On Louise Gluck: Change What You See

On Louise Gluck: Change What You See

by Joanne Diehl

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On Louise Glück features essays by leading critics, poets, and scholars that explore the work of recent U.S. poet laureate Louise Glück.

Glück, author of nine books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, is noted for her searing honesty and compelling first-person personae. Though compared to world-famous verse


On Louise Glück features essays by leading critics, poets, and scholars that explore the work of recent U.S. poet laureate Louise Glück.

Glück, author of nine books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, is noted for her searing honesty and compelling first-person personae. Though compared to world-famous verse by Sappho and Dickinson, Glück's poetry has remained curiously undigested among readers of contemporary poetry for some time. On Louise Glück gathers for the first time a diverse array of essays by the leading critics of this preeminent poet. Featuring a probing, extended interview with Glück, On Louise Glück traces the critical reception of her work and offers new insights into her imaginative, mysterious poetry.

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University of Michigan Press
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On Louise Glück
Change What You See

Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
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ISBN: 978-0-472-11479-5


Louise Glück

"I, with my inflexible Platonism, / my fierce seeing of only one thing at a time": a little collection could be made of the negative things that Glück has said about herself. This is not an attempt to charm; it is part of the poems' air of astringency, of applying the same disabused intelligence to the self that the self applies to the world.

An individual poem's decisive finality of structure, the accent of fatality characteristic of her lines, testifies to her seeing "one thing at a time" so profoundly that common seeing by comparison shrivels. On love:

In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being and the gods saw

he was a man already dead, a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal. -"The Triumph of Achilles"


in childhood, I thought that pain meant I was not loved. It meant I loved. -"First Memory"


We merely knew it wasn't human nature to love only what returns love. -"Matins"

Single poems, and finally whole volumes, invent brilliant, decisive structures to embody the decisive, singular things seen. Let the startling structure of the volume The Wild Iris stand for this: quickly the reader realizes that interspersed among other speakers flowers speak, telling their "being in the world" to their masters, human beings. Other poems are spoken by god, unheard by human beings who can apprehend him only through his creation, the natural world. Between the two are human speakers, who can clearly hear neither. The poet makes the reader privy to a vast hierarchic celestial conversation in which those who talk only dimly apprehend one other, a conversation which (fugue-like) intertwines identities that remain separate but whose coexistence sustains the grandeur and stability of the whole.

Balancing and fundamentally altering one's sense of this singularity of structure in individual poems and volumes is the protean, prodigal variety of Glück's "fierce seeing of only one thing at a time." The movement from poem to poem in The Wild Iris is nothing like that in the preceding volume, Ararat-and nothing like that in the volume that follows, Meadowlands. Ararat breathes the necessities, the bare-bones air of Greek tragedy; Meadowlands is modeled on "The Marriage of Figaro," with its human pathos, comedy, delight in invention of unexpected characters and contingent social texture. Meadowlands (1996) is part of the same enterprise as the next book, Vita Nova (1999). But because Vita Nova concentrates on the survival of the individual soul wounded by the events of Meadowlands, the social scene is gone: the book abjures the siren who began as a waitress as well as the shrewd ironies of Telemachus, substituting the severities of Dido and Eurydice. Vita Nova's model is closer to the "Spiritual Exercises" of Loyola than to "Figaro." Then a gap: the latest volume, The Seven Ages, has leapt to a new, unexpected cave or eyrie on some cliff wall from which the poet can overlook the spectacle of human life. Three exhilarating books published from 1996 to 2001: five years of astonishing variety and invention.

No important word recurs more often in Glück's work than "form." She has a master's sense of form, and often meditates what necessities lie beneath shifts in form. She has a constantly fresh and unexpected way of stationing the self, the soul, vertically in relation to worlds above or below it, to its past or impending future. Let the ending of "Formaggio" stand for this recurrent gesture of stationing that frees the soul from the horizontal social world of observation and contingency, into a vertical world where the orders that define the soul's nature can shift throughout her work:

I had lives before this, stems of a spray of flowers: they became one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon visible under the hand. Above the hand, the branching future, stems ending in flowers. And the gripped fist- that would be the self in the present.

This stationing is not present in her first book, Firstborn; she began with the language and gestures contemporary poetry offered her (in this case, mostly the Lowell of Lord Weary's Castle and the first part of Life Studies). Firstborn is certainly talented, but in the five years before her next book, she remakes herself. She begins to discover a resonance unindebted to the dominant styles of the time, her characteristic accent of savage insight into fatality, though not yet purified of rhetoric: "This is the barrenness / of harvest or pestilence" ("All Hallows"). The discovery will be complete by the third book, Descending Figure: "I sleep so you will be alive,/ it is that simple" ("The Dream of Mourning"). Reading through Glück's first books, you can watch her mastery grow in joining poem by poem; by Ararat, she has learned to make an entire book one sequence. Every subsequent book is a single emotional and intellectual arc-without the circumstantiality of the "confessional," they offer extraordinary candor about the poem's intimate life, the state of the soul.

