Louise Glück’s poems tend to start up close: there is no scene-setting, no “driving to the interior” (Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase). Instead a voice addresses you from somewhere very nearby. You might find yourself, for example, in the middle of an argument. The tone is detached, frequently angry, sometimes ironic, always austere. Over fifty years and through eleven collections, her work reads like a journal, albeit one that is refined and refined to its essence. A Glück poem is determined to wrest meaning from circumstance, to force a pattern over the chaos of a lived life. (She writes, in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993, “poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.”)
Born in 1943, raised on Long Island, Glück published her first collection, Firstborn, in 1968. It was clear from the start that the animating drive was ressentiment, usefully defined by Nietzsche as the mode in which the ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability. Love is the obvious situation in which this arises (hence Glück is perhaps our finest poet of marital discord), but she also shows how it can extend into a working relationship with family and God and everything in between. Her sketch of William Carlos Williams is powered by a little recognition: “He took things personally: this was the glory of his work; it was also, from time to time, a limitation of character.”
Even the title “Firstborn” announces an obsession with rank, position, and marries the familial with biblical or mythical rights and curses. There is plenty to admire in its thickened language and bucking syntax. Here, in its entirety, is “Hesitate to Call”:
Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing
In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see
That all that all flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don’t.
We are addressed, implicated, though that abbreviated voice also seems internal; the fragmentation hints at a mind trying to order itself. The metaphors for a love affair gone wrong—parasites, abortion, cancer—are so heightened that they almost overtake the poem. The tone is inimical but there is self-disgust in that “throbbing/In my syrups.” (Nothing could be less appropriate, less welcome than the epithet “syrupy.” This speaker wants to be all hard edges.)
The poem records the movement from emotional instability to regained control, but all the real work is done by syntax and the division of lines: the way the initial sentences spill over the line endings, running on before pulling themselves up short halfway through the next line—an almost nauseous rocking movement. Then the poem slows. The sentences become full units, the syntax starts to correspond with the lineation: the last three end-stopped lines are decided, definitive. A broken heart is mended sonically.
She has said that “each book I’ve written has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off,” and each time she has returned with a reworked style (though keeping that intense tone and spare diction) that tilts a different facet of her craft to the light. Tightening or slackening the rhythm, say, introducing questions or disruptions, cutting back on imagery. Her collections are discrete works of art, harmonic, self-enfolding: the poems reflecting back on themselves like mirrors down a hallway. After Firstborn came The House on Marshland (1975). It left behind “little bulletproof poems,” as Glück referred to them, extending her style and themes: familial tensions, especially sibling rivalry and the maternal relationship; friendship; loss and death; love, betrayal, jealousy, relations between men and women.
Glück has said that her own need to write was a consequence of living in a family that chattered over each other: she wanted to finish her own sentences. She felt silenced, and that she lacked freedom. Male dominance is found everywhere: her grandfather’s kiss to her grandmother, “clearly tender,” “might as well have been/his hand over her mouth.” (The male block on female speech recurs: in “The Reproach,” “I feel/actual flesh upon me,/meaning to silence me.” In “Mock Orange,” perhaps her most widely anthologized piece, she writes, “I hate them as I hate sex,/the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth, the man’s/paralyzing body….”)
Suffering anorexia in her teens, an attempt to claim “ownership of [her] body,” she entered psychoanalysis for seven years, which she says “taught [her] to think.” The illness seemed to foreshadow many of the preoccupations—death, control, form—of her poetry:
what I feel now, aligning these words—
it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.
(“Dedication to Hunger”)
Though Glück’s poems are inward- facing and ahistorical, her refusals are so pervasive that it is impossible not to read her work as a critique of society, of the assaults it makes on the individual, particularly on women. The speaker contends with sisterly, daughterly, wifely strictures and expectations, with the still-dominant patriarchal machine. In these contentions, Glück is radical, serious, unremitting: she is interested in truth and disruption, in breaking up the smooth continuities of a patriarchal ordered world.
