Louise Glück Glück, Louise - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Louise Glück 1943–

American poet and essayist.

Initially associated with the confessional school of poetry, Glück (pronounced "Glick") has managed in each successive volume after her initial collection, Firstborn, to develop her handling of the lyric form. Consequently, her work has become representative of a contemporary "pure poetry" that is marked by precisely used common language, austere imagery, and a disengaged emotional tone. In this, Glück's work is more characteristic of the earlier poets H.D. and Emily Dickinson than confessional writers such as Sylvia Plath. Though Glück's poems are still grounded in a highly individualized personal response to everyday life, she is recognized for her unerring ability to place her individual experience in a larger human context through correlations with Greek mythology and the Bible. She composes clear, sharp, spare, rhythmic poetry that is noted for its ongoing experimentation with a formal structure and syntax.

Biographical Information

Glück was born in New York City on April 22, 1943, to a Wellesley-educated mother and a father who was a first-generation American businessman of Hungarian descent. The firstborn daughter of this family, who died before Glück's birth, is the acknowledged source of the poet's preoccupation with the phenomenon of death, grieving, and loss that is a resonant theme in her work. As a teenager, Glück struggled with anorexia, another experience that was later reflected in her poetry. This condition had immediate practical consequences; Glück's formal education was interrupted in her last year of high school when she began a seven-year course of psychoanalysis. Glück has said that this process taught her to think, to analyze her own speech. Though she had from her early teenage years wanted to be a poet, the experience of psychoanalysis developed the requisite discipline for the task, so that a year later she enrolled in Dr. Leonie Adams's poetry workshop at Columbia University. After two years she went on to work with poet Stanley Kunitz, initiating a relationship that would be a major influence on her life as a poet. Four years later, in 1967, she received the Academy of American Poets Prize, and the next year Firstborn was published. Glück has received various awards and prizes throughout her career, including the Book Critics Circle Award and the Melville Cane Award for her 1985 volume, The Triumph of Achilles; the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her sixth book of poems, The Wild Iris; and the 1995 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for Proofs & Theories,

a collection of her essays. Since 1970 she has taught at numerous colleges and universities. Although Glück has indicated that she was at first hesitant about teaching, she ultimately embraced it as a means of surviving the extended silences she endures when it seems impossible to write poetry. She currently teaches at Williams College and lives in Vermont.

Major Works

Even though Firstborn reflects the influence of the confessional tradition that was popular in the late 1960s, Glück's ability to manipulate the "I" to transcend strictly autobiographical topics led many critics to recognize her as a unique talent in contemporary poetry. The House on Marshland, published in 1975, saw Glück distancing herself from the confessional mode and developing a more distinct poetic voice. This voice achieves a wider range in Descending Figure, published in 1980. This collection continues to feature the examination of common human themes through a deceptively simple language, but the poet's use of extended poem sequences rather than individual lyrics allows her to sustain more complex emotional and intellectual engagement with her topics. For example, in Descending Figure's poem sequence "The Garden," Glück painstakingly locates her own individual experience within the Garden of Eden story from the Book of Genesis so that the poem becomes a lesson in human history, an exercise in how to be human. In her fourth major publication, The Triumph of Achilles, Glück further explored the need for love in a limited human world. In doing so, she again employed classical myths and the Bible, using them to provide the metaphorical basis of the poems rather than relying heavily on imagery to convey meaning. This book also demonstrates an expansion of Glück's poetic line; the resulting language is similar to common speech, but also reflects meticulous attention to such poetic concerns as rhythm, alliteration, repetition, off-rhyme, and lineation. In Ararat, her first attempt at a book-length sequence, she addressed the death of her father and the implications that death held for the other members of the family, including her mother and sister. The Wild Iris, Glück's sixth volume of poetry, is another book-length poem sequence. Here, the poet establishes a range of individual voices for flowers, which alternate with the poet-gardener's voice and with the voice of a gardener-god. All combine to address the landscape of the poet-gardner's marriage and other issues related to her existence. Meadowlands, which appeared in 1996, deals with the failure of a marriage, exhibiting an ironic humor that has only been hinted at in Glück's earlier work. The book continues to feature elements characteristic of her poetry, including a concise style and the use of rewritten classical and biblical mythologies. Its primary design makes use of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey as an analogy for a marriage that is disintegrating.

