Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
When I was a little bit younger, I thought of Louise Glück as the embodiment of one idea of a poet. She was incisive and dark, she knew how to be commanding, scornful, or tender. She kept her poise in the face of known or unknown terrors —
Look at the night sky:
I have two selves, two kinds of power.
I am here with you, at the window,
watching you react. Yesterday
the moon rose over moist earth in the lower garden.
Now the earth glitters like the moon,
like dead matter crusted with light.
You can close your eyes now.
I have heard your cries, and cries before yours,
and the demand behind them.
I have shown you what you want:
not belief, but capitulation
to authority, which depends on violence.
I knew this was not the only way a poet could speak, not the only way a speaker could behave, but it seemed like the essence of a certain kind of ‘poeticism.’ Weren’t these the sort of things a poet should talk about? Shouldn’t a poet address his or her own loves and desperations as nakedly as possible? No matter what dimensions the poem took, she kept faith in the potency of a single lyric speaker.
The author of eleven volumes of poetry spanning more than forty years, both altering the commonplaces of poetry and her work to match time’s arrow, Louise Glück is far more complicated than my imaginary picture. But there is something persistent in the idea of her work and the way it stands apart. It is related to what readers of poetry often call a poet’s ‘voice.’
Part of the pleasure of reading a book of collected poetry, apart from the misplaced passion of the completist, is to watch the development of a poet over time. When a body of work is amassed, it becomes like geological strata. Each layer marks change and development, either gradually or by a rapid turning away from old materials. It is not the only way to examine a body of work, but it is always an attractive one — the narrative begins to write itself.
I’m inclined to read Glück this way for a few reasons. For one, Glück repeatedly explores her personal life in her poems: husbands, children, lovers, and family members are constant subjects of her work. Less directly, Glück is a poet popularly known for creating book-length sequences of poems. Several are organized by a classical myth onto which Glück maps her personal life and poetic voice (Odysseus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone). Others are matched together in more subtle ways. To me, this suggests a constant, and self-conscious, search for unity from within in Glück’s work. It doesn’t seem like a reach to envision an attempt to curate a life through successive volumes — at least there exists an invitation to consider the poet herself (as personality) as the unifying idea behind the body of work.
I think every poet imagines his or her work to be cohere over time in some way, if only by virtue of the fact that the same mind arranges words on a page in both 1968 and 2009. When I look at the disparate books and the multitude of individual poems that cluster in a collected volume, there’s a natural tendency to generalize, to look for the threads that bind the work together and create a consistent idea of the author. In particular, it is the unique containment of Glück’s voice that interests me, the control that comes from her careful circumscription of language and concepts.
Here’s a simplified way of thinking about poetic voice: it is the imprint of a writer’s combined choices of words, phrases, and forms. It is grasped more easily as an entire impression (constructed from our reading) rather than as a specific understanding of particulars. As a reader, I build in my head a model of what kind of person a writer might be, and furthermore what kind of writer that writer might be. This abstracted sense of a writer often leads to the idea of voice, on one hand corresponding to what he or she actually wrote, but also allowing us to imagine what he or she might write in a different context. A sense of voice allows us to imagine what might have been in an author’s burned notebook.
This abstracted idea of voice is different from, but does not necessarily conflict with, the practice of reading a collected body of work like Glück’s. The abstraction runs alongside the particulars — it is a heuristic, a guide to impressions as we accrue more information. As we read, certain details may not match our larger picture. However, an increasingly complex view of a writer’s style does not make the generalization irrelevant. We must always be careful not to confuse the map with the territory.
Glück’s first book, Firstborn, was published in 1968. As one might expect in a first book, the distinctive parts of Glück’s voice are less obvious. This makes the poems instructive by comparison: the later hallmarks of voice are nascent but have not yet been developed. It is also fascinating to see the poet still dabbling with traditional forms of meter and rhyme before largely abandoning them. For example, take the poem Labor Day:
Requiring something lovely on his arm
Took me to Stamford, Connecticut, a quasi-farm,
His family’s; later picking up the mammoth
Girlfriend of Charlie, meanwhile trying to pawn me off
On some third guy also up for the weekend.
But Saturday we still were paired; spent
It sprawled across the sprawling acreage
Until the grass grew limp
With damp. Like me. Johnston-baby, I can still see
The pelted clover, burrs’ prickly fur and gorged
Pastures spewing infinite tiny bells. You pimp.
The hesitant insertion of a few rhymes seems like a reflex indicative of the poem’s larger project: an attempt to completely embody a particular moment. Miniatures like these work to create an image or discrete event, and the clear presentation of this morsel is a successful when it lets us know something new about our reality. It is only ambiguous insofar as the moment in life is an ambiguous one. To capture such a moment requires control — it is important to get the image exactly right as it occurs.
