My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every so often, I do take book recommendations from the Swedish Academy, especially when they condescend to notice our poor republic. Bob Dylan was at once too far—I am no musical pundit, no folk/rock historian—and too close—I had a brief, intense adolescent interest in his work coinciding with the Unplugged album—for me to want to revisit him very carefully. But I had never visited our new laureate, Louise Glück, even once. A good thing about poets, though, is that their whole oeuvre is usually published in a volume no longer than most novelists’ one true masterpiece. Poems 1962-2012 is a little over 600 pages, with plenty of white space, shorter than Underworld. What follows is my reaction to each of the 11 slim volumes it comprises—the piece is long, really 11 book reviews rather than one, so you might read it straight through or just go down to the collection that interests you (titles are in bold). I wrote it as I went, diary- or liveblog-style, with only Glück’s poetics as argued in her volume of essays, Proofs and Theories, as my guide. If you want to know where to begin with Glück without having to read my lengthy ruminations and without having to absorb her whole corpus, my final judgment is this: her best volumes, the respective masterpieces of her early, middle, and late periods, are The House on the Marshlands, The Wild Iris, and Averno, with The Wild Iris being probably the place to start. Please enjoy!
Firstborn (1968). In her first phone interview after winning the Nobel, Glück, upon being asked where to begin with her work, suggested that readers avoid her first collection—unless, she said, they want to feel “contempt.” To appreciate the precision of this remark, we have to read the book for ourselves. Is it contempt for Glück that we feel? Or do we feel her contempt? This is a collection of extraordinary hideousness. The first poem, “The Chicago Train,” contains the whole in miniature:
Across from me the whole ride
Hardly stirred: just Mister with his barren
Skull across the arm-rest while the kid
Got his head between his mama’s legs and slept. The poison
That replaces air took over.
And they sat—as though paralysis preceding death
Had nailed them there. The track bent south.
I saw her pulsing crotch…the lice rooted in that baby’s hair.
Otherness as dirt and disease, sex and family as filth, contamination. The next poem, “The Egg,” hallucinates an abortion as bad as that narrated in Didion’s contemporaneous novel Play It as It Lays: “You let him / Rob me,” the speaker says, and concludes, “He’s brought a bowl to catch / The pieces of the baby.” Who speaks? There are dramatic monologues, more early Rilke than Browning—a hunchback nun (“My back’s / Bulging through linen”), a Victorian newlywed (“I saw / Venus among those clamshells, raw / Botticelli”), a morose grandmother (“I have outlived my life”), a pirate whose crew has raided a slave ship (“against my will they mounted her”)—yet the tone and imagery hardly vary from speaker to speaker. There are lines whose abstraction represents what many dislike—I am among the many—about contemporary poetry: “The elements have merged into solicitude.” At other times there is a tongue-in-cheek horror that leavens both the intellect and the contempt:
Spiked sun. The Hudson’s
Whittled down by ice.
I hear the bone dice
Of blown gravel clicking.
There is also a great or at least near great poem, “Phenomenal Survivals of Death in Nantucket,” an underwater katabasis worthy of Whitman’s sea-drift elegies and Dickinson’s basement mermaids:
I see the water as an extension of my mind,
The troubled part.
I have been past
What you hear in a shell.
My first house shall be built on these sands,
My second in the sea.
A promise of greater things to come.
The House on the Marshlands (1975). The title refers to the autobiographical speaker’s childhood home, swamped in the collection’s third poem just after the poet’s proclamation about her mother, “It was better when we were / Together in one body”:
Thirty years. A marsh
grows up around the house.
schools of spores circulate
behind the shades, drift through
gauze flutterings of vegetation.
We don’t need Nietzsche or Paglia to tell us what’s going on here: the poet divides her loyalty between the chaotic birth/death fens of nature whence the poems spring and the rational concision of the image and articulacy of the sentence that alone make the poems achieved artifice rather than an addition to chaos. From her autobiographical essay, “Education of the Poet” (collected in Proofs and Theories): “Plainly, I loved the sentence as a unit: the beginning of a preoccupation with syntax.” This is a strange preference for a poet. The genre of composition whose unit is syntax, i.e., the sentence, is prose, intended for eye and mind; in poetry, conversely, the basic unit is the line, tailored to mouth and ear. Hence Pound’s admonition, “poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.” Let’s allow, though, that Glück is in a slightly different tradition, the one that runs from the Metaphysicals to Moore and Eliot and so does not go in fear of abstraction’s dry salvages. There is still such a thing as too much compression; the more autobiographical she gets, the more she excises, until we’re left, for instance, with the solipsism of “Departure”:
My father is standing on a railroad platform.
