Louise Glück

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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...

(This entire section contains 1286 words.)

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of her lines marks a stylistic break from her earlier works. InArarat (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

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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)

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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 dominates others or—more remarkably—needs to be salvaged by the work as a whole. One marks each individual poem as it comes along, records slight shifts of focus and form, even while registering a tonal similarity between poems striking enough to make them cognate, but sufficiently flexible to avoid monotone. This is simply to say that strong family resemblances between poems reinforce the guiding obsessiveness of family romance in Ararat. The occasion of her father's death forces Glück to rehearse the history of this plain, gray house on Long Island, “the sort of place / you buy to raise a family.” Nothing extraordinary happened in this house, except for the quiet failure to sustain that idea of family. The death of an infant girl hardened her mother's heart, her sister's birth inaugurated a sibling rivalry (a “wound”) so deep and inexplicable it can only be called ontological, her father's “contempt for emotion” locked the house in a kind of deep freeze—and yet, when her father dies, the “dark nature” of the family plot is revealed to be a “love story”:

Now, the hero's dead. Like echoes, the women last longer;
they're all too tough for their own good …
Amazing, how they keep busy, these women, the wife and
          two daughters.
Setting the table, clearing the dishes away.
Each heart pierced through with a sword.

Reading through Ararat, I'm made to think of the failed houses strewn throughout Frost's poetry. (This, too, is a house in earnest.) Philip Roth comes as readily to mind, with his ability to strip away anything extraneous to family combat. But Glück has no flair for Roth's histrionics (not to mention his comedic genius), and the domestic never turns sublimely gothic as it does in Frost. She conducts the narrative of Ararat in a deceptively level, sober style, a voice one is tempted to call “plain” but for all the programmatic connotations that have gathered around that term. Though Glück, as always, avoids sumptuous rhetoric, she doesn't go to the opposite extreme of exalting bare-bones minimalism; charged, redemptive symbols in either the high or middle style are not for her, although the vaguely chantlike rhythm of her lines gives a lift to even the simplest words. Above all, she hates distortion and is willing to forgo a certain amount of metaphorical exaggeration. Despite the brevity of her poems, Glück doesn't freeze or still the flow of language in Ararat. Instead, she scrutinizes common words as they pass by her, keeping them alive and moving in the stream of discourse, even while wincing at the freight they are made to bear. Part of this burden has to do with the ritual gestures they convey. I will quote “A Fantasy” in its entirety because it gives a strong sense of how adroitly Glück takes the measure of common speech and the customs it supports.

I'll tell you something: every day
people are dying. And that's just the beginning.
Every day, in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.
Then they're in the cemetary, some of them
for the first time. They're frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.
And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everybody,
thanks them, thanks them for coming.
In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetary,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn't possible. But it's her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

The nature of Glück's verbal economy—her decisions about what to include and exclude, the value given to words posing as symbols—becomes most apparent when one thinks of Ararat alongside the formal decorums of elegy. I say this even though Glück makes little overt use of elegiac machinery and shows even less desire to “subvert” the genre through parodic irony. Part of her saving strangeness as a poet comes from this difficulty in locating her stance toward the institutions of lyric; in this case, she can't be said either to ignore or reinvent the tropes of elegy. The elusive but pervasive strength of the writing in Ararat comes instead, I think, from Glück's ability to write about death in the lives of the living, to write about mourning, without immediately assigning herself the elegist's task of turning death into forms of solace or survival. In her last volume, The Triumph of Achilles, Glück has a poem on her father's death called “Metamorphosis.” The title is something of a negative example, pointing to what Glück refuses to do, namely to imagine death as a kind of transformative, visionary odyssey. Of far greater interest to her, especially in the case of her father, is the way the living move toward death in their lives, hardening themselves, emptying themselves out, “so that death, when it came, / wouldn't seem a significant change.” This is the frightening ground of resemblance between father and daughter and the basis of the judgment passed in “Mirror Image”:

Tonight I saw myself in the dark window as
the image of my father, whose life
was spent like this,
thinking of death, to the exclusion
of other sensual matters,
so in the end that life
was easy to give up, since
it contained nothing: even
my mother's voice couldn't make him
change or turn back
as he believed
that once you can't love another human being
you have no place in the world.

“Change or turn back,” isolated on one line, shorn of syntactical context, almost floats free to become a magical supplication to the dead, but restored to the body of this epitaphlike poem it becomes a formulaic spell Glück will not utter. Spare complexities of this order can be found everywhere in Ararat. (This includes the titles of individual poems, easy to overlook.) Glück's art works its secret ministry on the reader: that is what it means to write a version of the common language, a claim often made in American poetry, seldom performed so movingly.

Further Reading

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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 presented with skill and humor, is ultimately limiting.

Henry, Brian. “To Speak of Woe.” Kenyon Review 23, no. 1 (winter 2001): 166–72.

Henry argues that the poems in Vita Nova avoid slipping into self-indulgence.

Longenbach, James. “Poetry in Review.” Yale Review 84, no. 4 (October 1996): 158–62.

Longenbach describes the diverse but interconnected poems in Meadowlands, classifying them as both “dissatisfied and beautiful.”

McLane, Maureen. Review of Meadowlands, by Louise Glück. Chicago Review 43, no. 1 (winter 1997): 120–22.

McLane comments that Glück succeeds in presenting a parallel between her mythic characters derived from The Odyssey and her contemporary characters.

Monte, Steven. Review of Vita Nova, by Louise Glück. Chicago Review 45, nos. 3–4 (1999): 180–83.

Monte argues that the poems in Vita Nova are flawed, but they appeal to readers because Glück strikes a balance between personalization and aloof observation.

Ullman, Leslie. Review of Meadowlands, by Louise Glück. Poetry 169, no. 5 (March 1997): 339–41.

Ullman suggests that Glück's poems in Meadowlands, ostensibly about evolving relationships, are also about the poet's growth and development.

Wojahn, David. Review of The Seven Ages, by Louise Glück. Poetry 179, no. 3 (December 2001): 165–68.

Wojahn offers a positive assessment of The Seven Ages, comparing it to other works in Glück's career.

Additional coverage of Glück's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33–36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 40, 69, 108; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poetry; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 16; Poetry for Students, Vol. 5; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

Elizabeth Dodd (essay date 1992)

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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 a means to present a palimpsest of personal and mythic experience, and to embed autobiography within a timeless continuum of countless women's experiences. Even while declaring certain subjects taboo for women artists, Louise Bogan tried to perfect the lyric as a modernist form for women, a possibility for understated personal expression in a time when the high moderns often moved toward longer, disjunctive narratives and a greater reliance on irony. Elizabeth Bishop continued to enhance the possibilities for a tone emphasizing the emotional importance of personal details that are themselves muted or even omitted.

The mature work of the contemporary poet Louise Glück represents a kind of postconfessional personal classicism—one in which the voice of the self is muted by an amplified sense of the mythic, the archetypal (somewhat like H. D.), without losing the compelling presence of an individual, contemporary “I,” a personal voice addressing the reader. She continues the search for personal expression in a poetry that nonetheless relies on silence and omission and eschews extreme statement or merely private disclosure. In this respect she is more like Bogan than any of the others treated so far, yet she extends beyond Bogan's achievement in bringing women's poetry into a new kind of feminist awareness; one editor, Carol Rumens, has termed Glück a “post-feminist” writer. She explains, “‘Post-feminist’ expresses a psychological, rather than political, condition, though its roots are no doubt political. It implies a mental freedom which a few outstanding women in any age have achieved, and which many more, with increasing confidence, are claiming today.” Classification according to Elaine Showalter's historical examination would tend to support such a view. Showalter sees a “female” phase of literature following a “feminist” one; in the “female” literature that has emerged throughout the twentieth century, writers “turn … to female experience as the source of an autonomous art, extending the feminist analysis of culture to the forms and techniques of literature.”1

While such statements seem to imply that feminist intent is no longer applicable to many contemporary writers, and that the sexist forces that have shaped and even distorted women's work in the past have ceased to function, Glück must be understood as a transitional poet. She moves, with many of her contemporaries, further along the path toward psychic freedom and—yes—equality. But as Rumens cautions, “The term [post-feminist] is certainly not meant to suggest that utopia has arrived, and that all is now milk and honey for the once-oppressed.”2 Instead, transitional writers such as Glück continue to turn with the “increasing confidence” Rumens mentions to an inner reliance in their pursuit of formal exploration. Glück has developed the poem sequence as a means for extended expression built upon reticence, and she has introduced a startling (and apt) metaphor for women artists of the late twentieth century, likening her poetic attitude—what I call personal classicism—to anorexia nervosa. Because her work is less widely known than that of her predecessors, and because few autobiographical details are available for public scrutiny, my examination of her contribution will rely more upon close readings of the poetry itself than upon biographical background.

I add the modification “postconfessional” to distinguish Glück's particular contribution to the mode of personal classicism because, unlike the other authors in this study, she first began to write during the heyday of confessional poetry, and her earliest influences most clearly included the well-known confessional poets of the time. Her movement into personal classicism was therefore a deliberate choice to abandon the dominant mode, unlike the eschewal of explicit detail practiced continually by her predecessors. In this, Glück's shift was similar to Louise Bogan's; Bogan also began her career writing her most nearly confessional—certainly her most personal—poems and then chose to become more modernist and more reticent. To fully comprehend the ardent understatement of Glück's mature work, we must first understand in greater depth her debt to the elements that have contributed to the movement literary historians continue to identify as confessional poetry.

Admittedly, the term “confessional” is itself controversial, and many critics, including M. L. Rosenthal—who first introduced the term in his 1959 review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies—express their uneasiness about the precision and usefulness of such a label. This study is not the place to launch another extensive definition of “confessional poetry.” Yet the importance of agitated, relentless imagery and language—including the rhythms of syntax itself—among the work of the confessional poets is certainly vital to the texture of Glück's early work, and it is her deliberate discontinuation of those angry rhythms that ushers in her postconfessional stage.

Of course, the age of confessional poetry has not drawn fully to a close. The presence of a long-running debate over terminology, form, intent—damaging or not—and the presence of the poetry itself continue to help shape the work of contemporary writers. One need only open practically any literary magazine to find these confessions. In general, though, much contemporary confessional poetry doesn't make the kind of connection between the personal and the social, exploring the personally lurid or hidden in order to bring the hypocrisy of the social order under indictment, as many critics have claimed the first confessionals wanted. Many poems today divulge pathetic, graphic details in slack, post-deep-image diction, as if confession alone—“facts” alone—made poetry.

And although arguably the first confessional poets were males—W. D. Snodgrass and Lowell—the specter of a confessional school is largely a feminine haunt due to the immense popularity of Anne Sexton and, most especially, Sylvia Plath. Throughout the 1970s, critical as well as popular interest swelled around Plath as a feminist/confessional martyr; her suicide in 1963 sensationalized the discussion of her writing, even to the point of psychoanalysis of Plath's “problem,” in studies like David Holbrook's Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. Graduate students focused dissertations on her poems while the general public bought her novel, The Bell Jar. The novel was the subject of a television movie and a lawsuit. Such popularity saw to it that for some years the anthologies showcased confessional poets as women, and correspondingly, they showed confessional women poets to be among the most noticeable of contemporary women poets.

Alan Williamson has pointed out that “the very success of ‘confessional’ modes posed a threat to younger poets.”3 I would further suggest that the threat was greater for women since they had relatively fewer visible alternatives to function as models. “Threat,” as Williamson uses it, entails not personal danger from the risks of “murderous art,” as Charles Newman and A. Alvarez suggest, but rather a greater probability that the poet will work within almost preordained limits to the poetic modes and styles available to her. With so few female precursors as role models, it remains all the more difficult for a writer to learn from her influences and then move beyond them; she may very likely remain imitative rather than original. Thus we find the first book of Louise Glück, a very talented young writer, mired in imitation of the confessional mode; although technically accomplished, it remains work in apprenticeship to the popular style. Indeed, upon the publication of Firstborn (1968), most critics immediately commented on Glück's affinities with the confessional poets; reviewers saw traces in her work of Lowell, Snodgrass, Plath, and Sexton. These influences are apparent everywhere in her first collection of poems.

Something in her sensibility throughout the collection recalls Snodgrass's pronouncement from “To a Child”: “Without love we die; / With love we kill each other.” The speakers in Firstborn seem all to be dying for love and yet simultaneously to be trapped in stifling relationships that are killing something in the spirit. The speaker in “The Lady in the Single,” for example, is caught in a death-in-life existence, unable to overcome the sense of absence following the loss of her sailor-lover. Although she tries to think she has left behind the “memory,”

                                        … his ghost
Took shape in smoke above the pan roast.
Five years. In tenebris the catapulted heart drones
Like Andromeda. No one telephones.

(Firstborn, 25)

Repeatedly, the speakers make clear that romantic and familial relationships are destructive; unlike Snodgrass or Plath, however, Glück includes no character for whose sake she attempts to find redemption. There is no daughter, no needle-in-the-heart who must believe that love is “possible,” (Snodgrass), nor any son who is “the one / solid the spaces lean on, envious” (Plath).4 Indeed, much of the book centers on an abortion, while several poems in which children do appear show the speaker not to be the parent, but rather a slightly removed relative (“My Cousin in April”) or merely a kind stranger entering the child's life only briefly (“Returning a Lost Child”). The poems are more consistently stoical, more bleakly existential, than those of either Snodgrass or Plath, despite similarities of subject and theme. This stoicism is the seed of Glück's postconfessional classicist mode.

Like Plath and Sexton, she writes with angry bitterness about female sexual or romantic experience in a world where women remain primarily powerless. Poems like “The Egg,” “Hesitate to Call,” and “The Wound,” center around the event of an abortion in which the woman is not an active figure, exercising her right to choose and to take control of her life, but rather is one who is acted upon by others, such as a lover or a doctor. As in Plath's work, Glück's poems rely on an inventive, even pyrotechnical implementation of metaphor, frequently evoking landscapes that are in fact mindscapes. Also like Plath, Glück sometimes allows this inward-gazing use of metaphor—this melding of tenor and vehicle—to get out of control and become an impediment to the poetry, something merely clever or exclusively private. For example, lines from “The Egg,” in Firstborn, one of these poems about unwanted pregnancy and abortion, seem forced elements only of the suffering but ingenious will: “A week's meat / Spoiled, peas / Giggled in their pods.”

The formal technique employed throughout Firstborn is akin to that of Lowell. In the words of Williamson, Glück uses Lowell's “tense iambics and emphatic rhymes; his apostrophes and choked sentence fragments.” Glück herself refers to the book's “bullet-like phrases, the non-sentences.”5 This kind of intense, relentless syntax is typical of confessional poetry. But it is not merely the sentence structure that is bulletlike; there are the syncopated line breaks, where enjambment is disjunction; the uneasy use of rhyme; even the breaking of words in the middle, to suggest the mockery or choppy dissolution of harmony. In the false pastoral scene of “Early December in Croton on-Hudson,” the landscape prepares for what must be a terrible, inescapable sexual attraction voiced in the last line:

Spiked sun. The Hudson's
Whittled down by ice.
I hear the bone dice
Of blown gravel clicking. Bone-
pale, the recent snow
Fastens like fur to the river.
Standstill. We were leaving to deliver
Christmas presents when the tire blew
Last year. Above the dead valves pines pared
Down by a storm stood, limbs bared …
I want you.

(Firstborn, 13)

The attention to craft that many reviewers noted is evident throughout the book's many variations on fixed forms: there are, for example, half a dozen near-sonnets, poems using four-line ballad stanzas, even rhyming couplets. Glück uses these forms the way she does enjambment and rhyme in general: to emphasize disjunction and dis-ease. Just as she often selects slant rhyme to produce a more unsettling feeling in her poems than that which true rhyme generally suggests, Glück alters the elegant stability of the sonnet to suit her vision of life either threatened or already out of balance.

The most formally traditional of these near-sonnets is “My Neighbor in the Mirror.” It is shrewdly appropriate to use this form to present the subject, an affected academic, whom she calls “M. le professeur in prominent senility.” Most of the lines have five stresses and the rhyme scheme is roughly Shakespearean—the piece is certainly recognizable as a sonnet. Yet a Shakespearean sonnet's form traditionally poses a problem and then reaches, perhaps after some slight musing, a resolution. Even Bishop, in her variations of the form, maintains that basic pattern of meaning. But such implications have nothing to do with Glück's task in this poem. Instead, the “problem,” an encounter on the apartment building stairway during which the neighbor ridiculously preens before a mirror, is simply followed by what-happens-next information that is simultaneously banal and, therefore, pathetic. This conclusion is not confined to the final couplet, but rather to the last three lines: “At any rate, lately there's been some / Change in his schedule. He receives without zeal / Now, and judging by his refuse, eats little but oatmeal.”

The couplet itself rhymes with a dying fall, linking stressed “zeal” (what is lacking in the senile man's present existence) with the unstressed syllable in “oatmeal.” Thus, Glück's poem suggests that there is no solution, no resolution; there are only pathetic consequences. Indeed, that suggestion pervades the entire book as she moves from one static or degraded situation to another.

Glück's use of clever metrics rivals that of Plath or Lowell and reveals a clear difference between her work and that of Sexton, whose use of traditional form and rhyme is much less sophisticated, much less thoughtful. In other near-sonnets, the stanzaic shape is not so recognizably precise, and the number of lines may be thirteen or fifteen; however, the general movement and sense of timing is like that in “My Neighbor in the Mirror.” The poems' endings, although not always confined to the final couplet, arrive with swift viciousness.

Glück also reveals her debt to confessional poetry in the collection's persona poems. The persona poem has been a literary tool in personal classicism throughout the century, as I have shown, since it can allow a writer to unite personal, autobiographical material—tales of the self—with a mythological, allusive mask—tales of an other—and to finally seek shelter behind that mask. Yet persona poetry has played an important role in the work of the confessionals, as well. Its precise importance seems to vary from poet to poet—or from critic to critic, according to what particular definition each one ascribes to confessional work.

For those who maintain that confessional poetry must eventually transcend the solely personal in favor of the public, the persona poem's role is in the actual collection of poems, the book: through careful placement of persona poems among more personal ones, the poet builds a bridge out of the confines of the self and into the wider historical or sociological realm. A. R. Jones is representative of this attitude in his discussion of Lowell: “His most characteristic and successful effects have been achieved by his use of an escalating imagery that moves with easy assurance from personal experience into public and metaphysical meaning.” Not only imagery, but entire poems, such as Lowell's “The Banker's Daughter” or “A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich” effect this movement into “public and metaphysical meaning.” Indeed, the whole arrangement of Life Studies, with Lowell's insistence upon history, reinforces such an appraisal. For the critic who sees confessional poetry as extremist, a term A. Alvarez favors, the persona poem may be a way to shock the reader, a kind of ultimate metaphor that implies something of psychosis, a splitting of the self. To probe into the thoughts—or pain—of the persona becomes another way to pursue disaster for the sake of new experience, another way to achieve what Alvarez called at one time “a murderous art.”6

In each of these cases, it would seem that what distinguishes the persona poem by the confessional artist from that by any other writer is not primarily an attribute of the poem itself but rather the fact that the writer also composed “real” confessional poems. Critics therefore see whatever thematic connections exist among the poems of both genres, and emphasize that thematic heart as the confessional interest. Robert Phillips includes among his characteristics of confessional poetry, “It is therapeutic and/or purgative,”7 and he might also have sought to establish a unity among a confessional writer's “autobiographic” and persona poems with this postulate.

But other critics and writers would probably discount such an intentional fallacy as a poor way to approach the confessional mode—the point of real art is not to provide an alternative to analysis or medication, although in meeting their own drives to create, to make, artists may, consequently, experience catharsis or purgation. Perhaps one of the best formulations is Williamson's description of the way “a subtle tissue of implicit psychological preoccupations links the impersonal poems to the personal ones, and helps give the impersonal ones a delicate complexity of feeling we have missed in some of the ontological lyrics that try to leave the specific self too completely behind.”8 Williamson emphasizes the continued interest in the personal, or interior, even while framing that interest amid the impersonal, or social—this is the heart of Glück's postconfessional personal classicism. What links the persona poems with the others in Firstborn is certainly theme but also tone. Like Plath's “Lady Lazarus,” the speakers are almost out of control, full of wild energy or anger. They do not participate in the understatement and calm tone of the later work any more than the early autobiographical poems do.

The book's second section, titled “The Edge,” contains most of the clearly identifiable persona poems in the collection. These speakers range from a race car driver's widow to a photojournalist of the Vietnam War; yet the diversity is introduced slowly, beginning with the section's title poem. This speaker is not very different from those in most poems throughout the book: she is a woman trapped in a destructive relationship with a man. A dramatic monologue, “The Edge” is full of imagery from other poems in the collection. Domestic yet discomforting, the setting includes bed, table, and house with all the attributes of success: lace table linens, roasts, bouquets. Yet the speaker remains “crippled,” her life a “waste.” What sets her apart from the speaker in poems of section one, “The Egg,” and section three, “Cottonmouth Country,” is that she is married; the destructiveness of her relationship with a man is now trapped in the ostensible tranquility of marriage. Glück chose this poem to open the section, seeming to imply quietly that all the speakers to follow, and their various troubles, are not really too different from those of anyone else. Thus Glück advances the personal themes found elsewhere from a slightly different perspective.