“The Murderess” contrasts lust (“I tell you men/were leering to themselves”) with the historical violence done to the female (“the sun/opens to consume the Virgin on the fifteenth day”). Any deities present are also complicit. After the virgin has been sacrificed (“It was like slitting fish”), the reader learns that “God presided at her body.”
Everywhere, the relationship of “male and female” is “thrust and ache” (“Palais des Art”). It is men who have agency, the option to leave. In “The Apple Trees” her son sleeps and “already on his hand the map appears…the dead fields, women rooted to the river.”
What is the difference between men and women? Men might have, the poems say, but women know. They know, for instance, childbirth, and in Glück’s work, “birth, not death, is the hard loss.” In “All Hallows,” there is the unforgettable eerie tableau of a soul being tricked into coming down to assume material form:
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
In a world in which daughters and wives are expected to be passive, a woman who has power, or craves it, goes against nature, is estranged. She is a conductor of forces not felt by men: she takes her strength not from the natural order but the supernatural world. She is witch or harpy or siren, given to insight, spell-casting, inflicting judgment. Glück both makes use of these tropes and undercuts them. Glück’s personas frequently seem to have special knowledge: their compensation for passivity, for being passed over, is that they are “born to a vocation:/to bear witness/to the great mysteries….”
Thus her habit of ventriloquizing historical female figures usually presented as passive: Persephone, Penelope, Abishag (who all sound, as Dan Chiasson has noted, a lot like Glück). By writing about Abishag (who was chosen to be King David’s helpmate in his old age, and whose activities extended to keeping him warm in bed), Glück rewrites Robert Frost, who in “Provide, Provide” describes Abishag from the exterior, as “the withered hag” washing the stoop, who was once “the picture pride of Hollywood.” Glück rejects the male gaze and instead goes inside: “I see myself.” Having her will subjected to men’s desires has left Abishag ruined: “No one will touch me now.” Like Cleopatra, the only suitor left to her is oblivion: “to select death, O yes I can/believe that of my body.”
Even when Glück comes up with truths on the side of life, they are shadowed. In one of my favorite lyrics, “The Undertaking,” she describes either birth or death, conflating them, just like Eliot’s Magi:
The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.
There you are—cased in clean bark you drift
Through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton.
You are free.
But freed into what? A coffin or a Moses basket? Death is a form of birth, and vice versa. Glück embodies the insight of paradoxical truths in shining language. The impossibility of easily paraphrasing many of her lyrics is the point: only in this exact language, this exact moment, does the many-edged truth hold. “The Undertaking” has, like many Glück titles, precise and various work to do: a funeral, an ending, and a binding promise, a beginning.
In 1990, Glück published Ararat, which dealt head-on with her father’s death and family relations. Elsewhere, in an essay called “Death and Absence,” Glück has written of the wound that explains some of the trauma in Ararat:
I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both. The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born. I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation toward my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress. I took it all personally: every shadow that crossed her face proved my insufficiency; the birth of my younger sister proved this yet more concretely. At the same time, I took on the guilty responsibility of the survivor.
Ararat is a defiantly post-analysis book (her sister and she are “adults now, we’ve been analyzed”). The family is depicted pitilessly: a mother and aunt playing cards are really locked in a battle in which “you show respect by fighting.” Since the aim of the game is to discard your hand, “the one who has nothing wins.”
There is power in this work, though personally I find it too naked, too direct. The revelations are intimate, but of the speaker’s personality, and too often the poems don’t discover revelations for themselves, in their syntax or form, as before, but instead simply recount a clarity achieved in psychoanalysis:
To say I’m without fear—
it wouldn’t be true.
I’m afraid of sickness, humiliation.
Like anyone, I have my dreams.
But I’ve learned to hide them,
to protect myself
Sometimes Glück uses surrogate voices to accuse herself. A friend with faith says she is like
the child who buries her head in the pillow
so as not to see, the child who tells herself
that light causes sadness—
My friend is like the mother.
Patient, urging me
to wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person….