I have just had one of the greatest experiences that contemporary writing can offer, which I recommend to you: over the course of two weeks read Louise Glück's nine books of poetry, in the order in which she published them.


Introduction to a Reading

It is a deep honor to introduce Louise Glück, an indispensable poet in my reading and writing life, a poet I turn to for primary sustenance and inspiration. I cannot imagine the world of contemporary poetry without Glück's work, which is a way of saying that without her work I cannot imagine the world. For twenty years I have been listening to Louise Glück's poems for lessons in some of the cardinal literary virtues, which include, foremost, the shunning of virtuosity; her work is, in my estimation, not merely poetry, but pedagogy, creed, philosophy-a set of daunting, shining standards that we as readers should strive to live up to, however much we will fail. (Her poems never fail, but always concern failure, and forgive it.) Her poems are concise, precise, hard, reticent, unsentimental, spare. Their spareness does not preclude comedy; their reticence does not prohibit elevation. Their mode is declaration, not description. Their goal is the purveying of "high-quality information": as Glück says of Emily Dickinson, in an essay, "We trust the poem regardless, since we trust high-quality information."

What information do Glück's poems purvey? The news that human relations are fraught; that trauma is speech's backbone; that happiness depends on a deep apprenticeship in misery; that desires obey primal, unrevisable laws; that the heavenly powers are stingy; that most speech is a lie. The context of Glück's poems-the context they work against, as nervy antidote-is what Tennessee Williams called "mendacity"; Glück's poems assume a preemptive, hostile world in which everyone will interrupt her, strive to complete (and negate) her sentences, undercut her independence, cause her to cower. Against these workaday brutalities, she proposes, in her poems, a set of elementary theorems, passports to sanity: that speech is appetite; that appetites are cannibalistic (no sense denying it!); that words are actions; and that we have no time for décor.

Glück's poems are perfectly graceful exemplars of high artfulness, but that is not why I revere them; I revere them because they sting, and because, like those of her great predecessors in the pursuit of the minimalist ecstatic (Sappho, Dickinson, Cavafy, Oppen, Éluard, Ponge), Glück's poems are too busy relaxing after having just barely escaped annihilation to bother about being charming, chatty, or anecdotal. Their business-their idée fixe-is permanence, and they reach that state of no-bleed color-fast fixity by exercising a riveting stare. Her poems mimic the undead shield; they plan to stop time, even at the cost of iconoclasm. (And "poetry" is the first of the icons to be shattered.)

Many of us who write poems try to stuff them with "proof" that we are, indeed, poets, as if we didn't trust the vocation's self-evidence. Glück's poems, in contrast, bring no energy of special pleading or underconfident showmanship to the table; quietly Mallarmean, they are as purely "poem" as anything that has been written in the last half century. They are poems not because they are trying obsequiously or arrogantly to prove they are poems, but because they have no choice but to be poems. They choose "poem" not because it is a comfortable identity, but because it is the damaged identity, leaving no physical traces after the eviscerating, self-shattering act of articulation.

Her poems assert that to speak is to be horrified. Any serious contemporary thinking about discourse will need to listen closely to Glück's work, an important array of evidence that language, in our culture, has not been cheapened to the point of dirt, and that, indeed, silences in a conflicted utterance can still, amid postmodernity's roar, be heard.


The Sower against Gardens

The gods, that mortal beauty chase, Still in a tree did end their race. -Andrew Marvell, "The Garden"

Louise Glück is one of those enviable poets whose powers and distinction emerged early and were early recognized. Her work has been justly admired and justly influential, as only work of the very first order can be: work so impeccably itself that it alters the landscape in which others write while at the same time discouraging (and dooming) the ordinary homage of direct imitation. In 1992 Glück published a sixth book and in 1996 a seventh which, in their sustained engagement with inherited fable and inherited form, in their simultaneously witty and deadly serious subversions, constitute a deepening so remarkable that it amounts to a new departure. These books are unlike one another in any number of outward dispositions, but they share a common intellectual purchase; they are two poles of a single project.

1. Like Me

The Wild Iris makes its entrance late in the life of a tradition and its self-wrought woes: the moral and aesthetic dilemmas of sentimental projection, the metaphysical dilemma of solitude (if the others with whom I am in dialogue are merely the projections of self, I am alone in the world, and, worse, the world has been lost on me). The poet plants herself in a garden and dares its other Creator to join her. The poet construes her garden to be an anthropomorphic thicket and a series of moral exempla. The poet ventriloquizes all the voices-floral, human, transcendent-in a family quarrel about love and sustenance. With equal portions of bravura and self-deprecation, wit and rue, The Wild Iris mindfully renders its dilemmas by means of an interwoven series of dramatic monologues. These have, some of them, been published separately (they are poems of great individual beauty), but they are not separable: the book is a single meditation that far exceeds its individual parts.