“My Life Before Dawn” is a striking example of a radically different perspective: the male narrator discusses the manner in which he jilted his lover, saying, “… I told her Sorry baby you have had / Your share. (I found her stain had dried into my hair.)” Yet he remains haunted by her memory, and at the poem's close she appears in his nightmares with all the vindictive power of Plath's “Lady Lazarus.” In the man's terrifying dreams, he has not been able to so easily cast her off.

One critic, attempting to argue a strictly confessional reading of the entire book, and likening Glück throughout to Sexton, sees in this poem a strange struggle between a female narrator and her mother, “a vampire risen from her childhood.”9 Yet this reading of the poem is insupportable, since the speaker begins

Sometimes at night I think of how we did
It, me nailed in her like steel, her
Over-eager on the striped contour
Sheet (I later burned it) …

(Firstborn, 24)

The opening obviously suggests violent sex, not childbirth. Certainly it demonstrates the danger in labeling a poet “confessional” and then attempting to apply to her work the rules Robert Phillips sets forth in his book-length study, the first of which is that “the emotions [confessional poets] portray are always true to their own feelings.”10 Such critics miss the point.

Glück portrays emotions that are not her own in order to imply the ones with which she sympathizes. Clearly, the male speaker is a voice representative of a type: men who use women. There is nothing about the poem that suggests what we usually consider to be confession in poetry. Even though the male speaker is, in fact, “confessing” his own macho boorishness and demonstrating that he cannot escape the result of his own actions, only a careless or contorted reading could lead one to assume that the poet identifies herself with the speaker. This poem lacks the insistent sense of witnessing, sharing, speaking from the central recesses of the self—what some critics call sincerity—that we find in some of her poems, such as “Easter Season.” It is, instead, a cunning—if not always well done—variation on the book's primary subject matter.

“My Life Before Dawn” employs the same compositional techniques as the other poems in Firstborn, however, and its tone reinforces its unity within the collection. In this poem we hear the same jerking, spiky enjambments, the same violent images that appear in the more autobiographical personal pieces. It is a kind of companion piece for “Hesitate to Call,” one of the first section's abortion poems, in which the poem's speaker is addressing a former lover who has left her pregnant. The title forms a bitter circular sentence with the final line, “Love, you ever want me, don't”—playing off the phrase, “don't hesitate to call.”

Both these poems—like all the poems in Firstborn—speak abruptly, both in their actual sentences and their use of the line. They are nearly all joyless, comfortless. They speak of the body and sex in terms of use, violence, and decay—without renewal—while syntax, diction, and lineation combine not merely to speak of pain, but to create its rhythms.

The great difference between Firstborn and Glück's later books lies largely in the tone Glück creates as she develops into a personal classicist. In his 1981 review of Glück's third book, Descending Figure, Calvin Bedient touched on this important change: “Glück's importance lies more and more in her stringency, which is an earnest of her truthfulness and courage. … What has grown upon her, insidiously and strengtheningly, is an ‘infamous calm.’” Yet this “infamous calm” actually began some years earlier with Glück's second collection, The House on Marshland (1975), a body of work that is simultaneously a break from her earliest style and a continuation of the same themes. As Helen Vendler wrote of the second collection, “Now, though a violent perception has not ceased, violent language has.” Three years later, Vendler expanded her description of Glück's tone, pointing out that the new poems' tone “owes nothing to Plath; it is not Lawrentian or clinical (Plath's two extremes.)”11 Glück is clearly leaving behind her early debt to the language of the confessionals.

The new tone is subtle and ubiquitous; the calmness emphasizes tone as a way to embody stoicism and endurance, not suffering and victimization. It frequently employs understatement rather than the exaggerated metaphoric comparisons of Plath's confessional poetry or the angry insistence on lived detail of Adrienne Rich's. While some very personal autobiographical/narrative detail is important, each poem's strength seems built out of how very little detail is really allowed and how quietly the information is conveyed. Her understatement seems different from the kind of careful encoding earlier women writers relied upon. Glück does not appear interested in telling a carefully “slanted” truth; rather, she concentrates on bearing a quiet, though straightforward and honest, witness to the world—and to the world of selfhood. It is this ardent understatement in Louise Glück's mature poetry that constitutes her major contribution to the mode of personal classicism.

In a 1981 interview, Glück discussed these issues, revealing how she attempted to change the “mood” of her poetry.

When I finished the poems in [Firstborn,] it was clear to me that the thing I could not continue to do was make sentences like that. The earliest poems in The House on Marshland were responses to a dictum I made myself, to write poems that were, whenever possible, single sentences. I tried to force myself into latinate suspensions, into clauses. What it turned out to do was open up kinds of subject matter that I had not had access to.12

Her remarks reveal assumptions that fiction writers as well as poets have held for years: syntax creates a personality in the work, a distinctive mood or atmosphere. Thus Glück is focusing on an element even deeper in composition than the line—although the line is usually considered the primary unit of poetry—to effect real change in her work. She continues to explain that she wanted an effect in which “the sentences won't snap down like that, hard upon each other. The atmosphere of deadendedness will go.”13

Yet she also suggests a slight variation on the familiar wisdom offered by Charles Olson and Robert Creely—that form is only the extension of content. In changing her voice, her tone, Glück could “open up kinds of subject matter that [she] had not had access to.” Here the relationship is reversed in the process of composition, so that content does not merely demand its proper outward expression, but modes of expression can even suggest new possibilities of subject matter. There is not a great distinction between “form” and “mood” in this context; in many of Glück's poems, the “mood” is in fact the poem's subject, much the way the Objectivists and others see a poem's embodiment of material as its real subject. In the era of nonliterary analogues to form like the letter, the conversation, the dream, such as Jonathan Holden has suggested, choices in tone or mood can replace those of stanzaic form.14 While the choice between, for example, sonnet and sestina once established nuances of meaning about the world, such nuances are predominately established in contemporary poetry by other means.

What new subject matter was opened up by changes in syntax? Glück does not say, but I suggest it is the presence of the mythic, the archetypal, the legendary in our lives. It is once again a way to use the personal as a means to explore beyond the lonely, quotidian existence of the self; the personal is somewhat subordinated to the overarching world of myth. She shares this desire with many poets—H. D., of course, but there are also countless writers who are neither personal classicists nor confessional poets, yet who appeal to myth in their writing. A difference in Glück's later work is that even while the personal is placed within the mythic, the tone of the poem and the structure of the book suggest that the personal remains the point of the poetry, its heart or center, rather than simply providing a means to achieve the more imposing and important mythic. As I have shown, the same impulse remains true to some extent in H. D.'s work as well; her poems “about” mythic characters still focus privately on her. But Glück goes to less elaborate means to mask her own experience behind recognizable mythic characters, though the two share a common interest.

In the opening poem of Marshland, “All Hallows,” pacing, details, and vocabulary all bespeak something ancient, as out of Old World folktale.

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.

(House on Marshland, 3)

This poem embodies precisely what Robert Bly talks about in his discussion of the image as arm, or that through which the non-human universe enters the human by way of an image. It is also indicative of what he calls the metaphor of “forgotten relationships”: “Ancient man stood in the center of a wheel of relations coming to the human being from objects. The Middle Ages were aware of a relationship between a woman's body and a tree, and Jung reproduces in one of his books an old plate showing a woman taking a baby from a tree trunk.” Indeed, Glück seems to have learned something from the deep imagist poets like Bly and James Wright which shows in her introduction of the mythic into her work.15 Deep imagery allows preservation of the personal quality, the personal voice, even where the rational self disappears in a moment of psychic or mythic revelation. Glück has a similar goal for her work as she moves away from confessionalism and toward personal classicism.

In a grossly reductive sense, there is little difference between the subject of “All Hallows”—the creation of children—and that of the domestic, familial poems in Firstborn. But such an equation would belie the poem's actual achievement. In Anna Wooten's words, “The topical matter of the two volumes is similar; the treatment is not.”16 “All Hallows” is explorative and, if not exactly celebratory, at least full of awe. The destructive anger throughout Firstborn made both these qualities impossible; instead, the volume remained mostly assertive, declarative.

In the 1981 interview, Glück says, “My tendency—as is obvious—is to very promptly build mythic structures, to see the resemblance of the present moment to the archetypal configuration. So that almost immediately the archetypal configuration is superimposed.”17 Although I do not mean to imply that Glück consciously took the earlier personal classicist as an influence—Glück herself never has suggested such a connection—her description of her own method sounds very like what we have seen in H. D.'s work. One subtle difference, however, is that, for Glück, the “almost immediate” superimposition of the archetypal takes place within the poem itself, whereas within H. D.'s shorter poems, the connection seems more often to take place earlier, within the writer's earliest conceptions of the poem—even before the writing begins—and so the superimposition appears in the poem as a substitution of the archetypal for the present moment. The process Glück describes may be applied more accurately to H. D.'s longer poems than to those under discussion in chapter 1.

Glück's tendency is, in fact, not “obvious,” perhaps not even realized, until the poems in the second book. Before Marshland, Glück did not really achieve what her teacher Stanley Kunitz maintains is his own goal in poetry: “to use the life in order to transcend it, to convert it into legend.” Her achievement, beginning with Marshland, is the “fusion” of both the “personal and mythical,” thereby “rescuing the poems from either narrow self-glorification or pedantic myopia.”18

Some critics—perhaps most notably Judith Kroll—argue that Sylvia Plath's goal is actually to transcend her own biography, to create an entire legend or mythology of her own self.19 This is indeed one way to approach her poems, and one that would seem to equate Glück's aim with that of Plath, but it is a critical stance concerned only with imagery and symbolism, not with tone. As most readers of Plath will surely concede, one of the most striking aspects of her most wellknown poems is their development of a tone that is extreme—almost out of control—in its mood. It is as if in order to transcend, Plath feels she must create a runaway roller-coaster of language that will finally hurl the self to a larger plane of existence. Nothing could be further from a personal classicist approach. Glück's shift to postconfessional classicism is initially a way to leave behind the extremist sound of her earlier poetry.

A poem from the second half of Marshland is a fine example of the way Glück fuses the personal with the legendary in pursuit of a thematic goal similar to that of Plath but using the postconfessional language of ardent understatement. “The Letters” focuses upon the ending of a romance between a man and a woman, full of symbolic imagery (the time of year is almost autumn) but in a voice that is not that of Everywoman but of a single, profoundly personal individual.

It is night for the last time.
For the last time your hands
gather on my body.
Tomorrow it will be autumn.
We will sit together on the balcony
watching the dry leaves drift over the village
like the letters we will burn,
one by one, in our separate houses.
Such a quiet night.
Only your voice murmuring
You're wet, you want to
and the child
sleeps as though he were not born.
In the morning it will be autumn.
We will walk together in the small garden
among stone benches and the shrubs
still sheeted in mist
like furniture left for a long time.
Look how the leaves drift in the darkness.
We have burned away
all that was written on them.

(House on Marshland, 40)

The stately pronouncements of the first lines suggest an utter finality that is reinforced by the coming of autumn and by the comparison of the way “the child” sleeps—he is given no proper name, not even the identification “our” or “my” son—to a state of nonbeing, not even born. Yet the world is not merely defined by primeval portents: the familiar shapes in the yard appear in language firmly of the present age, “like furniture left for a long time.”

The poem even comments upon the calmness that informs it. “Such a quiet night” sounds natural, like real inner thought; gently trochaic, it ends in a stressed syllable that, like everything else about this poem, implies finality and restraint. It is useful to compare this poem to one of Plath's on a similar subject to see and hear the real difference in tone and execution. Here are the last few lines of “Burning the Letters”:

Warm rain greases my hair, extinguishes nothing.
My veins glow like trees.
The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like—A red
          burst and a cry
That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop
With the dead eye
And the stuffed expression, but goes on
Dyeing the air,
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal.(20)

These two poems depict quite different emotional states: Plath sees the event's loud, terrible violence, and both her imagery and syntax reveal this, while Glück sees the silence, the understatement, the stoically controlled sadness to be the appropriate setting for such an activity as burning a lover's letters. The bitter anger or jagged grief we might have expected had “The Letters” appeared in Firstborn has been sublimated into a reticent willingness to simply bear, to endure, which is, perhaps, a path to greater reflection and understanding. Yet the language of endurance becomes even more pronounced in Glück's next collection, Descending Figure. Indeed, this path leads forward through most of Glück's subsequent work, including her most recent collection, Ararat, which continues to examine calmly what it means in a human life—a woman's, specifically—to abide and survive the losses that comprise life, even while the book moves toward a greater biographic inclusion.

Although Glück herself says that she consciously worked to alter the way she wrote sentences, her second collection reflects a different use of the poetic line, as well. In these later poems, enjambment usually works to pull the poem naturally forward, in the rhythms and breaths of speech dominated not by anger, but by meditation. The use of sound throughout the line is more delicate, more musical, relying on the inner texture of assonance and consonance, and where rhyme is present it is generally internal—a marked change from the earlier poems' heavy reliance on end rhyme. Here are a few indicative lines from the first section of “The Shad-blow Tree”:

It is all here,
luminous water, the imprinted sapling
matched, branch by branch,
to the lengthened
tree in the lens, as it was
against the green, poisoned landscape.

(House on Marshland, 9)

This language is a pleasure to read aloud, in a way none of the poems in Firstborn are. Glück places liquids throughout, sounds appropriate to this landscape of water and plant. The repetition of the “a” sound, with its accompanying internal near-rhyme “matched” and “branch” on the same line, creates a structure of connectedness, not the interruption Glück calls “deadendedness.” Even the small technical matter of initial capitalization has changed in order to emphasize flow. Throughout Firstborn, the only occasions where the first word of each line was not capitalized were those words that were themselves divided by the line break (“photogen / ic”); yet in Marshland, it is the sentence, not the line, that determines capitalization. Such a change is not really radical, and may appear to be only cosmetic, but it is clearly a deliberate part of the new “mood” Glück wanted to create.

Of course, there are still some traces of the abruptly syncopated rhythms and angers in the second book; the transformation in mood continues throughout the two subsequent collections, rather than appearing immediately as a fait accompli. For example, “The Murderess” strikes one as a poem that could have been included in Firstborn. This is a dramatic monologue whose speaker addresses the commissioner, explaining why she has murdered her daughter. Like the many persona poems in the first collection, its language and imagery reveal the psychic workings of the speaker. The rhythm here is both rocking and self-interrupting, as in the opening lines: “You call me sane, insane—I tell you men / were leering to themselves; she saw.”21 The caesura before the last two words enhances the emphatic end to the sentence, an end punctuated in anger and wild perception. “The Murderess” uses longer lines to let the phrases build an energy other than simply friction, and the implication for the entire poem is that language is not at the verge of combustion, as it is in the earlier poems. Still, there are remnants of slant rhyme in the poem's twelve lines, never so abrupt as those in the poems of Firstborn, but still exerting their disquieting force: “men/brain”; “saw/grew”; “pare/Fear”; “talked/lent”; “day/body.” This poem stands out as a link between Glück's early and later styles.

Glück's publishing record reveals further the process of transition as she worked to develop her personal classicist style. Some of the poems from Marshland appeared in periodicals prior to their collection in slightly different forms, including initial capitalization of each line, less modulated diction, and different line breaks. “Gretel in Darkness,” for example, appeared first in 1969, six years before the book's publication. The initial published version retains her early style of capitalizing the first word in each line. This practice imparts an added sense of interruption to the pause introduced by the line break. Glück shifted to lowercase initial letters in Marshland, emphasizing her abandonment of the choppy anger in Firstborn. Another change toward the poem's end reveals Glück's movement toward greater understatement. In the version in New American Review, Gretel addresses her brother emphatically, calling him to remember their shared past:

But I killed for you.
I see armed firs,
The spires of that gleaming kiln—
come back! come back!
Nothing changes. Nights I turn to you to hold me
But you are not there.(22)

In Marshland, Glück deletes the melodramatic “Nothing changes,” and makes the first line longer, a more extended unit of speech. She also has removed the wild exclamation and ominous explanation:

But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln—
Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.

(House on Marshland, 5)

The changes in the final version published in Marshland are specifically intended to alter the voice—or rather the tone of voice—of the speaker, and to lead to a quieter, calmer mood throughout the entire collection. That calm is “infamous” in part because it is not an easy calm; instead, it is achieved through an effort of will, a deliberate attempt at stoicism. We have seen versions of this calm in the work of other personal classicists: while I have already pointed out the similarity to Bogan's stoic stance, I should call attention as well to the quiet courage in Bishop's work where she seems to steel herself into personal statement, in poems like “One Art.” In spite of similarity, however, Glück's tone is distinctive; in contrast to her earlier heavy reliance on influences, she works to develop syntax and timbre that sound like no one but herself. We see that through a deliberate change in her work, she is overcoming the “threat” Williamson suggested that the popularity of confessional poetry posed for younger writers.

In addition to these revisions, Glück decided to omit certain poems published in periodicals during the years between Firstborn, and the appearance of Marshland from the second collection. Glück's decision seems to have been guided by her stated desire to take the new book in a truly new direction from that which she had already traveled. The following poem appeared in Antaeus in 1975, next to “Here Are My Black Clothes,” which was later included in the book.


You hot, honey, do she bitch and crab,
her measly and depriving body holding back
your rights? How many years? You chicken, upright
in your suit. You starve, you starve.
Here the night fill with howling, mister,
all those dreams come true in O
the sweetest sound, you say the word, you stuff
one dollar in the slot.(23)

Read aloud, “Jukebox” is certainly “bullet-like,” like the spiky persona poems in Firstborn's second section, such as “The Islander.” Whereas transitional poems like “The Murderess” or “Here Are My Black Clothes” earn their inclusion, perhaps, due to their clear allusions to mythic implications of our lives, “Jukebox” is a lesser poem—merely startling in its street-tough language—and so it seems appropriate that it is excluded from Marshland.

It might be useful here to draw a comparison from a discussion of prose narration. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth uses the term implied author to refer to the picture a reader creates of the author, based on a particular novel. Each novel a writer creates will imply a different “version” of the author, and these “versions” are to be distinguished from the terms persona.mask, and narrator, each of which refers to only one of the elements of the entire work, and not that concentration of the writer's creative self that lies behind the finished whole—plot, characters, timing, and all. Why bother to distinguish the implied author at all, when there are so many terms much easier to distinguish that account for the mechanical, technical, and rhetorical strategies in the novel? Because, explains Booth:

It is only by distinguishing between the author and his implied image that we can avoid pointless and unverifiable talk about such qualities as ‘sincerity’ or ‘seriousness’ in the author. … we have only the work as evidence for the only kind of sincerity that concerns us: Is the implied author in harmony with himself—that is, are his other choices in harmony with his explicit narrative character?24

Here we see a rather New Critical-style reliance on the text itself, in Booth's emphasis on the “version” of the author implied by, even contained in, a novel. And even though a collection of poetry is different from a novel in its presentation of so many “complete” units—the poems—it is similarly helpful to consider the implied author of Marshland as distinct from the speakers of the lyrics, as well as from each persona present in the collection (Jeanne d'Arc, Abishag, the Murderess, etc.). Thus one can avoid unverifiable discussions of “sincerity” that would rely on Robert Phillips's premise: “The emotions [confessional poets] portray are always true to their own feelings.”25 Instead, the important aesthetic consideration of sincerity in a collection of poetry like Marshland is this: does each individual poem sound as if it is the truth? This question shouldn't imply a cynical situation where it sounds like truth but is not; another way to phrase the question might be: does each poem convince a reader that it is intended to present truth? “Myth,” of course, has unfortunately come to mean “untruth” or even “lie” in contemporary vocabulary, but mythology has always been full of psychic, cultural truth, and I mean to include that level.

A follow-up question would paraphrase Booth: Is the implied author of the entire collection in harmony with herself? Does a resonant coherence link the various individual poems? Such questions belong to a study of a book of poetry, distinct from examinations of individual poems. They will help shape my discussion of Descending Figure,The Triumph of Achilles, and Ararat, all of which are fully mature works. I find that they do meet the aesthetic criteria abstracted from Booth. And while The House on Marshland is less strikingly unified in this manner, it introduces, in dramatic contrast, Glück's beginnings to achieve a harmonious sincerity that is both mythic and personal.

