Gillian White

Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, about the lyric subject in American poetry, will be published next year. She teaches English at Michigan.

Stand-Up Vampire: Louise Glück

Gillian White, 26 September 2013

Glück appears to have decided early on to devote herself to melancholy subjects. In the darkly funny ‘To Autumn’ from The House on Marshland (1975), her second collection, the poet sees azaleas and thinks, ‘I am no longer young. What/of it?’ and wishes for ‘the long/decaying days of autumn when I shall begin/the great poems of my middle period’. In her many poems about female adolescence and sexuality, often using mythical figures (she writes throughout her career from the perspectives of Persephone, Dido and Eve), fear of sex, the body and death incite a desire for control – of hunger, of susceptibility to romance, of poetic form. ‘Romance is what I most struggle to be free of,’ Glück has said, and almost all her work holds in tension reverence, grief, wry humour and disappointment: ‘It is true there is not enough beauty in the world,’ she writes in the multi-part poem ‘October’, from Averno (2006). ‘It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./Neither is there candour, and here I may be of some use.’

In 1940, after she’d gained the admiration of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, and had had nearly thirty of her poems published in literary journals or book collections, Elizabeth Bishop, then 28, admitted in a letter to Moore: ‘I scarcely know why I persist at all. It is really fantastic to place so much on the fact that I have written a half-dozen phrases that I can still bear to reread without too much embarrassment.’ Bishop persisted with such dramatic self-doubt even after winning the Houghton Mifflin poetry award for her first collection, North & South (1946), and a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her second, A Cold Spring. Writing to Robert Lowell in 1958, she confesses to feeling ‘green with envy’ over Lowell’s ‘kind of assurance’ in the poems of Life Studies, and adds that ‘it is hell to realise one has wasted half one’s talent through timidity.’

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