The difference between ‘selected’ and ‘collected’ poems, Wallace Stevens wrote in a letter in 1954, is that ‘people read selected poems but don’t buy them’ and ‘buy collected poems but don’t read them’. The symbolism of a collected volume worried him: ‘A book that contains everything that one has done in a lifetime does not reassure one. Then, the fact that I am 75 begins to seem like the most serious thing that has ever happened to me.’
Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012 appeared just before she was 70, collecting in order of appearance 11 books of poems (627 pages and 395 poems in all), written over 50 years. The blurb puts Stevens’s view before us plainly enough: the work has been ‘wrested’ from a body ‘fated to die’. It makes sense as an introduction: Glück’s poems have been half in love with death (and half outraged by it) since Firstborn, her first collection, published in 1968 when she was 25. In her latest, A Village Life (2009), more than a third of the poems concern death, dying or ageing.
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.’
When you look at her earlier collections, especially the very candid Ararat (1990), it’s tempting to assume the worst of her childhood: we find murdered children, drowned children, ghostly infant sisters, children starved (almost literally) of affection – Glück’s imagination is gothic. She was born in New York in 1943 and raised on suburban Long Island; her parents were well-to-do and educated. Her older sister died in infancy before Glück was born; she keeps returning to the subject, and to the aftermath of her father’s death. In ‘Lost Love’, from Ararat,
Then it seemed to me my sister’s body
was a magnet. I could feel it draw
my mother’s heart into the earth,
so it would grow.
This touch of melodrama is complicated by Glück’s self-awareness about her ‘dark nature’, as in ‘“Parodos”’:
I was born to a vocation:
to bear witness
to the great mysteries.
Now that I’ve seen both
birth and death, I know
to the dark nature these
are proofs, not
Glück likes the word ‘proof’ for its implication of logic; her book of essays and lectures is called Proofs and Theories. Her speakers often sound chillingly clear-headed in the face of great grief (the critic William Logan once called her a ‘stand-up vampire’), but that’s because they are, as here, caught in their own defensive logic. ‘Like anyone, I have my dreams,’ the speaker in ‘Confession’ says. ‘But I’ve learned to hide them,/to protect myself/from fulfilment.’
Throughout this volume, Glück explores her discomfort with uncertainty, sentiment and drift, as well as her scepticism towards pleasure and human relationships. Adolescent girls move from their mother’s grasp to the sealing mouth of sexual awakening; one of her most riveting subjects is sibling rivalry. Marriages fail, tragedy hides beneath pastoral innocence; in a photo taken by one speaker’s mother, ‘not one of us does not avert his eyes.’ In Descending Figure (1980), she compares a ‘Dedication to Hunger’ that obsesses some young women (Glück was anorexic in her youth) to ‘what I feel now, aligning these words –/it is the same need to perfect,/of which death is the mere byproduct.’ She has written of her early belief that ‘poems were like words inscribed in rock or caught in amber,’ and about her need to overcome that limiting ‘investment in images of preservation and fixity’. And yet the seriousness with which she takes her vocation is evident throughout. Glück has said that she thought of herself as a poet even as a child; she has committed most of her poems to memory, and she seems to see her vocation as a great, agonised conversation with literary history and the dead. It took turning 75 for Stevens to know how old he was, but Glück always struggled to feel young.
In a 1989 lecture Glück said that ‘each book … has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off,’ but that swearing off has largely been technical and stylistic rather than thematic. From book to book she has sought to turn from ‘Delphic instance’ to a more authentic vernacular; ‘a longer breath’; an enlarged vocabulary; a poem ‘less perfect, less stately’. Technical changes can mark a changed worldview, but here she is marvellously consistent. As she puts it in ‘Summer Night’ (2001),
Desire, loneliness, wind in the flowering almond –
surely these are the great, the inexhaustible subjects
to which my predecessors apprenticed themselves.
I hear them echo in my own heart, disguised as convention.
Nearly twenty years earlier, Glück identified ‘time which breeds loss, desire, the world’s beauty’ as the ‘great human subjects’ that children can sense ‘even before they’ve been lived through’.
No doubt Glück believes these themes to be the stuff of the ‘lyric’. ‘All the new thinking is about loss,’ as the poet Robert Hass writes (he is a fan of Glück’s): ‘In this it resembles all the old thinking.’ Many contemporary American poets have wondered whether all the thinking really should be about loss, whether the elegiac really has to be the lyric poet’s mood. (It was a mood that didn’t have much hold on Stevens until at least his late middle age.) Glück herself has increasingly wondered the same thing. In the end-of-marriage poems from Meadowlands (1996), the poet-wife, a recurring character, casts a sceptical eye over her ‘tame spiritual themes,/autumn, loss, darkness, etc’. ‘We can all write about suffering/with our eyes closed,’ she chastises herself.
