A luminous collection of essays from Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and one of our most original and influential poets
Five decades after her debut poetry collection, Firstborn, Louise Glück is a towering figure in American letters. Written with the same probing, analytic control that has long distinguished her poetry, American Originality is Glück’s second book of essaysher first, Proofs and Theories, won the 1993 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Glück’s moving and disabusing lyricism is on full display in this decisive new collection.
From its opening pages, American Originality forces readers to consider contemporary poetry and its demigods in radical, unconsoling, and ultimately very productive ways. Determined to wrest ample, often contradictory meaning from our current literary discourse, Glück comprehends and destabilizes notions of “narcissism” and “genius” that are unique to the American literary climate. This includes erudite analyses of the poets who have interested her throughout her own career, such as Rilke, Pinsky, Chiasson, and Dobyns, and introductions to the first books of poets like Dana Levin, Peter Streckfus, Spencer Reece, and Richard Siken. Forceful, revealing, challenging, and instructive, American Originality is a seminal critical achievement.
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Essays on Poetry
By Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2017 Louise Glück
All rights reserved.
We are, famously, a nation of escaped convicts, younger sons, persecuted minorities, and opportunists. This fame is local and racial: white America's myth of itself. It does not, obviously, describe Native Americans and African Americans: though they are theoretically free to participate in mythic America's notions of vigor and self-creation, to do so involves sustained acts of betrayal or disloyalty toward origins they conceivably had no communal wish to escape. Oppression, for these groups, did not define the past; it replaced the past, which was transformed into a magnet for longing.
The myth elaborates itself in images and narratives of self-invention — drive and daring and gain being prized over stamina and fortitude. If the Englishman imagined himself as heir to a great tradition, the American imagined himself as the founding father. This difference resonates in political rhetoric: American aggressive might (usually called defense) and acquisitiveness (sometimes called self-improvement) as opposed, say, to the language of appeal that links Churchill to Henry V, a language that suggests the Englishman need only manifest the virtues of his tradition to prevail. These appeals were particularly powerful in times of war, the occasions on which the usually excluded lower classes were invited to participate in traditions founded on their exclusion.
Like most myths, this one has some basis in fact. There were such flights. And immigrant populations whose relocations are, in the main, escapes from incarceration, confinement, danger, or exclusion will hardly cultivate stoic endurance over initiative. The cardinal virtues of this new world depended on repudiations, the cutting of ties, and on invention and assertion. But the imperatives of self-creation cannot be expected to bind a society as effectively as does the invoking of a shared tradition. The best that can be said is that these imperatives may constitute a shared ambition or common practice; in fact, they are the opposite of coherence. Individual distinction expresses itself as distinction from the past, from the previously acknowledged limits of the possible, and, as well, from contemporaries. Still, the triumphs of self-creation require confirmation, corroboration. They postulate, at least imaginatively, a society or audience coherent enough to recognize and reward the new. The new thing makes a kind of adhesive, gluing together (provisionally) its diverse precursors in a grid or system: a fantasy or projection of common values. How this occurs, and with what restrictions, accounts for the peculiar attributes of what Americans call originality, their term of highest praise.
Original work, in our literature, must seem somehow to break trails, to found dynasties. That is, it has to be capable of replication. What we call original must serve as a model or template, binding the future into coherence and, simultaneously, though less crucially, affirming the coherence of the outstripped past. It does not so much reject tradition as project it into the future, with the self as progenitor. Originality, the imprint of the invented self, depends on the creation of repeatable effects. Meanwhile, much that is profoundly original but unlikely, for a variety of reasons, to sponsor broad imitation, gets overlooked, or called that lesser thing, unique — valuable, undoubtedly, but a dead end. The original is sought with famished intensity; all the brilliant banners of praise are deployed to welcome it. But to welcome it within certain limits, with formal innovation of almost any kind valued over idiosyncratic mind.
This isn't to say other gifts attract no admiration. Technical mastery continues to be applauded, though chiefly in those born elsewhere. An American Heaney would not, I think, be so promptly and passionately acknowledged. Likewise Szymborska, whose art (in translation) appears a brilliant example of inimitable intelligence. Something, whether atavistic longing or helpless recognition, keeps them, and a few others, safe here. Americans fare less well. Particularly the unique, the inimitable.
The dark side of self-creation is its underlying and abiding sense of fraud. A reciprocal terror of deficit within the self may account for the American audience's readiness to be talked down to, to be excluded, to call great art that which it does not understand. As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces.
Under the brazen "I made up a self" of the American myth, the sinister sotto voce, "I am a lie." And the liar wishes to elude: to elude judgment and censure, to avoid being caught. The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man's anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don't even know how to read. And for writers, this curious incomprehension, this being ahead of the time, linked as it is to affirmation, seems superficially encouraging, as though "to understand" meant "to exhaust."
Limitless, untethered freedom has, among its costs, a kind of paranoia: the self not built from the inside, accumulating in the manner of the tree, but rather postulated or improvised, moving backward and forward at the same time — this self is curiously unstable, insecure. When imagination is immense (as in the case of genius or mania), the nagging sense of falsehood probably dissolves. When it is not, the weak place is fiercely defended.