Tears pool in his eyes, as though the face
glimmering in the window were the face of someone
he was once. But the other has forgotten;
as my father watches, he turns away,
drawing the shade over his face,
goes back to his reading.
And already in its deep groove
the train is waiting with its breath of ashes.
To have an emotional or intellectual reaction to this poem, which the overly “poetic” last line tries to force, I would have to know who is in the train—the speaker’s brother? uncle? a total stranger? Glück refuses to provide answers for the same reason she is wary of provoking easy emotion through what she calls “music” as opposed to syntax. She wants to make us think to avoid the trap of defining the poet, against all order and intellect, as a romantic, anarchic outsider, as she writes, again, in “Education of the Poet”: “It seems to me that the idea of lawlessness is a romance, and romance is what I most struggle to be free of.” An admirable ambition in our mawkish age of compulsory transgression, but one that may hamper the confessional poet, for whom too much reticence may leave us with not enough poetry. The best poems here, then, are not the cryptically leached photos from the drowned family album, but rather the dramatic monologues, with speakers whose life stories we already know. Glück plucks heroines from the history of romance—Abishag, Persephone, Joan of Arc, Gretel—and pares their situations back to skeletal geometries of fear and desire that incite more thought than the poems obscurely mired in the merely personal. “Gretel in Darkness” shows the fairy tale sister’s fear that in killing the witch she has only trapped herself with men whose protection is a cold cage:
Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.
In “Pomegranate,” my favorite, we likewise learn how the devil seduces by setting mother against daughter:
Consider she is in her element:
the trees turning to her, whole
villages going under
although in hell
the bushes are still
burning with pomegranates.
he cut one open & began
to suck. When he looked up at last
it was to say My dear
you are your own
woman, finally, but examine
this grief your mother
parades over our heads
that she is one to whom
these depths were not offered.
When she won the Nobel, critics ruminated on Glück biography and her mundanity, but I most admire these otherworldly fictions.
Descending Figure (1980). It starts with the rather notorious salute to the “The Drowned Children,” who are, after all, only going back to the watery matrix they so recently issued from:
But death must come to them differently,
so close to the beginning.
As though they had always been
blind and weightless. Therefore
the rest is dreamed, the lamp,
the good white cloth that covered the table,
Fewer monologues here, more vague autobiography. One poem laments “the terrible charity of marriage,” while another more charmingly narrates the speaker’s son’s acquisition of “the map of language.” “Dedication to Hunger,” after charting the pains of womanhood (her grandfather’s kiss “might as well have been / his hand over [her grandmother’s] mouth,” while “a woman’s body / is a grave; it will accept / anything”), offers a startling ode to anorexia as the origin of Glück’s aesthetic:
lying in bed at night
touching the soft, digressive breasts,
touching, at fifteen,
the interfering flesh
that I would sacrifice
until the limbs were free
of blossom and subterfuge: I felt
what I feel now, aligning these words—
it is the same need to be perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.
A brief lyric seems to me an origin myth of the whole oeuvre, labelled, like a photograph, “Portland, 1968”:
You stand as the rocks stand
to which the sea reaches
in transparent waves of longing;
They are marred, finally;
everything fixed is marred.
And the sea triumphs,
like all that is false,
all that is fluent and womanly.
From behind, a lens
opens for your body. Why
should you turn? It doesn’t matter
who the witness is,
for whom you are suffering,
for whom you are standing still.
Assuming the “you” is the male lover/husband addressed throughout the collection, to be male is to be solid, fixed, and marred, while to be female is to be fluid and false. (It helps in understanding this poem to have scaled Portland’s wave-battered rock beaches oneself, as I once did.) The poet stands outside these polarities, only fixing on them her “lens.” The poet is Tiresias, who has foreknown and foresuffered all; the poet is beyond gender, where this “beyond” is not—how we tend to think of it today—an identity to which a stable social vocabulary might attach, but the absence of all such identity and the fount or font of all language. The poet is an impersonal, roving eye, what the speaker elsewhere, in “Tango,” calls “judgment” as she fondly asserts positional superiority over her fleet-footed sister doomed to inert feminine duplicity:
You were the gold sun on the horizon.
