you've lived in:

          As the Giants could call
          that place of Maadowlands? He has
          almost as much in common with a pasture
          How much would the inside of an oven cost?

Yes, Phil Simms appears in a poem by Louise Glück. And the outside world opens cracks in these poems, lets out a little air from its inflated feeling. An early poem in Maadowlands begins, "A lady was weeping at a darkened window." Of course she does – and she's a lady, not a woman; weeping, not weeping; a dark window, not a Burger King. But a few lines later, “on the side the Lights are practicing music klezmer. / A good night: the clarinet is in tune”. Maadowlands it's a bitter book, but funny. “Birthday” begins, “I said you could spoon. It doesn't mean / your cold foot on my dick", which evokes the retort:

    You should watch my feet.
          you should imagine them
          the next time you see a fifteen-year-old kitten.
          Because there's a lot more where those feet came from.

“We can all write about suffering / with eyes closed,” John tells the poet, so she writes about it more obliquely, with 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 with more than four.

if i hate
I'm going upstairs. And also
I will only invite people who know how to cook.
Good cooks and all my old loves.
Maybe even your ex-girlfriends, except
the exhibitionists.

If I were you,
I would start with ordering the meat.

          I must say that I am very sorry that they got divorced. I like this guy.

Glück's happiness in these recordings is the inverse of his penchant for grandiose statements. Glück has a fine ear for the obvious, for what might strike a lesser poet as something not worth noticing: the name of a football stadium, a couple's inside jokes. The obvious is what we most often overlook – “It takes genius to forget these things” – worried we are about the lesser pictures: “Life is too weird, no matter how it ends, / Too full of dreams.” It is true that this can lead Glück to forget that poetry should be at least as well written as a Happy Holidays card.

I can check
that when the sun goes down in winter he is
incomparably beautiful and the memory of him
lasts a long time.

When she writes like that, you're not even frustrated, really, just confused. “What?”, I told the page. (I think the dry "I can verify" should save the banality of what follows, but self-parody doesn't work if the reader has to wish that's what this is about.)

But there is something admirable about this extreme devotion to the obvious, and it may be that this nonsense about the beauty of sunsets in winter is a small price to pay for seeing Glück at his clearest. In his later work, especially in Averno (2006) and Village Life, she adopts a conversational tone that blithely resists her lure of summary wisdom: “The snow began to fall, over the surface of the whole earth. / This can't be true”. She knows which little things to notice and how to notice them: “a lamppost becoming a bus stop” at dawn; a neighbor calling his dog. “The dog is polite; he raises his head when she calls”, but he is busy rummaging in the garden, “trying to come to a decision about the dead flowers”. If we're lucky, we find a poem that leaves all these things alone, without mortifying moral overload:

Child waking up in a dark room
crying I want my duck back. I want my duck back
in a language that no one understands at all –
There is no duck.

But the dog, all covered 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 it.

Reading this anthology from start to finish is exhausting but cleansing (see, it's contagious), like watching an entire Robert Bresson marathon. Critics like to use scalping metaphors to describe the poems' effects (Glück's father, they all point out, helped invent the X-Acto knives). Glück slices, she chops; she cuts and stabs herself, the readers, the words she has to use but which she distrusts, the illusions she despises but which she relies on. A scalpel damages in order to heal. In a late poem, Glück dreams of

a harp, its string cutting
deep in my palm. In the dream,
it both makes the wound and seals the wound.

His teacher Stanley Kunitz once asked "How should the heart be reconciled / with its festival of losses?", but it is Kunitz's close friend Theodor Roethke that Glück is, in spirit at least, most like:

I know the purity of pure despair.
My shadow pressed against a sweaty wall.
That place among the rocks - it's a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.

Glück's work is all made of edges – some, it is true, not very incisive. But the sharpest ones can inflict divine pain where the senses are. If you want to know American poetry of the last half century, you need to read these poems.

*Michael Robbins, poet and literary critic, is a professor at Montclair State University (USA). Author, among other books, of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster).

Translation: Anouch Kurkdjian

[The original versions of excerpts from poems quoted in the text can be found at: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-constant-gardener-on-louise-gluck/]

Originally published on Los Angeles Review of Books, on December 4, 2012.

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