Wednesday, October 14, 2020

On Louise Glück: Three Reviews


Of the three reviews, the first two appeared in The Harvard Review.

Louise Glück, Vita Nova. Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1999. ISBN 0-88001-634-5. $22.00 cloth.

 Dante’s La Vita Nuova is a sequence of lyrics with prose commentary dramatizing his early love for Beatrice, an ideal figure of worldly and spiritual love.  That a love affair could also be a drama of self-discovery was not a new idea even in the middle ages, but Dante so forcefully presented his “new life” as a complex emotional and religious striving that no subsequent poet, whether borrowing his title or not, can use the lyric to explore the difficulties of love and individuation without invoking his work and all its associations.   Robert Lowell’s Day by Day is only one of the more recent poetic sequences modeled roughly on Dante’s early masterpiece.   Louise Glück, by nearly appropriating the original title (offering its Latin version, to reinforce her classical stance), insists that we keep Dante in mind as we read her psychologically demanding, sometimes heartbreaking new book.

            Glück’s sequence, spoken by a middle-aged locutor, opens by looking back at relative youth and finding deep irony in certain preoccupations of the younger self , particularly her obsession with time.  But she warns us, with the book’s epigraph (“The master said You must write what you see. / But what I see does not move me. / The master answered Change what you see.”), that this version of the younger self is partly fictional, so it may be that the preoccupation with time is actually that of the middle-aged speaker, who reinvents her younger self in order to discover a continuum, if not a fate, that links the two.  This reinvention of the self is among the subjects of the book, as are the shriveling of the modern soul, the circularity of experience, faithlessness, and self-irony as an impediment to love. 

Glück’s method and style would not be easy to imitate, though the elements are few and simple: a flatly ironic tone, pervasive even in emotionally wrenching situations; free verse frequently enjambed but rhythmically unchallenging; dramatic ellipsis, placing the reader in the muddle of difficult situations; and a habit of rethinking the psychology of character in terms of the narrative of myth.  But this outline of her poetic does not begin to convey the grave and pervasive intelligence of her work:

            I have been lifted and carried far away

into a luminous city.  Is this what having means,

to look down on?  Or is this dreaming still?

I was right, wasn’t I, choosing

against the ground?                                             (“Condo”)

The risk of Glück’s poems is their fearless embrace of direct statement, which sometimes too readily invokes the commonplace insight, and sometimes leaches into the poem more abstraction than it can bear.  She only infrequently grounds herself in specific places in the world—one poem is entitled “Ellsworth Avenue,” and there are allusions to several places in Cambridge, including the Broadway Market and Formaggio—but these few references and the last line of the book, “Then I moved to Cambridge,” suffice to link the internal world of dream, myth, and emotional trauma with the familiar but equally haunting world of the senses.  The risk pays off.  Much of the power of her work derives from her refusal of the usual material of the twentieth century poem—elaborate imagery, complex rhetorical effects, geographical specificity, experimental form—and her replacement of these devices with a narrow but highly focused range of emotional invocations.

            The titles of the individual poems in this sequence indicate that Glück not only revisits and revises her life but remakes a wide range of literary-historical experience. This is the material to which poetry, in Glück’s aesthetic vision, must always return.  “The Queen of Carthage,” “Roman Study,” “The Burning Heart,” “Orfeo,” “Eurydice,” “The Golden Bough,” and “Inferno” embody the timeless quality of Glück’s concerns.   “No one wants to be the muse; / in the end, everyone wants to be Orpheus,” she remarks, underscoring the archetypal nature of her own life, and, through intimate if sometimes oblique appeal to the reader, our lives as well.


Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry by Louise Glück.  Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1994.

            In a note at the opening of this book, Louise Glück testifies to a respect for scholarship learned from colleagues at Williams College, and modestly remarks that her essays "participate in the scholar's inclination to meditation," but "wholly lack the scholar's taste for research."  Certainly this book reflects a poet's reading habits rather than a scholar's.  The range of poetic understanding, however, the insights into such major poets as Eliot, Keats, and Milton, the acute comments on some of her contemporaries, and her ability to think through some difficult "inexplicit terms"--"intimacy," "sincerity," "the forbidden"--demonstrate extraordinary intelligence and a painstakingly cultivated critical sensibility.

            Though uneven in scope and unconnected as their genesis in discrete occasions suggests, all of these essays offer distinct satisfactions.  Not only do they serve as useful samples of the sort of elegant simplicity we would expect of a poet of 's tonal severity but they offer commentaries on their subjects worth any scholar's attention.  For example, on one of Milton's later sonnets: "If blindness is, unlike death, a partial sacrifice, it is hardly a propitiation: Milton's calm is not the calm of bought time."  Or on Eliot's idealism: "Only through the closing of that gap between the actual and the ideal could the physical world attain meaning, authority.  But a mind sensitive to this discrepancy is unlikely to experience a convincing union of these realms."  Or on Frank Bidart's harrowing dramas: "His art, like the story of the Garden, creates narratives designed to account for what would otherwise be inexplicable suffering."  Or on art in general: "There is, unfortunately, no test for truth.  That is, in part, why artists suffer," and, from another essay, "It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished."