I was the judgment, my shadow
preceded me, not wavering
but like a mold that would be used again.
Your bare feet
became a woman’s feet, always
saying two things at once.
Of two sisters
one is always the watcher,
one the dancer.
Who can tell the dancer from the dance? Glück will certainly try. In Proofs and Theories, Glück laments that T. S. Eliot is an easy target in a secular, democratic age (“what he wanted was either to see through the material to the eternal…or to experience a closing of the gap between the two worlds”), and, as his heiress, well she might complain of those who would liquidate his bequest. So unfashionable a poetics is a bold choice, then, for the Swedish Academy to garland, even allowing that a poet who favors syntax over music may sound as good in translation as in her home language.
The Triumph of Achilles (1985). Home language. Unlike other female poets of her time, Glück does not take an adversarial stance toward the canon. She includes herself in “Education of the Poet” among “those of us attempting dialogue with the great dead”; she frankly describes her “conservative temperament.” She is not an Adrienne Rich, a revolutionary for whom the canon was merely “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” Though as a Jewish woman Glück was not always or often among the original addressees of the canon, she greets it not as an enemy, the abusive or neglectful father who must be slain, but as a possession to use as her very own. Again from “Education of the Poet”:
I read early, and wanted, from a very early age, to speak in return. When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition, as English was my language. My heritage. My wealth.
How does Glück spend her inheritance—or, another way of asking the question, what is Achilles’s triumph? The title poem is part of the collection’s loose and scattered sequence of lyrics about gods and heroes, Greek and Jewish and Christian, and how their heroism, if any, is the least part of them. We find God saying to baby Moses, “tell them / it was better to die in Egypt,” and David staring at Bathsheba and understanding that he will never top the feeling of having slain Goliath and become king (“Fellow Jews, to plot a hero’s journey / is to trace a mountain: hero to god, god to ruler”). Christ is no better than the rest, “like all men, seeking / recognition on earth,” just as the poet is a greedy Sisyphus, who “perceived the summit / as that place where he will live forever.” And there is Apollo, first menacing Daphne (“I saw captivity / in praise”) and then Hyacinth, the beautiful boy he attempts to preserve from death by transforming into a flower (“Beauty dies: that is the source / of creation”), an ambition Glück mocks with her characteristic disillusionment about nature:
There is no other immortality:
in the cold spring, the purple violets open.
And yet, the heart is black,
there is its violence frankly exposed.
Most surprising of all, Glück, in “Legend,” slights the heroism of her own immigrant grandfather and the Jewish tradition to which he pledged fealty by swearing
in such a world, to scorn
privilege, to love
reason and justice,
always to speak the truth—
which has been
the salvation of our people
since to speak the truth gives
the illusion of freedom.
As for Achilles, whose triumph in Homer can only be called ambiguous, Glück sees his heroism as residing solely in that part of him able to love Patroclus beyond both hierarchy and idealization:
In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.
We find more personal poems helplessly skeptical of love and eros (“I hate sex,” she famously proclaims in “Mock Orange”), even one with a you-go-girl breakup-anthem strut: “Sooner or later / you’ll begin to dream of me,” she curses her ex-lover, “Sooner or later you will call my name.” What to value? She hints in “Baskets,” a marketplace poem that begins with a woman choosing a head of lettuce that smells of dirt because she knows it is the freshest:
That’s why, on earth,
so much life’s sprung up,
because the sun maintains
steady warmth at its periphery.
Bare earth, bare sun, and raw vegetation, sans mediating metaphor or god. The sun is just the sun, not overbearing Apollo. She gives away her inheritance of myth, wisely invests her legacy of classical restraint. “The impulse of our century has been to substitute earth for god as an object of reverence,” she half-laments in her essay on Eliot. Despite her religious misgiving in the essay, such secular reverence is this collection’s triumph.
Ararat (1990). Was I complaining only a few paragraphs before that Glück could, in her compression and concision, at times be too obscure? This slim volume on the death of the poet’s father answers the charge. Its biggest obscurity is its Biblically allusive title, which suggests, I think, that the family is an ark in a sea of doom. The domestic narrative sometimes only dimly perceptible behind the prior poems—her lifelong rivalry with her younger sister, her parents’ emotionally opaque marriage, and above all the death of her older (i.e., firstborn) sister in infancy—comes into full view. Glück writes in a more conversational, direct style about her father, mother, sister, niece, and son. She openly courts comparison to fiction:
No one could write a novel about this family:
too many similar characters. Besides, they’re all women;
there was only one hero.
