Poet Louise Glück’s Genuinely Simple Speech
"Poems 1962-2012," by Louise Glck; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (656 pages, $40). (MCT)
“Poems 1962-2012” by Louise Glück; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (656 pages, $40)
My mixed feelings about Louise Glück’s poetry may, in some eyes, make me unsuited to write a useful review of this book.
It’s a very important book to have, if you like the U.S. poetry of the last half-century. Glück, no doubt about it, occupies a singular and influential place — for the good — in poetry since 1962, inspiring countless poets, and teaching countless more. She’s one of the most anthologized, recognized and cited poets alive.
There’s not a bad poem here; Glück is incapable of making bad poems. It’s scrupulously made, agonizingly wrought (maybe a better word would be won), time and again finished with flat bites of the unavoidable truth.
If you think, “OK, now, he’s going to bring down the hammer,” not really.
I find Glück’s work, for the most part, impressive rather than moving. That could be just me, just my sensibilities. She writes about herself, her life, the life of poet, sibling, daughter, wife. As a young poet, she went in for flashier language, but as she matured, her preferred opening became the deceptively plain statement, as in Vespers (“I don’t wonder where you are anymore”) or Widows (“My mother’s playing cards with my aunt”).
But dark explosions are coming. Such plainness always gives way to ironies, underminings, reversals. Although she has sometimes shown humor, as in the self-satire of the 2001 collection The Seven Ages, irony is her tone, her cherished timbre. She has become famous for having mythological figures such as Telemachus or Persephone speak as though they came from Long Island. In Circe’s Power, Circe begins,
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
Her most influential poems are maybe those in which the title is the name of a mythological figure, who goes on to tell his/her story — a story always re-told, wrung for the wince. Odysseus’ son Telemachus says of his dad and mom:
When I was a child looking
at my parents’ lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
You get a smile there, of course. But the effect depends, heavily, on the reader’s hearing this famous son of myth, talking pretty much like a grown-up kid from Syosset, looking back at his life with Mom and Dad. The poem has a piece to say.
All her poetry does. I don’t want to call them programmatic, necessarily ... although sometimes they hit me that way. There is, after all, a set-up and a frame. Siren, Marina, Eurydice, St. Joan ... many poems are built on a knowing literariness.
Glück played a crucial role for people in the 1970s trying to sort out the truth of women’s lives. She chose personas unerringly, to speak to that moment. No more fitting praise has been given her than in Maureen N. McLane’s acclaimed book My Poets, a poetic biography in which McLane offers a gallery of poets who helped make her. Glück taught her, as she has taught so many poets, how to be tough with herself, give herself permission to tell only the authentic truth, no matter how it hurt ... especially if it hurt.
McLane celebrates Glück as a renouncer, a celebrant of the austere. There’s a Priestess Complex at work. She likes Glück’s principled refusal of illusions. That is Glück’s gift to poets — the hard, harsh work laid bare.
But don’t the poems know too well where they are going? What of all this self-dramatization? Maybe there’s no way around this: Life is a drama, and many women’s lives are tragic.
So it gives me joy to say how wonderful Glück’s two best books — The Wild Iris of 1992 and A Village Life of 2009 — really are. They both are and are not “unlike her.” Iris is another book of soliloquies. Flowers speak to their surroundings, speak of God and to God, to the dark and light.
A Village Life is looser, more expansive. Instead of the studied, loaded plainness of her earlier work, we have authentically simple speech. Thank goodness, I said to myself, for the daily bread of its long lines, as in these beauties from Figs:
We’d get quiet after a while. The night would get quiet.
But we didn’t sleep, we didn’t want to give up consciousness.
We had given the night permission to carry us along;
we lay there, not interfering. Hour after hour, each one
listening to the other’s breath, watching the light change
in the window at the end of the bed —
whatever happened in that window,
we were in harmony with it.
It’s as if Glück finally let go of whatever was holding her back.