Glück herself acknowledges her seemingly stunted development, the inability to get beyond her own childhood. And the poems themselves are torn; is the wound a strength or limitation?
The years of analysis, particularly dream analysis, allowed Glück, she writes, to learn about “the production of images” and allowed her “to explore [their] resonances,” “to separate the shallow from the deep, and to choose the deep.” The Wild Iris, her next book, written apparently in ten feverish weeks, builds on her talent for deep metaphor. The voice is free-floating, inhabiting at turns a Glück-like speaker with husband and son, different plants, the figure of the godlike gardener. Who is the you here—a gardener, the sun, a god, a husband or partner? And who is the I—a wife, a plant, a worshiper?
Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful
are always lied to since the weak are always
driven by panic. I cannot love
what I can’t conceive, and you disclose
As the poem progresses, it seems that the “you” is a god, who “couldn’t possibly exist,” but as is often the case with Glück, there is a multiplicity of possible meanings: relationships echo; the analogies fold and refold, implicating and illuminating the behavior of all.
The collection conducts domestic and metaphysical arguments, accusing God of lack of interest, of malice, of envy. It also gives God answers: “How can you understand me/when you cannot understand yourselves?”
If what you fear in death
is punishment beyond this, you need not
how many times must I destroy my own creation
to teach you
this is your punishment:
with one gesture I established you
in time and in paradise.
Glück’s theodicy is by turns tender and brutal: this is an Old Testament God interested in the limits of control. He is also of course the poet:
I gathered you together,
I can dispense with you—
I’m tired of you, chaos
of the living world—
I can only extend myself
for so long to a living thing.
The Wild Iris is a lasting achievement, a beautifully weighted collection of human strangeness and human suffering. The “words washed clean” (William Carlos Williams) and the acute truths meet in a cycle of poems that stand with the best of anyone’s work.
It is noticeable how often imagery recurs in Glück: plants, trees, lakes, the moon. Like Yeats, she works with the same deck, reshuffling it. In “Baskets” in The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Glück writes:
It is a good thing,
in the marketplace
the old woman trying to decide
among the lettuces,
impartial, weighing the heads,
the outer leaves, even
sniffing them to catch
a scent of earth
of which, on one head,
some trace remains….
The woman prefers this lettuce to the “more/estranged heads, it/being freshest,” and she lets the vendor’s wife know. There is a progenitor in William Carlos Williams’s “To a Poor Old Woman,” munching on her bag of plums that “taste good to her”: these women are in touch with something earthy, something simple, “good,” with natural processes of renewal. Over four hundred pages and twenty-four years later, in the book’s last poem, “A Village Life,” Glück sees herself as the woman who makes soup, who pours her glass of wine, who moves
through the dark as though it were natural to me,
as though I were already a factor in it.
Tranquil and still, the day
On market day, I go to the
market with my lettuces.
What Glück learned from Williams, and from George Oppen, is Pound’s sense that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” She marries Williams’s Objectivism, that “moral commitment to the actual, which meant the visible,” with an Eliotic sense of the hidden. She has written that Eliot, of the great poets, is the “least consoled by the physical world” and like Plato, like Glück herself, is on a hunt for the immutable, wants “to see through the material to the eternal.”
The later books show a mellowing of sorts. Vita Nova, from 1999, describes this new life as a “descent to the valley,” and there is a suggestion that she has abandoned her earlier books’ “inflexible Platonism,” “my fierce seeing of only one thing at a time” when she “ruled against the indefinite article.” If spring returns “not as a lover but a messenger of death,” “it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.” This is a qualified brightening: hostility tempered with something like acceptance. She elaborates this feeling in “The Garment”:
My soul withered and shrank.
The body became for it too large a garment.
And when hope was returned to me
it was another hope entirely.
The second line’s unusual syntax replicates the cumbersome nature of the body, so the subject of the sentence, the soul, the “it,” finds itself in the middle of the clause swamped on either side by excess, the mild alliteration of “the body became for” on one side and on the other the assonance of “too large a garment.” There is a sense of menace in that buried phrase “came for it” as one might come for a condemned man.