Now the hero’s dead. Like echoes, the women last longer;
they’re all too tough for their own good.
As in the myth poems of The Triumph of Achilles, narrative as such is taken to be male, the hero’s journey, encompassed by female lyric with its superficial belatedness and inertia that is actually stoic endurance. Yet this isn’t a father-slaying volume; one theme of the collection is Glück’s learning to forgive her parents for what they had little choice but to be, and which dubious inheritance they passed down to her—a form of individuation that the superficially rebellious poet à la Rich arguably never achieves. The collection concludes:
Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time.
In childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.
This epiphany, though, is too often communicated in blandly declarative therapy-speak (Glück has been open about the influence of her youthful psychoanalysis on her poetry) rather than in the concrete imagery proper to poems:
I must learn
to forgive my mother
now that I’m helpless
to spare my son.
Clarity works better on much harder, less tolerable truths, such as these lines in which the child experiences “enlightened” parenting as a strange abdication of authentic, wounding love:
had a credo: they didn’t
believe in anger.
The truth was, for different reasons,
they couldn’t bring themselves
to inflict pain. You should only hurt
something you can give
your whole heart to.
Or in the examination of self, as when Glück concedes that what a more self-congratulating poet would see as her morality is really a distaste for life itself: “I’m always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality.” There are poems here of delicate transparency, as in the tender “Child Crying Out” about the reverent distance she maintains from her son’s inner life (“You were born, you were far away”) or the wistful “Snow,” whose father-daughter relation, it occurs to me, might well apply, too, to Glück’s aforementioned paradoxically free reliance on her poetic fathers in the canon she will not disown:
My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn’t see me.
staring straight ahead
into the world my father saw;
I was learning
to absorb its emptiness,
the heavy snow
not falling, whirling around us.
All told, though, the language of this volume seems to me too simple, even in its more-than-occasional wryness, to lift the subject matter beyond the too-mundane. There are fine novelistic observations on the plight of widows and the cant of funerals and the conversation of the dying, but Glück’s style is not intense enough to make a legend out of her own life the way that Dickinson or Yeats or or Berryman or Plath could, while her dry but forgiving irony is less impressive when whetted on her parents than when practiced on the more formidable materials of myth and religion. Poetry is hard to get just right, and if Glück once paid too high a price for opacity, Ararat shows that clarity may cost no less.
The Wild Iris (1992). Common consensus holds this to be our laureate’s masterwork. Whatever one thinks of this or that poem compared to what came before, its cohesiveness as a cycle of poems, as a vision, if a deliberately and resolutely non-visionary one, can’t be denied. The Wild Iris contains three types of poems, alternating somewhat irregularly throughout the collection and always in dialogue with one another. The first type of poem is spoken by an inhabitant of the plant kingdom. Often these flowers and grasses and trees address humanity, sometimes in tones of chastened disappointment, as in this sad query from a red poppy—
Oh my brothers,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.
—and sometimes in rebuke of human arrogance, as the weedy witchgrass chides the gardener who would extirpate it as a menace:
I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were her, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and the moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.
The field flowers perhaps speak for the entire vegetable kingdom when they mock us for our “poor / idea of heaven: absence / of change.” The second set of poems is spoken by the poet; she talks about her husband and her son, her gardening—the whole collection appears to be set in her garden—and her attempt to forge some relationship with nature and God that would be redemptive or elevating, despite her inability even to find evidence of His presence (“you disclose / virtually nothing”). Early on, her son chides for committing
an error of depressives, identifying
with a tree, whereas the happy heart
wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for
the part not the whole
What he accuses her of—identifying herself with the whole of nature: metonymy—is the poet’s error as well as the depressive’s. As her son rejects metonymy, her husband rejects metaphor:
if this were not a poem but
an actual garden, then
the red rose would be
required to resemble
Without those master tropes of metaphor and metonymy, what’s left of poetry? The poet feels herself at an unjust distance from a God who seems to her ungrateful given her own poetic gift of praise: “I am uniquely / suited to praise you. Then why / torment me?” The third set of poems is spoken by God Himself, to humanity in general or to our poet. His wisdom is, ultimately, that He exists apart from both nature and humanity, even as we try to reach Him through absurd shows of irrelevant absolutism and violence, which are the results of metaphor and metonymy, of confusing imposed significance for truth and the ability to impose significance for exceptionality:
the still air of high summer
tangled with a thousand voices
each calling out
some need, some absolute
and in that name continually
strangling each other
in the open field—
You were not intend
to be unique.
