Louise Glück Glück, Louise (Vol. 160) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Louise Glück 1943-

(Full name Louise Elizabeth Glück) American poet and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Glück's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 22, 44, and 81.

Glück is an award-winning poet whose verse utilizes brevity and spareness, often incorporating archetypes and mythical characters into contemporary situations. Her poetry frequently employs elements from ancient myths as a tool to comment on and inform modern dilemmas. Though the use of myth dominates her later poetry, Glück is a versatile poet who consistently challenges her own forms and the genre of poetry as well. Glück was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her collection Wild Iris (1992).

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. As a teenager, Glück struggled with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, an experience that would later be reflected in her work. Due to the disorder, Glück's formal education was interrupted in her last year of high school when she began a seven-year course of psychoanalysis. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in 1962, and later attended Columbia University from 1963 to 1968. At Columbia, she participated in a two-year poetry workshop with Dr. Léonie Adams. Glück went on to study for four years with renowned poet Stanley Kunitz, who became a long-term mentor and who had a profound influence on her work. She has taught at several universities including Columbia University at New York, the University of Iowa, University of California at Berkeley, and Brandeis University. In addition to her Pulitzer Prize, Glück has won a number of awards, including the Academy of American Poets Prize in 1967, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1985 for The Triumph of Achilles (1985), and the 1995 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction for Proofs and Theories (1994).

Major Works

Glück's first poetry collection, Firstborn, was published in 1968, when she was twenty-five years old. The poems, which stylistically build on the works of the first confessional poets, explore the role of women in society, at times expressing negativity and even hostility toward women and womanhood in general. The structure of the poems—lines with few stresses and blatant declarations—parallels this sense of anger. The House on Marshland (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 (1980), a collection that examines a variety of issues including anorexia and the desire to create poetry. This work continues to feature Glück's examination of common human themes through a deceptively simple language, but her 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 parallels her own individual experience with the Garden of Eden story from the Book of Genesis. The Triumph of Achilles, a collection of eight poetry sequences, reflects the more mature poetic sensibility that Glück developed in Descending Figure. She again employs classical myths and the Bible as thematic material, using them to provide the metaphorical basis of the poems rather than relying heavily on imagery to convey meaning. Achilles 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. The sparse verbiage of the collection combined with the sentence-like structure of her lines marks a stylistic break from her earlier works. In Ararat (1990), her first attempt at a book-length sequence, Glück addresses the death of her father and the implications that his death held for the other members of the family, including her mother and sister. These poems are set in Long Island, New York, and utilize a chant-like rhythm as they examine the subject of familial romance. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Wild Iris—a collection that was strongly influenced by poet Simone Weil—represents a turning point in Glück's career. With subtle references to the high modernists, Wild Iris boldly combines a dialogic poetic form with anthropomorphism. These poems, set among a lush garden, establish a range of individual voices for flowers, which alternate with the poet-gardener's voice and with the voice of a gardener-god. These elements combine to address the landscape of the poet-gardener's marriage and other issues related to her existence, using symbolism, multivocality, and dramatic personae to convey their themes. Proofs and Theories is a collection of essays that explores Glück's personal life, including her creative process and her writing methods. In addition, she also examines other poets including John Keats, John Milton, Wallace Stevens, and George Oppen. Glück returns to her focus on the mythological in Meadowlands (1996), where she rewrites the Odyssey myth by humanizing Odysseus and Penelope, paralleling their relationship with that of an ordinary contemporary couple. The poems appropriate archetypes in order to illuminate the collapse of a marriage. Using humor and irony, the collection proffers a grim view of romantic love's sustainability. With Vita Nova (1999), Glück constructs a mythic narrative about everlasting fidelity by rewriting the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Written after Glück's years as a wife and mother, the poems seek to reinterpret the Orpheus myth and, at the same time, make sense of Glück's newfound sense of solitude. The poems in Vita Nova, often compared with those in Meadowlands, focus on a single speaker who vocalizes different perspectives and explores human faithlessness. The Seven Ages (2001) addresses themes such as memory, ideas of loss, and aging. The poems display a detached tone and dark humor that have become recurring elements in Glück's writing.