Part of that defense is the conviction that everyone else is equally inauthentic. Or, alternatively, to locate authenticity, the truth of a historical moment, in the inscrutable. Individual, irreplaceable human voice is doubly disadvantaged. It cannot, as formal invention or trick, be imitated, perpetuated. Second, insofar as it relentlessly manifests a self, a human being neither intellectually constructed nor devised, reactive to a world dangerously like the world we inhabit, it implicitly reproaches invention's willed strategies and poses.
Central to America's myth of itself is the image of a better world, a translation of the theological vision to the pragmatic and earthly. This idea is not unique to American democracy, nor has the failure — or at least the naïveté — of its many iterations obliged a re-examination of the underlying premise. In our period, these various stabs at a better world share a set of promises to the individual, whose life is to be relieved of oppression. The idea of individual independence — the possibility held out that anyone can rise to prominence or wealth or glory — this dream of individual distinction has become a defining attribute of democracy. It seems sometimes that as democracy appears more flawed, this promise of an unprecedented self grows more fervent, more necessary.
But the self-made man, like any figure of power, depends on broad accord; his peers must acquiesce to his accomplishment. In a period in which the future has come to seem a hopeful theory rather than a certain fact, this stake in the present has intensified. The qualities we continue to prize, immediacy and scale, must be manifest immediately. Critical hyperbole confirms this pressure; it does not create it. Our culture and our period combine to support the American archetype: the artist must look like a renegade and at the same time produce, whether by accident or design, an aesthetic commodity, a set of gestures instantly apprehended as new and also capable of replication.
The cost of this pressure has been immense, both to the neglected (in whom it fosters a bruised independence that too easily becomes entrenched rigidity) and to the admired, like Lowell in the recent past, who sense their real discoveries diluted by immediate and often canny imitation. To tell the original from the copy becomes increasingly difficult.
Gradually, through this process, the bold new artist is revealed to have limitations. Likewise the new world persistently fails to sustain itself, and the known world reconfigures itself through a variety of cultural and historical changes. None of this has any impact on the vigor of the myth.
I think the reverse is true. Like all myths of the possible, the compensatory fantasy that one can make a new self survives not despite but because of its failures. For artists, because it appeals to imagination, it has great durability and great utility. It feeds hope: that it has failed in the past leaves room for oneself and one's genius.
That the story of Narcissus has proposed itself as a focus of contemporary meditation owes something to its concerns and something to its nature: like much contemporary fiction, it is all psychology, no narrative. Impossible to film. As a static image, it encourages projections of the kind narrative limits or interrupts. As an image concerned with the self's engagement with the self, it falls quite naturally in line with one of our century's engrossing discoveries, psychoanalysis. Further, it adopts and extends Romanticism's attentiveness to the soul, or the inward.
The soul, here, is entirely hostage to the body. In Ovid's telling, the beautiful cold boy, whom love never moves, sees in the pond what others see, the depth of the water compensating for the superficiality of the reflection. His punishment is to suffer what has been suffered in his name: he also falls in love, his love as conscious and as doomed as Echo's. He knows what he's looking at: "Alas! I am myself the boy I see. I know it ... I am on fire with love for my own self." He endures, until grief claims him, the knowledge of his passion's impossibility.
Still, this is for Narcissus the discovery of love, of feeling. Yet within the strict parabolic shape of the story, an end, a constriction as well as a beginning. Echo, spurned, is deprived of her body; Narcissus loses his life. Although the punishment devised by Nemesis initiates lucid apprehension, it is the sense of constriction, the dead-endedness of the myth, I have in mind in my use of terminology derived from the tale. That, not the birth of knowledge. Narcissism, in what follows, means to suggest transfixed infatuation, that overwhelmed awe that admits no secondary response.
The allure of the self, in this image, is fortified by the self's perpetual elusiveness: "Only a little water keeps us apart; my love ... desires to be reached ..." When Narcissus bends forward toward his image, the image manifests corresponding ardor. And the meticulousness of the correspondence illuminates the impossibility of the hunger: the self cannot be the object of its own exclusive desire. Narcissus never leaves the pool; he pines away "consumed by hidden fire."
Romanticism began as a corrective to more abstract, potentially sterile practice. Its insistence on the personal was, for the most part, eager, open, innocent. It made the soul an object of proper study. Study, but not, interestingly, narcissistic homage. The Romantic poet tended to seek release from limitation: through nature, through love, through timeless art. And the Romantic imagination, projected onto the myth of Narcissus, more naturally mirrors Echo, the pursuer, than Narcissus himself. The static, transfixed quality seems utterly lacking.
That quality has emerged in our century, a curious hybrid of Romanticism and psychiatry, a mutation cooler, with notable exceptions, than either Keats or Freud. Every period has its manners, its signatures, and, by extension, its limitations and blindness. And it is particularly difficult, from the inside, to recognize such characteristics: omnipresence makes them invisible. If they are noticed at all, they are taken as marks of progress; the limitations we have been trained to see as limitations are no longer evident.