His gift to us is language, but He meant us to use it in our freedom to describe reality, not to inflict a tropological interpretation of reality on others, nor to praise Him, He who is, in fact, as tired of us as an artist is tired of his last experiment:
You will never know how deeply
it pleases me to see you sitting there
like independent beings,
to see you dreaming by the open window,
holding the pencils I gave you
until the summer morning disappears into writing.
As winter discloses, His essence is not abundance, but blankness. To this the holy poet should aspire:
If you would open your eyes
you would see me, you would see
the emptiness of heaven
mirrored on earth, the fields
vacant again, lifeless, covered with snow—
then white light
no longer disguised as matter.
Elsewhere He is sterner: “You must be taught to love me. Human beings must be taught to love / silence and darkness.” The alternative, as we’ve seen, is nothing less than war. The poet’s task, then, is to minimize metonymy and metaphor and find a literal language for silence and darkness. Troping is turning, and Glück’s God asks her not to avert her eyes. Like Dante, Milton, and Eliot before her, Glück discovers a divine warrant for her own style, for her gnomic spareness, her chariness with figuration, her wariness of music: her creations mimic her Creator. She knows it won’t satisfy some—
not modern enough, the sound the wind makes
stirring a meadow of daisies: the mind
cannot shine following it. And the mind
wants to shine, plainly, as
machines shine, and not
grow deep, as, for example, roots.
—but if this is her most satisfying book qua book, it is not only because of its impressive inventiveness as a piece that gives a voice to the vegetable kingdom as to the King of Kings, with lonely humanity in the midst, but also because it joins the poet’s manner and matter for the first time into a total apprehension of the cosmos. For Glück, unlike most poets, we cannot really know nature or God through figurative language nor really praise them in song; her achievement is to forge a pleasurable poetry from so strict a vision.
Meadowlands (1996). What does our poet do after she’s figured out the meaning of life? Gimmickry, I’m afraid. I wish I liked this slim volume more, and many people do enjoy its comedy of a collapsing marriage—
I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean
your cold feet all over my dick.
You should pay attention to my feet.
You should picture them
the next time you see a hot fifteen year old.
Because there’s a lot more where those feet come from.
—pegged to the Odysseus and Penelope myth. The fault, I’m sure, is mine. The austerity of The Wild Iris isn’t really to my taste either, since I tend to prefer verbally richer poets from Shakespeare to Keats to Hopkins to Stevens to Walcott, but I respect its philosophical integrity, reprised in this collection’s “Nostos,” where the poet expresses her anti-nostalgic and perhaps anti-poetic fear of “[s]ubstitution of the image / for relentless earth.” This style of comedy, though, seems merely facetious, only a cut or two above those jokey semi-affectionate, semi-aggressive greeting cards about how irritating one’s husband or wife is, usually with much gender stereotyping. Glück acquits herself better (as always, I am tempted to say) in the mythological passages, particularly those dramatic monologues that chart Penelope’s inner life:
You have not been completely
perfect either; with your troublesome body
you have done things you shouldn’t
discuss in poems.
The other woman, the mistress, also gets her say, both in the mundane story (“Does a good person / think this way?”) and in the Homeric one, where she is the witty, scorned, vengeful Circe:
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
that lets the inside disguise the outside.
Not wishing to deal in exclusively gender-based grievance (“this is not / a little story about the male’s / inherent corruption”), the poet gives the errant husband his reasons and a few good lines, such as this observation, which I confess occurred to me too once or twice when reading this book: “You don’t love the world. / If you loved the world you’d have / images in your poems.” The collection’s most sympathetic character is perhaps Telemachus, who plays both the role of the watchful child that Glück herself had played in earlier collections and, I surmise, the part of her own son as she imagines him negotiating his parents’ doomed marriage. Glück’s Telemachus is an incisive critic of the Odysseus and Penelope archetypes, showing up the man as feckless imperial master and the woman as self-aggrandizing martyr, but his reflections reprise some of the flat, unpoetic “therapy” bromides that detracted from the family chronicle in Ararat:
as a grown man
I can look at my parents
impartially and pity them both: I hope
always to be able to pity them.