Critical Reception

From the publication of Firstborn, Glück has been recognized as a significant poetic voice, though her earlier poems have 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. Critics such as Elizabeth Dodd have asserted that using “clever metrics” enables Glück to create sonnet-like poems and ballad-like stanzas and to mirror and comment on the themes in her work. Glück has drawn the attention of many feminist critics who have been interested in her treatment of gender roles and the identities and actions of the women in her poems. Some have criticized her negative portrayals of female experience while others have argued that Glück's work considers artistic expression and female sexuality to be opposing forces. Other critics, in contrast, have viewed her work as a direct and necessary feminist response to male-dominated culture. Glück's evolving style has also become 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, particularly, have been viewed as significant, not only for their interrelated poems, but for their departures from the poet's perceived style—The Wild Iris for employing the conceit of speaking flowers and Meadowlands for displaying ironic humor in place of the grim tone Glück typically used in other works.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Firstborn (poetry) 1968

The House on Marshland (poetry) 1975

Descending Figure (poetry) 1980

The Triumph of Achilles (poetry) 1985

Ararat (poetry) 1990

The Wild Iris (poetry) 1992

Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (essays) 1994

Meadowlands (poetry) 1996

Vita Nova (poetry) 1999

The Seven Ages (poetry) 2001

Charles Berger (review date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berger, Charles. Review of Ararat, by Louise Glück. Raritan 10, no. 3 (winter 1994): 119–33.

[In the following review, Berger favorably reviews Ararat, commenting on the lyrical balance evident in the poetry and how the collection fits into the elegy genre.]

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 serves as a plea for excusing local weaknesses. But Ararat truly is a volume of linked poems, a volume operating through laws of accrual where no single poem...

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Elizabeth Dodd (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dodd, Elizabeth. “Louise Glück: The Ardent Understatement of Postconfessional Classicism.” In The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück, pp. 149–96. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Dodd examines the influence of confessional poetry in Firstborn, the archetypal in The House on Marshland, myth and technique in The Triumph of Achilles, and the retreat from personal classicism in Ararat.]

We have seen three different manifestations of the personal classicist mode undertaken by three very different women. H. D. worked to develop the persona poem as...

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Annie Finch (review date July–August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Finch, Annie. “Unrelinquished Burdens.” North American Review 279, no. 4 (July–August 1994): 40–42.

[In the following excerpt, Finch discusses the thematically unified poems in The Wild Iris and the spiritual emphasis of the poems.]

Louise Glück's Pulitzer-prize winning collection of poems, The Wild Iris, focuses on the burden of religious pain. The book consists of an ongoing dialogue, a dialogue that is rarely easy, between a god and a human being. Glück lets the poems' titles indicate who is speaking, and the essential incompatibility between the two participants in the book's uncomfortable conversation is suggested at the start by...

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Reamy Jansen (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jansen, Reamy. Review of Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, by Louise Glück. Literary Review 39, no. 3 (spring 1996): 441–43

[In the following positive review, Jansen praises Proofs and Theories, addressing Glück's growth as a poet.]

Louise Glück presents herself as a reader “speaking to those I have heard” in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. Often operating declaratively—“In Williams, loneliness is a song”—these sixteen essays are suited to their eccentric, scientific-sounding title, rebelliously putting proofs first and tying them to theory through the knot of her ampersand. As with her poetry (with the...

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Susan Smith Nash (review date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nash, Susan Smith. Review of Meadowlands, by Louise Glück. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 156–57.

[In the following review, Nash compliments Glück's use of archetypal characters in Meadowlands.]

What is often unappreciated or overlooked in Louise Glück's poetry is her ability to bring a mesmerizing array of emotional nuances to a single poem. For many poets, the result would be bathos, or undigestible clichés. However, Glück uses disparate and often contradictory emotions to create a subtle representation of the irresolution and ambiguity that often characterize a relationship or a marriage.

The first poem [in...

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Stephen Burt (review date 16 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, Stephen. “The Nervous Rose.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4911 (16 May 1997): 25.

[In the following review, Burt compares Glück's poetry in The Wild Iris to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, commenting on the psychological searching in the collection and the focus on spirituality.]

The exceptional short poems in The Wild Iris describe a year in and around a garden—both Louise Glück's own garden, in Vermont, and an allegorical and general garden world. Plants speak poems named for them; Glück addresses a creator-God in seventeen poems called “Matins” or “Vespers”; in poems named for weather or seasons (“Clear Morning,”...

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Brian Henry (essay date summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Henry, Brian. “The Odyssey Revisited.” Virginia Quarterly Review 74, no. 3 (summer 1998): 571–77.

[In the following essay, Henry argues that Meadowlands reveals “the tragedy common to all relationships,” asserting the poems are compelling due to Glück's unique retelling of the Odyssey myth.]

Since Homer introduced that wily traveler Odysseus to the world, countless poets have attempted to resurrect the tale and make it their own. Odysseus' ten-year voyage home has become an undeniable part of our collective unconscious. Children draw a Cyclops on one page and the action figure du jour on the next. In a similar gesture, poets...

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Lee Upton (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Upton, Lee. “Fleshless Voices: Louise Glück's Rituals of Abjection and Oblivion.” In The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets, pp. 119–43. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Upton discusses how Glück's poetry, particularly Meadowlands, addresses such themes as birth and death, the body and reproduction, children, distrust of the sensual, and generational cycles.]