Critical Reception

From the publication of Firstborn, Glück was recognized as a significant poetic voice, though these earlier poems have also been criticized for being derivative of the confessional poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. It was not until the publication of The House on Marshland and subsequent volumes that her unique abilities with the lyric form were more widely acknowledged and praised. Frequently, commentators have lauded Glück's use of mythic material, especially the unique way in which she retraces the patterns of these archetypal stories through an individual consciousness. Likewise, her sparse writing style and emotionally removed tone have received considerable attention, with critic Helen Vendler describing Glück's poetic voice as "disembodied … transparently removed in space or time." Many, like Vendler, have found this voice to be striking and effective, but other observers have found her stark compositions to be less successful. In extreme cases, Glück's poetry has been dismissed as a type of stylistic affectation while others complain about the difficulty in comprehending the poems because, as Peter Stitt puts it, "the maker has excluded too much." Glück is sometimes faulted on technical grounds for favoring abstract metaphor over concrete image, explanation over suggestion. However, works such as The Wild Iris have been judged successful by some critics because of Glück's very rejection of the poetic convention of image.

Glück has drawn the attention of many feminist critics who are interested in her treatment of gender roles and the identities and actions of the women in her poems. Some criticize her negative portrayals of female experience while others argue that Glück's work considers artistic expression and female sexuality to be opposing forces. Others, in contrast, view her work as a direct and necessary feminist response to male-dominated culture. The poet's evolving style is also the subject of much critical commentary. While some observers have disapproved of Glück's trend toward longer and more involved poem sequences, most reviewers have praised her efforts in this direction, especially the book-length works Ararat, The Wild Iris, and Meadowlands. The latter two, especially, have been viewed as significant, not only for their interrelated poems, but for their departures from the poet's perceived style—The Wild Iris employing the conceit of speaking flowers and Meadowlands displaying ironic humor in place of the grim tone Glück has been known for. Though her work has been greeted with a variety of responses throughout her career, these views are perhaps testament to the innovation and variety that are manifested in her poetry. As her list of publications has grown, so too has the consensus among many critics that Glück is an important author in contemporary American poetry and one who continues to produce a wide range of quality work.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Firstborn 1968

The House on Marshland 1975

* The Garden (chapbook) 1976

Teh 1976

Descending Figure 1980

The Triumph of Achilles 1985

Ararat 1990

The Wild Iris 1992

Meadowlands 1996


Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry 1994

*This poem sequence was later published in Descending Figure.

Robert Boyers (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mixed Bag," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 306-15.

[Boyers is an American educator and critic whose books include Selected Literary Essays of Robert Boyers (1977). In this review of Firstborn, he praises the craftsmanship of Glück's poetry while also voicing concerns about the melodrama and the lack of coherence that he detects in the volume.]

Louise Glück is an extraordinarily meticulous craftsman whose poems give 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...

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Anna Wooten (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louise Glück's The House on Marshland," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, July-August 1975, pp. 5-6.

[In the following review, Wooten compares Glück's first two books of poetry, asserting that in the second, The House on Marshland, the poet has achieved a wider control in her lyric treatment of the personal and mythical without sacrificing her unique poetic voice.]

For the admirers of Louise Glück's first book of poems (Firstborn, 1968), the second may initially seem less a treat. The House on Marshland lacks some of the verve of the first volume—the characteristic muscularity of language, the skillful use of...

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Helen Vendler (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Louise Gluck," in The New Republic, Vol. 178, No. 24, June 17, 1978, pp. 34-37.

[Vendler is an American educator and critic specializing in modern poets. Her books include studies of Wallace Stevens, John Keats, and William Butler Yeats, as well as Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1981). Here, she focuses on Glück's second book, The House on Marshland, analyzing the poet's voice and lyric form. She contends that the separate lyrics in linked structures, as well as Glück's "transparently removed" narrative voice, provide a highly personal and exciting alternative to confessional poetry.]