Descending Figure (1980) continues to develop a postconfessional idiom, classically interested in circumfusing the self with the archetypal. With her third book, Glück shows a keen interest in the book itself as a form which, because it allows for repetition of imagery and theme as one poem follows another, can permit the poet even greater reticence and understatement in individual poems. The collection as a whole may make clear what a single poem may leave obscure. Thus, a poet need not create the commanding presence of explanation typical of confessional poems. Williamson finds confessional poems to be essentially “a kind of true dramatic monologue.”26 Such monologues are finally intent upon explaining—even justifying—the speaker's point of view in a way the personal classicist poem is not.

This third collection received more critical notice than had her two previous books and for good reason: it is a solidly crafted book, with a greater inner unity than Marshland and much more maturity and depth than the precocious Firstborn. Many reviewers noted the collection's interest in art—not merely poetry, but the visual and plastic arts as well. As Dave Smith wrote, “Descending Figure is a book about art before it is about anything else because art is the answer to ‘the cries of hunger’ which myth wants to systematically accommodate. Poem after poem addresses the aliases of art (illusions, perceptions, qualities) and is a ceremony which attempts to fix both the known and the way of knowing.”27

Smith touches on another important aspect of the book—the interest in hunger, especially the willed hunger of anorexia—as a way to pursue “perfection.” It is also, of course, a way to deny or suppress the physical self and to seek a sterner, leaner participation in the world that Glück calls “the dying order.” More than one reviewer remembered Pound's phrase about poetry “where painting or sculpture seems as if it were just coming over into speech,” because of the spareness of her work, the deliberate quiet, the intense concision. Yet all this emphasis on order is not an avoidance of complexity in favor of the quotidian, but rather, as Steven Yenser points out in a review, a commitment to “linguistic torsion.”28

Glück creates this complexity through placing the collection's poems sequentially in a tightly interconnecting texture. We see in miniature this emphasis on placement in Glück's use of the poem sequence, an important formal development largely ignored by the other personal classicists in this study: H. D. explores the possibility of long poems in Trilogy, but she does not achieve Glück's intensity nor her interest in articulation through silence. In 1978, Helen Vendler commented that she wished Glück would write a long poem; her hopes may have been met with some of Glück's work that followed shortly thereafter.29 In Descending Figure, there are four of these longer poems comprised of subtitled sections: “The Garden,” “Descending Figure,” “Dedication to Hunger,” and “Lamentations.” I want to begin with the sequence that Glück herself singles out for discussion, “The Garden.”

In Alberta Turner's Fifty Contemporary Poets, Glück tells something of the poem's composition. She began, she says, with the final section, “The Fear of Burial,” which was written in response to a workshop assignment in her writing circle: to write a poem about fear. As the other sections subsequently came,

my concept of the poem changed several times during the three months spent writing it. … Once the piece was assembled, the individual sections were pruned here and there. Initially I had wanted each section to be capable of standing on its own. After several workshop sessions I came to feel I couldn't have both independent poems and a longer coherent work … From this point all editorial adjustments were made in the interest of the long piece.30

The “long piece” has received prominent placement in Glück's work. “The Garden” was published first in Antaeus in 1975—the same year that The House on Marshland appeared—and it has undergone only the slightest change in its subsequent appearances: a chap-book published by Antaeus Editions, dedicated to Stanley Kunitz, and the title piece in the first section of Descending Figure. From its first appearance to its third, only tiny revisions have been made: a comma has been removed and a period changed to a question mark. Clearly Glück saw the poem as a completed whole early on and remained satisfied with its unity. She was not alone in her opinion of its importance among her work; William Doreski called it “The most ambitious poem in her new book,” further describing it as “a miracle of compression, a tight allegory composed of complex metaphors that evoke both the Biblical creation myth and the modern myth of self-creation.”31

“The Garden,” with its five subtitled sections (“The Fear of Birth,” “The Garden,” “The Fear of Love,” “Origins,” “The Fear of Burial”), practically shimmers in myth, from the title, evoking Eden, to the concluding section, “The Fear of Burial,” picturing the soul after it has left the body. It is, in spite of its generally simple syntax and hushed language, a difficult poem, not unlike Bishop's “Four Poems” discussed in chapter four. Yet unlike “Four Poems,” it achieves an importance of unity, setting out many of the themes and images to recur throughout the entire book. Birth, the body and its myriad mutabilities, fear, the fatalistic responsibilities of adulthood: all these appear in the “The Garden”'s first section and will return throughout the book.

In talking about the poems of Descending Figure, Glück says, “I realize I have a craving for that which is immutable. The physical world is mutable. So, you cast about for those situations, or myths, that will answer the craving.”32 In fact, “The Garden” does not “answer”—does not, that is, provide a solution or at least a consolation for—this craving so much as it simply articulates it. In the first section, the unborn body “could not content itself / with health,” and so is seen to have willed its fall from real “health,” or safety in the womb.

As the sequence proceeds, in the section also titled “The Garden,” the speaker addresses “you,” presumably a lover who has gone into the garden that “admires you”: “… Yet / there is still something you need, / your body so soft, so alive, among the stone animals.” The human body is not self-sufficient, and its various needs or hungers will recur in the pages to follow. Yet “The Garden” mitigates the fear of death with its final line, in which the deathless perfection of the stone animals—lawn ornaments that have achieved mythic proportions—is not, finally, envied: “Admit that it is terrible to be like them, / beyond harm.”

In section three, “The Fear of Love,” we do, perhaps, see the introduction of something to “answer the craving.” This is surely one of the poems Helen Vendler had in mind when she wrote, in the rear cover blurb, of “the invention of religion” as a theme for the book. As this section continues to develop the imagery that pervades Descending Figure, the human body itself has become like stone, seemingly through its weariness, a kind of paralysis, rather than a true immutability. The lovers, no longer in the spring of the garden, imagine that they lie partially buried in the snow, escaping the earthly, mortal cast of their own shadows in a world of light. When, dressed in feathers, the gods come “down / from the mountain we built for them,” they are descending figures, and are a kind of “answer” to mortal craving and fear. They come, therefore, in response to the two preceding sections as well as that in which they appear: through the poem sequence, Glück establishes the basic interconnectedness that pervades Descending Figure.

The next section picks up where “The Fear of Love” left off, with the speaker supposing that a comforting voice—like that of a mother or a benevolent god—has just spoken.


As though a voice were saying
You should be asleep by now—
But there was no one. Nor
had the air darkened,
though the moon was there,
already filled in with marble.
.....And yet you could not sleep,
poor body, the earth
still clinging to you—

(Descending Figure, 7)

This section continues the sequence's allusion to—or reconfiguration of—the Genesis myth; throughout these stanzas, however, the god is absent and the voice wistful and bereft. Here we find Genesis in the existentialist age, or, conversely, existentialism even from the time of origins. Glück continues her development of the idea of the body, so important throughout the collection. The body is a kind of contemporary kenning for the “you,” a momentary reduction of the self to mere body, newly formed from the earth. In other poems she returns to the matter of origination, through sex, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, childhood; but here she relies on the details from Genesis: man wrought from the clay of the earth.

“The Fear of Burial,” the sequence's concluding section, extends the details from “Origins”'s last lines. The body, risen from the earth into life, is now imagined after death, while Glück introduces a Cartesian mind/body—or Christian soul/body—dualism, yet her language continues to imply the pantheistic.

In the empty field, in the morning,
the body waits to be claimed.
The spirit sits beside it, on a small rock—
nothing comes to give it form again.
Think of the body's loneliness.
At night pacing the sheared field,
its shadow buckled tightly around.
Such a long journey.
And already the remote, trembling lights of the village
not pausing for it as they scan the rows.
How far away they seem,
the wooden doors, the bread and milk
laid like weights on the table.

(Descending Figure, 8)

Loneliness is the condition of death, and Glück imagines that loneliness as activity of both the body and the spirit; the body must “journey,” must “[pace] the sheared field.” The spirit, too, is surely lonely, since it sits alone while “nothing comes to give it form again,” but the section's longer stanza delineates the body's loneliness, not specifically the spirit's. Thus Glück sets the pattern for examining emotions through the language of the body, which she will later define as “hunger.” Although Descending Figure is peopled with gods and with the dead, Glück continues to write of them in sensate terms of the body and a physical understanding of the world. She is much like H. D. in this respect; to H. D., as to Glück, mythic subject matter is vital, alive with present meaning and embodiment.

Even while she sets a pattern early in the collection, she does not fully reveal the metaphorical resonance of the images and language that constitute that pattern. As Jay Parini points out, Glück's technique owes something to the symbolists: she “cannot be pinned to a specific interpretation” since “other meanings radiate” from whatever appears to be an individual poem's subject.33 That radiation permeates the entire collection, effectively linking each poem to all the others in a complex texture of imagery and statement. Glück uses the book as a form much as she does the poem sequence: a tightly woven tissue of connected imagery, tone, and theme which adds up to more than the sum of its individual poems. And she uses the book to a greater formal purpose than the other writers in this study. The small bound typescript of poems from “The Islands series” was never published during H. D.'s life. After her first two books, Bogan published essentially “new and collected” editions; Bishop was more pains-taking in arranging her collections, as the inclusion of “In the Village” within Questions of Travel suggests, yet even she does not achieve the degree of intraconnectedness we find in Descending Figure.

Not all readers admire Glück's thorough intra-allusiveness. One reviewer, Elizabeth Maraffino, availed herself of an opportunity to criticize what she saw as an unfortunate direction American poetry was taking, a direction of which Louise Glück's latest work was representative. Her characterization of Glück's technique is fairly accurate, though cursory:

Each poem is tightly constructed: lines break with hairline precision; no useless phrases litter page or mind; images are as carefully positioned within the chamber of each poem as each object within a Cezanne still life—they are in keeping with the tessitura of the poem, never strident and shrill, never too muted, above all never off hand.34

Maraffino does not care for Glück's achievement with these techniques, holding that Glück misses an important opportunity, failing to allow for any “long digression—10 pages of digression if necessary” in order to fully explore all the minute connotations and denotations implied in each element of careful phrasing.

The review occasioned some energetic letters to the editor of the American Book Review. John Hawkes attempted to explain the intricacies of Glück's method this way:

Glück calls a spade a spade but not in a way that would break old-fashioned personal pride, or, for that matter, would weaken her poems as works of art. Is one an academic, ‘distant,’ simply because one doesn't let it all hang out?

If Maraffino went back and read these poems over word for word and, then, line to line, she might come to see her own ‘missed opportunity!’ Why say more than is necessary unless one is appealing to a very unimaginative audience? Children come instantly to mind as a group where one often has to repeat oneself and to take things to the very last common denominator. This more often resembling a chant than intelligent lyricism.35

As Hawkes makes bitingly clear, Glück's mode of postconfessional classicism by design does not load the lyric with narrative detail, emotional digression, or, simply, explanation. Instead, she allows her vision to resonate quietly, without overt signposts, among an entire collection of poems, in which each poem adds a slight variation upon the way an image or an idea has been treated elsewhere.

The book's title, Descending Figure, also exemplifies this approach. Glück explains that although she had several poems written for a third book, she was working with no idea of a title until she read an interview with Paul Simon published in Rolling Stone, in which he mentioned the musical term descending figure. She explains:

I was immensely haunted by the phrase, its implications and resonances. I think that from the moment I had that title, I assumed it would be the title for my next book. A phrase likely to typify my work … there's the feeling of minor key, a kind of irrevocable darkening, a moving down the scale.36

In music, the term refers to a figure, a smaller unit of notes than a phrase, that repeats at progressively lower pitches throughout the work. It is not exactly a variation on a theme, since the pattern of notes does not change. It is more nearly a repetition of the theme voiced at a different level, in a slightly different context, so to speak. Glück has said that her preference for subtlety and context emerged in her earliest experiences of reading poetry as a child: “I liked scale but I liked it invisible. I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page, yet swelled in the mind.”37 I also find it significant that Glück chooses musical analogies to discuss her work: “minor key, moving down the scale.” Her choice implies her constant awareness of sound's importance.

The “descending figure” does indeed have many implications and resonances throughout the collection. The first poem, “The Drowned Children,” speaks of the children's bodies slowly descending through the water. The descending figure is also the angel of death—or the dead sister who returns as a spiritual presence. Because of its musical definition, the phrase also emphasizes the book's interest in art. The gods themselves are descending figures, as they come down the mountain in “The Fear of Love.” That descent is reversed in the book's final poem, “The Clearing,” where “at last God arose, His great shadow / darkening the sleeping bodies of His children, / and leapt into heaven.”

As the title resonates throughout these different contexts, some implications remain constant. The small collection of musical notes that constitute a figure are not static matter: they are sound, energy. But the power of the metaphor that names them for us gives them tangible shape—a figure, a body. Similarly, Glück's work returns repeatedly to what is noncorporeal: the spiritual, the religious, the emotional. Yet the language with which she speaks of these non-physical subjects is the language of a mortal, full of the metaphor of the body. The word “body” or its plural occurs twenty-four times; “flesh” occurs three. In a book of only forty-eight pages, some of those simply title pages bearing no poems, this means that explicit naming of the body occurs on average more than every other page, a very insistent presence.

Glück says, “My poems are vertical poems. They aspire and they delve. They don't elaborate, or amplify.”38 This is quite true of the individual poems; only through the implied connections within the collection do we see anything resembling elaboration, and even then the word more properly would be variation, I think. There is something of the modernist passion for juxtaposition in her method: the desire to present rather than to explain, for simple linkage rather than careful transition. All the personal classicists have ties to mainstream modernism, whether an attraction to subject matter, as in the renewed interest in classical mythology and intellectualism of H. D.'s and Bogan's work, or an exploration of new formal—or tonal—possibilities that free verse offered, as in Bishop's.

The poem sequence gives Glück a way to realize one of her earliest interests in poetry: as a child, she says, she was not interested in words themselves, but in contexts. “What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by the means of a word's setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word's full and surprising range of meaning.”39 Thus her exploration of the poem sequence—an exploration of contexts—fulfills an old interest in language.

The title sequence, “Descending Figure,” consists of three titled sections that together, like “The Garden,” offer spare, locally delimited occurrences of themes that pervade the entire book, most notably hunger; language and writing; the power of names; death. The first section, “The Wanderer,” combines death of the sister, and the speaker's own accompanying knowledge of loneliness, with the need for names and for writing.

At twilight I went into the street.
The sun hung low in the iron sky,
ringed with cold plumage.
If I could write to you
about this emptiness—
Along the curb, groups of children
were playing in the dry leaves.
Long ago, at this hour, my mother stood
at the lawn's edge, holding my little sister.
Everyone was gone; I was playing
in the dark street with my other sister,
whom death had made so lonely.
Night after night we watched the screened porch
filling with a gold, magnetic light.
Why was she never called?
Often I would let my own name glide past me
though I craved its protection.

(Descending Figure, 11)

The setting, “ringed with cold plumage,” indicates that once again we are in the world where the quotidian present merges with the world of myth. In its echo of the Old English poem, the title enhances this sense of the old, the archetypal. And out of that setting, the speaker's need to write, to name, to describe and therefore perhaps transcend loneliness erupts in a sentence she cannot even complete. The speaker's loneliness—emptiness—is not unlike that of the dead sister; the speaker actually wills herself to experience more fully that terrible loneliness, earlier imagined in “The Fear of Burial”: she stands in the dusk, apart from the “gold, magnetic light” at the house, and does not take refuge and comfort from her own name. Instead, she stands silent, as if she is not a living, loved daughter being called home.

“The Sick Child,” the second section of “Descending Figure,” also focuses on death. Attributed by epigraph to the Rijksmuseum, it is ostensibly a description of a painting. The first ten lines are simple, objective description of a child sleeping in her mother's arms and of the winter night surrounding them. Steven Yenser points out, however, that

no painting in that museum corresponds to Glück's scene. In the one that comes closest, “The Sick Child” by Gabriel Metsu, the child looks feverishly out at the observer, while in Glück's poem “The mother … stares / fixedly into the bright museum.” Maybe her memory is at fault; but it seems to me possible that whatever else she means, she intends to condense and to extend her complicated relationship to her dead sister.40

I think Yenser is quite right about the connection to the sister; the poem itself shows, in the next seven lines, that it has left the world of the painting—or entered it so completely and imaginatively as to render the placement in the Rijksmuseum unimportant. Yet the connection is not stated, only implied.

By spring the child will die.
Then it is wrong, wrong
to hold her—
Let her be alone,
without memory, as the others wake
terrified, scraping the dark
paint from their faces.

(Descending Figure, 12)

Suddenly the poem casts free from the present into the realm of foreknowledge, and from the human world of comfort and compassion of a mother for a sick child to an awful imperative that extends compassion beyond the mortal realm. The end thus urges that the child be left alone in her fated life, since she must die soon, in order that she may be “without memory,” and therefore unable to fully experience her own loneliness, never having not been alone.

Yenser also points out that the final section, “For My Sister,” reveals the speaker acting as a mother to the child.41 These different contexts explore the various relationships among different generations of women; thus the “descending figure” also implies movement through time, through generations.

Far away my sister is moving in her crib.
The dead ones are like that,
always the last to quiet.
.....Now, if she had a voice,
the cries of hunger would be beginning.
I should go to her;
perhaps if I sang very softly,
her skin so white,
her head covered with black feathers. … [ellipsis Glück's]

(Descending Figure, 13)

The poem's final image—white skin and head covered with black feathers—visually links back to the last lines in the preceding section, “scraping the dark / paint from their faces,” and to the earlier image of the gods “in their cloaks of feathers.” This reappearance of imagery surely is an example of what Glück perceives as a “figure” descending through her poetry. Glück creates this densely inter-woven texture of imagery throughout the book, as one image recalls and prepares for another. Thus, for this personal classicist, even imagery is a method of understatement.

She interweaves her themes and subject matter just as densely and quietly as she does her imagery. In “For My Sister,” Glück imagines that if the dead sister could speak, “the cries of hunger would be beginning.” Hunger asserts itself repeatedly in different settings in the later poems, and becomes a figure for artistic shaping. In a poem titled “Epithalamium,” she writes of “the terrible charity of marriage,” and in this context she sees “So much pain in the world—the formless / grief of the body, whose language / is hunger—.”

Throughout Descending Figure, Glück presents a theme similar to that of Firstborn, while she continues to explore different sorts of articulation. Marriage is a union of only bodies and sex is an irresistible urge that is not celebratory, but wounding, humiliating, and inexorable. To a certain extent, all human relations except that between mother and child are depicted in these terms. In “Tango,” the speaker describes the relationship between sisters as a state of inseparability that is nonetheless wounding: she writes of a moon that is “brutal and sisterly.” The sisters are “actively starving,” says the speaker; their hunger is the hunger not of sexual desire, but nonetheless of a desire to join, to either absorb or be absorbed. This section's final image is of the trees “disfigured” in the moonlight, emphasizing through imagery the fact that one thing—or person—can so easily disfigure another.

Whatever is inseparable is beyond control, and although Glück does not say it in so many words, she shows control to be the language of the spirit or soul. Hunger, she says explicitly, is “the language of the body”: willed hunger is a kind of desperate articulation then, and anorexia becomes one of the important themes and metaphors of the book, exploring that strange middle ground where the bodily and the spiritual grapple. Whereas the corporeal speaks through desires and hungers, the spirit continually attempts to overcome the body's needs through mastery and denial. Such an approach to life is the only one that appears possible to the anorexic woman, and throughout much of the book we see the anorexic's own peculiar brand of existentialism informing the poetry's aesthetic.

As I have shown in the work of all the writers treated in this study, personal classicism is a mode dedicated to creating a shielding or controlling context—formal and thematic—for what is essentially quite personal poetry. Behind this dedication lies a supposition that personal poetry is somehow too vulnerable, too revealing, too seemingly unprofessional—in some way in need of a complementary dose of the impersonal. In Glück's adoption of anorexia as both subject matter and aesthetic approach, we see a brilliant use of the social forces that impel women—and women writers—to seek to efface the personal, even their very persons. Susie Orbach has written on the metaphoric implications of anorexia in contemporary culture.

A girl grows up learning to turn her own needs into the servicing of needs in others. She becomes accustomed to restricting her initiatives to those areas that are a response to others' declared needs. As a result she loses touch with her own needs so that they become not only repressed but unrecognized and undeveloped. More damaging, perhaps, she takes on the idea that needs that do arise from within her are somehow wrong, and that she herself is all wrong for having them.

The food refusal can be seen to be a graphic gagging of desire, a block on having what is so wanted. It becomes a model for deprivation in all areas. “If I can successfully deny myself food, I will be able to crush the other desires that arise in me.” The determination associated with the refusal of food is much more than the expression of will, it is an example of the brake on desire in general that exists in the woman. It is a measure of perceived restriction in other areas of self-expression.42

As Orbach makes clear, anorexia is a struggle for control, not a matter of appetite loss. The body, in its physicality, is a seat of desire that must not go unchecked: the anorexic woman has internalized society's notions that women must be physically diminutive and pleasing to the extent that she sees her flesh as a monstrous enemy, an impediment to legitimate selfhood and happiness. “The body is experienced as an object that must be controlled or it will control,” explains Orbach.43 In other words, the physical desires of the body, especially for food, must be thwarted and denied or else they will retain too much power over an individual. The anorexic's struggle is a power struggle.