In the need for clarity, the roots of Glück’s distinctive voice can be easily seen, from the tone of scorn to the turn to nature at the poem’s end. There is something both solemn and invasive about Pastures spewing infinite tiny bells. The accusation of You pimp bluntly sums up the conflict of gender, the dual attraction and repulsion that is common in the author’s later books. The final words fall heavily, perhaps unartfully, but it gives an indication of the assertiveness of one of the most distinctive aspects of Glück’s work — of the voice.
In later books, the concreteness of poems like this becomes increasingly rare. Consider the opening lines of Mock Orange the first poem in Glück’s fourth book, The Triumph of Achilles:
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
paralyzing body —
You pimp can be accessed anyway, without having to create an image that the reader can visualize. The generality of voice and its characteristic gestures become more important than the idea of recreating a particular moment. The generalization often begins by the omission of particulars, creating a world only inhabited by broad nouns: moon, flowers, light, hatred, man, mouth, body. The stripping down of the voice to its essentials becomes an unusual self-consciousness: a voice primarily concerned with voice.
Another related tendency of the first few books is the attempt to embody other speakers in particular poems, often from extremely different perspectives or historical backgrounds. In reality these are less authentic inhabitations of other lives (as a certain kind of short-story writer might attempt) than new garments for the same persistent voice. In a certain sense, this adoption of nominally “other” voices attempts to strengthen the single Glück voice, asserting that its music is trans-historical. A representative example of this is Jeanne D’Arc, from The House On Marshland, Glück’s second book:
It was in the fields. The trees grew still,
a light passed through the leaves speaking
of Christ’s great grace: I heard.
My body hardened into armor.
Since the guards
gave me over to darkness I have prayed to God
and now the voices answer I must be
transformed to fire, for God’s purpose,
and have bid me kneel
to bless my King, and thank
the enemy to whom I owe my life.
Like Jeanne D’Arc, it is a compact poem requiring little deciphering of its basic elements. It faithfully represents the story of Joan of Arc as we know it, but is also an obvious cypher for the features of Glück’s poetic language: self-sacrifice, the possibility of an ecstatic message in nature. It may seem reductive to paraphrase in this way, but really it is the lack of ambiguity that makes the poem interesting. Jeanne D’Arc, is an appropriate skeleton for the uncompromising voice, and through history she is more the idea of a person than a physical entity. Accordingly, in her later career Glück commonly favors myth, parable, and fable as the frameworks for poems, looking for narratives that can support an exact, simplified emotional language. The idea of form here and elsewhere is similarly spare, using line breaks more as a convenient pause (a suggestion of breath) than as a formal pattern. The implication of this choice is almost always a kind of urgency, as though the line were trying to break through into unmediated utterance.
This is not to say that this directness is an absolute good, but simply that it is one of the defining elements of Glück’s voice — though her tone softens in later books, it would be hard to imagine her voice modulated into, say, found language or even prose poetry. In her work the limits of lyric are defined, the adherence is essentially religious. Though voice is often recognized in gestalt, we can point to many of the choices made that create Glück’s in particular. The parameters of subject are narrowed down quickly: nature, family, season, myth, love, death. The speech act itself is usually highly charged, manifesting as accusation, confession, or a sharp statement of preference.
This is an old-fashioned universe that has been built up with care. To many modern readers of poetry, those at home with the now-pervasive skepticism of contemporary art, it may seem obsolete, like an obstinate landscape painter who continues toiling, outflanked by more daring peers. A sophisticated reader naturally questions the validity of this voice as an intact, seamless phenomenon exactly because it comes on so strong. The reader is rarely, if ever, provided with the relieving wink that demonstrates that the speech was a performance. Added to this, Glück does little to display her intellectual credentials, consistently favoring the language of emotion. This is just as one might have questioned the claim of an Abstract Expressionist painter to his own personal visual or aesthetic hallmark in the face of something like Pop Art. The interrogation is apt, but is maybe also missing something.
A common expression of this skeptical tendency in poetry has been to raise questions of the incommensurability of language. By putting the power of poetry on trial, writers hope to be vindicated when the world answers in the affirmative. It is interesting that Glück very rarely makes such a gesture. She lies on the opposite end of the spectrum: here the poet declares her absolute power over words. In the final words of Parodos, the first poem of Ararat, Glück makes this explicit:
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
There is some irony here, but perhaps only a touch. Glück’s self-assigned project is to turn mysteries into proofs with her power of vision: she looks to find clarity in poems again, as opposed to the modernist heritage of opacity that still looms over literary discourse. Reading the above words, it becomes apparent how used to reflexive gestures I am, and that their absence is both interesting and risky. I naturally ask myself the question of whether the poem that has come before these final lines can sustain such a deeply serious punctuation, or if there is some clever counterpoint I’m missing. What skeptic of art would even attempt to write such lines? To me, this is the appeal of Glück’s circumscribed voice: instead of reaching outward, she gains power by dominating poetry’s most familiar territories.
