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.
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.
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.
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.