"All Hallows" appeared on...

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Peter Stitt (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Purity and Impurity in Poetry," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 182-89.

[Stitt is an American educator and critic. This excerpt from a review of Descending Figure classifies Glück's work as "pure poetry," which Stitt defines as verse that is more concerned with superficial qualities of structure and technique than with the intellectual or emotional core of poetic experience.]

Among many other things, there is pure poetry, there is impure poetry, and there is everything in between. The pure poem is exclusive, attends tea parties, breathes rarified air; the impure poem is democratic, tends to drink too much, revels in ribald...

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Calvin Bedient (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Birth, Not Death, Is the Hard Loss," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 168-86.

[In the following review of Descending Figure, Bedient discusses themes and techniques that appear in all of Glück's work. The critic finds that Glück's emphasis on the sensuality of the form of the poem raises it to the level of high art, at the same time as her subjects stand as testament to the poet's inherent humanity.]


Louise Glück once ended a poem, "Open my room, trees. Child's come." This nostalgia for flourishing apart from others, this nature-huddling, the little head-pat of "Child's come"—yes,...

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Robert Miklitsch (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Assembling a Landscape: The Poetry of Louise Glück," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIX, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 1-13.

[In this essay, Miklitsch charts the course of Glück's work over her first three volumes of poetry. By analyzing representative poems from each volume, the critic discusses the strengths and weaknesses he perceives in the poet's work. Miklitsch also declares that Descending Figure transcends the despair of the earlier two books by means of its technical sensibility.]

Louise Glück is familiar to readers of contemporary American poetry. As early as her debut appearance in Paul Carroll's Young American Poets (1968), her work...

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Louise Glük (1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dreamer and the Watcher," in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 99-106.

[In this essay, originally published in 1985, Glück elucidates the process through which a poem takes shape out of her ordinary experience. She also discusses particular tasks she has set herself concerning matters of form, structure, rhythm, and syntax.]

I have to say at once that I am uneasy with commentary. My insights on what I perceive to be the themes of this poem are already expressed: the poem embodies them. I can't add anything; what I can do is make the implicit explicit, which exactly reverses the poet's ambition. Perhaps the best alternative...

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Burton Raffel (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Louise Glück," in The Literary Review, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 261-73.

[Raffel is an American poet, educator, critic, and translator. In this essay, he critiques Glück's poetry up to and including The Triumph of Achilles, which Raffel judges as not fulfilling the promise of the earlier work, and which he assesses as sometimes disconcertingly bad.]

Born in 1943, Louise Glück has published four volumes of poetry: Firstborn (1968), The House on Marshland (1975), Descending Figure (1980), and The Triumph of Achilles (1985). She has won prizes and awards; she is reasonably...

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Lynn Keller (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Free / of Blossom and Subterfuge': Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation," in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets," edited by Leonard M. Trawick, Kent State University Press, 1990, pp. 120-29.

[Keller is an educator, a critic and the author of Re-Making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. In the following essay, she adopts a feminist critical perspective on the negative treatment of the female in Glück's first four books. The critic analyzes the relationship of the role of woman and that of poet and finds that, for the most part, Glück views the two as mutually exclusive.]


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Calvin Bedient (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Man Is Altogether Desire'?," in Salmagundi, Nos. 90-91, Spring-Summer, 1991, pp. 212-30.

[In this review excerpt, Bedient discusses Glück's Ararat, finding the direct tone to be different than her previous volumes. Nonetheless, the critic finds the collection to be successful due to the precision and concentration of poems.]

Desire has become the most commonplace of topics, and not only because, like the weather, it is always with us, but because it doesn't know what to make of itself now that its own gaudy theological and philosophical trappings have been emptied of gas, like giant passenger balloons, and cut into rectangles and put on the wall as...

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Bruce Bond (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unfinished Child: Contradictory Desire in Glück's Ararat," in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 216-23.

[In the following review, Bond critiques Glück's fifth book, noting a shift in her use of mythology that illuminates the process through which myth achieves meaning; he concludes that these poems about personal and family history inform the notion of intimacy as crucial to the creative processes of mythology and of poetry.]