Glück has written quite a lot about suffering of a First World kind. In her moments of self-chastisement she may be thinking about her critics. She has won every major poetry prize in the US; she has served as chancellor to the Academy of American Poets and poet laureate; she judged the influential Yale Younger Poets prize for several years. But probably because suffering and the family feature so prominently in her work, it has, despite her eminence, been labelled as confessional – a mode now much derided – and she has been charged with self-absorption, because, it is assumed, she is writing about herself, her childhood and her feelings about both.
The inaccuracy of the charge is less the fault of critics than of the limited ways we have for thinking about post-Romantic poetry. Are poems written in the first person always expressive of personal feeling? It is a fallacy Glück discusses in an essay, ‘Against Sincerity’, in which she writes of our common if understandable ‘failure to separate poetry which sounds like honest speech from honest speech’, and the tendency, after the ‘blazingly personal’ poetry of the American mid-century, to assume an exact correlation between speakers in poems and actual people or, worse, authors. Glück’s poems are written in the first person and cycle through a limited repertoire of places, nouns and themes, including the real names of her ex-husband and son. But their plainspoken quality suggests, at one extreme, an oracular, even demonic frankness that exceeds the merely personal. In ‘The Untrustworthy Speaker’, from Ararat, the voice meant to seed doubt about its reliability convinces by its drive: ‘I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist./When I speak passionately,/that’s when I’m least to be trusted.’
Alluding to T.S. Eliot, Glück has written that ‘you cannot be so alert to a species of agony without having felt it,’ and admits that she understands our desire to read poems autobiographically. But she isn’t trying to express the truth of a particular feeling self: she is showing that contemporary emotional experience is resonant with larger, often mythic situations and texts. She likes to write from the point of ‘illumination, which has then to be traced back to some source in the world’, rather than from ‘some concrete thing’ whose significance is enlarged. When this method fails, she has said, it ‘is felt as portentousness’. It is a failure that happens – occasionally – in Descending Figure (1980) and The Triumph of Achilles (1985).
The Wild Iris (1992), the first of two book-length sequences, expands the possibilities of the earlier personal work by drawing on several medieval and early modern forms, chiefly the florilegium and the book of hours, to create a sequence of poems spoken either by flowers, by a gardener (in poems called either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’) or, in poems named after atmospheric conditions, by a God-like subject. The book is concerned with the change of seasons but also with the solitary life, the disappointed longing for remedies against loneliness, desire and mortality. For many of Glück’s fans, it’s her best book. The meditative sequence suits her. And these poems, written over a ten-week period, have a particular intensity. In recordings of Glück reading them, you hear her thrill, even amazement, at what she’s made. The constraints of poetic tradition and multiple voices allow her strengths – her lexical wit, her skill with tone, her knowledge of the Anglo-American poetic canon, her interest in psychology – to find a bigger canvas. Addressing an absent God in one of the ‘Matins’ poems, the speaker longs for a poetic image:
I cannot love
what I can’t conceive, and you disclose
virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,
always the same thing in the same place,
or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent, first springing up
a pink spike on the slope behind the daisies,
and the next year, purple in the rose garden?
Glück’s assumption of the God-voice in various modes – ‘Whatever you hoped,’ the God of ‘Retreating Wind’ says, ‘you will not find yourselves in the garden,/among the growing plants’ – allows her to argue not just with the garden epiphanist, but also with conventional poems of personal expression: ‘Your souls should have been immense by now,/not what they are,/small talking things –’.
In Meadowlands, her next collection, dialogue enables the poet to think about the psychology of these ‘small talking things’. The book is a series of poems exchanged between a husband and wife, interleaved with monologues spoken by characters from the Odyssey. The modern couple, on the brink of divorce, talk at cross purposes; Glück shows us how badly feeling translates into words, how the failure to connect becomes a ‘Ceremony’, the poem’s title:
I stopped liking artichokes when I stopped eating
I never liked.
One thing I’ve always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.
Flaubert was crazy: he lived
with his mother.
Living with you is like living
at boarding school:
chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.
I have deep friendships.
I have friendships
with other recluses.
But the story that gradually emerges – the wife is sealed off, reclusive, controlling and judgmental; the husband, enraged and disgusted, feels, or has been made to feel, inferior – is enlarged by the way it echoes the domestic plot of the Odyssey.
It took Glück a while to settle into this mythic mode. In Firstborn, we encounter a more particular and thingly world. Sketch portraits – a sister in ‘Silverpoint’, a poor family in ‘The Chicago Train’, a pimpish boyfriend in ‘Labour Day’ – are individual, specific. There are dozens of dramatic monologues, and quite a few more in The House on Marshland: she was obviously paying attention to the work of Stanley Kunitz, as well as of Robert Lowell. Formally, too, this early work – thick, stacked diction and taut, chewy syntax – is unlike the plain style that follows:
Under cerulean, amid her backyard’s knobby rhubarb squats
My cousin to giggle with her baby, pat
His bald top. From a window I can catch them mull basil,
Glinty silica, sienna through the ground’s brocade
Of tarragon or pause under the oblong shade
Of the garage.