Throughout Descending Figure, Glück combines the writer's aesthetic search for a poetry reflecting postconfessional willed understatement with the anorexic's drive for control of physical desires. Helen Vendler has called Glück's technique indicative of a “renunciatory aesthetic” which is involved in “the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self.”44 In defining the language of the body as hunger, Glück fuses interest in linguistic/artistic mastery with that of physical restraint. In doing so, she explores the artistic extension of the anorexic's drive to refuse and reject.

Glück herself uses language very like Vendler's. “The tragedy of anorexia seems to me that its intent is not self-destructive, though its outcome so often is. Its intent is to construct, in the only way possible when means are so limited, a plausible self.”45 Glück identifies the anorexic's method of self-determination as a force of negation, of denial, of destroying the physical, public self in order to affirm a private, inner one. The act of will required to achieve such a goal can only be maintained through rigid ritual and self-discipline; the artist's method, similarly, is dedicated to the pursuit of perfection. As Glück says in “The Deviation,” section four of “Dedication to Hunger,” what the artist feels in “aligning these words” on a page—in constructing a coherent vision through poetry—is the pull of self-discipline an anorexic feels in trying to construct a “plausible self.”

The first section of “Dedication to Hunger” is titled “From the Suburbs”: it serves to locate the poem solidly in the landscape of post-war American culture.

The little girl purposefully
swinging her arms, laughing
her stark laugh:
It should be kept secret, that sound.
It means she's realized
that he never touches her.
She is a child; he could touch her
if he wanted to.

(Descending Figure, 29)

In this opening section we see a little of what is important about the suburbs in forming a woman's dedication to hunger—the family structure: mother, whose pleasure comes out of the family, not out of herself, who is glad the child is “like” the head of the household, the father; daughter, who has already begun to internalize the power structure, knowing that she is, as a child, to some degree defenseless and passive; that powerful presence, the father. The touching the little girl does not receive from her father may simply be parental affection—like the speaker in “Tango,” she may be “actively starving” for emotional warmth—but the language focuses simply upon “touch,” the communication of the body, not the spirit. Even here, Glück concentrates on the demands and desires of the body, and of differences in power. Since “she is [only] a child,” she remains passive while the father has the capability to be active. There is the beginning awareness of power as it manifests in familiar and societal roles, and the way roles are tied up with gender definition.

“From the Suburbs” certainly does not indulge in an expansive exploration of its subject, but it gains intensity as the sequence progresses. “Grandmother,” the second section, again examines the role of a female in the family. The poem opens in the grandmother's own words, as memory takes her back to her youth—before children, before grandchildren. The speaker takes up the thread and is able to “watch” the figures of her grandparents; she reserves condemnation enough to claim, “I do not question their happiness.” Yet she sees the passionate lives of her grandparents, in spite of the couple's happiness, as yet another example of sexuality as struggle.

This time the hunger is the man's; he is the instigator, the teacher—the assertive partner, not unlike the father in the preceding section. Yet any feminist criticism of marriage is once again muted: in its focus on miniature detail—light in the man's hair, the way he becomes recognizable only as he draws nearer—the poem avoids reliance on rhetoric or propaganda. Still, the final lines focus on the husband “rush(ing) in / with his young man's hunger” while the speaker pulls back from the scene to comment: “Of course, of course. Except / it might as well have been / his hand over her mouth.” As this section immediately follows “From the Suburbs,” Glück implies that the two situations are analogous, part of the same larger pattern. In both, the action implies a question: who controls a female's body—both when she is a child and when she is a wife?

“Eros,” the third section, takes modern middle-class life in the suburbs into the mythic realm. This section follows essentially the same structure as that in “Grandmother.” In both sections, four lines introduce the poem's subject. Although here the language is more arch and formal, these lines likewise set up a proposition of sorts: that male heterosexuality can be traced to a search for the mother. The lines following explore the plausibility of that proposition: while in “Grandmother” the speaker enters the world her grandmother has spoken of, in “Eros” the speaker explores further the Freudian implications already introduced. The girl child, an important figure in this section, follows the typical movement from love for the mother to love for the father; the way she “wills herself” toward the father, seems in this poem to be yet another instance of the terrible, inexorable drive to be merged. The final two lines correspond to the final three in “Grandmother,” since the swift endings in both sections sum up knowledge wryly and emphatically. One cannot know one's paternal parentage—“the bond”—with the same knowledge one holds for the mother; it is this uncertainty that wills one into an Electra complex, the poem hints.

Out of this “desperate” urge for the father we see the penultimate section emerge.


It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger,
because a woman's body
is a grave; it will accept
anything. I remember
lying in bed at night
touching the soft, digressive breasts,
touching, at fifteen,
the interfering flesh
that I would sacrifice
until the limbs were free
of blossom and subterfuge: I felt
what I feel now, aligning these words—
it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.

(Descending Figure, 32)

The deviation is anorexia, a dedication to hunger, and it grows out of the familial norm in a male-dominated society. What we have seen in the preceding sections has been disturbing, but not because of unusual violence or deviant behavior: each character has been “normal”; some have specifically known pleasure and happiness. They epitomize the superficially safe, apparently stable life of the suburbs, yet from them comes that haunting fear of non-being, of non-personhood in which the speaker can say a woman's body is a “grave” in its sexual capacity “to accept anything.” Glück links the anorexic's need to control and perfect with that of the writer, so that in this section she declares her aesthetic and the forces that impel her to adopt it.

“Sacred Objects,” the last section of the sequence, combines the mythic and the quotidian more fully than do the preceding four sections. Yet its power of conclusion, of combining and summing up, still is achieved through the spareness of language. The section begins:

Today in the field I saw
the hard, active buds of the dogwood
and wanted, as we say, to capture them,
to make them eternal. That is the premise
of renunciation: the child
having no self to speak of,
comes to life in denial—

(Descending Figure, 33)

The section opens as if it will unfold a narrative event, but by the fourth line we see that the narrative serves as something of a parable, articulating the way an urge toward immutability might find its only expression in “denial” or “renunciation.” Glück's “craving” for the “immutable” is part of the human condition and appears throughout literature of all ages. Yeats treated the subject repeatedly in the poems that are still among his best-remembered: “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “The Circus Animals' Desertion.” He sees his body as a “dying animal” to which he is chained; we are familiar with his metaphors and those of other great male poets. With “Dedication to Hunger” Glück has created a new metaphor—primarily based on female experience—to speak about the old craving to transcend the mortal and bodily confines. She hints as well that a woman's mortal restrictions are rather different from a man's. Her poems repeatedly emphasize the woman's body as an object, but it is an object that constantly threatens, through its own desires, to destroy its value or utility. Yet even though a political indictment lies deep within “Dedication to Hunger” and her other intimations of anorexia, that indictment and its accompanying anger are muted and not allowed to surface in the texture of her language in each individual section.

Through careful progression of sections, we see again how Glück is able to depend on the silence between statements—the renunciation of explicit narrative or transitional explanation—to imply the connections embodied in the poem. Glück's placement of “Dedication to Hunger” within the collection also helps to enhance the individual themes contained in the sequence. “Porcelain Bowl” precedes the “Hunger” sequence, and this brief poem introduces the notion of a woman's body relegated to the categories of use and ornamentation—societal attitudes that are directly responsible for anorexia.

The book's closing pages are another poem sequence, “Lamentations.” This sequence is also subdivided into titled sections (“The Logos,” “Nocturne,” “The Covenant,” “The Clearing,”), all of which return to the creation mythology of “Descending Figure.” They focus on the loneliness that belongs to humankind, and trace the way God, too, “wanted to be understood”; he combats his loneliness by turning away from humans. First, he “turned to his angels”; the angels watch “how He divided them: / the man, the woman, and the woman's body.” Finally “God arose, His great shadow / darkening the sleeping bodies of His children, / and leapt into heaven.”46 The man and woman are left alone on the earth, strange to one another, with a child to care for.

Thus, the book's end is loaded with the mournful loneliness of humans for the comfort of their immortal god; with “their human warmth, / their panic”; with the terrible divisions that set men apart from women and women apart from their own bodies; with the responsibility of a family. All the ingredients which have led to the clearly contemporary situations depicted in the book are manifest in “Lamentations.” The sequence thus implies how time has changed little in the way humans connect with one another.

Descending Figure demonstrates eloquently how order and sequence can articulate a wider, more encompassing treatment of themes than that found in any single poem; indeed, I find that any single poem is slightly diminished in scope when removed from the entirety of the book. But “The Garden” appears to be the only poem sequence that Glück initially perceived as a sequence. Some of the others appear to have been conceived originally as separate pieces—and even published that way—and only later put together into the kind of development that distinguishes the collection.47 Thus, from 1975, the year of publication for Marshland, until 1979, the year before publication of Descending Figure, the sequence apparently was not yet a major formal concern in Glück's poetry. Although the form had worked for “The Garden” as early as 1975, it did not seem to hold Glück's interest until shortly before the publication of her third book, nearly five years later. I suspect that the work of careful editing that must have been necessary to see Descending Figure as a whole may also have led to Glück's recognition of the sequence as a perfect form with which to extend her power for lyric concision into somewhat more expansive meditations.

None of the poems in the collection appears incidental, although they vary in quality. Indeed, some that were published in periodicals during these years have been omitted from the collection. One in particular, “In the Empty House,” appeared in the Iowa Review in 1976 along with two other poems chosen for Descending Figure. “In the Empty House” shares much with the style of the poems chosen, but it emphasizes the act of writing distinct from the other hungers Glück chooses to combine in her collection; its surreal focus on the implements of writing seems caricatured. The house itself, with its furnishings, is said at the poem's end to be “counseling stillness,” while, strangely, the speaker has a vision of a pencil appearing in a room, full of dreams and memory that will then dissolve into the act of writing. In spite of the way it voices an urge to silence, stillness, that is vital to Glück's aesthetic, “In the Empty House” is self-indulgent, more heavily romantic in its focus on the “I” without the emphasis on mythic implications we see in Glück's more successful poems. It does not belong in the collection: it is not in balance.

With The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Glück continues to emphasize the long poem, although the title poem itself consists of only twenty lines. Of the twenty-six poems that make up this collection, eight extend into several sections, many of them subtitled. Additionally, many of these long poems are longer than those in Descending Figure: “Marathon,” for example, has nine titled sections, filling eleven pages, and “From the Japanese” likewise has nine sections, though these are not titled, and some are very brief. Yet an important distinction separates this book's approach from that of her previous collection. In a review, Edward Hirsch speaks of

Glück's more open and intimate style and manner. Her most humane book thus far, The Triumph of Achilles is empowered by a complex struggle to live in the world as it is, to accept what the poet has learned to believe is the only world there is, to come to terms with the hard Stevensian proposition that “Death is the mother of beauty.”48

Similarly, Don Bogen notes, “The range of the work has expanded. … Language is looser, embracing the casual as well as the concise.”49 To return to Wayne Booth's terminology, whereas the implied author of Descending Figure recognized stasis, stillness, and death as important elements of existence, Triumph recognizes other elements as well, including humor. Poems like “The Mountain,” a modern parody of the artist-teacher as Sisyphus, are more drily funny, self-mocking, and free of malice than any of the poems in Glück's three earlier books.

Yet Glück's new humor is never bawdy or slapstick. Glück's spareness and reliance on juxtaposition remain primary elements of her style; once again she has widened her subject matter. Although Glück has often relied on juxtaposition for effect, that juxtaposition has rarely included an almost Laforguian use of differing tones placed beside one another, as in “From the Japanese,” where she combines serious statements like “Why love what you will lose? / There is nothing else to love” with amusing anecdotes about Gwen, a bilingual child of three, and the child's cat, Trixie. Triumph marks a new development in Glück's work for the formal use of tone.

The appearance of a new degree of tonal inclusiveness does not, however, replace Glück's dedication to narrative concision. The inclusiveness grows out of her earlier interests; moreover, this book contains poems that do not diverge from the postconfessional classicism we have seen in her two previous books. The second poem in the collection, a three-part sequence titled “Metamorphosis,” continues Glück's work of imbedding the personal in the mythic: it is primarily an elegy for her father. The title sets the mythic context, with its reference to Ovid, and the elegy proceeds with the slow rhythmic dignity familiar in Glück. Many of the line breaks are dictated by syntax; predicate and complement are often set apart from each other, with the natural pause of a breath in between, while modifying phrases are likewise given lines by themselves. These lines are from the second section.

Once, for the smallest
fraction of an instant, I thought
he was alive in the present again;
then he looked at me
as a blind man stares
straight into the sun, since
whatever it could do to him
is done already.
Then his flushed face
turned away from the contract.

(Triumph of Achilles, 5)

To emphasize the emotional and linguistic control evident in this poem's craft, we might compare it with any of the poems by Sharon Olds concerning her father's illness and death, where the line breaks are as surprising and jolting as the imagery.50 Glück's poem does not attempt to shock, but rather to see and to live with the responsibility of that sight. The poem is “about” maturity, gained at one of the defining moments of adulthood, the death of a parent.

Glück's interest in fusing contemporary experience with ancient myth continues throughout Triumph, and as the title might reflect, the mythology is largely from the classical Greek legends, rather than from the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, one poem, “Winter Morning,” begins with a meditation on the death of Christ and moves into an enactment of the birth, fusing old fertility rites' yearning for spring with the promise of the nativity. Another, “Day without Night,” carries a Biblical epigraph: “The angel of god pushed the child's hand / away from the jewels, toward the burning coal.” After retelling how Pharaoh's daughter discovered Moses amid the rushes, the poem moves, in its eighth and final section, to a difficult, nearly existential appraisal of faith (and death):

Here is your path to god,
who has no name, whose hand
is invisible: a trick
of moonlight on the dark water.

(Triumph, 49)

The stoical courage, the determination to endure, that ends this poem is an attitude familiar from earlier personal classicists, especially Bogan and Bishop. Glück wills herself to see the comfortless condition of humanity bereft of naive faith but with a tenacity reminiscent of that in the earlier “Dedication to Hunger,” in which the speaker recalls her adolescent resolution to “free” herself of the flesh's “blossom and subterfuge.”

Yet aside from these poems, the unmistakable atmosphere of the book is Hellenic, and, in its way, again reminiscent of H. D. “Mythic Fragment” is clearly a persona poem, spoken by Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus. In order to avoid Apollo's pursuit, she begged her father to protect her: his solution reveals that only through renunciation of her female form can she avoid marriage. The appeal of this myth, given Glück's repeated interests, should be obvious. Glück's poem emphasizes Daphne's wistful loneliness and her desire for her father's love, not the passion of Apollo. The speaker is a female victim: she sees the god's praise as what Western culture's idealization of women has always been—a condition in which the woman's self is lost, “captivity.” Yet, terribly, the only refuge offered by her father is both obliteration and a form of captivity, as well. She calls for her father's aid and then: “I was nowhere, / I was in a tree forever.” Only through losing her female identity can she escape being “encompassed” by Apollo.

Glück's poem has a strong feminist message, but, unlike her earliest persona poems, its tone is quiet, making no rhetorical proclamations. Even the bitterness in the direct address—“Reader, / pity Apollo”—is a controlled stab at the canon's sympathy with Apollo's gesture toward tribute, or “praise,” in wearing a laurel wreath in memory of the woman he could not possess. The indictment remains implied, not explicit. In this respect, it is much like some of the early personal classicist persona poems of H. D., not because the mythic characters correspond to and mask particular people or events in Glück's own life, but because the poem's speaker is seen anew in feminist terms, the woman's emotions—not Apollo's—are the heart of the work. We might easily compare “Mythic Fragment” to H. D.'s “Eurydice,” “Circe,” or “Evadne,” for example, or to Bogan's “Cassandra.” This is essentially what Alicia Ostriker calls revisionist mythmaking, as described in chapter 1.

Glück has said, “I am puzzled, not emotionally but logically, by the contemporary determination of women to write as women,” explaining that gender differences will arise without an author's studied attention, so that one need not make a specific task of writing out of one's gender. She further explains, “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate the hidden, and the path to the hidden world is not inscribed by the will.”51 Clearly, she does not feel a responsibility as a woman poet to reeducate, through poetic rhetoric, her readers. Her use of myth continues to reveal her preference for subtlety, reticence, and control.

Glück has explained that her interest in myth is not the result of adult study, a kind of academic interest. Instead, the telling of myth was a part of her childhood; her parents told her fairy tales and myths, frequently making their own improvisations. Her father, for example, loved to tell the tale of St. Joan, excluding the final burning which martyred the girl. Thus, Glück says, “Before I was three I was well-grounded in Greek myths.”52 While myth was a part of her early development, so too was the revisioning of myth. Her earliest experiences with story-telling and literature included changing the accepted mythology to fit the teller's needs or desires. As we've seen, this is the approach she takes in her poetry, where the personal and the mythic are fused in the most recent manifestation of personal classicism, that of a postconfessional classicism.

The long poem sequence “Marathon” exemplifies just how Glück's fusion of mythic and personal take shape in The Triumph of Achilles. The sequence follows a brief poem, “The Embrace,” which recounts a woman teaching her lover of “the gods” and in return being led by him “back” into “the original need.” “The Embrace,” then, sets a scene for mythology and sexuality to act out their drama, and “Marathon” provides the cycles of action. The sequence is divided into nine titled sections, “Last Letter,” “Song of the River,” “The Encounter,” “Song of Obstacles,” “Night Song,” “The Beginning,” “First Goodbye,” “Song of Invisible Boundaries,” and “Marathon.” Together they trace the progress of a romantic relationship.

Much of the poem is placed in a Mediterranean coastal village. Section six, “The Beginning,” recounts a dream where the speaker is in the market, recalling “Baskets,” from earlier in the book, also clearly set in a Mediterranean village. The title of “Marathon,” then, carries a connotation of place, or destination, as well as that of the arduous race. Within the dream recounted in “The Beginning,” the speaker describes the marketplace full of fruit stands selling a single fruit—blood oranges—each stand exhibiting one of the ripe fruits cut open. The language reveals elements of Glück's vision familiar from Descending Figure: desires are hungers, and all desires long for structure. Says the speaker: “Then what began as love for you / became a hunger for structure.” This passage recalls Glück's earlier insistence that the urge to write poetry was the same as that which leads to anorexia: to give structure, to “perfect” as she said in “The Deviation,” whether through hunger or through “aligning these words” on the page.

Similarly, Glück continues to work with language in context, allowing an image or phrase to reappear throughout the work; the next sequence, “First Goodbye,” addresses the you directly, telling him to leave, to “go back”

to increment and limitation: near the centered rose,
you watch her peel an orange
so the dyed rind falls in petals on her plate. This
is mastery, whose active
mode is dissection …

(Triumph, 31)

As the orange image recurs, bringing the world of dream into the world of the present, Glück employs the same principles that led her to identify a “descending figure” as the appropriate metaphor for her work.

Throughout this book, however, the structuring metaphor is not chosen from music, but from myth, constantly implying that mythology is an actual part of our daily lives. “Marathon” ends like “The Triumph of Achilles,” recognizing the inescapable mutability that defines human existence; however, it is more chilling, abandoning the physical world and seemingly entering a mythical dream world where nothing definite and lasting is possible, not even the abiding love that bound Achilles and Patroclus. The section recounts a dreamlike sequence during which the speaker hears a former lover speaking to her new lover, describing her body and how best to arouse it. The poem, and the sequence, end on a note of frightening uncertainty:

For all I know, this happens
every night: somebody waking me, then
the first teaching the second.
What happens afterward
occurs far from the world, at a depth
where only the dream matters
and the bond with any one soul
is meaningless; you throw it away.

(Triumph, 34)

Glück has said that she has always preferred work that directly addresses the reader, that seems to need the reader.53 Her own work is often difficult in its complexity, its spareness, and its intraconnectedness, yet I find throughout the development of her mature work a careful tone that, while it eschews extreme prosiness or direct confession, does imply a listener. Her best work exhibits courage, fortitude, and control—qualities that are important in an age when confessional “sincerity” is often substituted for craft.

Moreover, her use of the poem sequence demonstrates an important technique for offering a more wide-ranging meditation without losing any tension. Indeed, tension is often gained over the course of a poem sequence. It is interesting to recall what Richard Hugo told young poets in The Triggering Town about the importance of “writing off the subject” with his dichotomy of “triggering subject” and “real subject.”54 According to Hugo's model, the triggering or initiating subject is what catches the poet's interest and offers her or him an occasion to discuss emotions or memories or other truths buried somewhere in the poet's psyche. Hugo's discussion centers on ways of getting off the triggering subject and onto the real subject with skill and grace, to allow for greater possibility within the poem. In Glück's work it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between triggering and real subjects: the longer forms seem, for Glück, to be ways of distilling a returning concern—the real subject—into more than one section, each with its own contextual subject. What triggers, what initiates? At times it seems the voice itself is the starting point, as experiments in syntax “open up kinds of subject matter.” In Glück's poetry the compression results repeatedly in a tension between expression and silence, and the long poem sequences present a form in which this tension can work: a kind of long-distance reticence.