Contemporary literature is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses. Focus varies; likewise (obviously) talent. The focus can be political (as in Forché's best work), or moral/psychological, as memorably practiced by Bidart and McMichael. Or it can be aesthetic, as in the work of Strand. These categories are not pure: they are introduced to sketch in a territory. And similar examples exist in prose, beginning with James's elaborate scrutinies. The self, in this sense, was the nineteenth century's discovery, an object, for a time, of rich curiosity, its structure, its responses, endlessly absorbing. And as long as it was watched in this spirit of curiosity and openness, it functioned as an other; the art arising from such openness is an art of inquiry, not conclusion, dynamic rather than static.
Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject, is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession. A first, an easy assumption would be that such practice derives, in the United States certainly, from Whitman's exhibitionism and bravura.
I think otherwise. Whitman's gesture, the exemplary self, differs profoundly from the insular, superior self posited by Narcissus. Like a child playing "Simon Says," Whitman demands to be followed. Or replicated, a brilliant compensation (possibly) for procreative limitation. Underlying narcissism is a tacit hierarchy: the only visible other is the self. Whereas the sweep of Whitman's categories and generalizations (like the casting call of an epic director: seven beautiful men, four pregnant women), while hardly convincing as portraiture, in its democratic stubbornness dissolves hierarchy. The marvel of Whitman is his inspired conviction regarding the elasticity of the form — his sense of what a line could be, what a poem could be. The lines themselves, their very shapes and sounds, their intent to include (think how they resist enjambment) are at odds with narcissism's restricted gaze. Narcissus's plight arises from his disdain for others, for those whose love he neither returned nor honored. His fate is punishment, not accident: Nemesis's deft response. And whether or not Whitman moves us, it is hard to make a case for such disdain: he never contrasts his own responses to the responses of others; in a fundamental sense, he never cultivates the reader's addictions to his interventions. What he celebrates in himself is what is average, common (and in all likelihood he was amazed at such characteristics, as the eccentric is always amazed to discover himself like others in some respect, or as the hypochondriac marvels at his body's simulation of normal healthy response).
Nor do the two qualities that correspond, in our art, to Narcissus's beauty have any place in Whitman's work. Contemporary art prizes the fastidious aesthetic response; it also places high value on the exposure of the secret. And in the latter sense it has, I believe, an antecedent or stimulus not in Whitman but in Dickinson, though she is, herself, never guilty of narcissism's superficiality and self-aggrandizement. Her periodic hermetic coyness is like a spinster's sad stab at grooming: an attempt to attract love. But Dickinson introduces a type of veiled disclosure that will found whole schools of poetry, disclosure so charged, so encoded, so intent on limited selective revelation as to privilege the reader. Dickinson isn't narcissistic because the other postulated by the poems cannot, in its function, become an aspect of the self, though this is exactly, I believe, what happens later.
It is important, here, to distinguish between narcissism and exhibitionism. When narcissistic reverie converts to public form (as in literature), something like exhibitionism results. Like, but not an exact copy of. Literary narcissism, in its exclusive ardor, often suggests obliviousness: it sees no particular difference between private reverie and public display, so devoid of independent reality is the world. The world, it is assumed, will duplicate the narcissist's fascination with himself, since what else could possibly be of equal interest? In the sense of this opacity, narcissism is inviolable. Whereas exhibition solicits interest, narcissism presumes it. (In the soliciting of interest, the exhibitionist is capable of being wounded, which is to say, changed.)
If Dickinson does not, for all her secrecies, take secret pleasure in the production of her intensities, if her need for confidence, her unvarying need to be heard, make it impossible for her to preempt the role of the other, the obvious questions remain as to the origins of these habits, the model for the poetry that prizes its own perception. Narcissism, as a literary gesture, cannot be utterly new. But it does seem that the unmemorable work of other periods was bad in other ways: wooden, sententious, sentimental. The eye was not, I think, quite so explicitly trained on the self. This is not to say the cure for narcissism is the outward gaze. Social agenda, concerns outside the specific self, are not in themselves protection: one of the more appalling forms of narcissism is the appropriation of or annexing of a real other (as opposed to preempting the role of the hypothetical other or confidante). Whole nations, whole torn civilizations turn out to be waiting to be given voice: what occurs, in such work, isn't the poet seeing the world but rather the poet projecting himself outward so that he returns to us on the page, in costume and in multiple.
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Table of Contents
American Originality 3
American Narcissism 8
Ersatz Thought 23
On Buddenbrooks 36
Story tellers 41
On Realism 55
The Culture of Healing 58
3 Ten Introductions
Author's Note 63
In The Surgical Theatre Dana Levin 67
The Clerk's Tale Spencer Reece 73
The Cuckoo Peter Streckfus 80
Crush Richard Siken 88
Green Squall Jay Hopler 97
Frail-Craft Jessica Fisher 107
The Earth in the Attic Fady Joudah 117
It is Daylight Arda Collins 128
Juvenilia Ken Chen 141
Radial Symmetry Katherine Larson 153
On Revenge 167
Fear of Happiness 181