Glück’s career is marked by a pursuit of truth and authenticity. The subjects that some critics have described as grim and austere in her work, such as loneliness, isolation, grief, and ambivalence in relationships, she sees as the challenges in life that one strives to transcend in order to reach a higher spiritual level. This struggle, she believes, is the essence of art—the continual desire to capture that which is always just out of reach. Glück’s poetry shows this movement toward spiritual enlightenment in an approach that embraces not only what can be articulated but also that which cannot. While the poems have closure in a sense that they often end with dramatic images or revelations about the relationships and observations they have described, these epiphanies are portrayed as cumulative, moments of perception that are enlightening but do not transform in themselves.
In fact, Glück raises more questions in her later poems, which are written in a more conversational style, than she does in her earlier work, which is more surreal, imagistic, and fragmented. Glück has described her own struggle with the need for perfection and its manifestation in a battle with anorexia starting in her high school years. The death of her sister before she was born has also left her with questions which she has addressed, if not answered, in her poetry. Two marriages that ended in divorce raised other questions about relationships and whether they can last without the people in them sacrificing who they are in some way. Throughout her career, Glück’s goal has been to grow as an artist and continually to strive toward articulating that which is most difficult to articulate, or what William Faulkner described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Glück’s first four books of poetry, Firstborn, The House on Marshland, Descending Figure, and The Triumph of Achilles, display her progression from surreal imagery showing the often disturbing irony and absurdity of perceptions versus reality to exploration of philosophical questions relating to how one exists in the world with this irony. In Firstborn, the speakers of the poems seem to observe what could otherwise be considered ordinary and even ritualistic events, such as a ride on a Chicago train and Thanksgiving dinner, as if they were apart from them, looking upon an almost comical display of human frailty and vulnerability, where images are distorted as if in a carnival funhouse, and those in the midst of them are oblivious to their absurdity.
The speakers also implicate themselves and their failures to grasp the import of such events at the times they occurred and the way they replay these events over and over in their minds, helpless to change what is now in the past and resigned to put the fragments together in some way. The House on Marshland shows a movement from exterior images toward the interior psyche. Although these poems still contain the images that help readers connect the exterior to the interior, they are more mythological and religious than scenes from daily life. In poems such as “All Hallows,” “Gretel in Darkness,” and “Nativity Poem,” Glück builds her poems around natural, folkloric, and biblical elements to show the interconnectedness of these three profound influences on identity.
In Descending Figure, detachment returns as a thread running through the poems, yet rather than the comic irony of Glück’s first book of poems, these works take a more intellectually ironic stance in their apparent detachment of emotions from observations. This is true of “The Drowned Children” and “Epithalamium,” a poem that predicts the end of a marriage as it describes the beginning. The poems of The Triumph of Achilles portray the detachment in relationships and the desire to connect despite the limitations of communication, such as in “Metamorphosis,” where the speaker describes her frustration at her father for apparently forgetting her as he approaches death, and “The Mountain,” where the speaker describes struggling to convey to her students the Sisyphean effort that art takes and the rewards that make the hardships worthwhile.
In Ararat, The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and Vita Nova, Glück shows a more conversational style, writing in sentences rather than phrases, and asking questions. These questions are either rhetorical or directed to a person to whom the poem is addressed, as are the statements that Glück makes in the more colloquial but not casual poems in these later books. In poems like “A Novel,” “Mount Ararat,” and “Appearances,” she primarily addresses family dynamics and the ways in which families can deceive themselves as well as those outside the family. “The Untrustworthy Speaker” specifically addresses the illusion of self-knowledge as well as how actual self-deception is dishonest to others and undermines credibility.
In poems like “The Wild Iris,” “Lamium,” and “Violets,” Glück uses flowers, plants, and other elements of nature as metaphors for the human need for spiritual illumination and darkness in order for growth to occur. Meadowlands is distinguished by several parables which raise rhetorical questions about things people take for granted, such as vocation in “Parable of the Hostages” and relationships in “Parable of the Swans.” Rather than containing a moral, as conventional parables do, Glück’s parables question how perceptions change and cause humans either to stay or leave situations. The poems of Vita Nova explore the longing for security and the vulnerability of love, or “the desire to be safe and the desire to feel” as described in “Aubade.” In poems often written from the first-or second-person perspective, Glück captures the desire of lovers to communicate with one another and their inability to say exactly what they mean.
In Proofs and Theories, Glück has articulated her poetic philosophy in essays such as “Education of the Poet,” “Against Sincerity,” “The Forbidden,” and “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” referring to the work of poets she admires as examples of these concepts. This collection also includes essays on writers T. S. Eliot and Stanley Kunitz.
“The School Children”
First published: 1975 (collected in The First Four Books of Poems, 1995)
Type of work: Poem
Glück explores the complex relationships among mothers, children, and teachers, symbolized in the offering of apples.
“The School Children,” from The House on Marshland, contains fragmented imagery and phrasing to show the disconnection of the children to both their mothers and their teachers, despite the ritual of the mother giving the apple to the child, who then gives it to the teacher. The children, the speaker says, “go forward with their little satchels,” innocent yet businesslike. The mothers who “have labored to gather the late apples, red and gold” are the agents who smooth the way for their children to develop relationships with their teachers.
The teachers “wait behind great desks . . . to receive these offerings” and perhaps pass judgment on them, as they do the students’ work. The next line, “How orderly they are” at first appears to refer to the teachers but is then found to describe “the nails on which the children hang their overcoats of blue or yellow wool.” The blue and yellow, along with the red apples, convey the primary colors associated with childhood.
The children are further disconnected from the teachers who, the speaker says, “shall instruct them in silence,” while the mothers “scour the orchards for a way out.” Here the image of the detached teacher is contrasted with the desperation of the mother who perhaps lives vicariously through her children and the success she...
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