Glück never enters Odysseus’s consciousness, narrating his parts in the third person, as if such wanderlust were too alien to her poetic’s aforementioned “conservative temperament.” Neither does she moralize, though, since all parties to the marriage have had their share in the infidelity and the divorce. Several animal parables about love and freedom comment on the action throughout the collection; my favorite, “Parable of the Beast,” shows the poet to be well aware how vain it is to chide or scold the unstoppable forces of will and desire:
The cat circles the kitchen
with the dead bird,
its new possession.
Someone should discuss
ethics with the cat as it
inquires into the limp bird:
in this house
we do not experience
will in this manner.
Tell that to the animal,
its teeth already
deep in the flesh of another animal.
Despite Telemachus’s critique of her martyr complex, however, Penelope’s imaginative fidelity (“The beloved doesn’t / need to live. The beloved / lives in the head”) is what lingers in the memory from this collection when Odysseus’s wanderings and Circe’s passion have faded; her 20 years of weaving and unweaving stands as a formidable image not only of loyalty in love but of the patience of the poetic vocation.
Vita Nova (1999). The Dante-esque title refers to the surprising springtime the poet found at the threshold of late middle age:
How sweet my life now
in its descent to the valley,
the valley itself not mist-covered
but fertile and tranquil.
So that for the first time I find myself
able to look ahead, able to look at the world,
even to move toward it.
One poem appears to be about the Florentine’s Paolo and Francesca (“His gaze touched me / before his hands touched me”), but otherwise the mythological topoi are Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido. If too many earlier poems read like the analysand’s clinical epiphanies (a problem that recurs here: “I was afraid of love, of being taken away. / Everyone afraid of love is afraid of death”), then in this volume many of the poems feature what appears to be the gently probing voice of the analyst: “Why are you afraid? […] Do you remember your childhood?” (Speaking of analysis, while the death of the writer’s father occasioned a whole volume in Ararat, her late mother gets for a send-off only one brief poem with the equivocal refrain, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.”) Glück is capable of self-parody—“Mommy’s / too ironic—Mommy wouldn’t do / the rhumba in the driveway”—and of humor, as when she alludes to the other Gluck of opera fame in one of her Orpheus poems, but too much of this volume is merely personal, private experience insufficiently transfigured into an art object that the reader can share. And the poems are getting longer, the lineation looser, perilously close to the stereotype held by people averse to contemporary poetry, i.e., that it’s just arbitrarily broken-up prose—that, in fact, as some have claimed, the only real poetry we’ve heard in English for the past half century has been in rock and rap lyrics, hence Dylan’s Nobel. I revolt by instinct against this view, but then I’ve involuntarily committed to memory many lines from Dylan, whereas I’m not sure I could memorize much of Glück if I tried. Here we arrive at that question forbidden to anyone who doesn’t want to sound like a rube or a philistine: if meter and rhyme are no longer possible without evoking kitsch, if syntax fascinates more than lineation (and Glück’s lineation, early and late, strikes me as arbitrary), and if even all the devices of alliteration (i.e., music) now seem too showy, then why not just write prose? Anyway, some of this collection’s meta-reflections are compelling; in “Nest,” the bird’s choice of building material doubles as a defense of Glück’s belated trespass on the territory of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, or even just her writing about heartbreak and family:
It took what it found after the others
The same materials—why should it matter
to be finished last? The same materials, the same
And one of the Aeneas poems, “Roman Study,” championing Roman historicity against Greek quietude, shows us something rare in Glück’s work: a sharp historical consciousness of the kind that animated predecessors like Eliot and Pound:
And then it occurred to him
to examine those responses
in which, finally, he recognized
a new species of thought entirely,
more worldly, more ambitious
and politic, in what we now call
And the longer he thought
the more he experienced
faint contempt for the Greeks,
for their austerity, the eerie
balance of even the great tragedies—
thrilling at first, then
faintly predictable, routine.
Perhaps this is Glück’s defense of her own late mode, more Roman—more human—than austerely Greek. Unfortunately such a poem stands mostly alone in a book too devoted to the poet’s analysis (literally) of her own dreams. “I was trying to be a / witness not a theorist,” she writes, but so rigid a distinction between eye and mind produces a poetry drained of intellectual vitality, however novel the poet’s perceptions to herself in a new phase of life.
