Like Dolls with Their Heads Cut Off

Laura Quinney

  • October by Louise Glück
    Sarabande, 32 pp, US $8.95, April 2004, ISBN 1 932511 00 8

Louise Glück, the poet laureate of the United States for 2003-2004, belongs to the line of American poets who value fierce lyric compression. This tradition was established by Emily Dickinson and her followers: H.D., Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Bishop. It is a tradition predominantly, though not exclusively, of women poets; the opposing tradition of ornate or discursive amplitude has been predominantly male (Whitman, Crane, Pound, Eliot, Ginsberg). Wariness and rigour characterise this genus of poetry by American women. Dark, incisive and severe, it treats every species of indulgence with mistrust, from rhetorical excess to wilful illusion.

Glück’s poetry, though largely autobiographical, is never confiding. She has gradually moved from the chilling, impersonal style of her first books to a freer, though still carefully calculated use of the first person. Her apprentice work, the volumes Firstborn (1968) and The House on Marshland (1975), is supremely reticent: the first collection is imperious and grim, the second distant, lyrical, surreal. Her poems become less emotionally rigid with Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990). Meadowlands (1996) and Vita Nova (1999), which deal with her separation and divorce, expand into a bolder use of autobiography. The Seven Ages (2001) and, most recently, October are retrospective but scrupulous. The exception to this autobiographical trend is the inspired experiment of The Wild Iris (1992), in which questions of faith, existence and meaning are debated in a garden, by God, the gardeners and a chorus of flowers. Glück’s recent books take rhetorical risks unthinkable in her earlier work. But she remains on guard. All her later volumes work to dispel the appearance of spontaneity: they all frame their ‘disclosures’ in relation to a literary model (the Odyssey in Meadowlands, Dante in Vita Nova and Shakespeare in The Seven Ages), thus signalling the contrived or artful character of these putatively expressive poems. To Glück, the ‘confessional’ mode is odious.

In ‘Education of the Poet’, a brief literary autobiography, included in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994), Glück describes how, as a six-year-old, she disdained ‘the windy, dwindling kind’ of poem, preferring the terseness of ‘poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind’. These poems had an implosive quality, as a result of intense pressure being applied to a spare vocabulary: ‘What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning.’ Naturally, she went on to write poems of this sort: taut performances that dart and swerve, rivet and surprise.

Her poems are usually short and narrow, making emphatic use of enjambement to slow the pace and to suggest the labour of the utterance.

In my first dream the world appeared
the sweet, the forbidden
but there was no garden, only
raw elements

I was human:
I had to beg to descend

the salt, the bitter, the demanding, the pre-emptive

And like everyone, I took, I was taken
I dreamed

I was betrayed:

Earth was given to me in a dream
In a dream I possessed it.

(‘The Seven Ages’)

Antithetical forms of urgency compete in these lines: the requirement of precision versus the impetus of expression. Pauses of various lengths are introduced through punctuation, abbreviated line lengths and stanza breaks, while momentum comes from apposition and anaphora (the catalogue of phrases beginning with ‘I’). The conflict between momentum and delay creates rhythmical tension. In this way, Glück produces the suspense she admires. But the underlying drama is psychological: the speaker’s words reflect the longing to tell her story but also show constraint, hesitation and self-mistrust. In speaking at all, she seems to be combating a momentous counterforce, or pair of counterforces: the seduction of silence and the temptation of falsehood.

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