A Tribute to Louise Glück: Oracle of the Interior
BY Elizabeth Metzger, October 14, 2020
Poetry Alumna Elizabeth Metzger ’15 pays tribute to former undergraduate writing student, 2020 Nobel Prize recipient, Louise Glück through a meditation on her poetry of transformation and the power of reading it in a global pandemic.
Lyric poetry, from its origin, suggests language accompanied by music, words that are worth singing. American poet Louise Glück reinvigorates the genre by refusing to distinguish between composing a new song and remaking the self. Both emerge from the silence of suffering.
To receive the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature is as much a beacon for women in the arts and for American Poetry as it is for Glück herself. The last female poet to receive the Nobel was Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, the last American woman was Toni Morrison in 1993, and the most recent American was Bob Dylan in 2016, to give you a sense of the company she will keep. It is nothing new for Glück to be lauded with the highest honors in poetry—she was poet laureate during the Obama administration, a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Triumph of Achilles (1985), a Pulitzer prize winner for her collection The Wild Iris (1992), and a recipient of the National Book Award for Faithful and Virtuous Night (2016)—but the scope and timing of the Nobel may shed new light on the power of lyric poetry more generally to keep us human at a moment of severe interiority. In the midst of a global pandemic, as in many moments of catastrophe, the self is shattered and reconfigured, a fundamentally lyric experience rather than a narrative one.
Our global COVID crisis calls us into conversation across class, culture, and national borders while also forcing us to subordinate our social worlds to the domestic sphere. The world has never been so interior but the interior has never had to encompass so much. One’s deepest loneliness is a gesture of shared humanity. Individual injury must be a catalyst for universal change. Louise Glück is a poet so many of us have read, reread, written toward, and celebrated—but perhaps it is with the lived paradox of a virus uniting us globally while keeping us masked and at home for the sake of one another that Glück’s poetry illuminates more than ever the vast glimmering mine of the self in a world of selves.
A testament to the poet as teacher, Glück has shared her gifts with many original voices in contemporary American Poetry, including prominent Alumni ranging from Claudia Rankine ’93 to Max Ritvo ’16 (whose posthumous collection The Final Voicemails is edited by Glück and for whom Metzger is the designated literary executor). Glück considers teaching central to her writing process. Her poetics is one of listening as much as speaking.
The distinctiveness of Glück’s voice and the formal evolution of her verse pay homage to the inherent rhythms and mutability of selfhood. Glück’s career is punctuated by long periods of silence and self-questioning, including extreme writer’s block between her first book Firstborn (1968) and her second The House on Marshland (1975), which she considers her first real poems. Preceding her Pulitzer-winning The Wild Iris, Glück has described a period of wordless anxiety before she could make what she refers to as a “new sound.” She invites her immediate environment, her real-life context to invade and take root in the consciousness without limiting herself to the subject of her particular life. Glück is a poet of ordinary torment. She excavates the day-in day-out mysteries of being a self with equal parts wit and wound.
In return for her patience between books, Glück reaps the gift of attention—seeking, noticing, and absorbing sound, then combining it with thought or image to invent a new kind of poem. Each of her dozen books feels like a first utterance. In the midst of a pandemic, it is hard not to read Glück as a poet of emergence and emergency—both in the sense of sudden change and high stakes. She does not write as a recluse but as a speaker always on some threshold, confronting mortality by beginning again.
Her long-revered collection The Wild Iris gives voice to flowers in the garden to explore the aftermath of loss and longing. It is a book of resuscitation just as a garden is a space of tended resurrections. For a poet who demonstrates such patience, The Wild Iris was written in a poetic vertigo of six weeks. And the poems show no sign of struggle in their making. They read more like a mark left by the pain that precedes them. They are as unimpeachable as scars.
