Nobel reminds us why Gluck’s poetry issues now (opinion)
The first day of class was the first day of spring. We read Louise Glück’s “The Wild Iris”, a book of poems in the language of flowers. On Zoom we read the first poem out loud:
At the end of my suffering
There was a door.
Although the book was published in 1992, long before my students were born and when I was a little boy; it spoke to us from beyond, from that timeless “elsewhere” that so many of Glücks poems capture so crisply. Her poems are alert to ugly and lofty human feelings and to our will to survive in the face of a world that would crush us.
Good poetry is no place for easy consolation, for platitudes. Instead, poetry can be a space where uncertainty and complexity mix. When we needed her lessons – each of us unsure of the future, isolated, scared – Louise Glück was a poet who could teach us that suffering, oblivion, and even death would not be the end of us.
One of her poems, “The Red Poppy”, asks us:
Oh my brothers and sisters
Were you like me a long time ago
before you were human Did you
open once, who would never
to open again? Because in truth
I speak now
like you do I speak
because i’m shaken
(“The red poppy”)
Readers and admirers of Louise Glück’s poems celebrate her work this week with a collective sense of pride and joy to see her remarkable contributions, deservedly recognized by the Nobel Prize in Literature. The last American to win the honor was Toni Morrison in 1993.
Despite the joy on social media over this monumental public recognition of her art, Glück’s poems are neither bombastic nor public in themselves. Rather, they preserve intimacy, privacy and inwardness in times of constant charisma, fast news cycles and shameless self-promotion.
And at a time when we are so often reminded of how language is manipulated and misled, their work is a testament to the power of clarity and precision.
I can’t go on
I limit myself to pictures
because you think it’s your right
to deny my importance:
I am ready to force now
Clarity about you.
Glück has written over a dozen conventions and received almost all of the major American poet awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Book Prize. She was also the United States Poet Laureate and was awarded the National Humanities Medal. As a dedicated teacher, she works with students at Yale and Stanford.Reading her books you get the feeling that Louise Glück is a restless artist who shifts her shapes, tones, and even voices from book to book. Her early work showed a radical compression, tight, orderly lines and what she described in an essay as an attraction to “the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence”.
Her poems often pick up the voices of people, myths and history. Although their more recent books have seen a shift towards longer poetry and an interest in the languages of fable and parable, they retain their distinctive and searching attention to the poem’s psychological and emotional drama.
As she grew older, Louise Glück sharpened her poetry’s commitment to documenting the fragility of the body, the anarchic attraction and the resilience of the voice – individual, lyrical, human – against the forces of annihilation, humiliation and degradation.
In “Crossroads” she imagines a life in danger, in which soul and body separate and speak to one another:
My body now that we won’t be traveling together for much longer
I feel a new tenderness towards you, very raw and unfamiliar.
like what I remember when I was young –
The poem closes frailly and gloriously with a statement:
It is not the earth that I will miss
you will miss me
I think of these lines of poetry often because we are asked so often every day to contemplate and reconsider our attachments to worldly things. To each other. In our opinion, even a habitable earth.
In my own life it was a deep and challenging joy to be changed by Louise Glück’s poems, her mentorship and her friendship. I share her poems with my students, new generations of artists, critics and readers. I love to see them shaken and moved and transported by their poems, just like I was when I first met them. The Nobel Prize – an honor whose immensity I cannot fully understand – will ensure that other readers will find their way to their books.
Now is October. The world has not recovered or has returned to what we recognized as normal. As the seasons change but our lives remain uncertain, I think of Glück’s remarkable poem “October”. In one section of the poem, Glück imagines a young self, perhaps a writer, wearing her book as protection:
I was young here. horse riding
the subway with my little book
as if I wanted to defend myself …
In times of sadness and isolation, I turn to Louise Glück’s books of poetry to show me a way forward.
you’re not alone,
the poem said:
in the dark tunnel.