The Seven Ages (2001). The last collection’s title was from Dante; this is one is from Shakespeare, Jacques’s speech on the seven ages of man from As You Like It. While I find the eponymous poem opaque to the point of total incomprehension—Shakespeare is really much clearer—Glück’s ambition is obviously to canvass the various stages of life, from a child’s perception of time as timeless to an adolescent’s yearning to escape, and from there through divorces and love affairs to the satisfactions of age as one settles into gratitude for the little things:
The miraculous, the sublime, the undeserved;
the relief of merely waking once more in the morning—
only now, with old age nearly beginning,
do we dare to speak of such things, or confess, with gusto,
even to the smallest joys. Their disappearance
approaches, in any case: ours are the lives
this knowledge enters as a gift.
There are aspects of this collection I admire, such as an insistence on dualism as the obvious truth of human experience in “Mitosis”:
No one actually remembers them
as not divided. Whoever says he does—
that person is lying.
No one remembers. And somehow
They had to be, in the beginning, equally straightforward,
committed to a direct path.
In the end, only the body continued
implacably moving ahead, as it had to,
to stay alive.
But at some point the mind lingered.
I find this sentiment refreshing in the face of fashionable monism: how can I be my body when what I want and what my body wants—or can do—are so very often in irreconcilable conflict? Other than that, though, Glück is beginning to sound more and more like every other poet who writes this kind of poetry: candid but droll, alternately mawkish and elliptical, a little bit self-embarrassed though unavoidably oracular, especially since the sentences are divided into lines and stanzas that, because the divisions don’t mark rhythm, no longer stand for anything other than literary seriousness. Maybe it is a mistake to read anyone’s collected poems straight through in a week and a half—such was the charge, for instance, against Christian Lorentzen when he wrote his classic (or notorious) criticism of another austere North American Nobelette, albeit a short story writer rather than a poet—but I also think the verse is becoming objectively less interesting, shifting, perhaps, into its lean and slippered pantaloon as the myths drop out almost entirely and Glück offers in their stead blandly-stated if accurate observations about everyday life:
And then fall was gone, the year was gone.
We were changing, we were growing up. But
it wasn’t something you decided to do;
it was something that happened, something
you couldn’t control.
The problem isn’t that this observation is obvious; poetry can and probably even should be about common, ordinary experiences like coming of age, falling in love, and getting old. But to be lifted from cliché into archetype, the statement would have to be cast in more imaginative language than these lines. The more timeless the content, the more the form should be new; the realist novelist who describes current social facts that have never been described before can, at times, get away with mere journalism, but the poet of perennial feeling has to surprise us with the words themselves. I’m sure it will be protested that I lack appreciation for the subtle and non-flashy, even that I exhibit a crypto-sexist hostility to the domestic, but I maintain that subtlety is not the same thing as dullness, and moreover that, as examples from Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf demonstrate, the domestic as subject matter has no inherent conflict with formal verve or arresting images. The poet anticipates the critic—
Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie.
—but even having to ask “why not?” at all may signal the poet’s awareness that inertia is not an artistic virtue. It always sounds so sophisticated to say, “Less is more,” but sometimes less is just less.
Averno (2006). Persephone’s back, and not a moment too soon. The collection’s title refers to a crater lake in Italy held by the Romans to have been the entrance to the underworld. Underworld captive-bride Persephone is the subject—not the speaker—of the middle in the trio of three astonishing long poems that, after a brief proem, opens this volume. The first is “October,” in which the contentious late style described by Adorno and Said finally materializes after the conciliatory valedictions of the last two volumes. In her prose, Glück allows that poetic form—meter, rhyme—is gone, and that tone has to do the work form once did. If I found her tone too slack to do any such thing in prior outings, she redeems herself here in a long poem whose lines march in what might be called a furious bafflement, a grimly satisfied theodicy, through the season when summer changes to winter, when the earth and body die and the mind rises over a barren waste, that season of transport to death in which our macabre poet has been at home since Firstborn:
It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.
What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.
Very simple. But there was no voice there.
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
We are given a little sentimental reassurance that poetry eases this vastation—“you are not alone, / the poem said, / in the dark tunnel”—but who needs it? The third poem of the opening trio, “Prism,” brings the metaphysics home as the pent-up fury the poet has been holding against her late mother finally overspills its banks:
Why was my mother happy?
She married my father.
The assignment was to fall in love.
The details were up to you.
The second part was
to include in the poem certain words,
words drawn from a specific text
on another subject altogether.
The assignment was to fall in love.
The author was female.
The ego had to be called the soul.
The riddle was: why couldn’t we live in the mind.
The answer was: the barrier of the earth intervened.
