I recently came across references to the collected poems of Louise Gluck, which became available in paperback in 2013, and decided to order a copy. I was curious because I’d known Louise when we were ages 15 and 18, she was a senior camper and I a junior counselor at a wonderful, improbable music camp in the Adirondacks called Deerwood. We got to know each other as actors in a production of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, in which I played the Roman captain, and she the Christian slave. Deerwood went out of existence shortly thereafter, and Louise and I went our separate ways. Years later, she tried to get in touch with me, but the piece of paper with her contact information, passed to me by a friend, got wet and became unreadable; I never followed up. Her poems appeared now and then in The New Yorker, so I knew she’d become successful, but until I looked her up online the other day, I had no idea how successful.
Louise was Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003-2004. She won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and most of the other poetry prizes and distinguished fellowships you can win. She now teaches at Yale. Though I’m chronically envious, learning of her success didn’t bother me that much, perhaps because I got to know her on a basis that feels more real than reputations are.
To read the complete oeuvre of a major poet is an overwhelming experience; to write about it, impossible. The volume is 627 pages long, not counting the index. Her first book of poems was published in 1962, her last (the eleventh) in 2009. The poems in the first two volumes strain to be original, compressed, and fashionably disillusioned. But there are moments that anticipate the clarity and insight of the later work. In The Triumph of Achilles (the one that won the Pulitzer) she starts to write the kinds of poems that will later become her trademark: transparent, piercing, carrying her readers straight through from beginning to end, depositing us somewhere we didn’t expect to be. In volume four, Ararat, everything comes together. These poems are the annals of a family—mother, father, sister, the sister who died, grandmother, aunt—each incident transcribed simply and directly (the simplicity and directness, the products of the highest skill), moving quickly from one scene to the next, always leading to another kind of moment—one of realization.
Gluck is strongly present in all of her poems; her voice, though spare, has an aura around it, like the nimbus you sometimes see around the moon. It pulls me in and keeps me right where she wants me, enthralled by her story. Even when I don’t understand what she’s saying I want to be there, inside the poem, sharing her experience. Louise doesn’t fool around. The drama of her verse lies in its struggle to write honestly about important things, with courage, and without exaggeration. Gluck is deeply affected by the beauty of nature, and deeply offended by the ironies of nature’s cycle of life and death, the giving and the taking away. In The Wild Iris, my favorite of all her volumes, she sometimes speaks from the perspective of flowers and bulbs that are conscious of their own mortality. In a series of poems entitled “Matins” and “Vespers,” she speaks to God, not naming this deity, but referring to it as “you.” She holds God’s feet to the fire; her characteristic stance toward the world is both loving and, as one of her reviewers said, prosecutorial. She is humanity’s witness for the prosecution, holding whoever is responsible for our condition to strict account.
Marriage is one of her recurrent subjects. The love, desire, betrayal, longing, frustration, bickering, and banality that are part of any marriage flicker in and out of her poems, appearing and disappearing in sudden fits of searing candor, embarrassing and completely recognizable. Her most powerful volume, Vita Nova, written after her divorce, reaches a degree of intensity that seems almost superhuman. In this, and the following volume, Averno (which refers to the entrance to Hades), her survival in the face of suffering becomes almost unendurable. These quotations from a poem whose title, “October,” indicates the stage of life she has reached, convey the tenor of the work in this period:
What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.
Very simple. But there is no voice there. . . .
death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.
If you like to read poems, Gluck’s collected work is not to be missed. Immersing myself in her writing has given me a new sense of poetry’s power to enchant, to illuminate life, as well as to provide the basis for living one, if you are a poet.~