National Poetry Month : Nobel Prize Winner Louise Glück

Posted on April 21st, 2021 by

Gustavus Library actively collects works by Nobel Prize laureates, and since it’s National Poetry Month we thought there’s no better time to explore the works of American poet Louise Glück (1943- ), who last October was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

A collage of covers of Louise Gluck's poetry books.

Now that sounds pretty heady, and some Gusties may wonder if Glück’s is the right kind of poetry to curl up and relax with in a hammock in the Arb. There were plenty of rapturous moments to be had in Louise Glück’s Poems – 1962-2012 – along with stunning descriptions of nature – but we have to be honest and say much of Glück’s subject matter (especially in her early poems) is pretty bleak: a sister who died before she was born, mental illness and an eating disorder, and complicated relationships with parents, men, and God.

So why read Glück? What seems to stand out across the poet’s work are her ever-so-precise turns of phrase, her bold manner of addressing the reader, and her knack for putting the human emotions under the microscope, though these are also open-ended poems where enough is left to the imagination that the reader is left constantly guessing, identifying, and filling in gaps. Glück’s poetry is as much about what we as readers – or as Glück prefers, one intimate, slow-reading reader – bring to it as it is about the poems themselves, in the moments when her line breaks make us pause and take notice of a unusual word or a phrase.

Portrait of Louise Glück used for a poster c. 1977, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She loved poetry from an early age and in her Nobel lecture tells the story of how as a young girl she staged a contest in her head over what was the best poem in the world, William Blake’s “Little Black Boy,” or the song “Swanee River” by Stephen C. Foster, and although she ultimately gave the crown to “Little Black Boy,” she realized later, “I was drawn, then as now, to the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing.” She states that she was especially drawn to poems that seem like a private conversation in which the listener plays a crucial role. “I submitted my first book when I was 13 or 14 – of course it was sent back – but I persisted.”

Glück may be described (ironically, in light of her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 collection, The Wild Iris) as a late-bloomer. She recalls in an interview, “I was not a successful adolescent. I seemed strange to the other children and they were nasty to me. I became quite withdrawn, and then I became severely anorexic which is why I was taken out of high school.” She spent several years overcoming her illness and in later years would describe her struggles as an obsession with form, and a way of resisting to her mother “whose will was overpowering and whose sense of ownership of her young was very intense.”

She makes explicit the connection between her poetry and illness in the poem “Dedication to Hunger”:

I remember
lying in bed at night
touching the soft, digressive breasts,
touching, at fifteen,
the interfering flesh
that I would sacrifice
until the limbs were free
of blossom and subterfuge: I felt
what I feel now, aligning these words—
it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.

Glück aspired to be an actress early on but at her mother’s suggestion began to take night classes in poetry as a nondegree student at Columbia University, where she was soon taken under wing by the poets Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz. During these years Glück also underwent psychoanalysis therapy, which she credited with saving her life and “teaching me how to think.” She began submitting poems to journals, and this period culminated in her first published poetry book, Firstborn (1968).

Firstborn can be a puzzling book for someone coming to read Louise Glück for the first time. Its most striking qualities are its terseness, the line breaks that cut the reader short mid-phrase, mid-word even, as in the poem “Thanksgiving” (“a name- / less Southern boy from Yale” or later, “Outside, in twenty- / nine degrees, a stray cat”) as well as the raw violence of the imagery in poems like “The Egg”:

Across the beach the fish
Are coming in. Without skins,
Without fins, the bare
Households of their skulls
Still fixed, piling
With the other waste.
Husks, husks. Moons
Whistle in the mouths,
Through gasping mussels.
Pried flesh. And flies
Like planets, clamped shells
Clink blindly through
Veronicas of waves …

The speaker of the poem leaves off by telling us, “The thing is hatching,” but like something newly hatched, the speaker sounds breathless, blinded by the light outside. There is a stand-offish quality to many of the poems in Firstborn, and not just in Glück’s explicit admonition: “Love, you ever want me, don’t.” Glück would write about the pressures poets feel to be original in her 2001 essay “American Originality,” where she wrote that “the artist must look like a renegade and at the same time produce, whether by accident or design, an aesthetic commodity, a set of gestures instantly apprehended as new and also capable of replication.” Her own earliest published poems seem an example of this urge to seem like a renegade, for as Dan Chiasson has written, they “borrow the coolest American style and apply it to the hottest material” (the emotions). These poems tend to minimize the I of the poem, to present just the speaker’s thoughts, minus the speaker.

I’m knitting sweaters for her second child.
As though, down miles of dinners, had not heard her rock her bed
In rage and thought it years she lay, locked in that tantrum …
Oh but such stir as in her body had to come round.

This manner of address feels eerie because the reader is given no certainty about whom these thoughts are being addressed to; they verge at times on Joycean stream-of-consciousness, and their terse delivery can seem a bit claustrophobic.

