A Look Back at Louise Glück

Updated: Aug 22, 2021



PERHAPS LIKE MANY OF YOU, I received notice this week of American Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s new book, Winter Recipes from the Collective: Poems, which will be released on Oct. 20.


Glück remains one of our finest poets, lyrical, confessional, incisive, conjuring worlds of emotion and ideas, and a maestra of endless poetic allusions. We are long overdue to hear from her after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020.


Here are two book reviews on Glück that I wrote as the Books page editor for The Wichita Eagle newspaper in 2013 and 2014. The first is on her collected poems, a landmark volume; the second on her most recent book, Faithful and Virtuous Night.


If you are not familiar with Glück’s poetry, these reviews may help you catch up on her before her next beautiful volume hits the bookstores. Happy reading. -- Arlice W. Davenport



Louise Glück’s collected poems showcase

half a century of stunning verse


BY ARLICE DAVENPORT


“Poems 1962-2012” by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Ecco, 634 pages, $40)


In his short story “First Sorrow,” Franz Kafka tells of a trapeze artist who wants only to stay on his trapeze – whether he is performing or not. He gets his wish, even as the circus keeps traveling

Eventually, the trapeze artist grows anxious about his precarious position and asks his manager for a second trapeze: “Only one bar in my hand – how can I go on living?”


He gets his second wish, as well. But those first cries of anguish put his manager on edge; they signal what could be the artist’s ultimate fall from grace.


Louise Glück can be considered American poetry’s trapeze artist, one of our finest makers of verse for the past 50 years, perched high on her award-winning bar of precise, clear-eyed, unsentimental “confessional” poems.


With her, no reader need worry that she will ask for a second trapeze. Her starting and ending points have always been the sorrows and epiphanies of a world well-loved – a virtually endless arena of what I would call lean abundance.


As “Poems 1962-2012” powerfully illustrates – collecting all 11 of her previous books – her most recent poems still celebrate this hard-earned love, even if her sadness sounds more muted and resigned, absorbed in a sense of place – Italy, appropriately – echoing what the Roman poet Horace called “O medicine of sorrows.”


made her mark in the early 1960s, stripping the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell of its cloying self-indulgence but still clinging to her trapeze bar of personal emotion packed into spare, pointed diction.


For years, she continued in this vein, exploring the domestic vicissitudes of her marriages – raised to the mythic heights of Penelope and Ulysses – until her spectacular, Pulitzer Prize-winning volume “The Wild Iris” (1992).


Arguably her most popular book, it intermingles the (conscious) lives of flowers, the voice of God and the folly of humankind. As such, it expands Glück’s emotional range into a stunningly beautiful overture of meaning, into a sure, authorial voice.


I tell you I could speak again: whatever

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice:

from the center of my life came

a great fountain, deep blue

shadows on azure seawater.


When confronted with the scope of a poet’s life work, it is tempting to find some reductive key, to say, “ This is the core of her artistry.”


Even though I find that approach perilous, after my third reading of “The Wild Iris,” the book still strikes me as the hinge of Glück’s oeuvre, showcasing her imaginative empathy, and some of the most direct, inspiring poetry of the past generation, “crying yes risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.”


Like the final vibrations of a tuning fork struck against iron in her soul, Glück’s poetic line has continued to lengthen and expand, striding across the page in “Village Life” (2009), her most recent work.


There, narrative replaces self-scrutiny, and it may be tempting to consider this her second trapeze. But the later poems merely reveal the hidden virtues of the earlier ones: expressing the universal in the particular, tracing the tragic in the everyday, charting our reflexive rebellion against suffering and mirroring our willingness to spill our longings onto the “page” of our innermost self:

           Why

do you treasure your voice

when to be one thing

is to be next to nothing?


I find it difficult to imagine a better book of poetry being published this year.

“Poems 1962-2012” soars as a pinnacle in American letters, a trapeze act of dizzying precision and daring. The right response is simply to cherish it as a national treasure – to hold one’s breath, peer into the spotlights and applaud.