Louise Glück's most recent book, Ararat, marks a new and sustained intimacy in her work, the persona of her poems returning to a personally inscribed past, a family circle,...

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Charles Berger (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle: Amy Clampitt, Louise Glück, Mark Strand," in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. X, No. 3, Winter, 1991, pp. 125-33.

[In the following review excerpt, Berger argues the success of Glück's use of the book-length sequence of short lyric poems in Ararat, and finds this approach a good alternative to traditional narrative structures. In addition, Berger favorably assesses Glück's "common language" in the volume.]

Louise Glück's Ararat is a book-length sequence of short lyrics set in the year following the death of the poet's father. Book-length is a phrase I usually recoil from when attached to lyric sequences, since it often...

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Lynne McMahon (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sexual Swamp: Female Erotics and the Masculine Art," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 28, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 333-52.

[In this excerpt, McMahon addresses the issue of the aesthetic differences between men and women. Glück's work, the critic finds, often depicts female sexuality and artistic expression to be at cross-purposes; erotic love has a lack of structure that is the opposite of artistic form. For this reason, the critic concludes, Glück seems to feel that "to be an artist… means to adopt the masculine imposition of boundary."]

For some time now feminist and Marxist and psychoanalytic critics have been exploring the...

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Helen Vendler (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Flower Power," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 21, May 24, 1993, pp. 35-8.

[In this review of The Wild Iris, Vendler explains the poet's use of the metaphors of gardening and flowers to address issues of god, love, and ageing. The critic finds this approach to be reminiscent of previous poets and an interesting development for Glück. Vendler also insists that what has been viewed as the poet's mannered style is an essential poetic gesture.]

Louise Glück is a poet of strong and haunting presence. Her poems, published in a series of memorable books over the last twenty years, have achieved the unusual distinction of being neither...

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Stephen Yenser (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wild Plots," in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 350-55.

[Yenser is American poet, educator, and critic. Here, he acknowledges that the fifty-four poems in The Wild Iris generate a complete sequence; nevertheless, he asserts that the use of many voices is a problematic aspect of her work in the volume.]

Louise Glück's The Wild Iris characteristically contains no poem longer than thirty lines, and many of the poems gleam with the knifing ironies and the burnished paradoxes that have always marked her work, while some show a new visionary fire; but there is a strong sense in which this, her sixth volume, is really a single,...

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Emily Gordon (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Above an Abyss," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 262, No. 17, April 29, 1996, pp. 28-30.

[In this excerpt, Gordon views Glück's Meadowlands as a subverted Odyssey, telling the story of a voyage away from the ultimate union between Ulysses and Penelope, with the wife in Meadowlands being depicted as Penelope unweaving the fabric of the marriage.]

For Louise Glück in her newest book, divorce is the start awake after the sleep-walking of a bad relationship. As in some of her previous collections, she draws from a mythic source in Meadowlands, using central figures and themes from The Odyssey to illustrate the dissolution of her...

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Vijay Seshadri (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Woe That Is in Marriage," in The New Yorker, May 13, 1996, pp. 93-4.

[In this review of Meadowlands, Seshadri suggests that Glück's considerable lyric expertise and meticulous craft have been tempered by an earthiness and humor.]

Even before Louise Glück's new volume, Meadowlands was published, admirers could be heard describing it, somewhat incongruously, as a "funny" book, with the implication that this represented a significant aesthetic departure. There was something faintly comic in itself about this advance word, which had to do with the inexpert way that people try to generate excitement about a book of poetry. It's a fact that our...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Baker, David. "Kinds of Knowing." The Kenyon Review 15, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 184-92.

In a review of several books of poetry, Baker recognizes the difficulty of presenting intellectual strategies in lyric poetry, declaring that Glück's refusal of image as the essence of poetry is responsible for the success of The Wild Iris.

Bonds, Diane S. "Entering Language in Louise Glück's The House on Marshland: A Feminist Reading." Contemporary Literature XXXI, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 58-75.

Seeks a feminist resolution to the perceived problem of Glück's...

(The entire section is 572 words.)