Louise Glück 1943–
Glück, whose first book of poetry, Firstborn, was published when she was only 25, has impressed critics with her depth of feeling, sensitivity, and perception despite her youth. Her poems deal with basic human experiences—love, sex, motherhood, and death—and use simple language to express complex emotions.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)
No softness enters the work of Miss Glück. None of the personae she adopts in Firstborn … speaks gently or regards the world kindly. Her vision is harsh, her verse forms terse and stripped to essentials. In point of view and accomplishment these poems give no evidence of being the work of a young writer, and while it would be difficult to talk about liking these descriptions of a crippled, pathetic, and brutal world, it would be impossible to deny their effective and honest confrontation with reality. From her opening image of "lice rooted in that baby's hair," through her "Pictures of the People in the War," to her very brief narrative about the boarding of a slave ship to steal its gold and slaughter its "living cargo," Miss Glück demands a reader's attention and commands his respect. (p. 33)
Robert D. Spector, "Lyrics, Heroic and Otherwise," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 11, March 15, 1969, pp. 33-5.∗
Louise Gluck is an extraordinarily meticulous craftsman whose [Firstborn gives] promise of a really remarkable career. Working with materials associated with the confessional tradition, but speaking in a variety of voices, she has created a body of work that is painful and shocking, but without sufficient coherence to justify the relentless evocations of violence that reverberate in so many of her pages. In a poem like "Thanksgiving," images of corruption and decay are marshaled, but we do not know why they must have anything to do with the people in the poem…. [All] we can really explain is the poet's desire that her images and observations fit together. (p. 309)
The echoes abound in this poetry. But echoes in the work of a young poet need not always be wholly assimilated if the poet is to achieve a voice of his own. A poem like "Grandmother In The Garden" is no less lovely and moving for the fact that it calls to mind a number of [Randall] Jarrell's better poems…. The poise and serenity of this poem constitute a remarkable tribute to a poet so young, and the dense aural patterns are woven so casually that one cannot but wonder at the poet's mastery of her craft.
Miss Gluck is a poet of few themes, but these she develops with a ferocity that borders on obsession. She appears to write best when she is least herself, when she writes out of contexts which are relatively unfamiliar to her own experience, and...
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Two phenomena keep the sour-mouthed, tight-lipped, sharp-tongued little poems of Miss Glück [in Firstborn] from being merely compulsive exercises in oral eroticism: the wretchedness is not hers alone, and the observation lavished upon it is of such high energy…. More remarkable, she has the imagination, alway rare but at twenty-four quite improbable, to dramatize the other, not merely to attest and oppose it, but to let alterity have its say in a voice of its own. She does more than invoke or inveigh against others…. She allows them to invade her, to inveigle her into being them, so that in many of these mini-monologues the poet is no more—and no less—than a medium; which is where she thrives, creating out of the unheard-of but instantly recognized detail and the altogether alien character that twist of idiom we call style…. The perils, of course, of abandoning your poem to the merely convulsive energies of an identity—your own or another's—is that however sharply you see and hear, however scrupulously you record (think of [Robert] Lowell, think of [Anne] Sexton, evident exemplars here), your work risks the arbitrary, the willful, the merely journalistic without some principle of order, of decorum, some axiological necessity. Whence those insistent rhymes of Louise Glück's, even to the breaking of words at the line's end; whence, too, her terror of letting the line stand unbroken with its entire energy revealed, exposed. For her, enjambment is a way of assuring the poem a continuity she does not dare find in her own line, preferring to plough the accrued profits back into the poem as a whole…. Which is not to say "Relax, baby" to a poet of Louise Glück's achievement and resource; she gets what she gives by not relaxing; it is merely to note what is gainsaid—the movement of a certain mastery, the confidence in an open music—for what is gained. "I pay with my life," she says in the title poem, and her victory is that we believe her. (pp. 130-31)
Richard Howard, "Some First Volumes," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1970 by Kenyon College), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 130-37.∗
[In Firstborn, Louise Glück's] poems are brief and terse; her diction is like a clenched fist, or a muscle-cramp. Her poetic world is an externalization of intense inner experience, and instead of the wholeness of nature, she impresses on us, over and over, the trauma of being alive, of feeling anything at all. Her poems are a succession of shocks, and it doesn't particularly matter whether the specific piece is autobiographical or not. Miss Glück mixes the autobiographical and the persona poem, but both of them come out as "I" poems and are powered by the same painful charge. She is working out for herself an idiom which is interesting and recognizable and will, I imagine, become even more personal in the future. That it is firm, tough, jerky, and often understated is not remarkable in a time when firm, tough, jerky, and understated writing is de rigeur; but in Miss Glück's case it hangs together—no, sticks together; there is a glutinous feeling about the successful poems. The elemental physical connections she writes about are, more often than not, realized in her diction….