Louise Glück's poetry travels over ancient ground in the Western tradition. Yet while her means are in some ways traditional—the adoption of the lyric voice and august themes of nature, mortality, and women's...

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James Longenbach (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Longenbach, James. “Louise Glück's Nine Lives.” Southwest Review 84, no. 2 (1999): 184–98.

[In the following essay, Longenbach compares Vita Nova with Glück's previous collections, particularly Meadowlands, The Wild Iris, and Ararat.]

Vita Nova, Louise Glück's eighth book of poems, begins with this enigmatic exchange between master and apprentice.

The master said You must write what you see.
But what I see does not move me.
The master answered Change what you see.

Change is Louise Glück's highest value. Each of her books has begun, she admits, in a “conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off” of...

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Oliver Reynolds (review date 30 July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Oliver. “You Will Suffer.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5026 (30 July 1999): 23.

[In the following review, Reynolds favorably reviews Meadowlands and Proofs and Theories, noting the interconnections between the two works.]

Yeats's “The Choice” is unequivocal: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Rhetorically acute though this may be, it rests on rickety premisses. The first option is an impossible ideal. The second may be attainable, but at what cost? An art-form brought to the dictionary definition of perfection—complete; exact; absolute; unqualified—risks the aridity of...

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Tom Clark (review date September–October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clark, Tom. “Subversive Histories.” American Poetry Review 28, no. 5 (September–October 1999): 7–10.

[In the following excerpt, Clark praises Glück's foray into a dreamworld in Vita Nova.]

“Life is very weird, no matter how it ends, / very filled with dreams.” Poet Louise Glück's haunting, arresting Vita Nova, a book of trial and tears, heartbreak, resignation and renewal, is also a book of dreaming.

Glück's poetic sequence begins and ends in parallel framing dreams, and in between follows a drifting narrative course out of which instructive dreams appear like floating islands in soundless fog. With unmisgiving trust this...

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Terence Diggory (review fall–winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Diggory, Terence. “Louise Glück's Lyric Journey.” Salmagundi, nos. 124–125 (fall–winter 1999): 303–18.

[In the following review, Diggory offers a positive assessment of Glück's critique of lyric in Vita Nova.]

Recent reports of the death of the lyric are as naive as they are exaggerated. Since it originates in the loss of the beloved object and the attempt to compensate in song, the lyric would like nothing better than to treat its own death as the occasion for song that would resonate from hitherto unsounded depths of subjectivity. Rather than the exhaustion of the mode, what we find in the work of the best poets writing lyric today is an...

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Richard Jackson (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Richard. Review of Vita Nova, by Louise Glück. Prairie Schooner 75, no. 2 (summer 2000): 198–199.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson asserts that Vita Nova “reverses expectations” for readers as it explores myth and everyday life.]

The mythology in Louise Glück's Vita Nova is ostensibly more traditional, though she constantly intertwines the classic myths and the myths of our often failed lives. It is not surprising that in this book, following upon the book-length sequence (almost single poems with chapters) The Wild Iris and especially Meadowlands, and describing the breakdown of a relationship, uses the...

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John Perryman (essay date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perryman, John. “Washing Homer's Feat: Louise Glück, Modernism, and the Classics.” South Carolina Review 33, no. 1 (fall 2000): 176–84.

[In the following essay, Perryman discusses Glück's rewriting of classic tales, particularly in Meadowlands, and how she has appropriated poetic structures used by modernists such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück continues to distinguish her work from that of her peers, most recently through the instructive way with which she makes use of the past. In Meadowlands (1996), her latest collection of poetry, she incorporates the classics without condescending to them or...

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Linda Gregerson (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gregerson, Linda. “The Sower against Gardens.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 1 (winter 2001): 115–33.

[In the following essay, Gregerson provides an in-depth analysis of the poems in The Wild Iris and Meadowlands, claiming that the two books are “two poles of a single project.”]

Louise Glück is one of those enviable poets whose powers and distinction emerged early and were early recognized. Her work has been justly admired and justly influential, as only work of the very first order can be: work that is so impeccably itself that it alters the landscape in which others write while at the same time discouraging (and dooming) the ordinary homage...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Christophersen, Bill. “Classical Virtues—and Vices.” Poetry 177, no. 2 (December 2000): 217–24.

Christophersen offers a mixed assessment of Vita Nova.

Daniels, Kate. “Bombs in Their Bosoms.” Southern Review 35, no. 4 (fall 1999): 846–56.

Daniels praises Vita Nova, discussing themes such as emotional healing, recovering from loss, and solitary life.

Frost, Elisabeth. “Disharmonies of Desire.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 2 (November 1996): 24.

Frost argues that Glück's bleak vision of romantic love in Meadowlands, though...

(The entire section is 328 words.)