Hope appears, though, in the end-rhyming stability of that last couplet, and the security of a final gently iambic pentameter. Still, the reader isn’t told what that hope is. Desire for oblivion? A hope that hope will end?
In “The Bight,” Elizabeth Bishop could look at the dock at low tide, the dredger, the pelicans, the shark tails “hung up to dry/for the Chinese-restaurant trade” and write, “All the untidy activity continues,/awful but cheerful.” Those last two lines were Bishop’s favorite of all her work. She wrote, in a letter to Anne Stevenson:
My outlook is pessimistic. I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives…. But I think we should be gay in spite of it, sometimes even giddy—to make life endurable and to keep ourselves “new, tender, quick” [George Herbert].
And being “gay in spite of it” is what affirms Yeats’s “gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” his “Lapis Lazuli” Chinamen whose “ancient, glittering eyes are gay.”
Since the Nineties, Glück’s work has also found a kind of gaiety creeping in. These poems take pleasure in the small acts of living. She has found ways, amid the extremities of epic and myth, to introduce the demotic human scale of Bishop’s “awful but cheerful.” It is a relief, when it comes, to be able to admire the work for rejecting and escaping the constraints of a particular emotional context. “Vita Nova” ends:
I thought my life was over and my heart was broken.
Then I moved to Cambridge.
The later books The Seven Ages (2001), Averno (2006), and especially A Village Life (2009) are a little more at ease with living. They combine reality and humor, reportage and sadness, questioning and self-awareness. The poet spends time in a small Italian town and falls into a daily rhythm. Things are eaten or drunk, or grown without the sense that they represent us, that their existence is necessarily a metaphor for ours. Now she takes her lettuces to market—rather than brooding on how an “old woman” buys one. Italy seems to provide a way of coming into contact with innate processes of life that were always there in the poems, but predominantly as symbols: now they act upon the life less as fate and more as circumstantial detail.
The geographical freedom entails an epistemological one. She is anonymous, she starts again—the new life. Even the family poems of The Seven Ages have fresh perspectives, and see things from, say, the sister’s point of view:
My sister and I stared out
into the violence of the summer rain.
It was obvious to us two people couldn’t
prevail at the same time. My sister
took my hand, reaching across the flowered cushions.
Neither of us could see, yet,
the cost of any of this.
But she was frightened, she trusted me.
(“Rain in Summer”)
The early collections never feel like less than lived truth, and they have the power of victim literature, which is not a criticism. (Saul Bellow thought that “realistic literature from the first has been a victim literature. Pit any ordinary individual…against the external world, and the external world will conquer him, of course. [It is] inevitable that the hero of the realistic novel should not be a hero but a sufferer who is eventually overcome.”) They have power and bleakness partly because they lack negative capability, which might be understood as a capacity of human beings to transcend and revise the situations in which they find themselves. They are claustrophobic deliberately. We recognize the impossibility of never fully escaping the self, the ceaseless desire to categorize experience and phenomena and turn them inward, into a theory of personal knowledge. Glück has always been a Freudian in the matter of experience, rattling the chains of memory and childhood.
Her greatness—and she is one of the finest poets writing today—is due, in no small part, to her intransigence. Many of her poems are great in the same way. The child’s anger and resentment at his parents in, say, Firstborn and Ararat becomes Telemachus’ anger and resentment against Penelope and Odysseus in Meadowlands. The poems are franked with the distinct impress of a personality.
But change, too, is here. I like and admire the later poems, and find I prefer, these days, to spend time with the more reasonable speaker who lives in them. Having said that, as a form of resistance to the demands and controls faced by a person living and forming relationships and writing in the twentieth century, Glück’s earlier poetry feels utterly necessary. There is something impeccable in its diction, and to meet as a reader her punitive, formidable refusal to grant easy comfort is to be awed:
I cannot go on
restricting myself to images
because you think it is your right
to dispute my meaning:
I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.