In Ararat (1990), Glück continues to use the poem sequence, but in a hardly recognizable fashion. The book contains thirty-two titled poems, only one of which is broken into numbered sections. Yet Glück has said that she perceives the book as being essentially one long poem, one entire work, much the same way I have argued Descending Figure should be read. At least one reviewer saw the book in this manner, suggesting that the book “works almost as a single poem.”55 The most remarkable change in Ararat, however, is that Glück is returning to a more fully personal poetry. She has not abandoned her interest in classical, biblical, or mythic allusion, as the title alone makes clear. Glück makes the present darkly numinous with the past: the personal past and the mythic past.

The opening poem is titled “Parodos” (italics Glück's); Glück becomes a Greek chorus of sorts, witnessing life, death, and its resultant effects on individual and collective lives. But throughout the collection, the sense of contemporary life actually participating in the mythic is softened; instead, the book focuses on the speaker's act of autobiographic witnessing—witnessing the death of her father and the way the family deals with death, and, further, the way the family's shared past has prepared it for this event. The anonymous jacket blurb describes the poetry this way: “It is the singular, pervasive myth of family that she examines with a scientist's precision” and “she now breaks free of it [her previous style], in a voice no longer oracular but wry, idiomatic, undeceived, unrelenting.”

Another reviewer saw the book as introducing something that “seems new in Glück's work—a thoroughly human scale, without ornament.”56 While I believe The Triumph of Achilles began Glück's process of shifting emphasis back to the human level from the mythic or archetypal emphasized throughout The House on Marshland and Descending Figure,Ararat does seem to move beyond the sense of the immortal that asserted itself as a kind of desperate need in some of the earlier work. For example, the book's penultimate poem, titled “Celestial Music,” opens with these lines, sounding absolutely spoken, and renouncing the need for the gods that pervades Descending Figure:

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally
          talks to god.
she thinks someone listens in heaven.

(Ararat, 66)

Philosophical and searching in their meditations, the poems are generous with the way they draw upon biography, the way they openly sift through the speaker's life. With Ararat, I find Glück moving beyond willed stoicism and its attendant shielding of the self into a new form of more personal poetry. For this book at least, she seems to have left much of personal classicism behind. She has not, however, returned to the abrupt rhythms and syntax that characterized her earlier work. The greater generosity and sharing of autobiography of Ararat is not a return to her earlier confessional mode. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since Glück has made clear that she wants to move in a new direction with each book, never simply repeating her achieved strengths. Having set the standard for contemporary personal classicism, she moves into different territory once again. In her own words, “Each book I've written has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off.”57


  1. Carol Rumens, “Introduction,” Making for the Open, XVI; Elaine Showalter, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter, 139.

  2. “Introduction,” XV.

  3. Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, 149.

  4. Snodgrass, Selected Poems, 67; Plath, “Nick and the Candlestick,” Collected Poems, 242.

  5. Introspection. 151; Glück, “Descending Figure: An Interview,” 118.

  6. “Necessity and Freedom: The Poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton,” 18; “Sylvia Plath,” in The Art of Sylvia Plath, ed. Charles Newman, 67.

  7. The Confessional Poets, 16.

  8. Introspection, 154.

  9. “Women in Transition: The Poetry of Anne Sexton and Louise Glück,” 136.

  10. Confessional Poets, 1.

  11. Calvin Bedient, “Birth, Not Death, Is the Hard Loss,” 168; Helen Vendler, review, New York Times Book Review, 37; Vendler, “The Poetry of Louise Glück,” 34.

  12. “Descending Figure: An Interview,” 118.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid. See Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry, chapter 1.

  15. Robert Bly, “What the Image Can Do,” in Claims for Poetry, ed. Donald Hall, 42; Williamson implies this possibility, too, 151.

  16. “Louise Glück's The House On Marshland,” 5.

  17. “An Interview,” 123.

  18. Next to Last Things, 89; Wooten, “Louise Glück,” 5.

  19. See, for example, Chapters in a Mythology.

  20. The Collected Poems, 204.

  21. Marshland, 11.

  22. “Gretel in Darkness,” New American Review, 7 (1969): 171.

  23. “Jukebox,” Antaeus 17 (Spring 1975): 67.

  24. The Rhetoric of Fiction, 75.

  25. Confessional Poets, 1.

  26. Introspection, 150.

  27. “Some Recent American Poetry: Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” 41.

  28. Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg discusses “The Aesthetics of Anorexia” in Emily Dickinson: When a Writer Is a Daughter (esp. pp. 143–46), and certainly Dickinson's use of food—whether it is being withheld or rejected—reveals a similar attitude about the female body's self-determination. But Glück's work explores further the literal and figurative levels of metaphor, bringing to bear her comparison of anorexia—not merely hunger—to poetry, another “language of the body.” Dickinson, for all her shared interests in theme, remains a much more distant forbear; Steven Yenser, “Recent Poetry: Five Poets,” 99.

  29. Part of Nature, Part of Us, 311.

  30. Fifty Contemporary Poets, ed. Alberta Turner, 113–14.

  31. “The Mind Afoot,” 157–58.

  32. “An Interview,” 119.

  33. “After the Fall,” 466.

  34. “Missed Books: Descending Figure,” 12.

  35. Letter, American Book Review, 6,1 (1983): 4.

  36. “An Interview,” 117–18.

  37. “Education of the Poet,” 2.

  38. “An Interview,” 117.

  39. “Education,” 2.

  40. “Recent Poetry,” 99.

  41. “Recent Poetry,” 99.

  42. Hunger Strike: The Anorectic's Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age, 142.

  43. Ibid., 100, 149.

  44. New York Review of Books, 28 (July 16, 1981): 26

  45. “Education,” 4.

  46. Glück does not capitalize the deity in the first section, “The Logos,” but she does in all the following sections, “Nocturne,” “The Covenant,” and “The Clearing.”

  47. From the title sequence, “For My Sister” was published in American Poetry Review in 1975; “The Sick Child” in The New Yorker in 1978; and a poem titled “Descending Figure” in Antaeus in 1976 which is precisely the same text as that which appears in the book as the first section titled “The Wanderer.” “Grandmother,” from “Dedication to Hunger” appeared in Salmagundi in the fall of 1979, several months before the entire sequence appeared in Antaeus. “The Logos” and “The Clearing” from “Lamentations” appeared in Antaeus in the winter of 1978 as distinct poems, months before the entire sequence would appear along with several other poems in the New Republic

  48. “The Watcher,” 33.

  49. “The Fundamental Skeptic,” 53.

  50. I am indebted to Roger Mitchell's discussion of Sharon Olds's line breaks in “Thoughts on the Line,” Ohio Review 38 (1987). See especially pp. 75–77.

  51. “Education,” 3.

  52. Ibíd.

  53. Ibid., 4.

  54. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

  55. Introductory remarks, poetry reading at Ohio University's Spring Literary Festival, Athens, Ohio, May 4, 1989; Stephen Dobyns, “Will You Listen for a Minute?” 5.

  56. Marianne Boruch, “Comment: The Feel of a Century,” 17.

  57. “Education,” 6.

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Annie Finch (review date July–August 1994)

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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 the fact that god speaks only as various aspects of nature: “Red Poppy,” “Violets,” “Retreating Wind,” while the speaker addresses god only through the medieval Christian forms of “Matins” and “Vespers.” The speaker's modes of address, like the notions of a distant, removed and uncaring god that permeate this book, seem to impede direct or meaningful contact between the speaker and Glück's essentially pantheistic nature-god who, while occasionally given artificially forced diction (“that which you call death / I remember”), more often speaks with spontaneous strangeness, as if nature's heart were talking.

Glück's human speaker, who describes herself in her opening poem as “depressed, yes,” suffers continually in her relationship with this apparently uncaring god, knowing that “it isn't human nature to love / only what returns love.” Her difficulties with god can seem willful, if not masochistic, as when she tests god by planting a fig tree in an intemperate climate where it can't survive: “It was a test: if the tree lived, / it would mean you existed.” She fears that god has “abandoned” her and even imagines that god has envied the closeness she felt with her brother and destroyed the relationship: “who else had reason to create / mistrust between a brother and sister but the one / who profited, to whom we turned in solitude?” Even her own love for god is a lie: “Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful / are always lied to since the weak are always / driven by panic.”

God, for his part (I use the masculine pronoun consciously, since this god tends to be paternalistic and is occasionally addressed by the speaker as “father”), responds to his deceitful worshipper with contempt and superiority throughout most of the book, addressing her as “you idiot” and remarking, “now I pity you.” The question of why the speaker continues to wrestle with such an unsatisfactory deity arises often during this book. Suffering is germane to the tradition of religious poetry, of course; but where a poet like George Herbert, for instance, leavens his doubt and anguish with continual doses of celebration, affirmation, and sheer love, Glück's poems tend to sulk disproportionately. They are a sad mirror of religious faith in our time.

By the end of the book, the relationship between the protagonists does begin to change; the human accepts, during one of the most concrete and least lyrical “Vespers” in the book, that “you're in the garden; you're where John is,” while god, turned kind parent, sings her a rather condescending song in “Lullaby”: “Time to rest now; you have had / enough excitement for the time being.” The book resolves its conflicts hastily, though gracefully and with some beautiful writing, as god leaves the human free to do her own creating while she accepts, in her last appearance, that perhaps she is after all free “to flourish, having no hope of enduring.”

The Wild Iris is at its strongest when it allows the mysterious strangeness of a chthonic nature god, more ancient and universal than even Christianity, to shape its words. In “The White Lily,” the last poem in the book, god speaks compellingly as a lily bulb: “This one summer we have entered eternity. / I felt your two hands / bury me to release its splendor.” The rare descriptions of joy also tend to come in powerful writing, moments of rhythmic exultation such as the phrase “in the raw wind of the new world” (“Violets”) While much of the style of The Wild Iris is characteristic of Glück, spare and sparse and calling attention to its words visually in the tradition of Modernists such as H. D., one of the most beautiful poems, “The Red Poppy,” is rhythmically completely different. The poem is written almost completely in blank verse disguised by line-breaks: “Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me. I have / a lord in heaven / called the sun, and open / for him, showing him / the fire of my own heart, fire / like his presence. / What could such glory be / if not a heart?' One wonders if further such metrical indulgences might allow Glück to access more of a directly affirmative religious sentiment, which might present a welcome change from the insistent pain and frustration that unite and shape, but also tend to chip away energy from, the poems in The Wild Iris.

Reamy Jansen (review date spring 1996)

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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 insistent, observing “I,” say, of “Mock Orange”), there is a heightened spokenness to her prose, and we are lucky to overhear her declarations.

Glück's project is two-fold. She offers an evaluative vocabulary for the reading of poetry, along with an exaltation of poets—George Oppen, John Berryman, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and, amazingly, Robinson Jeffers, among others—whose work she values for what is often “unsaid,” a quality “analogous to the unseen … to the power of ruins.” Both concerns are illuminated through autobiographical glimpses of her growth as a poet. Some essays, such as her first, “The Education of the Poet,” place her before us as forthrightly as her use here of the definite article. She traces her drive to be a poet of note to as far back as the precocious verse of a five-year-old, Long Island girl with a love of syntax and inversion,

If kitty cats liked roastbeef bones
And doggies lapped up milk;

From an almost-total recall of past work (and I wish that she had more to say here about the nature of poetic memory), Glück recounts the “steady, upward labor” of becoming a writer, with its need for “stamina,” attendant silences, desolation, and “temporary darkness.” She comes before us now as the seasoned conductor of the multivocal The Wild Iris, claiming proudly in “Witchgrass,” “I constitute the field.” At her best, her own speakers have the emotive and intellectual pull that make “the single reader an elite.” Hearing, then, is the core of her metaphysic. It is Stanley Kunitz, her great teacher and “companion spirit”—never far off-stage in these essays—who became her model of the ideal listener, “the first human being by whom I felt entirely heard.” Any number of these contributions have good things to say about how poets and their poems present themselves to being read and heard. What this particular poet learns to value is the power of intelligence, “how the mind conducts itself” in the service of creating a self.

Not surprisingly, the intense engagements of Glück's poetic practice have left her relatively unaffected by our often overly-Frenchified post-structural vocabularies. Instead, she essays a series of broad terms, embracing some, while upbraiding others she sees as cant, such as honesty, courage, and sincerity (shades of Lionel Trilling here). Ultimately, her judgment derives from what she hears as good-old-fashioned poetic intent in the lines before her and which she presents to her readers as touchstones. And, for the most part, she convincingly displays her power of hearing in crisp, insightful readings of the poets I've already mentioned (offering a loyal and intelligent defense of the voices in Eliot's “Prufrock” and “Ash Wednesday” that will send many of us back to his work). While similar to “the simple vocabulary” that is so central to the nature of Glück's poetic wager, the risk of valorizing “good” words, such as truth, disinterestedness, intelligence, and mind and self is that they can quickly mutate into the lead weights she has just so convincingly jettisoned. “Voice,” for example, which as a teacher of writing I would like to see take a long rest at the bottom of the sea, is for Glück still inspirited.

By voice I mean the style of thought, for which a style of speech—the clever grafts and borrowings, the habitual gestures scattered like clues in the lines—never convincingly substitutes. We fall back on that term, voice, for all its insufficiencies; it suggests, at least, the sound of an authentic being.

She “loves the sentence as a unit” and uses them with a nuanced wholeness of thought and feeling to invest her lexicon with value. Only rarely does she sound a tractarian.

Glück's aesthetics seem part of the general yearning to find solid, stable evaluative terms, ones that will stand securely in opposition to the problematizings and ever-shifting indeterminacies of post modernism. There is a pleasing Arnoldian feel to much of what is known and thought here. Glück, though, appeals to us not as a reactionary (which is rarely true of Arnold, either), but as a writer constantly in reaction, “trying to undermine the known with intelligent questions.” In doing so, she points us to the light.

Susan Smith Nash (review date winter 1997)

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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 Meadowlands], “Penelope's Song,” explores anticipation and reconciliation, as the narrator addresses Penelope, who awaits the return of her lover with a poignant, dreamlike intensity that is shadowed by the realization that their relationship is very fragile. It is almost as though the more urgent her longing, the more likely that the long-anticipated reunion will be a disappointment. The problem is the body (and, by extension, language in a post-Wittgensteinian world): “You have not been completely / perfect either; with your troublesome body / you have done things you shouldn't / discuss in poems.” This is a dream of unity which has been clouded by the realization that unity—if ever achieved at all—is temporary and quite delicate.

Other poems evoke the same feeling of impending rupture or existential separation. In “Departure” tension is built by the presence of two individuals who are bracing themselves for the inevitability of their separation. The poem moves from the literal to the figurative quite smoothly: “The night isn't dark; the world is dark. / Stay with me a little longer.” This is a poem that defines Platonic craving for unity and the desire to ascend to the realm of perfection in terms of one's own self-awareness. Glück's characters are postmodernist Platonists: they despair of the existence of a realm of perfection while simultaneously longing to experience it.

Glück draws from The Odyssey for her characters in Meadowlands, and their presence in a contemporary world reinforces the impression that there is a level of determinism at work in the phenomenal world. The characters are never free to live a life of free will or self-directed freedom. The characters know their lives have been scripted for them, and they look upon their destinies with a certain degree of irony, particularly when there are moments that serve to undermine or ironize the archetypal narratives of myth.

As in most narratives that incorporate archetypes, there tends to be in Meadowlands an emphasis on the allegorical or the symbolic. This is certainly the case in Meadowlands. For example, in “Parable of the Trellis” Glück instructs the reader to consider the elements figuratively. Here the vine is personified, and it parallels the human characters inasmuch as “the vine has a dream of light: / what is life in the dirt / with its dark freedoms / compared to supported ascent?”

What Glück's collection brings to mind most vividly is the recollection that Greek mythological characters—and thus the archetypes which we use as models for behavior, psychology, cognition, and social relations, as well as for art and language—are always profoundly flawed. The tensions between the flawed and the perfect, the impossible and the possible, the longed-for and the defended-against create a world of interpenetrating explanation and vision. It is beautiful, yet as painful as memory.

Stephen Burt (review date 16 May 1997)

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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,” “September Twilight”), the God of the Garden responds. Glück's skeletal lines, with their unexpected stops, make her poems all gaps and essentials, full of what art books call “negative space.” Her garden itself is a cleared space, like a stage; it brings into play the oldest metaphors, the cycle of the seasons, the progress of the year. The flowers' inevitable, natural conditions—burial, resurrection, interdependence, endless waiting—explain hard-to-grasp states of mind, as in the opening poem:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

(“The Wild Iris”)

(A worse poet would have reversed those couplets.) People, for Glück, are not the animals that reason, but the plants that cannot know what flowers to bear. She is as desperate for answers as Plath; but to Plath's obsession with the world as seen, Glück adds a social alertness: she wants to show not only how her garden-God has treated her, how she has cajoled and resisted and obeyed, but how variously the plants and persons with whom she shares her world have been made. Trampled clover rebukes our hypocrisy (“by what logic / do you hoard / a single tendril / of something you want / dead?”); violets use brief, shrinking lines; daisies sound flip, self-confident, pert; a white rose is heavy and nervous, like Coleridge. Glück's minimal language makes clear her daring: she can stake everything on the shock of a thought, as when she protests, to God, about incest taboos, “who else had reason to create / mistrust between a brother and a sister but the one / who profited, to whom we turned in solitude?” Her soul seems to her both a burden and a choice: without inner crises to acknowledge and salve, Glück would (she knows) barely exist—

Sometimes a man or woman forces his despair
on another person, which is called
baring the heart, alternately baring the soul—
meaning for this moment we acquired souls—

(“Love in Moonlight”)

This serious spirit does not exclude whimsy: Glück addresses her God again to “report / failure in my assignment, principally / regarding the tomato plants. / I think I should not be encouraged to grow / tomatoes.” But usually she is as hard on her creator as she is on herself, or as her God is on us—no living poet as aurally precise is as psychologically searching or extreme. And for all Glück's distrust of the merely sensory, she can use an image as well as anyone: here's the rest of “Love in Moonlight”:

outside, a summer evening, a whole world
thrown away on the moon: groups of silver
which might be buildings or trees, the narrow
where the cat hides, rolling on its back in the
the rose, the coreopsis and in the dark, the gold
                                                                                                    dome of the capitol
converted to an alloy of moonlight, shape
without detail, the myth, the archetype, the soul
filled with fire that is moonlight really, taken
from another source, and briefly
shining as the moon shines: stone or not,
the moon is still that much of a living thing.

Glück's English debut was her sixth book in the United States (where it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993). Like those spare, demanding poets, Dickinson, Housman and Plath, Glück can appeal to many people who don't read much modern poetry; those who do had better not miss out.

Brian Henry (essay date summer 1998)

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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 major and minor have dipped into the Iliad and Odyssey for their own poems; just in the past few decades, poets as diverse as Marilyn Hacker, Richard Wilbur, Margaret Atwood, Michael Longley, and Yannis Ritsos have devoted poems to Odysseus or to aspects of his journey (Circe seems to be particularly alluring of late). Now, Louise Glück, perhaps our most accomplished rewriter of classical and Biblical narratives, inhabits Odysseus' world and transforms it into her own in her newest collection, Meadowlands.

Unlike most poets revising the Odyssey, Glück is less interested in the man and more intrigued by the people around him—Penelope, Telemachus, Circe. As suitors swarm the house, cleaning out the cupboards and basically wrecking the place, Penelope stoically weaves. Observing his detached mother from a distance, Telemachus mopes and pitches fits to try to get her attention. And when Circe's lover leaves her, she rages and grieves, vowing revenge. What sets these poems apart from other Odyssean poems is Glück's own weaving: Meadowlands is a dualistic narrative that juxtaposes an ordinary contemporary marriage against Odysseus' famous one. This straddling of the classical and the contemporary allows Glück to consider the mundane details that constitute a marriage, as well as those that contribute to its dissolution, without becoming tedious or self-indulgent. The juxtaposition of these two strained marriages gives the book a rich, polyphonic texture.

Glück is at her best in Meadowlands when she adds complex psychological insight to the people inside Odysseus' circle. “Penelope's Song,” the book's opening poem, is especially powerful because it captures perfectly her vacillating personality. When she asks young Telemachus to climb a tree and watch for the arrival of his father, she progresses through several striking emotions. The poem is worth quoting in full because it evinces both Glück's mastery of this psychological complexity and her always-engaging language:

Little soul, little perpetually undressed one,
do now as I bid you, climb
the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree;
wait at the top, attentive, like
a sentry or look-out. He will be home soon;
it behooves you to be
generous. You have not been completely
perfect either; with your troublesome body
you have done things you shouldn't
discuss in poems. Therefore
call out to him over the open water, over the bright water
with your dark song, with your grasping,
unnatural song—passionate,
like Maria Callas. Who
wouldn't want you? Whose most demonic appetite
could you possibly fail to answer? Soon
he will return from wherever he goes in the meantime,
suntanned from his time away, wanting
his grilled chicken. Ah, you must greet him,
you must shake the boughs of the tree
to get his attention,
but carefully, carefully, lest
his beautiful face be marred
by too many falling needles.