The verbal filigree of poems like ‘My Cousin in April’ is the closest Glück has ever come to obscurity; her usually brief poems strive for clarity in short, enjambed free verse. She admits having been resistant to expansive lines and longer poems; fewer than ten of her poems before Vita Nova (1999) exceeded two pages, with only a handful coming in at two.
In Glück’s more recent work, especially her latest collection, A Village Life, she uses a much longer line, and her last three books, beginning with The Seven Ages (2001), include several longer poems. But she has also been writing poems that are more fragmentary and elliptical. No less crafted than her earlier work, they are more open, less insistent. Although ‘October’, part of the opening to Averno, alerts us to potential anxiety – ‘when was I silenced, when did it first seem/pointless to describe that sound//what it sounds like can’t change what it is’ – we also see something remarkably like happiness creeping in. In ‘Ripe Peach’, from The Seven Ages, disjunctive, doubled syntax enjoys warding off sense-making:
for happiness: earth
we cannot possess
only experience – And now
sensation: the mind
silenced by fruit –
‘The Muse of Happiness’, from the same collection, asks: ‘Is it possible we have finally paid/bitterly enough?’ With the debt paid Glück can observe, and retreat from portentousness:
The windows shut, the sun rising.
Sounds of a few birds;
the garden filmed with a light moisture.
And the insecurity of a great hope
And the heart still alert.
And a thousand small hopes stirring,
not new but newly acknowledged.
These poems recall those Stevens wrote when he was preparing his Collected, many of which play with the refusal of metaphor, the end of the imagination, an air ‘clear of everything’. The image on the cover – a grainy, ghostly black and white mezzotint of the planet Saturn by the Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins – also reminds us of Stevens, who referred to his own Collected as ‘The Planet on the Table’.
The planet is significant. Stevens’s poem ‘The Planet on the Table’ addresses the critics who questioned his attention to the world, wanting his poems to bear ‘some lineament or character … of the planet of which they were part’. In 1989 Glück argued that her ‘work has always been strongly marked by a disregard for the circumstantial, except insofar as it could be transformed into paradigm’. Rendering the personal as paradigmatic means that the poems sometimes lack everything but emotional particularity. We often find ourselves in a garden, or the field next to it; a beach house, a porch, a private room; there is a mountain, there is a village, there was a house on Long Island. Glück’s world feels sequestered and sometimes claustrophobic: there are no classrooms, bars, supermarkets, highways, restaurants, cars, governments (local or national), hospitals, televisions, radios or gum wrappers. When a stamp is mentioned in a recent poem it’s a shock. The poet-wife of Meadowlands thinks about her husband’s accusation – ‘You don’t love the world./If you loved the world you’d have/images in your poems’ – but the collection as a whole is informed by the idea, expressed in ‘Nostos’, that ‘we look at the world once, in childhood./The rest is memory.’ Meadowlands in particular shows the power of fantasy to shape our experience of the world. In ‘Ithaca’, Glück’s Penelope dreams as she weaves. Her suitors have failed to realise that Odysseus is powerfully present in her memory:
The beloved doesn’t
need to live. The beloved
lives in the head …
He was the body and voice, the easy
magnetism of a living man, and then
the unfolding dream or image
shaped by the woman working the loom,
sitting there in a hall filled
with literal-minded men.
A Village Life is a real departure. Glück experiments with characters very unlike herself, and with the ‘circumstantial’ she’d so far avoided. The results are sometimes confusing, for while we don’t feel that she is writing about herself, the poems don’t quite read as dramatic monologues either. They are written from the perspectives of many residents of ‘the village’ (or perhaps of many possible villages), including, somewhat awkwardly, a farmer, a mill-worker, an olive-picker and a working-class man dying of cancer who is offended by his educated, female doctor. But the quintessentially Glück-like observations throughout these poems (and the Glück persona stepping in now and again) make it hard not to read lines like ‘when I’m in moods like that,/I go to a bar, watch sports on television’ as unsuccessful ventriloquism. A Village Life raises other questions – is this an Italian village? is it the 1950s? where are we? – that result from its more successful gambles. References to film appear in a way that’s new: a portrait of hot and bothered, half-bored young love in ‘Noon’ feels like the poetic equivalent of the Nouvelle Vague, and images in ‘Walking at Night’ recall the desolate postwar landscapes of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. The timeless, slightly surreal quality registers as a mix of menace, comfort, oddness and familiarity.