Epic poetry is dead and dramatic poetry is moribund, but lyric poems continue to be written by both serious poets and teenagers in love. While its ancient origins are said to be songs composed for an occasion of celebration or mourning, the lyric has long since evolved into an expression of personal experience rather than of collective feelings. In his well-known denunciation of poetry in the Republic, Plato found use for hymns to the gods and eulogies to civic leaders, but singled out the lyric for being particularly self-indulgent and false in depicting reality. Stripped of musical accompaniment and plaintive tunes that could charm the listener, such poems not only showed their complete absence of ideas, but were harmful to those who seek truth. Plato was suspicious of the imagination. If he had not been, he would have realized that ideas in the way philosophers usually approach them have little to do with poems whose main concern is with using feelings to find what is authentic.
The more subjective and candid the poems were, the more dangerous they appeared to those who made it their business to worry about the moral uplift of their fellow citizens. Scandal is most likely the reason the lyric poem has been so successful over the centuries. To scribble, knowing that one’s secret thoughts and language are disapproved of by everyone from one’s parents to one’s clergymen, is a delicious feeling. Every form of tyranny has taken a dim view of such irreverence. The main public use of the first-person pronoun that authoritarians approve of is the one extracted through forced confessions of heretics and enemies of the state. This much has always been true: if you want to get in trouble with whatever language police is in force, write verses about what you really feel and think.
Of course, there’s much more to the lyric than risky subject matter. There’s the ineffable something that makes poetry poetry, the sensation that every word has suddenly begun to mean much more than it usually does. Lyric poems require an exquisite ear on the part of the poet, an ability to weigh the exact amount of silence necessary between words and images in order to make them rich with meaning. The shorter such poems are, the harder they are to write. We know from experience the impact a line of poetry can have, the miraculous way in which two selves unknown to each other until that very moment come to share not only an understanding but a single imaginative space. In no time at all, cultural and historical differences are abolished and a poem written almost three thousand years ago comes to life on a page. Nowhere else in literature does one find the experience of living in the moment so vividly rendered as in lyric poetry. Despite seemingly infinite odds, somebody’s private sentiments continue to enthrall generations of future readers. And yet, every time we read a poem, this is more or less what happens.
Louise Glück writes out of that tradition. The poems in Firstborn (1968), her first collection of poetry, are spare, intense, introspective, hermetic, and dark. Her models have been well disguised; it is hard to know precisely who influenced her, although she has clearly read a great deal of poetry, including some of her Surrealist contemporaries. Far more so than in her later books, she’s after startling images: “Beans sour in their pot. I watch the lone onion/Floating like Ophelia,” she writes in the title poem. In another one, the sunset leaks like blood from a steak. The range of styles, too, is more varied than is usually the case with her. Each of Glück’s other collections tends to be in a single voice, each poem composed in similar manner to emphasize the unity of subject matter and vision. Nonetheless, many of her obsessions are already present in her first collection. There are childhood memories, bits about her parents and her lovers, and a number of poems in a voice other than her own. Notwithstanding some awkward writing, Firstborn is still a strong book, though not as indelible as her next one.
If anything, her vision is even darker in The House on Marshland (1975), but the poems that come out of it are quite unlike anything in American poetry. In Glück’s world, the separation between the external and internal reality becomes so blurred that one is often not sure which is which. She makes everything both familiar and odd. We have no idea where any of it is happening and it doesn’t matter in the least. The feeling of dread is pervasive; not fear, because fear always has a definite object that is feared, but a kind of vague metaphysical horror that Sylvia Plath was familiar with and for which there’s no cure. Dread individualizes. In The House on Marshland we are in the presence of an imagination we have not encountered before. It’s as if every inanimate and living thing for her was a dark mirror where one discovers reflections of oneself and remainders of one’s dreams.
Night covers the pond with its wing.
Under the ringed moon I can make out
your face swimming among minnows and the small
echoing stars. In the night air
the surface of the pond is metal.