There is obviously a lot happening here: motherly tenderness giving way to sternness, with a hint of blackmail because of the boy's “troublesome body”; sexual innuendo in the boy's naughty actions and the father's “demonic appetite”; an unexpected introduction of normalcy, as if the father is returning, suntanned and hungry, from a vacation; and a startling sense of the fragility of this great warrior.

Because of Telemachus' incessant self-analysis, we can almost envision him on the couch as he narrates these poems, particularly “Telemachus' Detachment”:

When I was a child looking
at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.

This little poem is perception-shattering, wiping away everything heroic and grand about Odysseus' return and Penelope's fidelity, for who is more apt to lionize the hero-father than the son? Here Telemachus' detachment borders on the sadistic, but in “Telemachus' Guilt,” he attempts to explain his behavior:

… patiently
she supervised the kindly
slaves who attended me, regardless
of my behavior, an assumption
I tested with increasing
violence. It seemed clear to me
that from her perspective
I didn't exist, since
my actions had
no power to disturb her: I was
the envy of my playmates.
… I used to smile
when my mother wept.
I hope now she could
forgive that cruelty; I hope
she understood how like
her own coldness it was,
a means of remaining
separate from what
one loves deeply.

An unflattering self-portrait, but we can imagine his friends goading him into increasingly intense tantrums while his mother ignores him. Telemachus seems to be easing toward redemption, and because his poems speak directly to us, we are the ones who can grant him that redemption. Gradually we start to sympathize with him:

… I no longer regret
the terrible moment in the fields,
the ploy that took
my father away. My mother
grieves enough for us all.

(“Telemachus' Confession”)

With his painful fall into self-awareness (“after awhile / I realized I was / actually a person”), this is Telemachus at his most vulnerable.

The one character in the Odyssean saga who loses no matter how we look at the situation is Circe. Excoriated for turning men into swine, newly bereft of her lover of seven years, and jealous of Penelope but forbidden to harm her, Circe is the most pitiable of the three who have lost Odysseus—and she's the immortal. In “Circe's Power,” she pleads her case:

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs: I make them
look like pigs.
I'm sick of your world
that lets the outside disguise the inside.
Your men weren't bad men;
undisciplined life
did that to them.

But although she “reverse[s] the spell” on Odysseus' men, she still loses her lover, asserting that “If I wanted only to hold you // I could hold you prisoner.” Powerful yet abandoned, beautiful yet unloved, Circe can only visit Penelope—as a bird at the window—in an effort to disrupt the marriage and insinuate herself into the situation: “if I am in her head forever / I am in your life forever” (“Circe's Grief”).

The second marriage in Meadowlands presents us with a dilemma as readers: we want to find autobiography in these poems, but must resist such a reading despite some themes in the poems that coincide with Glück's life (whether as trifling as the names of her husband and son or as consuming as her desire for control and her preference for solitude, which she acknowledges in her essay, “Education of the Poet”). Although I rarely equate a narrator with the poet, the emotional power of these poems makes such an equation tempting. Attributing autobiography to these poems, however, would undermine their integrity, anchoring them to a personality when they can easily stand apart from that personality. Indeed, Glück insists on this separation: “A lady weeps at a dark window. / Must we say what it is? Can't we simply say / a personal matter?” (“Moonless Night”). To call these poems “confessional” would both pigeon-hole them and contravene Glück's project.

Instead of confessing, Glück implies. Because the unsaid in these poems is as important as the said, the poems re-create the difficulties of communication—the gaps and silences, the false starts and bizarre tangents, the misunderstandings, the ulterior motives. Many of these poems are composed in dialogues, without quotation marks or “he said/she said” as guideposts (indents are the only structural indications of a change in speakers). There is also a running dialogue throughout the book, as the conversation of one poem is picked up in another. Occasionally, the breakdown of communication between this couple can be funny:

I stopped liking artichokes when I stopped eating
butter. Fennel
I never liked.
One thing I've always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.
Flaubert was crazy: he lived
with his mother.


But the poems are more often heart-breaking than humorous. In “Rainy Morning,” the poet chides herself much as her husband would:

… Your
staying dry is like the cat's pathetic
preference for hunting dead birds: completely
consistent with your tame spiritual themes,
autumn, loss, darkness, etc.
We can all write about suffering
with our eyes closed. You should show people
more of yourself; show them your clandestine
passion for red meat.

And in these poems she is tempted to take her own advice, but uses myth as a way to distance herself from the poems. In “Anniversary,” the husband's hostility toward her comes through in his own words: “I said you could snuggle. That doesn't mean / your cold feet all over my dick.” And in the three “Meadowlands” poems, the spouses tirelessly spar with each other. “Meadowlands 3” covers ground usually ignored by poetry, making this perhaps the first collection of poetry to be named—on one level—after a football stadium:

How could the Giants name
that place the Meadowlands? It has
about as much in common with a pasture
as would the inside of an oven.

Adversarial as ever, the two bait each other, the husband finally admonishing his wife with “You'd be a nicer person / if you were a fan of something.”

The most touching of these poems are those that stem from a mundane moment, as in “Midnight”:

Speak to me, aching heart: what
ridiculous errand are you inventing for yourself
weeping in the dark garage
with your sack of garbage: it is not your job
to take out the garbage, it is your job
to empty the dishwasher …
is this the way you communicate
with your husband, not answering
when he calls, or is this the way the heart
behaves when it grieves: it wants to be
alone with the garbage? If I were you,
I'd think ahead. After fifteen years,
his voice could be getting tired; some night
if you don't answer, someone else will answer.

The poignancy of the poem comes from tiny details such as whose responsibility it is to do which chore, its power from the culmination of the narrator's worries and self-doubts in the final two lines. Sometimes these poems seem so particular, so intimate through their complete withdrawal of intimacy, that we feel like eavesdroppers. The man and the woman are laid bare to us by Glück, their neuroses exposed but never melodramatized—he maintains a chilling composure while she wants to withdraw from the world, the only thing they have in common being the need/desire to control her.

As we would predict with a poet as devoted to ambiguity and multiple meanings and voices as Glück, the two narratives merge in a few poems. For example, we know that “Departure” describes the scene the night before Odysseus leaves for Troy, but we can see the other marriage in the poem as well:

The night isn't dark; the world is dark.
Stay with me a little longer.
Your hands on the back of the chair—
that's what I'll remember.
Before that, lightly stroking my shoulders.
Like a man training himself to avoid the heart.
… you are holding me because you are going away—
these are statements you are making,
not questions needing answers.
How can I know you love me
unless I see you grieve over me?

This interwoven narrative of two marriages serves the book brilliantly where an entire collection devoted to one or the other could easily become tedious. Ultimately, Glück's vision in Meadowlands brings out the heroic in the ordinary and the ordinary in the heroic, revealing to us the tragedy common to all relationships.

Lee Upton (essay date 1998)

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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 abandonment by lovers—the conceptual value of her poetry is provocative. Her speakers insinuate a wrong not allied so much to individual circumstance (circumstance seeming too easily assumed for Glück, most notably causal circumstance) as to what are posed as ineradicable laws of nature and being. Since her early career Glück has been writing a psychological autobiography, detailing the war between flesh and spirit as particularly charged because of her condition as a woman. Unlike a poet such as Marianne Moore, whom Randall Jarrell described as being preoccupied with defensive measures, Glück does not rely on a code of self-protective morals. And unlike Moore, she is, for all the mythic resonance of her work, hardly given to the fabular. Her power more surely relies on an undertone of resentment toward experiences that have found uneasy entry into literary tradition: women's violation by ordinary means, especially by copulation and pregnancy.

The violated feminine as primordial, unregulated, subject to obscure whims, the chthonic feminine that has been rehearsed in literature and philosophy: such is Glück's threatening “marshland.” Her poems unite two claims that resist the inchoate “marshland” of cultural attributions affixed to womanhood: women's claim to accuse and as such to recognize injustice, and women's claim to disaffirm, to refuse gender-based expectations of harmony and affirmation. She finds the possibility of an essentialist femininity to be both repulsive and fascinating. Her poems experiment with a regression into oblivion—an ultimate release from ego boundaries—and the opposite possibility: the establishment of a powerful female self able to master narratives about origin and fate.

Glück has honed an austere voice that prohibits consolation. Consciously and repeatedly she identifies with speakers who are abandoned in crises: “From the first, I wanted to talk about death; also from the first I had an instinctive identification with the abandoned, the widowed, with all figures left behind.”1 Whereas, as we have seen, Jean Valentine counters perennial loss through the poem itself as it may comfort and illuminate—and shock by revealing the depth of her speakers' needs—and James Tate imports dizzyingly abrupt shifts in speech registers to derail traditional responses to psychic loss, in Glück almost any comforting gesture is subject to withering scrutiny. As she wrote of Sylvia Plath, a poet whom she resembles in her tense dismissals of gender pieties, Glück seeks to “repudiate the old imprisoning rituals which derive from the imposed primary association of Woman with Life.”2 She resents, then, what she sees as the cultural mandate for a female poet to celebrate life; her poetry resists such a mandate through its nearly relentless focus on psychological negations of all sorts. The response of the abandoned in this poetry is to exclude and discard, to be as much the one who abandons the other and the other's conceptions as the one who suffers personal abandonment.

Elizabeth Dodd classifies Glück's poetry as “postconfessional personal classicism—one in which the voice of the self is muted by an amplified sense of the mythic, the archetypal …, without losing the compelling presence of an individual, contemporary ‘I,’ a personal voice addressing the reader.”3 As such, the self in Glück is placed in relation to a larger mythological backdrop but is not overwhelmed by this competing narrative. The mythological narrative is used to dignify the self, particularly the female self, which might otherwise be domesticated or trivialized.

Although Glück's poetry has its roots in the confessional mode developed in the late 1950s, we might note that while confession presupposes community and the acknowledgment of a violation of the laws of the tribe, Glück relentlessly casts characters who would distinguish themselves from communal laws and biological imperatives even while they observe the seemingly inescapable impact of such laws and imperatives. Tellingly, she doesn't practice the delight in self associated with some confessionals—or even a similar self-hatred. Shame and onus are more often placed on biology and culture than on the self. She does not destroy or exorcise the other as do many confessional poets but patiently witnesses the other, presenting a situation analytically. In consequence, she occupies, as her essay “Against Sincerity”4 makes clear, a complex position toward actuality; she would purify and crystallize or transform confessional “facts” in quest of the emotional truth, most often the bitter truth, of a situation in which a woman's abandonment, implicit or overt, figures. The voice of this abandoned woman in her poetry is, in a way that may be familiar to us from Lawrence Lipking's formulations,5 ontologically triumphant and resistant.

The traditional dichotomy that links women with flesh and nature is particularly inimical to Glück, and over much of her career she has alluded to images of the fleshless, the nearly immaterial, as if the body itself were an encumbrance that her personae would gladly escape. As Lynn Keller points out, “Her often extremely negative sense of womanhood—as both a biologically and socially determined experience—has been crucial in shaping the language, tone, and style, as well as the thematic content of her poetry.”6 Such a stance, Keller rightly observes, unsettles readers: “Glück has not passed beyond self-loathing, and this makes reading her work still a profoundly uncomfortable experience.” Keller notes that the perverse “negative” psychic tensions within Glück's poetry create much of the excitement that we experience in reading it: “This inner battle is precisely what electrifies her poetry.”7 It is revealing that, somewhat like Tate, Glück stirs critical resentment—although for quite different reasons. While Tate offends readers who may have a limited conception of “serious poetry” and an aversion to the humorous extremes that he regularly employs, Glück's critics may fault her for lacking what they find to be in excess in Tate. Throughout much of her career, her nearly relentless “seriousness” has conveyed a portentous chill, and the tones of repulsion that she registers are returned to her by some readers. Glück may dissatisfy—or infuriate—such readers because she repels ideals of affirmation and harmony in human relationships that women in her culture have been expected to uphold. As Keller suggests, however ruefully, Glück's very animosity to biology and culture lends her work power. And the disturbance that some of her readers may experience is directly related to this source of her power and seems to be inextricable from it.

For Glück, poems are inevitably a form of autobiography. In her poems, autobiography emerges not in contexts that explain rational personal choice but in the form of individual implacable voices that awaken the reader's capacity for imaginative responsiveness. More akin to Poe than Whitman, Glück proposes in her early poetry few solutions for narcissistic wounds other than the creation of a language of suspicion and rejection. We may recall that rejection derives from a Latin word meaning “to throw back.” In Glück's poetry we see that the rejection enacted by her early persona, her exclusion from affective ties, is “thrown back” upon others. The persona depends on rejection as a means of returning to the minim of the self that is noninclusive. She emphasizes the need to repel, refusing the cultural role of womanhood, of embrace, warmth, and kindly feeling, in order to be freed from ubiquitous others and as such to attain at least a provisional sense of separate selfhood and self-knowledge. In both her poetry and prose she suggests that knowledge is achieved by exclusion, by withstanding rather than incorporating the other.

Glück's first collection was a book of revulsions rather than illuminations. Decades after it was published she spoke of her mixed feelings about Firstborn (1968), describing her reaction as “embarrassed tenderness.”8 Yet that book reveals the wellsprings of her poetry. Freighted with dead matter and decay, vermin, waste, and wounds, Firstborn manifests its overt repulsion toward the female body and by extension toward a malignant domesticity. It is an extremist's book, ambitious in declaring distance from most manifestations of flesh and from the family as a crucible of fleshly reproduction. Unfortunately, the book's obsessive focus on physical processes lapses into bathos at points. A grandson is “Squealing in his pen”;9 “the waste's my breakfast” (F, 17). The family is allied to kitchen implements or cooked meats: “My sister, / stirring briefly to arrange / Her towel, browns like a chicken, under fire” (F, 12). Elsewhere food imagery suggests overt violence: “Today my meatman turns his trained knife / On veal, your favorite. I pay with my life” (F, 34).

This antipathy toward physical matter is carried over in more powerful ways in Glück's references to abortion. As Robert Miklitsch points out, Glück exhibits a “preoccupation with abortion in all its literal and metaphorical senses.”10 The abortion imagery that appears in her poems makes the fetus (as a parasite of sorts or as, remarkably, a secondary self of the speaker) yet another consumable. Her speaker is “prided flesh,” caught in a parody of domestic acts, amid cutlery, a bowl. In the journey that Glück's persona takes for an abortion, she sees herself as both the one who abandons and the one who is abandoned; the woman who chooses to abort and the woman who is, in turn, deserted by any living intimate connection. The abortionist himself is involved in what seems like a domestic act of sorts, an act linking him to the traditional world of women. In “The Egg” abortion is associated with the domestic economy:

Past cutlery I saw
My body stretching like a tear
Along the paper.

(F, 4)

And later:

He's brought a bowl to catch
The pieces of the baby.

(F, 5)

A tone of horrified fascination is set by the book's opening poem. “Chicago Train” in its entirety:

Across from me the whole ride
Hardly stirred: just Mister with his barren
Skull across the arm-rest while the kid
Got his head between his mama's legs and slept. The poison
That replaces air took over.
And they sat—as though paralysis preceding death
Had nailed them there. The track bent south.
I saw her pulsing crotch … the lice rooted in that baby's

(F, 3)

The poem seems like a parody of birth or an awkward Pietá. Notably, the parasites feeding on the child duplicate in another form the numerous feedings that will follow in the book; as we have seen, feeding to Glück suggests the violation of both physical and psychological boundaries for a self seeking a controlled sufficiency. The ellipses in the final line of “Chicago Train” form a drifting equation in which family, birth, and sensuality are linked to parasitism. Glück's reference to parasitism here and her concentration in her prose and poems on her adolescent anorexia make clear her repulsion from flesh and recall to us that the word parasite comes from the Greek parasitos: “one who eats at another's table.” The derivation suggests, of course, an interloper in the family, and it is Glück's attack on the nuclear family, the self fearing its consumption or its paralysis by the family, that is the source of much of her early work.

What is perhaps especially telling in “Chicago Train” is the speaker's fascination with the physical proximity of mother and child. Glück's coded description—her spectral lingering at the scene—insinuates the speaker's subterranean envy. However limitless desires may be in these poems, the woman who speaks experiences herself as emotionally abandoned after birth. Most often in other poems her speaker is schooled in emotional deprivation, “at seven learning / Distance at my mother's knee” (F, 45). “Chicago Train” suggests, however, that physical intimacy may be as alluring—and puzzling—as emotional distance to Glück.

In her essays about her own development as a poet Glück writes repeatedly about the habit of refusal, connecting refusal to a necessary separation from the family, given that she once saw her flesh as an extension of her mother's flesh and her mother's authority. She claims her body for herself, desiring “ownership of [her] body, which was her [her mother's] great accomplishment.”11 Significantly, the mother in Glück's poetry and prose is cast as a body, even as an “inescapable body.” Nevertheless, the mother cannot be possessed, for the daughter would resist being engulfed, and the mother herself remains psychologically elusive. Glück's poems complexly figure a psychological separation between mother and child. In “For My Mother” in The House on Marshland the mother is imaged as marshland, vegetal and uncomprehending, crossed between the living and the dead. The daughter who speaks in the poem envies the fetal state that she summons through her reference to the mother's womb, for this womb-state is characterized by elemental fusion. It is protected by an “absolute knowledge” as the child inhabits the mother, “screened / through the green glass / of your eye.”12 The poem registers the speaker's acute loss of this primary unity.

“Still Life” further complicates our sense of the mother. In this poem the mother as photographer captures and as such “frames” family dynamics:

Father has his arm around Tereze.
She squints. My thumb
is in my mouth: my fifth autumn.
Near the copper beech
the spaniel dozes in shadows.
Not one of us does not avert his eyes.
Across the lawn, in full sun, my mother
stands behind her camera.

(HM, 15)

The mother records distance between herself, her husband, and her children—and her own absence in the alignment. While the mother controls the composition, the eldest daughter, as speaker, is stalled in time and in the pose of want. Seemingly, “Still Life” is about the child's response to the mother. While the family is experienced as a “still life,” simultaneously the speaker perceives her childhood as “stilled”; she cannot be wrested from a psychic paralysis that threatens to continue into adulthood.

While the mother may be seen as framing and arranging experience, the father in this poetry is more often an effaced figure of withdrawal, emotionally numbed. The daughter learns to emulate her father's withdrawal, to be “stiffened” against both affection and psychic pain, as in Daphne's story in “Mythic Fragment” in The Triumph of Achilles, and in the dramas of “Departure,” part 1 of “Dedication to Hunger” from Descending Figure, and in much of Ararat. While the mother is a marsh, a shifting source that threatens psychologically to submerge the daughter, the synecdoche for the father is an averted face that may only be “caught” momentarily before it blurs in motion. The averted face as such ignores the daughter's existence, contributing with annihilating force to the daughter's despair.

Glück's early poetry enacts the rejection of the embryo and an embryonic, violable self, as well as the rejection of family (including the younger sister who appears briefly as an innocent or lesser self, or as future victim of violation). Glück abjects the physical body, the institution of marriage, and the comforts of nature and religious belief. Indeed, the principal action of the book is abjection of all that would threaten the insecure boundaries of this emergent self which desires an incorruptible power.

Glück's reflections on her own adolescence candidly point up this process of rejection as a means of establishing an identity:

What I could say was no: the way I saw to separate myself, to establish a self with clear boundaries, was to oppose myself to the declared desire of others, utilizing their wills to give shape to my own.13

In her poems and prose the adolescent anorexia about which she has written figures, it would seem, in at least two ways: as a desperate measure to achieve not only separate being but to erect an idealized, powerful, clarified self—however transitory that self may be—and as a method, as she has argued, of self-education:

Its [anorexia's] intent is to construct, in the only way possible when means are so limited, a plausible self. But the sustained act, the repudiation, designed to distinguish the self from the other also separates self and body. … [A]norexia proves not the soul's superiority to but its dependence on flesh.14

Julia Kristeva defines abjection as it encompasses “one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.”15 As such, in Kristeva's terms, Glück would seem to be a poet of abjection, for her emphasis on purifying and controlling the body of the poem in her early career is characteristic of her subject matter (inflected by her early experience) in which the physical body itself must be similarly governed. According to Kristeva, abjection is experienced as an overwhelming loathing linked to the processes of separation from the maternal: “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be—maintaining that night in which the outline of the signified thing vanishes and where only the imponderable affect is carried out.”16 Yet the source of abjection is not in itself “definable” but becomes whatever profoundly menaces an individual's sense of separate being. In Glück's early poems the lure toward abjection is nearly overwhelming, and, in this context, Kristeva's description of the way abjection overrides the psyche is especially compelling:

Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.17

For Glück, such repulsion—from appetite, sexuality, intimacy—is also shadowed, as “Chicago Train” insinuates, by an attraction similar to that which Kristeva describes: the maternal body that Glück's persona abhors at points is experienced, at least on some level, as desirable, just as other objects of repulsion similarly fascinate. In this connection, we might note that Kristeva points to “food loathing” as “perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” and, as we have already seen, Glück's early poetry takes many of its images from food loathing and links such loathing to the mother. But the repugnance that Kristeva explores is not only triggered by food or waste or the desired but anxiety-causing envelopment in the maternal body, but by murky ethical positions: “The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.”18 The refusal to be between categories not only marks Glück's first poems in their stated rejection of maternal presence and emotional comfort, but such a refusal affects her ethical stances. Her characters are not betwixt and between; their knowledge in summations gives the tonal quality of being absolute and unshifting.

