Body of work Poet Louise Glück reads and discusses her work, a Lannan Literary Series event
POET LOUISE GLÜCK
Why do we follow poets through their careers? What persists in their work that keeps us reading, and what personal and artistic evolution can we discern? Staying with a poet book by book is much like following a musician’s every performance, listening for changes in sound, in direction, how the work matures, becomes refined, or changes altogether. Poets, like musicians, speak to us. Beyond the attractions of style and craft, it’s their point of view that captures our devotion. We might want to identify with the poet and with the poems, as we do the musicians and lyrics. But the best poets, Louise Glück being one, make us discover what we haven’t before recognized as part of ourselves. We stay with them through the years, as if following a guide through a strange and unfamiliar landscape, because of what will be revealed, what might come as a surprise. Glück reads at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, May 11, and is joined by poet Peter Streckfus as part of the Lannan Literary Series.
I don’t remember if I, beneficiary of a muddled education but blessed with obsessively literate friends, was first introduced to Glück’s work or found her poems myself, in that quaint form of speed- dating books known as shelf-browsing. When I discovered her work is also beyond memory. It was probably shortly after the release of her third, breakthrough book, 1980’s Descending Figure, and well before her 1992 collection Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. (It’s to poetry readers’ shame that it takes a Pulitzer or a National Book Award to introduce a greater public to an important writer.) Dropping into her career once it was well underway allowed me to read both backward and forward, catching up as well as looking ahead. Despite recurring themes and images — for instance, she’s always haunted gardens — no two of Glück’s books are alike. The poems in her collections, gathered as if serialized, seem something like a pop band’s concept album. The more we understand of her — a collection of prose, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry, published in 1994, helps — the more the work reveals. Luckily, readers who discovered her early enough have been able to keep her close for some three decades.
I was first drawn to the music of her work — its pacing and its glide. “Grandmother In Her Garden,” from her first collection, 1968’s Firstborn, sees the place where the natural and the unreal worlds meet:
The grass below the willow Of my daughter’s wash is curled With earthworms, and the world Is measured into row on row Of unspiced houses, painted to seem real.
The wash of alliteration and echoing vowels — “curled,” “earthworms,” “world” — create a melodic crescendo that instills romance into a rather unromantic setting. Glück seems especially conscious of silence, both in phrasing and image. Voices seem to duel inside her, and the lines from this earliest work can be punctual and pointed — the tone, at times, bordering on angry:
Lived to see you throwing Me aside. That fought Like netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see That all that flushed down The refuse. Done? It lives in me. You live in me. Malignant. Love, you ever want me, don’t. (from “Hesitate To Call” )
Glück can be matter-of-fact in a most austere way, deflating the tragic while giving the commonplace a measure of respect. Hers isn’t happy work, a peaceful
place among flowers, but something more confused and dreamlike, with an accompanying fix on a sort of translucent anxiety: “In our family, everyone loves flowers./ That’s why the graves are so odd.” It’s not a stretch to see Glück as a feminist. Her self-examination could teach young men a lot — their place in her world, rather than the other way around. Who better than a poet to illuminate the hidden agenda in what men were taught to objectify?
It begins quietly in certain female children: the fear of death, taking as its form dedication to hunger, because a woman’s body is a grave; it will accept anything. (“Dedication To Hunger” from The Wild Iris)
Glück, in and before The Wild Iris, is instructive about desire — how superficial, how physical, or layered it can be. Her body seems apart from her voice, as confused as lovers trying to coexist. The poems, rooted in woods and overgrown gardens, are disarmingly honest and simply imagined, taking shape in trees, among flowers, and under moonlight, using these known quantities and their imagery to allow us to glimpse how natural and how uncontrolled our emotions can be
In Descending Figure, she ponders her connection to her parents and imagines how death comes differently to the young (“The Drowned Children”). Someone she’s known only as a ghost makes noise: “Far away my sister is moving in her crib./ The dead ones are like that, always the last to quiet.” Even in her most emotive, early poems, there is a distance between thought and feeling, the arm’s length that seems necessary to survival. But that distance began to dissolve after the Pulitzer. Glück seemed to grow tired of her own voice. “The degree to which I sound like myself seems sort of a curse,” she said in a 2009 interview with
American Poet. Her phrasing gave up abbreviation, coming instead in long, wonderful lines that unspooled straight and true, as she adopted a wider, more epic posture for the mundane matters of life. Using mythical voices was not something new to her. She calls up Homer in 1975’s The
House On Marshland, and even employs the three Magi (“The Wise, come to see at the accustomed hour/nothing changed”). But after the Pulitzer she began to create myth, a process that reaches a pinnacle in 2009’s
A Village Life, a collection that’s set in a world unto itself. That her books are different from one another doesn’t always sit well with readers. She told the Poetry Foundation that when she would go out on readings from books that came after The Wild Iris, “a certain dismay” emanated from the audiences. “They wanted more flowers, more lyric extravagance.” She answered with Averno, a book named for a mythical entrance to the underworld. Her most recent publication, Faithful And
Virtuous Night (winner of the National Book Award in 2014) is, of course, a new departure. The voice in the title poem, a male artist standing in for the poet, and the setting — the British countryside — are imagined. The perspective marks a place from which the end must surely come into view soon. In “An Adventure,” the poet faces giving up passion, giving up love, giving up poetry as she hikes, in a dream, up a disappearing mountain. “Parable” is about a journey that never began for various reasons. All through the poems, in addition to winter, avalanches, and flooding, is a clash of beliefs. Years pass until the aging believers realize they’ve changed, though they’ve traveled “from day to night only ... And those who believed we should have a/purpose/ believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free/in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.”