(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

There is an inherent paradox in the concept of a “philosophical poetry.” Either the poetic properties dominate to the extent that the philosophical aspects are reduced to a shallow summary that betrays the essence of the proposition, or the weight of the thought is so dense that it detracts from the qualities of language that give poetry its primary appeal. The lyric impulse that is so fundamental to poetic power tends to be antithetical to reasoned discourse, as Plato feared to the degree that he proposed banishment of the poet from his ideal republic. While it may be argued that a poet’s way of seeing is philosophical in the most fundamental fashion, Emily Dickinson’s contention that she recognized the occurrence of a poetic impulse by the feeling that the top of her head was about to blow off reinforces the disparity between “mind” and “skin.”

Nonetheless, there is a tradition of meditative verse, which flourished in the seventeenth century in the work of writers such as Richard Crashaw (c. 1613-1649), Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), John Milton (1608-1674), and, most notably in the latter part of his life, John Donne (1572-1631). It is significant that each of these men was ruled by a religious perspective notably absent from much modern American poetry, which is built on the rhythms, language, and styles of vernacular speech and makes the styles of a philosophical poetics seem outmoded, stodgy, academic, or even irrelevant.

Louise Glück, whose poetry has followed an individual, personal course from her first volumes, has said admiringly of John Berryman’s “Street” that it “is a poetry of mind, of mind processing informationnot a mind incapable of response but a mind wary of premature response.” In no way relying on the doctrinal buttress that the seventeenth century poets assumed, Glück has developed a poetic voice sufficient to disclose the intricate working of an “open mind, a mind resistant to closure” that does not relinquish the “lyric intensity” which she praises in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Without attempting a reconciliation of the lyric and the philosophical to the detriment and diminution of both, Glück has achieved a kind of coalescence wherein both disciplines remain robust and vigorous. Her poetry is not so much a meditation on the world but a passionate engagement of the self with its own existence.

In previous volumes, Glück has established some of the cornerstones of her method. Vita Nova (1999) takes Dante’s poem La vita nouva (c. 1292) as a basis for an extensive consideration of “Immortal Love” and “Earthly Love” using some of the most prominent of classical figures (Orpheus and Eurydice, Dido and Aeneas) as the subject and focus of myths that maintain enduring resonance into modern times. The Seven Ages (2001) continues this approach, with the mythic as a frame around the life of a woman at middle age recalling past experiences and reconsidering them with respect to her sense of self in the present. Glück has always been keenly conscious of the substance of the natural world, and in The Seven Ages she takes summer as a span of time, its floral abundance as a sensory spur and its emblem as a highpoint, a signal of the inevitability of an eventual decline in everything.

These elements are employed again in Averno, the title of the volume taken from a small crater lake in southern Italy that was regarded in Roman times as the entrance to the underworld. The seasonal focus here is autumnal tilting toward winter, introduced in “October,” the first poem in the book. The personal perspective is that of Persephone, whose entrance in the second poem “Persephone the Wanderer” sets the location in transit between earthly and “other-earthly” realms.

As her publishers point out, all of Glück’s books since Ararat (1990) proceed as a sequence, although this does not mean a sequential procession as much as an architecture in which the interplay among poems has a particular consequence. “October” launches a journey that is begun literally as a quest, the poem occurring as a series of questions that enable the speaker to orient herself in uncomfortable terrain (“winter again”) and winter as a season, a psychic place, and a region of the cosmos. An ethos of uncertainty pervades the poem, as the speaker seems to wonder “is it cold again,” citing as evidence:

didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planteddidn’t the night end,didn’t the melting iceflood the narrow gutterswasn’t my bodyrescued, wasn’t it safedidn’t the scar form, invisibleabove the injury

The absence of question marks tends to blend queries simultaneously with assertions, suggesting a moment in time, and reflections from beyond that moment. The...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

America 194, no. 12 (April 3, 2006): 34.

Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 56.

Library Journal 130, no. 20 (December 15, 2005): 134.

The New Republic 235, no. 6 (August 7, 2006): 29-32.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 11 (June 22, 2006): 16-19.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (March 12, 2006): 16.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 42 (October 24, 2005): 39.