In her second book, The House on Marshland (1975), Glück writes a poetry that has exorcised the revulsions of Firstborn in favor of assuming more conscious awareness. Her speakers are not temporarily inhabited by an alien body, whether registered as fetus or lover; they have metamorphosed into analysts of the body who claim a rhetoric of knowledge. While the subtext of Firstborn involves a woman trapped by her ability to give birth and thus snared by a “plot / Of embryos” (F, 11), in her second book Glück's speakers are possessed by the “plot” of childhood. They may identify with the dead sister (referred to in her prose and poems by Glück as her actual sister who died in infancy) or with a personal history in which they cannot effectively supplant the dead but must remain stiffened against mundane life. The thematics of abortion, while superficially confined to her first book, are coded anew in her second book in terms of dramas of repudiation. The fundamental obsessive pressure remains in scenes that depict the rejection of the gendered body and the withstanding of an obscure violation.

The House on Marshland established Glück as a poet of major interest. The book is distinctive, particularly in its manipulation of tone and its inversion of many confessionalist poems' displays of extreme verbal facility and exuberant violations of social norms. Glück places her own voice under a severe restraint in the book. The poems pursue erasure, a willful minimalism, transporting the self to peripheries of experience and toward a state of ontological oblivion. Indeed, the oblivion that the poems after Firstborn refer to, as I shall argue later, is prompted by, and proves the counterface of, her initial impulse: abjection.

Appropriately enough for a poet so dedicated to exploring the gendered family, Glück's development as a poet was both mothered and fathered. At Columbia she studied first, for two years, with Léonie Adams and later, for four years, with Stanley Kunitz. Although her allegiance to Kunitz is most acute, she absorbed Adams's tightly compressed lyricism and symbolic density. Nonetheless, she credits Kunitz with contributing more fully than Adams to her development as a poet. Although she acknowledges that he would become a “projection” whom she wished to please (“he was one in a series of projections, beginning with my mother”),19 from Kunitz she learned the power of recurring images and bald statement. The House on Marshland internalizes that early imprinting. The anecdote she tells of a turning point in her maturation as a poet is particularly revealing in this context. After completing her studies with Kunitz at Columbia, she once again brought him a group of her poems to consider. When she visited him she saw the poems laid out on a table in his apartment. She hoped, despite her own doubts about their worth, that he might find the poems commendable. Surveying the poems that she had sent him, Kunitz remarked to Glück: “‘Of course, they're awful.” And then, ‘But you know that.’”20 Despite such a negative assessment of her productions, he pronounced her a poet.

This anecdote is important not only because it divulges Glück's need to separate the mediocre from the excellent in her own poetry, but because it echoes her belief in the importance of essence beyond product; Kunitz conferred identity upon the young poet and allowed her to reject her failed poems without rejecting herself. The older poet was able to bear with her imperfections without withdrawing from her. He made it possible for her to create distance, aesthetic and psychological, between the self that made the poems and the poems as productions. In turn, his pronouncement about her early work echoes her own extreme strategies of rejection. In fact, his refusal to countenance her less distinguished efforts is crucial; he projected an ideal of accomplishment and candor that she has admired and emulated in her work and that she continues to view as powerful. It is likewise important, it seems to me, that we note that after declaring the poems “awful,” Kunitz remarked “But you know that.” The latter words seem almost talismanic, for the ability to know, to determine worth and outcome, is of tremendous importance to Glück's speakers, who assume much of their rhetorical weight through casting at least an illusion of self-certainty (even while the poems as a whole may be formulated to arouse readerly suspicions). That is, Glück's speakers recognize the precise value of their situations. Kunitz's words, “But you know that,” allowed the young Glück the sensation of being an entirely witting participant in any judgment about her own value as a poet.

Glück's poetic coming-into-being is echoed in “All Hallows,” one of the most compelling of her poems and the poem most frequently examined by critics. It opens The House on Marshland, inaugurating the book that revealed her distinction as a poet, notably, as the concluding stanza makes clear, her ability to create an atmosphere of foreboding:

This is the barrenness
Of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.

(HM, 3)

Surely this is a poem of immanence and growth—and of barrenness and death. As Helen Vendler points out, the poem suggests a ceremony for “bearing a child … but it is saturated by the poet's sense of her own birth.”21 The wife in the poem lures a soul from the vegetal world, whether the soul of the fetus or, as Vendler allows, that of the poetic self. While for Vendler “All Hallows” is a poem about the birth of self and poem and child, for Robert Miklitsch it is a poem more firmly aligned with death: “a lamentable death, a dead child.”22 Miklitsch relates the poem to the commemoration of All Hallows as the day of the dead, linking the poem to Glück's actual dead infant sister, a symbol of irrevocable loss in a number of her poems. In her turn, Diane S. Bonds, drawing upon the theories of Jacques Lacan and Nancy Chodorow, writes that the poem “dislocates both speaker and landscape, displacing them from the realm of the geographic to that of the linguistic, from the domain of the literal to that of the figurative.”23 The poem, she argues, asks “What is the cost, for the wife/mother of becoming a speaking or writing subject (that is, a “soul”) as opposed to a silent object (a body)?” In such terms, the poem refers to “the cost … of entering the symbolic order, the androcentric system of linguistic exchange.” Bonds asks whether the soul is the woman's or the child's.24

The permeability of reference suggested by Bond's reading (child and mother, daughter and mother, unborn and born) accounts in large measure for the poem's complex power. Within such diffuse reference boundaries the wife who must gently tempt the child/poem into being might also be seen as a midwife, connecting the poem to Glück's sense of the poet's role: “[T]o utilize the metaphor of childbirth which seems never to die: the writer is the one who attends, who facilitates: the doctor, the midwife, not the mother.”25 The iconic representation of the wife/midwife as an extended hand completes the poem—and because a hand composes the poem, unites the wife's gesture with composition itself. But the very specificity of the wife's pose of supplication should not be ignored. In Glück's analogy the writer's ego is not the origin of the poem, and the poem must be paid for, not in gold coins but in emotional expenses, by the poet/mother/midwife's desolation and pleading. “All Hallows” emerges in the ambiguity “of harvest or pestilence,” for the “payment” made by the wife cannot be proffered with certainty. As such, Glück reinscribes the distance between the writer's will and the poem; the poem cannot simply be brought into creation by consciousness. In yet another layer of associations, if we put emphasis on the soul's site (the soul “creeps out of the tree”) it is as if Daphne, one of the mythological figures that Glück is stimulated by, were to be freed from the bark that encases her and that allowed her to repulse Apollo's advances. (The womb and sexuality are often allied to vegetation in this poetry, and Glück's emphasis in her sixth book on giving voice to a garden has its beginnings in such imagery.)

After “All Hallows,” the strongest poem in The House on Marshland casts its own autumnal spirit in which “harvest” and “pestilence” fuse, and in which fulfilled desire (desire for ejection of the feminine from the self) ultimately does not free or acquit. In “Gretel in Darkness” Glück turns to the Grimms' tale of Hansel and Gretel, giving voice to Gretel years after she has saved her brother and herself from the witch's oven. The poem in its entirety:

This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch's cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas. …
                                        Now, far from women's arms
and memory of women, in our father's hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.
No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln—
Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real,
that black forest and the fire in earnest.

(HM, 5)

This Gretel in a world of men returns to the memory of “matricide,” as Miklitsch argues, for the fairy tale's stepmother is, like the witch, another monstrous female figure who has set out to destroy the children.26 The witch in the oven as the type of the destructive mother continues to inhabit the language long after her death. The poem's unmentioned context is a horrendous abandonment by a child's parent and stepparent. Darkness in this poem is allied with the resentments of childhood, resentments framed in response to deprivations.

The plot of Grimms' Hansel and Gretel turns upon the motif of hunger. It is hunger that drives the father and stepmother to abandon their children and hunger that keeps the children awake in their beds long enough to overhear their stepmother's plan to cause them to lose their way in the forest. In the realm of the Grimms' fairy tale, all subjects and all transformations of plot and knowledge revolve around hunger and consumption. The bread crumbs that Hansel drops to make a trail leading himself and Gretel back to their cottage are consumed by a bird. Hansel and Gretel are not only threatened by the fact that they may be eaten by forest beasts but that they may be devoured by the witch, who is herself ultimately thrust into the oven as if she were an object of consumption. Only upon the witch's death is the threat of absolute objectification repealed, and the children return home to their father with jewels and a companion duck (surely what would have been, before the witch's death, a tempting game bird in a land of famine).

Unlike the fairy tale, Glück's poem leads to no satisfying resolution; abandonment and psychic hunger are continuous. All threat is audible, experienced as crying or hissing: “Spies / hiss in the stillness, Hansel / we are there still and it is real, real, / that black forest and the fire in earnest.” The frequent sibilants (even, in this context, the sibilant in Hansel's name) intimate the ubiquitous threat of the past as it inhabits and deforms the present. “[F]ar from women's arms / and memory of women,” Gretel has at least superficially achieved her desire: to abject the threatening feminine, to abject, that is, the mother. As the rescuer of her brother, Gretel is also a “murderer” of a woman. She is a paranoid in her dark forest, locked in the trauma and incomprehension of psychological childhood. And yet, as the only female in a world of men, she is magnetized toward her culturally defined identity as a female through the persistence of memory. Her recollections thrust her into a nightmarish reliving of her ultimate act of repulsion: plunging the witch into the oven. With each image joined to the act of “witch-burning,” Gretel achieves two effects: she brings the feminine into memory and she recapitulates her part in the witch's destruction. The imprinting of this killing surfaces in ever more interiorizing ways with each subsequent reference in the poem. Initially we hear the witch's cry and see her tongue “shrivel into gas.” But in the second reference we are left with “the spires of that gleaming kiln”—a kiln suggesting the firing of pottery, as if Gretel, by preserving her enemy in memory, has enabled the witch to assume the status of art, and artful immortality. In the final image we complete the progression from the dissolved tongue to an exterior view of the container of the witch's destruction, and finally to the interior of the kiln—“the fire in earnest.” Gretel's memory, then, leads her into the oven, as if by killing the witch she is compelled repeatedly to take the witch's place. In its evocation of memory and the indelibility of past trauma, “Gretel in Darkness” insinuates that the speaker is linked to what she has destroyed, that womanhood, which is figured as chaotic and devouring, may not be abjected from the self.

A victim of her hungers, Gretel cannot know herself. “Like most people hungry for praise and ashamed of that, of any hunger,” Glück has written in an essay, “I alternated between contempt for the world that judged me and lacerating self-hatred.”27 For Glück, hunger relates metaphorically not only to physical hunger and sexual desire but to desire for knowledge, and the metaphor of hunger reinforces the bodily link that this poet makes in conceptualizing each realm.

In the second section of The House on Marshland her figure for the new self is the infant Moses adrift on the Nile the moment before destiny and another culture adopt him: “Extend yourself— / it is the Nile, the sun is shining, / everywhere you turn is luck” (HM, 27). The exiled child is here a lucky child. Yet, perhaps more significantly, the book ends with another, contemporary, male child destined to reject and to be rejected, and envisioning physical paralysis: “the dead fields, women rooted to the river” (HM, 42).

Descending Figure (1980), Glück's third book, graphs a progression from originary preoedipal fusion, to narcissistic projection, to a final acknowledgment of fundamental grief. The descending figure of the title is variously the drowned children of the first poem, Glück's dead infant sister, the language itself, Christ, and the persona of the poet, most fully as she experiences the temptation to enter a state of oblivion. The book quietly reverses conventions; the past is figured as being “ahead” of rather than “behind” the speaker; humans are believed to have created gods; birth is more terrifying than death. For the first time in her work, the body is repeatedly less an adversary than an object of pity. The book focuses more fully and with greater compassion on the vulnerability of children than do her previous collections. As in The House on Marshland, a call to a child to enter into the order of consciousness reappears, but here the fear of birth (and of trauma linked to birth and any coming-into-being) is voiced with more overt sympathy. The haunting image of the dead infant sister familiar from both earlier books is echoed in visions of ill and untended children and the pity and tenderness that they inspire. The rhythms of the poems are not insistent, as if the consciousness behind them seeks calm while in the somewhat sinister suburban emptiness all claims to authority are estranging. “So waste is elevated / into beauty” she writes in Descending Figure,28 and as such she might impart the focus of her third book in which the talismans of a life are perfected. “[W]hat death claims / it does not abandon” (DF, 40) she writes, and this poetry indeed seems oddly death-claimed, even sepulchral at points.

In “The Drowned Children” a curiously omniscient voice emerges in an account that is only partly about its title subject:

And yet they hear the names they used
like lures slipping over the pond:
What are you waiting for
come home, come home, lost
in the waters, blue and permanent.

(DF, 3)

The poem's ostensible theme has puzzled critics, most notably Greg Kuzma, who in a scathing attack terms the poem “a shambles”29 and questions “how it is that Louise Glück, who herself has a son, can so glibly traffic in dead children.”30 Kuzma finds Glück's poetry “bullying,” a heartless poetry symptomatic of a generalized “collapse of standards” in American poetry.31 Surely Kuzma takes literally what is a symbolic poem: “The Drowned Children” reflects Glück's view of children's at least partially unacculturated status, and their closeness to the archaic and the presymbolic. In death the child is most obviously “unparented” and unprotected. Here the only mother who does not abandon is death itself. Yet Glück's poem is also about the self's attraction to oblivion—pointedly an adult temptation. Oblivion, we might recall, derives from Latin and means the “forgotten or unknown.” In a lesser-known meaning it refers to “official disregard or overlooking of offenses; pardon; amnesty.” In both senses the word is important to Glück, for it suggests the breakdown of defenses that her personae rigorously erect, the upkeep of which proves exhausting. To forget would be to free her personae of resentments and the concomitant need in this poetry for what seems like preemptive rejection. In the second sense of the meaning referred to above, to be oblivious would signify being granted amnesty, exemption from the bondage of memory—a state of being that is surely attractive to Glück.

Oblivion is variously framed by this poet. It is, she has written, “the lure of the regressive,”32 a return to the womb and “the wish to be dissolved, to be allied with, absorbed into another.”33 This theme of dissolution of self is seductive—even a subject, she has said, of “grandeur” as it may be linked to the great themes of death and destruction. In a defense of Robinson Jeffers she might have been explaining her own drives in regard to oblivion as it removes the individual from an impure position: “He wanted to find something in the world which was not corrupt, not the product of corruption.”34 She writes in “The Dreamer and the Watcher”:

The drive toward oblivion seems to me (as to many others) not a symptom of sickness but a true goal, and this wish of the self to do away with the very boundaries it has struggled to discover and maintain seems to me an endless subject, however we may try to subvert its grandeur.35

As we have observed, there is in Glück's poems an extreme urge to contain the self and to compress and control language, to create a sealed aesthetic and conceptual container. This effort depends on the will to exclude, to extract, and to define by negation, abandoning any interfering contrary impulse. Linked to such abjection, however, is oblivion, according to Kristeva's conception:

The abject from which he [the subject] does not cease separating is for him, in short, a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered. Once upon blotted-out time, the abject must have been a magnetized pole of covetousness. But the ashes of oblivion now serve as a screen and reflect aversion, repugnance. The clean and proper (in the sense of incorporated and incorporable) becomes filthy, the sought-after turns into the banished, fascination into shame.36

In Glück, the urge to reject, to draw up walls around being, to create an unassailable self with its firm sense of personal history, is met by a contrary pressure: to regress, to be swallowed entirely into another so as to enter into a state of oblivion and liquefy the boundaries of identity. To abject is to repel, to be unabsorbed by the other, while oblivion suggests its reverse: to unite absolutely. Both abjection and oblivion project forms of perfection that allow for no in-between states of being. Glück is tempted toward one or both states alternately, but she is gifted with powers of self-analysis that allow her to explore such twin pressures, marking her poems with the deep imprint of her dilemma.

Where these two pressures meet, however, is in their outcome, as Glück conceptualizes it: both, paradoxically, lead to isolation. Oblivion, in what she calls its “various forms … of dream to orgasm to death,” amounts to experiences that, while they are sometimes described in terms of union, are felt as more fully isolating moments. “[T]he oblivion we ultimately achieve is an outpost of solitude from which the other is exiled—your oblivion is not mine, as your dream is not,”37 she has argued in an essay. That is, even oblivion does not allow for a final experience of union between individuals but for a further declaration of one's aloneness. References to snow, whirling rain, or flying leaves, agitations in the air and disturbances in the visual field, tend to accompany her focus on oblivion as if to reinforce the isolating intensity of inner weather that her personae experience.

Despite her emphasis on control, particularly control of body and reproduction, repeatedly Glück writes of the need to renounce will, for she believes that no measure of will can allow the poet to compose an authentic poem. Referring to poetic insight, she maintains that “it comes slyly, or with an air of being unwilled, the air of query or postulate or vision.” In consequence, any aesthetic teleology should be defeated: “Poetic intelligence lacks, I think, such focused investment in conclusion, being naturally wary of its own assumptions. It derives its energy from a willingness to discard conclusion in the face of evidence, its willingness, in fact, to discard anything.”38 Glück's prose is dominated by the theme of the will's failure to create poems and the poet's necessary discipline: the discipline of abandoning preconceptions. “The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness,” she begins her essay “The Education of the Poet.” Indeed, the poem cannot be forced into being but requires of the poet a practiced receptivity: “In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea. The only real exercise of will is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto.”39 Unlike what Glück sees as an authentic poem (the poem of exploration), the willed poem foresees its own strategies and is thus inevitably a counterfeit because it denies the poet the necessary turbulence of discovery. She is dismissive of contemporaries who seem to her to be “willing” their poems into being as if they were smugly controlling all responses to their poems and in consequence rendering their personae blameless in events that are represented in their poems. In a review she criticizes one contemporary poet's “managerial interventions, her insistence on a single rigid interpretation; limited in a sense by excess will.”40 The poet “yearns”—a familiar word in Glück's prose—but the poet cannot control the path of illumination. She has declared repeatedly that she distrusts prolific writing, and most of her essays are informed explicitly by her struggle with silences. Enduring periods of creative sterility is, she argues, a form of near heroism: “For poets, speech and fluency seem less an act of courage than a state of grace. The intervals of silence, however, require a stoicism very like courage; of these, no reader is aware.”41

In spite of her reiterations of the unwilled quality of mature poetry, the iconic character of Glück's prose and the vatic voice of her poetry are at odds with her argument. In “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” she writes: “It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished.”42 The infinitive itself is telling: to harness implies will, that is, the power consciously and with premeditation to rewrite one's story. Her axiomatic prose, built plaint by plaint, reveals in turn the most willful care. The irony of her rejection of will is that Glück's prose and poetry generate much of their impact from what seems like the most strategic rhetoric. She seldom qualifies statements even when discussing doubt itself. For their impact, her poems rely on tone, and her own tone is one—for all her emphasis on the promise uncertainty holds—of extreme knowledge, even of fatedness. In fact, the omission of context in her poems raises multiple questions in the reader, and yet seldom allows for an impression that the speakers of her poems share in this bafflement about either cause or effect. Glück's very attraction, after Firstborn, to the “eternally recurring” situation43 reveals her preference for projecting mythic infallibility. The combined impact of her images and statements in poems make for speakers who know all too well the order of things. As she has noted, she often writes “backwards,” moving from revelation to origins, from result to some intimation of causal circumstance: “My own work begins at the … end, literally, at illumination, which has then to be traced back to some source in the world. This method, when it succeeds, makes a thing that seems irrefutable. Its failure is felt as portentousness.”44

Although her speakers do not often appear to doubt themselves, Glück would make us doubt the speakers' convictions—and therein, perhaps, her repeated emphasis on the poet's “helplessness,” the poet's inability to assume mastery of her poetry, may seem more congruent with her stated practices. In her poems, many of them resembling miniature revenge dramas or bills of retribution, she allows us to believe in her speakers' emotions but not necessarily in their ultimate claims to truth, as a poem like “The Untrustworthy Speaker” explicitly projects: “When I speak passionately, / that's when I'm least to be trusted.”45 In its most extreme form in Ararat, each poem's “ego” has been replaced by a psychiatric function, the account already dwelled upon, as if rendered into summative statements from the clinician's couch, and yet, like many statements rendered in psychoanalysis, inherently suspect. As she writes in “The Triumph of Achilles”: “the legends / cannot be trusted— / their source is the survivor, / the one who has been abandoned.”46 Speaking for the abandoned, she has developed voices that are explicitly partial and idiosyncratic, their grief troubling the surfaces of the poems.