Within, your eyes are open. They contain
a memory I recognize, as though
we had been children together. Our ponies
grazed on the hill, they were gray
with white markings. Now they graze
with the dead who wait
like children under their granite breastplates,
lucid and helpless:
The hills are far away. They rise up
blacker than childhood.
What do you think of, lying so quietly
by the water? When you look that way I want
to touch you, but do not, seeing
as in another life we were of the same blood.
This poem reads like a reverie upon a reverie. Like other poems in the book, it reminds me a bit of Georg Trakl, the Austrian expressionist poet whose work was first being translated in the 1960s by Robert Bly and James Wright, and which Glück must have read. Each one of Trakl’s poems is like a bad dream, a shadowy, self-enclosed world of troubling images. It is always the dark night of the soul with him, except it is not God that is the cause of his worry, but his sexual desire for his sister. Ambiguity is a deliberate strategy in both poets. So much is left out; it makes the poem almost entirely a transaction below the level of consciousness. As Glück says in “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” an essay about the kind of poetry she admires:
I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied; another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.
Mallarmé would have no difficulty understanding this; nor would any other nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet. Even her frequent use of themes from Greek mythology and her habit of often addressing the reader in the voice of one of its heroines would have been familiar. Her next two books, Descending Figure (1980) and The Triumph of Achilles (1985), are in a similar vein. Glück writes poetry about our inability to forget our earliest experiences. Childhood, love, marriage, solitude, and the death of siblings and parents are her constant preoccupation. However, the voice that tells us about these things remains nameless and the specifics of her predicament are left vague. She is mourning—but what for? Is the cause of sorrow the sister who died before she was born, and whose absence she felt growing up? “The context/of truth is darkness,” she writes. “Are you taken in/by lights, by illusions?” All important things for her bear the sign of death. The lyric moment for Glück is tied to the passage of time and a sense of irretrievable loss of something one can’t name.
At twilight I went into the street.
The sun hung low in the iron sky,
ringed with cold plumage.
If I could write to you
about this emptiness—
Along the curb, groups of children
were playing in the dry leaves.
Long ago, at this hour, my mother stood
At the lawn’s edge, holding my little sister.
Everyone was gone; I was playing
in the dark street with my other sister,
whom death had made so lonely.
Night after night we watched the screened porch
filling with a gold, magnetic light.
Why was she never called?
Often I would let my own name glide past me
though I craved its protection.
Both books have stunning poems. Some of the best known among them, “Drowned Children,” “Happiness,” “Rosy,” “The Gift,” “Mock Orange,” “Metamorphosis,” “Seated Figure,” “Hyacinth,” “Triumph of Achilles,” and “Horse,” are works of the highest poetic art. Surprisingly, there are also a number of poems that fail, sound flat, and are unfocused and obscure. Self-absorption is one of the risks of the kind of lyric Glück writes. She admits as much: “The world is complete without us. Intolerable fact. To which the poet responds by rebelling, wanting to prove otherwise.” Glück is always watching herself, even while lying in the arms of a lover. That extraordinary self-consciousness and the need to overdramatize her experience are clearly the source of both the power and the weakness of some of her poems. We can put up with someone’s narcissism providing it makes interesting reading and it doesn’t run on too long.
Her next four books, Ararat (1990), The Wild Iris (1992), Meadowlands(1996), and Vita Nova (1999), are different. The poems are plainer, more overtly personal, much more accessible, and at times amazingly eloquent. Ararat is a book about the myth of a happy family; the Pulitzer Prize–winning Wild Iris is a chronicle of a garden she grew one summer in Vermont; Meadowlands draws on the tale of Ulysses, Penelope, and Telemachus to tell about the breakdown of her marriage; and Vita Nova describes her life after the divorce. For me, Glück’s reliance on Greek myth to give the incidents in her life greater importance is not always a good idea. I find myself unable to believe that Dido, Aeneas, Daphne, Apollo, and the rest of that mythological cast of characters can explain her or anyone’s troubles today. Glück’s tragic sense of life is genuine and doesn’t require Homer or Virgil to prop it up, as we shall see in the poem that follows. It tells of two friends, one of whom believes in God and one who doesn’t, and their different ways of experiencing the same reality.