It is the mother who enforces the code of social reproduction, who polices gender, who demands that sex become marriage, who inducts the daughter into the doom of earth, who doesn’t care for the sovereignty of the mind, and who, worst of all and because she is mindless, though in this grave sin she is joined by the father, doesn’t understand poetry: “My parents couldn’t see the life in my head; / when I wrote it down, they fixed the spelling.” By comparison, Glück seems to suggest, men’s power is limited, overrated both by the swaggering masculinist and the scolding feminist; men may seduce the daughter, pleasantly or unpleasantly, but the marriage-insisting mother turns this ambiguous transaction into a life sentence, a dead season. And in the middle poem, “Persephone the Wanderer,” Glück returns us to myth. She acts as a commentator on the myth and on its prior commentators too, impatient with the old sexist scholars and the new gender-aware ones, neither of whom understand the point that Demeter is as culpable as Hades in the ruination of the world that followed the girl’s initiation into sexuality, the girl who is a roving consciousness first and foremost, a poet, and not a faithful daughter or penetrable body or any other captive to earth or its underside:
at home nowhere? Is she
a born wanderer…
She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes
she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life. Earth
asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as suggestion—
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read
as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.
Glück, the poet who tells us again and again that her mind is what speaks and what she wants to speak in her work, also cautions against emotionalism and moralism in a set of lines that should flash on the screen like a disinformation warning anytime anyone tries to Tweet a literary opinion or write a book review online:
You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.
The rest of the collection doesn’t live up to the conceptual power and prophetic voice of this beginning. There is an adaptation of Pushkin, a set of long poems I don’t really understand about a girl who burned a field, and more about Persephone in a version somewhat kinder to Demeter, to the mother—but I’ve gone on too long to enumerate them here. In any case, Averno, or at least part one of Averno, is the first work since The Wild Iris that I wouldn’t hesitate to call a masterpiece.
A Village Life (2009). Wandering Persephone is back above ground. Glück roams, at book length and in long, luxurious lines, through a nameless Italian hill-village of the mind. I grew up in the suburbs and ran away to the city, so the village, from whose hills my Italian immigrant forebears fled, is neither my experience nor my desire. Still, the poet makes it sound appealing or at least understandable:
To my mind, you’re better off if you stay;
that way, dreams don’t damage you.
At dusk, you sit by the window. Wherever you live,
you can see the fields, the rivers, realities
on which you cannot impose yourself—
If I have slighted any of Glück’s gifts in this piece, it is her versatility with viewpoint: from the beginning of her career, she could write a poem from any perspective. She does autobiographical first person, dramatic monologue, second person, question-and-answer, and third person. The latter predominates here, though even the first-person poems are not to be identified with the author. We are in the village, in the hills, in the happy and unhappy lives of the inhabitants; this is a kind of story cycle in verse. While Glück revisits some old familiar themes—
She has found this thing, a self,
and come to cherish it,
and now it will be packed away in flesh and lost—
and she feels her mother did this to her, meant this to happen.
Because whatever she may try to do with her mind,
her body will disobey…
—she also dramatizes with authority every phase in her villagers’ lives, from childhood’s anxious discovery of love (“It seems a strange position, being very young. / They have this thing everyone wants and they don’t want”) to middle age’s hardship in marriage (“He comes home, he’s tired. / Everything is hard—making money is hard, watching your body change / is hard”) to the period in old age when “the ratio / of the body to the void [is] shifting.” Not to mention night-stalking cats, a bat who defends its mystical blindness to arrogant humanity (“man the ego, man imprisoned in the eye, / there is path you cannot see, beyond the eye’s reach”) and a worm that sounds like Hegel (“to walk on top of a thing is not to prevail over it— / it is more the opposite, a disguised dependency, / by which the slave completes the master”). The poems are narrative and relaxed; gone are the frustrating ellipses of the earlier collection, but gone also is what felt like cliché or didacticism. With longer lines and longer poems—I want to say with language approaching prose at last, the sentence, rather than the line, having long been our poet’s beau ideal—there is room and time to grow, enough to populate a whole village and everything that lives in it. With modest wisdom, she writes, “all you need to know of a place is, do people live there. / If they do, you know everything.” The “serene” late style of the collections between Meadowlands and Averno felt forced, as if the poet were trying to cheer herself up on a sad birthday; but with the demons finally exorcised in the underworld volume, this sojourn in the open, upper air, this celebration of a life, is a well-earned ascent.
Please see also my video lecture on Glück.