Transformation is painful. In the title poem of The Wild Iris, Glück writes
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
The door out of suffering is the submission to time, which yields eventually the need to account for it. We follow the lines as we follow the ticking of thought, the poet’s hand becoming masterfully invisible given the deceptive simplicity of the diction and imagery. More precise than ornamental, yes, but the warp and weft of her syntax are often too intricate to be considered minimalist. She permits “death” to end a line but forces the sentence to continue across the line break, ending with the declaration: “I remember.” What is syntax but the determination of sense to survive a sentence? There is evidence of life in claiming death as a memory. Life after loss comes to be the devastating reality of an afterlife.
The sentence is a cry to the other, the reader who may just as well be the poet herself in despair while tending a garden. Even the demand to be heard, “hear me out,” introduces an escape, an exit that becomes a new entrance. In “The Red Poppy” from The Wild Iris another flower voices its own predicament, paradoxically also the predicament of human grief:
The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
Glück credits her life-saving experience to psychoanalysis as an adolescent for teaching her how to think. To relive trauma in language in the presence of another—it is not simply an act of reflection, understanding, or empathy but a chance to revise and expand the self in the present, and it is this same power we feel reading her poems. One of the great investigators of trauma as a process rather than an event, Glück also makes memory a mechanism as much as an experience. The poem “First Memory” from Ararat (1990) explores how memory clarifies rather than obscures:
… from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.
At first glance, one may mistake Glück’s plainness for coldness, but the chill is quickly warmed by an affirmation of the heart. There is the gesture of Keats’ “This Living Hand” (“see here it is—/ I hold it toward you.”) without any need for an imagined grave. For all her music of mind, Glück is not shy of the body. Nor is she avoidant of her gender. In a poem that draws on her own adolescent experience of severe anorexia, Glück writes in Descending Figure (1980): “a woman’s body is a grave.” More than the particulars of a body, though, she is interested in the self and its attachments, what we become in relationship to another via grief, passion, and anger.
Glück’s transcriptions of thought and feeling call to mind an “oracle,” the term for both a prophet and her prophecy. So often the hubris of the tragic hero lies in misinterpreting an oracle. Listening to Glück read her poems aloud, one can’t help but hear in her famously detached style a refusal to interpret, as if she is trying to become the paper and let the poem speak without her person. In contrast, when she is speaking spontaneously, one notes in Glück a dazzling, sometimes biting, presence. Her care and cadences as a speaker reveal thinking to be a real time activity. In the poems, thought is an engine of suffering and beauty, and even off the page, following a thought to its clearest expression, the poet appears to take thinking—and the sounds of thinking—as seriously as mortality itself.
Two of Glück’s strongest collections, Meadowlands (1996) and Averno (2006), both rely heavily on the intersection of personal inquiry with mythic material. Meadowlands uses the epic characters of The Odyssey to explore in lyric poems the dynamic of a marriage in catastrophe. In Averno, the poet puts the myth of Persephone (a familiar childhood bedtime story for Glück) in conversation with a modern mother-daughter relationship. Besides classical myth and classical music, in her most recent collection she takes on the voice of a painter and draws on literary tropes of Arthurian legend and the tradition of the parable. Because Glück doesn’t distinguish between a confessional speaker and a persona, the effect of her use of myth or legend is therefore not one of intellectual strain or metaphor but a transcendent union. This might contribute to what the Nobel committee describes as “her unmistakable voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
“Unmistakable” suggests obvious originality and distinctness but there is also an implication of accuracy and memorability. Both of these qualities are celebrations of lyric poetry as a genre, that language is at its best when what makes it sound new is also what makes it unforgettable. In essays, Glück mentions her family’s educated but unliterary background, and it is frequently mentioned among poets that Glück’s father helped invent the X-Acto knife to give a more ironic context for her sharp insight, the precision of her lines, her knife-writing so to speak. With “austere beauty” comes clear thought.
Though she can be as tongue-in-cheek as she is oracular, one gets the sense that to speak is an act of survival. In any other capacity, a word is an excess. Regardless of the particular relationship or experience at the heart of each book, there is often the sense of a self learning to speak again or relearning to think. You can see this theme of returning to life made explicit in Averno, not only in the figure of Persephone, but also in the tour-de-force poem, “October,” whose title takes on new significance when you consider it was published not long after 9/11.
Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
In contrast to the commanding voice of The Wild Iris, here there is a more cyclical raveling. Every line is open, a syntax on the cusp. Summer, violence, and good are all repeated twice and go on to be repeated later in the poem. Unlike traditional elegies, the elegiac in Glück is as much about the experience of mourning as it is about any particular mourned thing. Though the speaker seems to claim her experience is irreversible, the syntax overtakes the message. Trauma creates as much as it ruins. Glück is not afraid of assertions, “violence has changed me,” but she refuses to moralize. What makes her claims compelling is the transparency of their internal logic. What is human nature in a world of seasons? What is goodness after violence? Later in this section of the poem Glück writes:
Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.
Is there really any distinction between marking an end and beginning something new? Between self- denial and self-awareness? The speaker is so broken she cannot even trust she is living, and yet it is hard not to trust this voice, confident in its own brokenness, an echo in the underworld. The worst suffering formulates a proof of existence. “Proof of existence,” is incidentally how Glück herself describes the powerful effect of her great mentor Stanley Kunitz whom she worked with in the School of General Studies at Columbia (formerly General Studies Writing Program). It is also frequently the experience of reading Glück’s work. Glück is interested in the sounds of real speech, from the brutal hilarity of the husband in the poem “Anniversary” from Meadowlands saying “I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean/ your cold feet all over my dick” to the unapologetic feminist declaration “I hate them as I hate sex” in the poem “Mock Orange” from The Triumph of Achilles. It is what the mind does when it hears something new that interests her. Of course it must change to stay interesting. Her poems are as wicked as they are candid, sometimes nuanced as an eavesdropped conversation, sometimes bold as a hellfire sermon. Glück’s voice is the language of the ear.
Beginning with birth into the family of origin in Firstborn, Glück’s work travels across the many archetypal relationships and experiences of a lifetime, landing with rigor and devotion in her most recent work on the subject of aging. She confronts mortality beyond the finality of death, in the tangible everyday grief and alienation of a body and mind changing. The self living is the self dying. Hopelessness becomes inextricable from hope as in these lines from “A Children’s Story” published just this month in The New York Review of Books:
All hope is lost.
We must return to where it was lost
if we want to find it again.
In Glück’s poetics, revelation is often born of renunciation. Careful self-examinations of life, some of her recent poems read like autopsy reports that incorporate the soul. There is great uncertainty even where there is exactness, questioning in spite of clarity, like the wonder of a fossil or the beauty of a dancer figurine trapped in a box. Such a dancer rises in the last lines of “Couple in the Park,” the last prose poem of Faithful and Virtuous Night:
“I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.”
Glück’s poems are not prolonged reckonings, not life stories, so much as the distillation of fiction, what is left after the body is scattered, evidence of what lasts that is true. Her tome of a collected, Poems 1962-2012 (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award) has proven to be a comma in the sentence of her life’s work. A new collection, Winter Recipes from the Collective, is forthcoming from FSG in 2021. A prize, according to Glück, is both a celebration and a pressure, and she has managed because of and in spite of such achievement to work at the white heat for several decades. It is safe to say the Nobel, given for a lifetime of achievement, will not impede the constant rebirth of this poet. In our present moment when so many of us dream of returning to a familiar world, a world where we can see each other safely and go places more freely, Glück’s poetry demands, with devotion if not comfort, that we change more for being broken. We hope to learn to live—and speak—again.
About the Author
Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Horsethief Books, 2017). Her poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and American Poetry Review, among other places. You can find more of her poetry and essays at elizabethmetzger.com. She is a poetry editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books.
Glück was a student in Columbia's Undergraduate Writing Program (formerly General Studies Writing Program) in the mid-sixties. While a student at Columbia, she studied with Stanley Kunitz and published her early poems in QUARTO Magazine, a literary magazine created by undergraduates.