The monologues are of three sorts: (1) those spoken by a human persona to God, or to that which holds the place of God; (2) those spoken by the botanical inhabitants of the garden cultivated by the human persona; and (3) those spoken by divinity. The poems addressed to God take their titles and their rhetorical premise from the Christian canonical hours (here reduced from seven to two), which mark the daily cycles of prayer. The poems spoken by flowers, groundcover, and one flowering tree take their color and argument from the circumstances of individual species (annuals vs. perennials, shade plants vs. sun plants, single blossoms vs. multiple); excluded from voicing are only those vegetable denizens identified with human "use" or consumption. The God-voiced poems take their titles from the saturating conditions of nature: weather, season, the qualities of wind or light. The poet is clearly aware that her central device, the affective identification that characterizes so large a portion of nature poetry in English, has sometimes borne the stigma of "fallacy," so she incorporates a preemptive ironist:

The sun shines; by the mailbox, leaves of the divided birch tree folded, pleated like fins. Underneath, hollow stems of the white daffodils, Ice Wings, Cantatrice; dark leaves of the wild violet. Noah says depressives hate the spring, imbalance between the inner and the outer world. I make another case-being depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately attached to the living tree, my body actually curled in the split trunk, almost at peace, in the evening rain almost able to feel sap frothing and rising: Noah says this is an error of depressives, identifying with a tree, whereas the happy heart wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for the part, not the whole. -"Matins"

If we are paying attention, we can discern the season before Noah names it: daffodils are a spring flower; the leaves of the birch tree are as yet unfolded. But the foreboding that attaches to the season is entirely inexplicit until Noah is made to comment upon it and, commenting, to deflate it. "Entirely" is perhaps misleading. In situ, in the full Wild Iris, some portion of foreboding inevitably infects this poem by way of the poem that immediately precedes it. In that previous poem, which is also the title poem, the awakening rendered in the voice of an iris is a transition of stirring beauty ("from the center of my life came / a great fountain, deep blue / shadows on azure seawater") and intractable pain ("It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth"). But that which is metaphysical in "The Wild Iris" and mythic in the mind of the "Matins" speaker (notice her partial invocation of Daphne) is in Noah's breezy analysis a thing considerably more banal. Instead of ontology, the garden's resident ironist discerns psychology; instead of tragic insight, the symptomatic "presentation" of temperament or disease. This witty, transient, pathologizing of point of view produces a marvelous mobility of tone, a mobility manifest in local instances of Glück's earlier work but never so richly developed as in the present volume. And never so strategically important. By anticipating and incorporating the skeptical reader, by fashioning the poetic sequence as a dialogue with disbelief, the speaker procures considerable license for her extravagant impersonations: of violets; of witchgrass; of Eve in the Garden; nay, of God. We find early on that we will grant this speaker any number of investigations-by-means-of-likeness. And why? Because we like her.

God and the flowers speak with the voice of the human; the human writer has no other voice to give them. The flowers sense, or describe sensation, in unabashedly human terms: "I feel it / glinting through the leaves," says the shaded vine, "like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon" ("Lamium"). They measure aptitude by contrast or analogy with human aptitude: "things / that can't move," says the rooted tree, "learn to see; I do not need / to chase you through / the garden" ("The Hawthorne Tree"); "I am not like you," says the rose, "I have only / my body for a voice" ("The White Rose"). God speaks in the voice of an earthly parent who has reached the end of his tether: "How can I help you when you all want / different things" ("Midsummer"); "Do you suppose I care / if you speak to one another?" ("April"). God explains himself by analogy and contradistinction to the human: "I am not like you in this, / I have no release in another body" ("End of Summer"). God, like his creatures, assumes the simplifying contours of the familial: "You were like very young children, / always waiting for a story.... / I was tired of telling stories" ("Retreating Light").

But likeness marks an irreparable chasm as well:

So I gave you the pencil and paper. I gave you pens made of reeds I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows. I told you, write your own story.

Then I realized you couldn't think with any real boldness or passion; you hadn't had your own lives yet, your own tragedies. So I gave you lives, I gave you tragedies, because apparently tools alone weren't enough.

You will never know how deeply it pleases me to see you sitting there like independent beings ... -"Retreating Light"

That "like" is ice to the heart. Those who achieve authentic independence require no "like."


Excerpted from On Louise Glück
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