Miss Glück's world is often violent, but the violence is not imposed from the outside; it is the price we pay for being born and, therefore, involved. (p. 324)
Lisel Mueller, "Versions of Reality," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVII, No. 5, February, 1971, pp. 322-30.∗
Judging from her titles [in "Descending Figure"]—"Dedication to Hunger," "Lamentations," "World Breaking Apart"—we might expect Louise Glück's world to be replete with emotional excess. Yet something like the reverse is the case. She draws on the world of romance, where the deep wish becomes fact, but her poems are more often about various kinds frustrations: misunderstanding, absence, powerlessness. She says "everything fixed is marred," but she longs for the "need to perfect, / of which death is the mere byproduct." The objects of her world are stars, statues, swans, and children: Things that, while symbolizing changelessness, inevitably suggest the threat of loss….
Miss Glück's language seems partially starved, as if determined to register plainly a fullness that never appears, and yet her words inadvertently record their own diminishment. In her retelling of the Eden story, she describes the creator: "He was god, and a monster." At the end of the tale God arose, "His great shadow / darkening the sleeping bodies of His children, / and leapt into heaven." With a shift of perspective brought on by the need to find the unique emotional vantage point, Miss Glück then says: "How beautiful it must have been, / the earth, that first time / seen from the air." Longing for original views, her vision is transfixed by what it leaves behind. (p. 14)
Charles Molesworth, "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, pp. 14, 36-7.∗
Love and death, particularly the latter, are the recurring, indeed obsessive subjects in Glück's third book of poems ["Descending Figure".] With a strange mix of realism and fantasy, the poet evokes the fears of death and dying, the anxieties of love and sexual need. The scenes are typical—a father walking with his young daughter, a baby learning to speak, lovers awakening in a bright room—but the speech is extraordinary, plainspoken and strikingly metaphorical by turns, undefinably the poet's own. Cool, almost remote, the insistent voice calmly sets forth image after image from a stripped-down dreamscape whose placid surfaces belie regions tensed with suppressed emotions, desires, longings. Thus, however bleak...
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Louise Glück's poems remind us that mythmaking is closely related to allegory even when the "thing itself" retains its integrity. The most ambitious poem in her new book Descending Figure … is a sequence entitled "The Garden." It makes models both of a mind and a culture, and renews an old myth through an imitation of the creative process itself. Glück's bleak imagery presents a set of possibilities that voice and metaphor resolve into a gray and Barbizon-like merging of self and landscape. The first part of the sequence is a complex restatement of Genesis…. The sequence ends with a poem entitled "The Fear of Burial."… This is a rich metaphor of the history and failure of Christian dualism, which ties...
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[Louise Gluck] combines the stripped-down, the imagistic, with a kind of splendor usually associated with the full-voiced masters….
[The title, Descending Figure] suggests both the descent to the dead and the descent from Eden or a Platonic pre-existence. And the theme of an almost suicidal recoil again the death inextricably entangled with life is explored throughout the book, both in personal contexts (mourning, anorexia) and in cosmic ones (a retelling of the first chapters of Genesis). This gives the book a scope and unity missing in Gluck's fine earlier collection, The House on Marshland. There are occasional lapses: sometimes Gluck … falls into banal psychologizing ("the need...
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Between Firstborn and her new book, Descending Figure, Glück published one other volume, The House on Marshland (1975), a book full of blazing little legends recalling Blake's realm of Generation, in which fertility degenerates into the rote grind of witless reproduction. Glück pictures that world as a place where "schools of spores circulate / behind the shades, drift through / gauze flutterings of vegetation". In characteristic fashion the mood of the opening poem of that book hovers between harvest and pestilence. Working in a symbolist mode, Glück cannot be pinned to a specific interpretation; childbirth appears to be the poem's subject, but other possible meanings radiate from it....
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[Louise Glück in Descending Figure] may be working from the same themes as do [other modern poets] …, but her focus is much darker. The Descending Figure is that of a dying or already dead sister; the themes of death, of needing to feel emotion and passion in life, of the intense need to create meaningful language are paramount. The tone of the collection is, appropriately,… somber. Language is spare. Movement is slow. Words are repeated often, as are thematic clues.
The centrality of language occurs even in the opening title sequence, which is ostensibly about death. In part 3, Glück defines the dead as those who "however long they lie the earth," "will not learn to speak." Language,...
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Descending Figure is a considerable advance on Glück's previous work. It is spare, exact, mysterious; it has a rhetorical elegance and control, and a new emotional power both reinforce, that mark it as one of the year's outstanding books. Glück has stripped her poems of exposition's local colors, of pretension, of any comfortable effects of melodrama or moralizing. She starts with a few givens—a lake, a house, some trees, a table and bed, a lover or child—and uncovers the ordinary's buried life. As her title predicts, it is her figures of speech that descend to these ghostly encounters—as when, at the end of "The Fear of Burial," a spirit has left its dead body and the poem hovers over the corpse still...
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[In Descending Figure,] Glück has some of Sylvia Plath's willed immobility, but her rhythms are not spiky and hysterical like Plath's. Instead they are mesmeric, trancelike, almost posthumously gentle….
Glück is not at her best in expository verse, where her hieratic rhythms can begin to sound portentous. But the poem reveals the aesthetic of Glück's verse—or of part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self. Denying itself the possession of the sacred object, the soul finds identity. Acquiring an object means absorbing it into the soul and losing it from view; renouncing it, the soul keeps it in view forever, and is able to see it clearly, free of projection. The sacred object...
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