Yet this strict verbal discipline soon develops into a distinctly serene and clear voice in Glück’s next book The House on Marshland (1975), which she wrote after a period of writer’s block followed by a burst of creative inspiration after being hired to teaching poetry classes at Goddard College in Vermont.

The speaker in the poem “Gretel in Darkness” still speaks in a half-feral manner, foregoing articles, but the cadence has nothing crabbed about it, and is instead simple and poised:

Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.

This poem also exemplifies a method Glück would use throughout her entire career: allegory. It is a poem simultaneously about Hansel and Gretel, but also obliquely about Glück herself, and then it is also about the gaps that the simplicity of the language opens for the reader to interpret the poem in their own way. Glück experiments with radically different attitudes with respect to the subjects of her poems; while “For My Mother” seems to show the poet in a magnanimous posture towards the poem’s subject, the poem “The Murderess” is told from the perspective of a mother perhaps feeling murdered by her daughter’s manner of dressing promiscuously and cavorting with strange men:

She was my daughter. She would pare
her skirt until her thighs grew
longer, till the split tongue slid into her brain.
He had her smell. Fear
will check beauty, but she had no fear. She talked
doubletalk, she lent
her heat to Hell’s: Commissioner, the sun
opens to consume the Virgin on the fifteenth day.
It was like slitting fish.

The poet’s parents are evoked in several poems. “The Schoolchildren” seems to just be describing mothers in a rural Vermont community sending their children off to school, but ends by referring to their apples for the teachers as a form of “ammunition.” In “Departure,” the father figure seems to recede from view, but then he is described as getting on a train “waiting with its breath of ashes.”
But while family troubles continue to haunt these poems, Glück also shows herself to be a sensitive poet of nature who gets up close and personal with flowers, trees, and shrubs, and in the poem “To Autumn,” her ability to be close to nature in her rural Vermont environment gives her a sense of contentment about the trajectory of her life, despite early struggles:

The willow waits its turn, the coast
is coated with a faint green fuzz, anticipating
mold. Only I
do not collaborate, having
flowered earlier: I am no longer young. What
of it? Summer approaches, and the long
decaying days of autumn when I shall begin
the great poems of my middle period.

One such poem is “Pomegranate,” in which an alluring male lover is introduced and represented by Hades, drawing Persephone down into the underworld by pitting her against her mother Demeter.

When he looked up at last
it was to say My dear
you are your own
woman, finally, but examine
this grief your mother
parades over our heads
that she is one to whom
these depths were not offered.

The reader can trace this love affair over several poems, watching it ebb and surge, until it all comes to a head in the short but powerful poem “Here Are My Black Clothes”:

I think now it is better to love no one
than to love you. Here are my black clothes,
the tired nightgowns and robes fraying
in many places. Why should they hang useless
as though I were going naked? You liked me well enough
in black; I make you a gift of these objects.

In her next collection, The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Glück’s poems become even more conversational, yet somehow more bracing in spite of their outward casualness. In “Summer,” she paints a lilting picture of a marriage—only to stop the thought short with a cutting image:

Remember the days of our first happiness,
how strong we were, how dazed by passion,
lying all day, then all night in the narrow bed,
sleeping there, eating there too: it was summer
But we were lost in a way, didn’t you feel that?
The bed was like a raft; I felt us drifting
far from our natures, toward a place where we’d discover nothing.

The subject matter of the poems also greatly expands to encompass a wider variety of mythical allegories from Sissyphus to David and Goliath to the story of Moses being put in the basket. Glück has said she hit a creative stride in the 1990s, when she was able to produce a collection of new poetry nearly every couple of years. These collections also feel more thematically unified than what has come before, with Ararat (1990) focusing on the death of her father, Meadowlands (1996) filtering the old conflicts between wife, husband, and child through poems about Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus, and Vita Nova (1999) incorporating characters from myth like Orpheus and Eurydice, Circe, and Dido the Queen of Carthage. The latter collection feels at times like a summation, the placid reflections of someone who has been through much and is grateful for wisdom earned despite the pain. In the poem “Earthly Love,” for example, Glück movingly contrasts her own experiences of marriage and love with those of her parents (invoking Hamlet’s famous soliloquy):

Conventions of the time
held them together.
It was a period
(very long) in which
the heart once given freely
was required, as a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.

As to ourselves:
fortunately we diverged
from these requirements,
as I reminded myself
when my life shattered.
So that what we had for so long
was, more or less,
voluntary, alive.
And only long afterward
did I begin to think otherwise.

She ultimately concludes that even if love was an illusion, a self-deception, “I believe I would repeat these errors exactly,” because even our illusions have their own self-contained reality, their dream-like integrity.

One of the most enchanting collections from this period is the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, a series of elaborate fantasies – and quietly subversive conversations with God – set amid the Garden of Eden (or perhaps Louise Glück’s own garden—it is often hard to tell.) Glück has also written two books of essays, Proofs & theories : essays on poetry and American originality : essays on poetry. Her collected Poems 1962-2012 were released in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim, and she has since released one additional collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, for which she was awarded the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry.


Leave a Reply