The title Parodos evokes ancient Greek theater, so there is some reference to the artificiality of this kind of speech, but only a passing one. The Greeks for Glück have much more resonance as an icon of deep seriousness, where tragedy is the only truthful outcome. The limitations of this approach can be seen in Meadowlands, a collection that joins in the tradition (now nearly as ancient as the source itself) of re-creating Homer’s The Odyssey in a modern context. Odysseus’ journey becomes a map of correspondence for poems that reach into Glück’s personal life, particularly her marriage and the raising of her son. In this edition the distant husband becomes Odysseus, the wary son becomes Telemachus, and the long-suffering wife becomes Penelope. It is perhaps because of the facility of the comparison that the seams show a bit too much. I’m not convinced that the value of The Odyssey lies completely in its similarity to us. Meadowlands is also, not coincidentally, the first book that seriously begins the treatment of the subject of aging. This in itself is not a disquieting additive to a lyric voice, but with Glück it begins to weigh on the poems, blunting their ability to be arresting.
In Ararat, along with The Wild Iris, two of Glück’s most characteristic collections, the power of her voice’s distillation is most apparent. In some ways, we can think of voice is simply an over elaborate way of saying style. In a strict sense this may even be true. Voice, however, has an extra connotation: voice always presupposes a unified consciousness. The lyric poet relies more than any other artist on this conception of a unique, individual voice, a personality behind the screen that breathes life into the artifact. Maybe it is more complete to say that voice is the play between our abstraction and the recognition of a concrete individual who creates his or her own poems.
It is important to make this clarification, as Ararat is the most direct example of what could be called the confessional tendency in Glück’s work, a critical buzzword of poetry now long bypassed. Glück’s personal revelations of marriage and raising a family provide a link to the classic generation of postwar American poets like Lowell, Sexton, and Berryman. It does not seem like a stretch to think that these authors are among the strongest contributors to contemporary poetry’s conventional idea of having a voice. If one goal of poetry is to surprise a reader, one way to do this is to disclose a secret. These poets realized that one way to do this was to literally render up the secrets of their lives. However, any trope is subject to fatigue by repetition. Glück’s poems here are stark and sharp, but they never seem to give too much away about her personal life. Confession is more of a frame for that same raw voice than an attempt to reveal the actual secrets of the author’s life.
In The Wild Iris, Glück’s voice reaches its most intense and most abstract heights. Several of the poems are named either Vespers or Matins, bolstering the intuition that this language is fundamentally a religious language, a language that might have the power to transform through utterance:
As I perceive
I am dying now and know
I will not speak again, will not
survive the earth, be summoned
out of it again, not
a flower yet, a spine only, raw dirt
catching my ribs, I call you,
father and master: all around,
my companions are falling, thinking
you do not see. How
can they know you see
unless you save us?
In the summer twilight, are you
close enough to hear
your child’s terror? Or
are you not my father,
you who raised me?
The collection is constructed around the idea of a garden and its inhabitants. The flowers are able to take up Glück’s voice and thereby become conscious of their own cultivation and repeated destruction. It’s an appropriate framework for mapping the author’s normal concerns. The relationship between lily and gardener easily becomes the relationship between god and man, father and child, or master and slave. Lines like How / can they know you see / unless you save us? are in some ways profound, but are also somewhat contentless. Glück can ask the same question in all circumstances described above. It is the sound of a voice in motion, and the reader concentrates on the sound of the plea rather than the specific question asked.
Between The Wild Iris and Meadowlands it’s hard not to detect a fundamental change. Glück’s early career seems to lead up to The Wild Iris, and that book’s cohesion and stringency is not to be underestimated. Meadowlands, on the other hand, feels like the beginning of a descent. In the later books, I sense the reins being loosened. After the author’s voice has been constricted to the narrowest possible specifications, the only answer that lets a poet keep writing is to expand the range of possibilities. There are many fine poems from Glück’s later career, but they sometimes feel less sharp, more forgiving. Attempts at humor and lightness seem jarring. This is perhaps unfair, but it was the fine-tuning and precision that made the early poems so powerful. Later on, there is more of a complex person behind the poems, but the language itself — simple, dark, emotive — is still equipped to serve the sharpness of the old disembodied voice.
There is both power and weakness in Glück’s poetic language. It is as if a partition is being constructed in order to hold in what is most valuable in poetry and to keep out whatever might threaten these essentials. But circumscription has its costs too: there is a distinct sense of fatigue in reading so many examples of one finely tuned model for poems. The risk of cliché is real when the same archetypical gestures return to poems again and again.
But Louise Glück is not intended to be a model for all other poets. It is difficult to imagine a poet today choosing such radical self-limitation. Perhaps the strain of the Information Age is too great, the perceived need to constantly respond to diffuse surroundings is too demanding. In that case, Glück’s voice is a reminder of the usefulness of a kind of aesthetic discipline, a ruthless desire to seek out the core of the poem. At least in my case, the love song and the image of light streaming through the trees brought me into the world of poetry. We have to be careful in thinking about these most well worn parts of poetic language, the parts that rest on the precipice of cliché. If the changing of the light in the seasons can only become chatter, we must be careful to see that we have not lost the ability to speak of such things at all.