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About Louise Glück

After attending Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, and Columbia University, New York City, Gluck taught poetry at numerous colleges and universities. Her first collection of poetry, Firstborn (1968), uses a variety of first-person personae, all disaffected or angry. The collection's tone disturbed many critics, but Gluck's exquisitely controlled language and imaginative use of rhyme and metre delighted others. Although its outlook is equally grim, her collection The House on Marshland (1975) shows a greater mastery of voice. There, as in her later volumes, Gluck's personae include historic and mythic figures such as Gretel and Joan of Arc. Her adoption of different perspectives became increasingly imaginative; for example, in "The Sick Child," from the collection Descending Figure (1980), her voice is that of a mother in a museum painting looking out at the bright gallery. The poems in The Triumph of Achilles (1985), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, address archetypal subjects of classic myth, fairy tales, and the Bible. These concerns are also evident in Ararat (1990), which has been acclaimed for searing honesty in its examination of the family and the self. Later works by Gluck include The Wild Iris (1992), Meadowlands (1996), and The First Five Books of Poems (1997); she was also editor of The Best American Poetry 1993 (1993).

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Wishing for Another Poem: The Poetry and Essays of Louise Glück
by Christine Atkins

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet Louise Glück (pronounced “Glick”) addresses the themes of rejection, loss, and isolation in language that is as deceptively simple as it is technically precise. Author of eight books of poetry as well as a book of essays, Proofs and Theories, Glück is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (Triumph of Achilles), the Academy of American Poet’s Prize (Firstborn), as well as numerous Guggenheim fellowships. Glück’s poems engage the reader with a gripping directness that is startling in its colloquial, jagged quality. Central to most poems is a narrator who is isolated from her family, or bitter from rejected love, or disappointed with what life has to offer. As Helen Vendler notes, Glück’s poems invite the reader’s participation by asking us to “fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can solve the allegory. . .” After numerous readings, her poems consistently betray their original bleakness, offering a glimpse at the lyrical beauty of a fallen world.

The various chapters in Proofs and Theories function as disparate meditations on the craft of writing and the poet’s life. In them Glück contends that the fundamental experience of the writer “is helplessness. . .most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, not being able to write differently. It is a life dignified. . .by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement.”

The 54 poems which make up the Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Wild Iris, were written in ten weeks--a period which lends the book a certain seasonal structure. Beginning in spring and winding towards late summer, the poems reveal a nagging, epistemological dialectic between poet, God, and the natural world. In “Witchgrass,” the unwanted weed grapple  defiantly with the gardener, protesting: “I don’t need your praise/ to survive I was here first,/ before you were here, 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./ I will constitute the field.”

The poet repeatedly chronicles her loss at the same time she engages in praise for the thing lost. In “Vespers: Parousia”, she laments: “how lush the world is, how full of things that don’t belong to me--. . .what a nothing you were/ to be changed so quickly/ into an image, an odor--/ you are everywhere, source of wisdom and anguish.” In the absence of a loving God, the poet’s task is to celebrate the splendor of the natural world with language, and to locate the door at the end of suffering where, “from the center of my life came a great fountain, deep blue/ shadows on azure sea water.” 

In her most recent volume Meadowlands (1996), Glück intersperses the ancient myth of Odysseus and Penelope in a modern narrative about marital discord and separation. The title evokes both the eternal and the contemporary--alluding to both timeless pastoral beauty and a New Jersey football stadium. The juxtaposition of the two worlds makes an interesting experiment in the mixing of high and low art, with the modern couple providing comic relief: “One thing I’ve always hated/ about you: I hate that you refuse/to have people at the house. Flaubert/ had more friends and Flaubert/ was a recluse. Flaubert was crazy he lived with his mother.”

Glück’s revisionist Penelope bears more resemblance to the modern wife of the doomed couple than to her mythical predecessor, and her cynicism and aggression in matters of love can hardly be contained. Urging her soul to kee  watch for Odysseus she adds: “Ah, you must greet him, / you must shake the boughs of the tree to get his attention/ but carefully, carefully, lest/ his beautiful face be marred/ by too many falling needles.”

In both her poetry and essays, Louise Glück’s vision of the artist is one in which despair is transformed into survival through the creation of art. In a sense, the artist strives for that which is nearly impossible to achieve, and is engaged not so much in an occupation as an aspiration. Yet in Glück’s canon, the poet consistently gets in the last word, and the poem disrupts the sorrow and despair which accompanies the modern world, encouraging us, above all, to engage in hope: “I wished what I always wish for/ I wished for another poem.”

from The New York State Writer's Institute's Writer's Online Vol. 1 No. 4 (Summer 1997)

Robert Hass

For the lucky, born into a geography not visited by war or political terror, the events in life that leave the soul scarred and disoriented are death and divorce. Divorce is a kind of death. Even for people who are glad to get out of relationships, the props of a life have to be remade, families, habits, houses, even towns. And it can leave a life stripped bare. I think about Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," which begins "The art of losing isn't hard to master" and goes on to do a wry inventory:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

It's not surprising that it is a subject for poetry, but it is surprising how little serious and sustained examination of the subject there has been in our poetry, given how common and how devastating the experience can be.

For the last 10 years Louise Gluck, one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing, has turned from the form of her early books, traditional collections of poems written over a period of time, to a series of book-length sequences. They are written in her characteristically spare and elegant style. They are books of individual poems, but they make a narrative sequence, and so they are able to explore a subject in many moods and from many points of view in a way that is reminiscent of the old sonnet sequences that explored all the phases of a love affair. The first one, Ararat, dealt with a family of three women in the aftermath of the death of a husband and father. The second one, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris, was a meditation on the turning of the year in a northern New England garden. The third, Meadowlands, based on the story of Ulysses and Penelope and Telemachus, was about a marriage coming apart. The newest one, published this year, is Vita Nova (Ecco). Its subject is life after divorce. It begins from something like the place Emily Dickinson described so accurately:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes --
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs --

Here are a couple of the poems:

The Garment

My soul dried up.
Like a soul cast into a fire, but not completely,
not to annihilation. Parched,
it continued. Brittle,
not from solitude but from mistrust,
the aftermath of violence.
Spirit, invited to leave the body,
to stand exposed a moment, --
trembling, as before
your presentation to the divine --
spirit lured out of solitude
by the promise of grace,
how will you ever again believe
the love of another being?
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.

Earthly Love

Conventions of the time
held them together.
It was a period
(very long) in which
the heart once given freely
was required, a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.
As to ourselves:
fortunately we diverged
from these requirements,
as I reminded myself
when my life shattered.
So that what we had for so long
was, more or less,
voluntary, alive.
And only long afterward
did I begin to think otherwise.
We are all human --
we protect ourselves
as well as we can
even to the point of denying
clarity, the point
of self-deception. As in
the consecration to which I alluded.
And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.
Nor does it seem to me
crucial to know
whether or not such happiness
is built on illusion:
it has its own reality.
And, in either case, it will end.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company. Online Source

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