Glück’s new poems showcase the light of her oracular voice


BY ARLICE DAVENPORT


Faithful and Virtuous Night” by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 81 pages, $23)

At last the night surrounded me;

I floated on it, perhaps in it,

or it carried me as a river carries

a boat, and at the same time

it swirled above me,

star-studded but dark nevertheless.


Louise Glück just keeps getting better.


One of our finest contemporary poets – as her collected poems showed two years ago – she has changed her aesthetic strategy over the years, moving away from adaptations of Greek and Roman myths toward a new oracular tone of her own. The result is brilliant and haunting, captivating and mysterious, but, as always, couched in spare, emotionally charged diction.


But these farewells, I said, are the way of things.

And once more I alluded to the vast territory

opening to us with each valediction. And with that phrase I became

a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart

became the steed underneath me.


In “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” her 13th collection, Glück writes with a timeless quality, perched on the edge of expectation, awaiting a revelation through the mist, a signal in the capacious night. Her richness of thought and restrained, melancholy voice call forth the rhythms of the broken heart: beating valiantly in quiet desolation. She is the lost pilgrim, unsure whether the still, small pinnacle of her experience is a peak or plateau.


“Parable,” the opening poem, sets the stage for the series of dispassionate discoveries to come, the outlines of the Glück mythology: technically precise, yet dreamlike and archetypal.


First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,

in order that our souls not be distracted

by gain and loss, and in order also

that our bodies be free to move

easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss

whither or where we might travel, with the second question being

should we have a purpose.


Motifs echo throughout this slim volume. We hear of night, of mist, of deceased parents, of religious phrasings: Shall I be raised from death? All of it resounding with the dark music of loss.

And I told him of the emptiness of my days,

and of time, which was running out,

and of the meaninglessness of my achievement.


We also hear much about painting, Glück’s metaphor for writing, as though language has exhausted itself, and only canvases of color can express the wanderings of the heart.


so that I was constantly

face-to-face with blankness, that

stepchild of the sublime,

which, it turns out,

has been both my subject and my medium.


In the past, Glück wrote expertly from her deepest self, the core of her carefully modulated confessionalism. Here, she introduces a profound distance to the poetic “I,” now male, now female, now old, now young – all personae moving, open and malleable, into the haven of the night. “But who would / see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars?”


Identity is not the only enigma that fascinates Glück; she also revels in stark antinomies:


And yet his complacency disguised suffering

as perhaps my suffering disguised complacency.


Or:


I closed my eyes.

I was torn between a structure of oppositions

and a narrative structure—


Or:


The whole exchange seemed both deeply fraudulent

and profoundly true, as though such words as emptiness and meaninglessness

had stimulated some remembered emotion

which now attached itself to this occasion and person.


In addition, Glück has expanded her range of poetic forms, from her hallmark pure lyric, to multi-layered narrative, to the sensitively constructed prose poem, a fable spreading across the page, adding an effective counterpoint to the tighter, shorter lines of the standard poems.


As she has admitted in recent books, Glück is aging, now 71. Thus the kingdom of death figures prominently, heralding the approach of a permanent separation and perhaps of an incipient faith.


But if the essence of time is change,

how can anything become nothing?

That was the question I asked myself.


Or:


Feeling has departed–it occurs to me

this would make a fine headstone.

But I was wrong to suggest

this has occurred before.

In fact, I have been hounded by feeling;

it is the gift of expression

that has so often failed me.

Failed me, tormented me, virtually all my life.


Whatever traces of despair color these poems, they are offset by a primal wonder, by the immense, mute promise of the darkening sky.


All of these elements add up to an impeccable first act following the triumph of her collected poems. Glück has ventured into new territory with stunning, valedictory success “like a pilgrim seeking expiation and forgiveness.”


As she continues to refine her poetic voice, we can only wait for what new, spirited treasures lie ahead – should she have a purpose.


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