Louise Glück: Feature Poet

I’ve decided to start featuring poets… partly because I miss reading poetry and this will encourage me to read more frequently but also because I’d like to discover new poets and thus, in the name of each month’s “feature,” I will find an excuse to set off on “poetry hunts,” (meaning I will spend copious guilt-free hours scouring my favourite bookstores.) Meanwhile, with a few weeks left to the semester, this blog will soon be given more love than it’s currently receiving. I’d like to set up a monthly schedule that includes book reviews from various genres, interviews with authors, occasional musings and, because I can’t help myself, a smattering of historically focused articles.

This said, I’d like to introduce a poet I’ve enjoyed for a number of years. Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and is considered to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. When I was still living in Victoria, I bought an anthology from Munro’s that includes work published between 1962 and 2012. I haven’t read the entire anthology front to back but prefer to pick it up every now and then to read whatever poems I find myself craving.

I’ll start by offering you a taste of her work. The following is a poem titled Matins from her 1992 collection, The Wild Iris. 

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

What I love most about Glück’s writing is perhaps the earnestness with which she approaches her work. I am in awe of her ability to provide such layered images. She offers the reader arresting depictions (checking each clump for the symbolic leaf— oh my goodness…) but while these images insist on being seen, they also insist on being heard. A well-known cry that has, at one time or another, burst from the hearts of every human being is a cry that begs for meaning, purpose and reason. This cry hopes for a neatly wrapped response, sent to us in the form of a sign. A reason to be. And yet, as Glück seems to understand, we are so rarely offered such a sign. Regardless of vehemence, we are most often left to kick at dust which lifts and billows and despite our yearnings, organizes itself in no clear fashion. Thus, Glück’s ability to cloak bleak experiences or insights in language that is tender and as poetic as it is candid, is a strength I admire wholly.

Here is another poem from from her 1980 collection, Descending Figure, titled Rosy.

When you walked in with your suitcase, leaving
the door open so the night showed
in a black square behind you, with its little stars
like nailheads, I wanted to tell you
you were like the dog that came to you by default,
on three legs: now that she is again no one’s,
she pursues her more durable relationships
with traffic and cold nature, as though at pains
to wound herself so that she will not heal.
She is past being taken in by kindness,
preferring wet streets: what death claims
it does not abandon.
You understand, the animal means nothing to me.

Her poems frequently explore themes of connection (or the lack there of), the impacts of loss, the reality of isolation and, in general, mortality. The Poetry Foundation quotes Stephen Burt who, upon reviewing her 2006 collection Averno, noted that “few poets save Sylvia Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.”

It is almost a cliché now, to claim Sylvia Plath as a favourite poet. But I have to admit, I have always loved her work and am incredibly intrigued by her ability to turn twisted, existential agony into lines that parade as beautiful. It is true, Glück approaches her work in a similar fashion and it is perhaps for this reason that I am so drawn to her poetry. Finally, one reason Glück has climbed the ranks to becoming one of America’s most beloved poets is because her poetry, while deeply contemplative and rendered with sensitivity, is also considered “accessible.” Her work has sometimes been considered “spare” and avoids excessive convolution without abandoning metaphor or lyricism. She pays incredibly attention to repetition and rhythm. Her work is thus far from the colloquial but is nevertheless comprehensible.

If you’d like to discover more of Glück’s work, I suggest checking out the Poetry Foundation. Luckily, much of her work is published online so you may discover her work for free. Meanwhile, if you’d like me to read or review any poets, please leave a comment below. I’m always eager to discover new names.

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