            Some of the essays are partly autobiographical, including "Education of the Poet," "The Dream and the Watcher," and "On Impoverishment."  But the passages in which Glück examines her own work are not as satisfying as those in which she deals less personally with the problems and themes that haunt her.  "The poem...must convince us of pain, though its concerns lie elsewhere," she  says of Milton's "When I Consider How My Light is Spent," though we may think of her own "Metamorphosis" or "The Reproach."  Another example: in the course of making some acute observations about the work of Linda McCarriston, Carolyn Forch‚, Sharon Olds, and Frank Bidart, "The Forbidden" sheds light on one of Glück’s primary themes.  The title of this essay, which appropriately begins by invoking the myth of the Garden, defines an allure that many of Glück’s strongest poems explore, including "Gretel in Darkness," "The Drowned Children," "The Garden," and all of The Wild Iris, in which what is most forbidden, the direct approach to God, inflames a poetic of unusual visionary candor.  The rest of the essay, exploring the strengths and failures of the poets under discussion, suggests why and how Glück has devised so oblique and elusive an aesthetic, and with what purpose it emphasizes the uncertainty rather than the sonority of her voice.

            In the closing essay, "On Impoverishment," a baccalaureate address delivered at Williams College, Glück warns new graduates that they, like her, like everyone, will suffer, but counsels them to find the meaning, the "yield" of that suffering.  Impoverishment, silence, loss, suffering of all kinds help define us; we mustn't flee from them, she argues, but face and resist them.  Nothing better describes her poetry: facing, acknowledging, resisting and through that resistance certifying despair as an authentic moment of humanness, not to be refused.  The artist's task is to chart these moments of humanness, in which fortitude exceeds itself and becomes a kind of joy.  This distinct if disconcerting pleasure shines through all of Louise Glück’s work, poems and essays alike.


 This review of Descending Figure appeared in Ploughshares

Much contemporary poetry attempts to charge a landscape with the imaginative self through an allegorical and mythological vision. While poetry of the past tends to place the self in a landscape where it perceives and reacts, our contemporaries frankly reverse the process and locate the landscape in the psyche. This extends what Roy Harvey Pearce has described as the Adamic vision of American poetry; but the tone now is detached and otherworldly, touched by Surrealism. The old dualism of the I and the Not-I remains unresolved; but however obsessed with that Romantic dilemma, our younger poets anchor both elements in the myth-making imagination, as Jung replaces Christ as the cartographer of the unregenerate soul.

Louise Glück's poems remind us that mythmaking is closely related to allegory even when the "thing itself" retains its integrity. The most ambitious poem in her new book (Descending Figure, Ecco Press, $9.95) is a sequence entitled "The Garden." It models both a mind and a culture and renews an old myth through an imitation of the creative process itself. Glück's bleak imagery presents a set of possibilities that voice and metaphor resolve into a gray and Barbizon School merging of self and landscape. The first part of the sequence is a complex restatement of Genesis:

. . .the hiss and whirr

of houses gliding into their places.

And the wind

leafs through the bodies of animals.

The sequence ends with a poem entitled "The Fear of Burial": "the body waits to be claimed./The spirit sits beside it, on a small rock." This is a rich metaphor of the history and failure of Christian dualism, which ties the Romantic and modern existential angst to the ages. The poem then ends with a metaphor that aptly mythologizes the necessities of physical life and evokes once again the failure of the Christian ideal of redemption through virtue and austerity.

How far away they seem,

the wooden doors, the bread and milk

laid like weights on the table.

The sequence is a miracle of compression, a tight allegory composed of complex metaphors that evoke both the Biblical creation myth and the modern myth of self-creation. It is a "model of the mind" in that it replicates the overlays of association with which the mind works; yet is aesthetically uncompromising in its reliance on straightforward imagery. It is a poem that reminds us that "no ideas but in things" does not mean "no ideas," but is a challenge for us to discover resonances of the physical world in secret rooms of the psyche.

Glück has found these rooms to be filled with language, as a monk's secret rooms might be filled with God. Poetry is not religion, but it is salvation, sometimes:

     The word

bear: you give and give, you empty

yourself into a child. And you survive

the automatic loss.


Glück's aesthetic is grounded in her imaginatively-apprehended landscapes, but her ultimate faith is in the power of the creative mind to resolve the isolation of the self from the external world through language.

This topographical aesthetic contains a certain danger aggravated by the influence of Surrealism. If the poet presents us with a purely imaginative landscape he or she may sentimentally underscore the isolation of the individual, and trigger the bathos of solipsism that Wallace Stevens took such trouble to avoid. Rather, we need redeemed landscapes, in which the imaginative self is a concrete presence that infuses our vision of our culture with a viable symbolic content. Allegory, the model of the mind, is not here a set of simple signs: it is the affirmation that the poet and the reader might understand the world through this exploration of the self and language. Resorting to evocation instead of infusion leaves us with imaginary gardens inhabited only by imaginary toads.