Glück's book that most fully reflects her desire to learn to relinquish her own will—a fierce-enough force—is The Triumph of Achilles (1985). The book represents a breaking point from her earlier poetic, an attempt to come to terms with physical and psychological imperfections and with the limited products of earth. That is, through human affection her personae become “mortal,” and the self-consciousness of including more questions in the poems' lines—a technique that Glück points out that she had resisted in other collections and consciously assigned herself in The Triumph of Achilles—allows for a complex tone of psychological vulnerability. For all the sensuality of The Triumph of Achilles (Achilles' triumph is his ability to love, which marks him as mortal), the book simultaneously records its ambivalence toward the sensual world. The poems deal with a successful love affair that moves beyond projection to acknowledge limited selfhood, the imperfect human rather than paralyzing perfection. As she had noted in Descending Figure, the body is inevitably a source of pain, but it is worse to be incorruptible, unchangeable, like the stone animals that she views in a garden: “Admit that it is terrible to be like them, / beyond harm” (DF, 5).

The book opens with the startling “Mock Orange” in which the speaker remarks bitterly of the flowers: “I hate them as I hate sex.” As if the sensual world were a source of coercion, the body is seen as a faithless collaborator. Posing herself against the body's demands, Glück's speaker is resentful even toward instinctual life:

I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man's mouth
sealing my mouth, the man's
paralyzing body—
and the cry that always escapes, …

(TA, 3)

Eavan Boland remarks with special insight on the cry that erupts in “Mock-Orange”:

It can also be heard as the cry of the erotic object itself—that silenced, paralyzed, gagged object—finding air and expression and dissent. Voicing its pain after its age-long role as servant of desire and trophy of the power of poetry. The narrator of this poem does not flinch from the volatile mix of the sexual and erotic, but once again, they are radically disassembled. The erotic object is now the speaker. The sexualizing perspective is now the substance of the rebuke. The powers of nature so often celebrated and invoked in the traditional love poem are accused and reproached.47

Sensuality and sexuality here lead to objectification of the body. For Glück's speaker, one is made a thing through sexuality. The poem thus opens with an absolutive statement countered by the mixed feelings that later emerge when the speaker refuses to enter into “the tired antagonisms” between women and men. Abjection, as we have noted, is a way to refuse to be an object, but instead to be propulsive, to act on an environment, to separate and define one's being against others, and to establish essential differences. For Glück, the body with its reflexes is a “proof” of love, but sexuality creates silence. She would resent the false assurance of union gained from sexual feeling, for her perception of the very depth of her isolation and her attraction to states of abjection allow her to assume voice. “Mock Orange” insists on projecting mixed feelings. Flesh stifles and mutes; fleshly congress implies a horrific loss of control—yet a loss that is both feared and desired, for it is a movement beyond language into the seductive unknown of oblivion.

In Ararat (1990), published five years after The Triumph of Achilles, Glück is aware of her persona as mired in former perceptions, viewing her speaker as “a device that listened. / Not inert: still” (A, 15). The collection is a record of self-stasis. It asserts its summations immediately, processing the meaning of events in a manner sometimes vaguely familiar from popular psychoanalytic theory. Some of the same astringent tones arise as in earlier collections, but this is, in a sense, expository poetry, self-conscious in its insights. The book largely depends on a psychoanalytical focus: “I know myself; I've learned to hear like a psychiatrist” (A, 34). In “Confession” she allies herself with the Fates, identified with envy, an emotion for which her speaker excoriates herself. At the same time, as in “Lullaby,” the poems recapitulate the pull toward formlessness and oblivion that we have detected in much of her work: “The soul's like all matter: / why should it stay intact, stay faithful to its own form, / when it could be free?” (A, 29).

Glück lays claim to the provinces of prose fiction, telling a linked story of characters who are buoyant and fluent and others who are leaden and silent. While she interlocks the poems' subjects to mirror the propulsion of narrative, even titling one poem “A Novel,” she also points in the same poem to the intractability of her material as a source for fictional development: “No one could write a novel about this family: / too many similar characters. Besides, they're all women; / there was only one hero” (A, 18). Evidence of abandonment and neglect is borne out through the collection in her reflections on her father's death and on the psychological stance that the mother assumes after the father's death and on the psychological stance that the mother assumes after the father's funeral. “[T]he wish to move backward,” the mother's wish in “A Fantasy” (A, 16), is the wish of many of her personae who seek oblivion.

Appearing two years after Ararat,The Wild Iris (1992) makes the subject of discovering poetic voice explicit. The previous collection emphasizes the stubborn power of silence as a means of withholding love and displaying the speaker's watchfulness, for a good listener can detect weaknesses and exploit the voluble. In the midst of lovelessness, of emotional scarcity, the silent, by not voicing their needs, claim for themselves an alembic dignity. In contrast, The Wild Iris allows for many voices to emerge from a garden, and the distancing effect of placing most utterances in nonhuman elements has freed Glück to write openly of vulnerability and need. By turning to a convention in The Wild Iris, the voicing of flowers, she set for herself the challenge of resisting in her readers a predictable nostalgia. Yet her strategy allows her to defy matter, escaping the human body to imagine speaking but “fleshless” bodies. Her rapid composition of the poems in ten weeks during the summer of 1991 suggests that her approach fulfilled psychic needs, as if she had long yearned to write as a disembodied voice, freed of fleshly confines.

It is the voiced quality, the imagined act of being born as a hesitant and searching voice, that is at the center of most poems in The Wild Iris—as the red poppy, for one clear instance, explains: “I speak / because I am shattered.”48 Indeed, the cyclic dormancy that is viewed as part of the plants' cycle may be seen as part of Glück's own writing cycle. The “fate” of the plants is not in question; we are familiar with their cycles of generation. Similarly, Glück views an authentic writing life as one that is marked by unavoidable periods of silence. We bring to these poems echoes from Glück's previous books with their eschatologies and aftermaths; that is, we import to the poems our knowledge of an order of irrevocable fate by which her characters have always been constrained.

The Wild Iris opens at the point at which oblivion has been cast off in favor of speech:

… whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice: …

(WI, 1)

Glück writes of the exhilaration of speaking as if she were a redeemed Daphne: “in a sense passionately / attached to the living tree, my body / actually curled in the split trunk” (WI, 2). God or the godlike in The Wild Iris is addressed as one who may choose other objects of desire, other creations, and, as such, God is an echo of an early crisis for her persona: the crisis of the child who believes herself abandoned by an emotionally withdrawn father, who believes herself to be neglected and inadequate, the less favored not only after a living younger sister but also after—most undefeatable of rivals—a firstborn dead infant sister.

Meadowlands, which appeared four years after The Wild Iris, focuses on the abandonment of a contemporary woman who shades into the figure of Penelope. (In Glück's reworking of the myth, Odysseus will ultimately leave Penelope rather than be united with her.) The Odyssey sustains Glück's own intermittent progression in narrative, while abrupt changes in the emotional temperature of the book are accomplished in part through references to the effluvia of daily life.

Clearly, as has been the case throughout her career, the abandoned hold Glück's true interest. Assuming the voice of a contemporary Penelope in Meadowlands, Glück's persona is the prototype of the deserted wife. Throughout the collection, Penelope is engaged in ritualistic ways of being that defend her against the anxiety caused by her husband's departure. Her stalwart acts of attention place her in a position that is familiar to us from other representative women in Glück's poetry: she is not diminished by misfortune, although her suffering registers in moments of hapless melancholy. Rather, she clings to art as self-preservation. Glück's Penelope is a maker, and her loom is a type of poem, a locus of creation and de-creation. It is Odysseus who is constricted by role more severely than Penelope. Through primarily female eyes (Circe and a Siren speak, as well as Penelope) his complaints emerge as carping; his passions, even when defended, come across at some level as witless.

The natural world in The Wild Iris gives utterance to longing and to bafflement at the forces of destruction and rebirth. Nature reflects its light on lovers. But the title of Glück's seventh book refers to flatlands (and, as she points out, humorously, baseball fields), and it is the strange “flat” peace of Penelope in nature that is emblematic of her sustained personhood. We could think of her as in the position of the poet who expresses patience before the retreating poem, as if her husband, forever in retreat, were a form of muse. Indeed, Odysseus may seem to be “the unfolding dream or image / shaped by the woman working the loom, / sitting there in a hall filled / with literal-minded men.”49 Yet the actual character of the husband/Odysseus in Meadowlands, vacillating as he may be in a traditional muselike manner, does not fulfill Glück's vision of inspiration. After all, it is Penelope's own voice that pursues Odysseus, demanding recognition in a muselike manner. If we return to Glück's “Gretel in Darkness” for a moment, we may be able to hear its echoes in “Quiet Evening,” from Meadowlands:

So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus,
not to hold him back but to impress
this peace on his memory:
from this point on, the silence through which you move
is my voice pursuing you.

(M, 5)

The speaker of “Gretel in Darkness,” we may recall, is threatened audibly by her own memory, as if memory were in hostile pursuit of her sanity. In “Quiet Evening” the wife, like Gretel, is located in a forest, but she threatens to make her own voice haunt her husband. She will be the one to make her presence known, as subject rather than as object.

Glück's body of work bespeaks remarkable will and control. Indeed, the common phrase body of work may be particularly appropriate in Glück's case, for she has lived with her work as if it were her body, a body that she could only partially control. The origins of the body and the poem as a kind of secondary body are in marshland, in the oblivion of formlessness and inchoate womblike elements that are culturally aligned to women and that Glück finds to be so deeply embedded in the language that she is hardpressed to disengage herself from them. It is especially significant that she describes her relationship to writing in terms of difficulty. As we noticed earlier, the theme of abandonment by an obscure force that makes resonant poetry possible is common in her essays and an undercurrent in her poems in which speech is imperiled by silence. Perhaps the tension that we detect in her speakers derives in part from the threat of speechlessness; we sense that any voice in her poems emerges under embattled psychic circumstances.

Glück has attempted in each of her books to change the style of her work and to change the self—already so perilously impermanent—that makes the poems. She has treated her books as if they were skins that she might shed, as if they, like the body that she sought to master in adolescence, might be perfected. Each book begins, Glück has written, with “a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off” of her earlier aesthetic strategies.50 Just the same, Glück's voice has been recognizable in each of her books; each is imprinted with her signature concerns and her signature stylistic austerity. (Even Meadowlands, with its inclusion of humor and seemingly trivial daily details, allows for such material in only rather small amounts, surely not enough to dilute the tonal voiceprint that we recognize as Glück's own.) What the sequence of books makes clear is this poet's progressive strategies. First she would describe and then render substantial the wavering self as a still life, perfected into paralysis. Later she enacts a complex resistance to the very state of paralyzed being that she had earlier recorded. The “triumph of Achilles”—or of Louise Glück—rests on a renewed assumption of mortal, fleshly fallibility. She makes her own aesthetic position, tenuous as it may be, out of the materials that she associates with abandonment—the representation of desertion by others and the representation of a corollary desire to abandon cultural prohibitions—and out of a dignity in finding speech for the conflicted psyche and its most stubborn hungers.


  1. Louise Glück, “Death and Absence,” in The Generation of 2000: Contemporary American Poets, ed. William Heyen (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984) p. 66.

  2. Louise Glück, “Invitation and Exclusion,” in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1994), p. 120.

  3. Elizabeth Dodd, The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992), p. 149.

  4. See Glück's “Against Sincerity,” American Poetry Review 22, no. 5 (1993): 27–29.

  5. As Lawrence Lipking argues in Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition, “An air of the forbidden, of something potentially explosive or beyond control, hovers around [abandoned women in literature],” p. 2. He refers to the figure of the abandoned woman as “highly subversive,” p. 31.

  6. Lynn Keller, “‘Free / of Blossom and Subterfuge’: Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation,” in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the “Fubilation of Poets,” ed. Leonard W. Trawick (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990), p. 120.

  7. Ibid., p. 129.

  8. Louise Glück, author's note to The First Four Books of Poems (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1995), unpaginated.

  9. Louise Glück, “Grandmother in the Garden,” in Firstborn (New York: New American Library, 1968), p. 18. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as F, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  10. Robert Miklitsch, “Assembling a Landscape: The Poetry of Louise Glück,” Hollins Critic 19, no. 4 (1982): 3.

  11. Louise Glück, “Education of the Poet,” in Proofs & Theories, p. 10. Text of lecture given at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 31 January 1989.

  12. Louise Glück, “For My Mother,” in The House on Marshland (New York: Ecco, 1975), p. 6. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as HM, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  13. Glück, “Education of the Poet,” p. 10.

  14. Ibid., pp. 10–11.

  15. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.

  16. Ibid., p. 10.

  17. Ibid., p. 1.

  18. Ibid., p. 2.

  19. Louise Glück, “On Stanley Kunitz,” in Proofs & Theories, p. 109.

  20. Ibid., p. 110.

  21. Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us, p. 303.

  22. Miklitsch, “Assembling a Landscape,” p. 8.

  23. Diane S. Bonds, “Entering Language in Louise Glück's The House on Marshland: A Feminist Reading,” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 1 (1990): 58.

  24. Ibid., p. 59.

  25. Glück, “Education of the Poet,” p. 3.

  26. Miklitsch, “Assembling a Landscape,” p. 11.

  27. Glück, “Education of the Poet,” p. 10.

  28. Louise Glück, “Autumnal,” in Descending Figure (New York: Ecco, 1980), p. 37. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as DF, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  29. Greg Kuzma, “Rock Bottom: Louise Glück and the Poetry of Dispassion,” Midwest Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1983): 472.

  30. Ibid., p. 473.

  31. Ibid., p. 478.

  32. Louise Glück, “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” in Singular Voices: American Poetry Today, ed. Stephen Berg (New York: Avon, 1985), p. 79.

  33. Ibid., p. 80.

  34. Louise Glück, “Obstinate Humanity,” in Proofs & Theories, p. 71.

  35. Glück, “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” p. 80.

  36. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 8.

  37. Glück, “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” pp. 80–81.

  38. Louise Glück, introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993, ed. Louise Glück, series ed. David Lehman (New York: Collier, 1993), p. xx.

  39. Glück, “Education of the Poet,” p. 3.

  40. Louise Glück, “The Forbidden,” Threepenny Review 54 (summer 1993): 21.

  41. Louise Glück, “The Idea of Courage,” in Proofs & Theories, p. 27.

  42. Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” American Poetry Review 22, no. 5 (1993): 30.

  43. Louise Glück, “On Impoverishment,” in Proofs & Theories, p. 132.

  44. Glück, “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” p. 77.

  45. Louise Glück, “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” in Ararat (New York: Ecco, 1990), p. 34. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as A, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  46. Louise Glück, “The Triumph of Achilles,” in The Triumph of Achilles (New York: Ecco, 1985), p. 16. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as TA, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  47. Eavan Boland, “Making the Difference: Eroticism and Aging in the Work of the Woman Poet,” American Poetry Review 23, no. 2 (1994): 31.

  48. Louise Glück, “The Red Poppy,” in The Wild Iris (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1992), p. 29. Hereafter the title of this collection will be abbreviated as WI, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  49. Louise Glück, “Ithaca,” in Meadowlands (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1996), p. 12. Hereafter the title of this collection is abbreviated as M, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  50. Glück, “Education of the Poet,” p. 17.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Duane, “Russell Edson.” In Contemporary Poets, edited by James Vinson, 426–28. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Adorno, T. W. Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Andrews, Tom, ed. The Points Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995.

Ashbery, John. Quoted in “James Tate Wins 1995 Tanning Prize: Largest Annual Literary Prize in the United States.” Poetry Pilot (winter 1995–96): 1, 31.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

———. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

Bedient, Calvin. “Slide-Wheeling Around the Curves.” In The Point Where All Things Meet, edited by Tom Andrews, 39–52. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995.

———. “Tracing Charles Wright.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 10, no. 1 (1982): 55–74.

Bellamy, Joe David. American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Benedikt, Michael. Introduction to The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, edited by Michael Benedict, 39–50. New York: Dell, 1976.

Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Birkerts, Sven. “Prose Poetry.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 15, no. 1 (1989): 163–84.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. Translated by Lydia Davis. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1981.

Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: Seabury, 1976.

Boland, Eavan. “Making the Difference: Eroticism and Aging in the Work of the Woman Poet.” American Poetry Review 23, no. 2 (1994): 27–32.

James Longenbach (essay date 1999)

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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 the work preceding it. But because of what Glück calls in Vita Nova her “inflexible Platonism,” she is both entranced and threatened by “something beyond the archetype.” If change is what she most craves, it is also what she most resists, what is most difficult for her, most hard-won. And if her career has often moved forward at the expense of its own past, Vita Nova feels like the inauguration of a different kind of movement. Rather than retreating to an extreme of diction or sensibility, the poems of Vita Nova ultimately feel at home in a fluctuating middle ground that is not a compromise between extremes. Near the end of the book, the apprentice recognizes that she has internalized the lesson of the master.

                                                                                                                        I have acquired in some measure
the genius of the master, in whose supple mind
time moves in two directions: backward
from the act to the motive
and forward to just resolution.

These lines characterize two narratives: one involves the place of Vita Nova in Glück's ongoing career and the other is the story Vita Nova itself tells. To write what you see you must first change what you see. And if the past is the poet's subject, then the past must change: the inflexible Platonist must realize that the givens of experience are potentially as fluid, as mutable, as its possibilities. “I couldn't even / imagine the past,” Glück admits at one point in Vita Nova. At another, when she asks herself if she feels free, all she can respond is that she recognizes the patterns of her experience. Throughout her career, Glück has often shown how the future runs on rails that are laid down not only in childhood but in lives preceding our own. But in Vita Nova the act of imagining the future is contingent upon the act of reimagining—rather than rejecting—the past. To change what she sees, the poet must write what she sees, changing what she sees in the process.

“The Vita Nuova,” said T. S. Eliot, “is to my thinking a record of actual experience reshaped into a particular form.” Glück's title is brazen: like Dante's, her book is about the struggle to find what Glück calls “discernible form” for harrowing experience: the death of love and the rebirth of vocation. Glück has railed in her essays against narcissism in poetry; she has rejected the automatic prestige of forbidden subject matter. And by exploring the aftermath of a broken marriage in Vita Nova, Glück runs the risk—knowingly—of seeming merely sincere. But the real drama of Vita Nova, both thematic and structural, is the unfolding dialogue between “material” and “form,” the way in which past experience is refigured in the language of poetry. “It must be done by speech,” says Dante in Rossetti's translation, “or not at all.”

Glück's last book, Meadowlands, was distinguished by its surprisingly wide discursive range—brash, vulgar, often funny. And while Vita Nova feels less austerely hieratic than much of Glück's earlier work, its poems by and large return to her more typically hushed idiom. But Vita Nova in no way signals a retreat. Glück's compulsion to change seems more substantive than ever before because Vita Nova does not represent a “swearing off” of the past: it accepts the notion that truly meaningful change must inevitably be partial change—complicit, incomplete. Speaking of her lifelong willingness to discard anything, Glück sees in herself the child she once was, a child “unwilling to speak if to speak meant to repeat myself.” In Vita Nova, Glück learns to live within repetition, and the result is, paradoxically, something really new: a reconsideration of the structure and function of lyric poetry.

Since the beginning of her career, the presiding technical problem of Glück's poems has been the placement of the speaker relative to the material. In Firstborn, her first book, the speakers seem involved in the emotional dilemma of the poems. But in the books that followed, Glück wrote a poetry distinguished more by its tone than by anything we could think of as a voice. Even the speakers of her dramatic monologues (often mythological figures) did not seem involved in the drama of their own lives. The novelist Michel Tournier has defined myth as “a story that everybody already knows,” and it is in this sense that so many of Glück's poems seem mythic, whether their subjects are mythological or not. Her speakers know everything, and since everything has already happened, the poems feel spectral and eerily calm.

The poems also tend to culminate forcefully in their final lines. In 1975, Glück published a group of five poems, four of which would appear later that year in her second book, The House on Marshland. “Here Are My Black Clothes” sounds like a Firstborn poem; from the start, its speaker is agitated, its gestures dramatic: “I think now it is better to love no one / than to love you. Here are my black clothes.” In contrast, “Messengers” is exquisitely placid but ultimately far more moving. Glück describes anyone's encounter with commonplace wild animals—geese, deer—but defers the significance of such encounters until the final lines:

You have only to let it happen:
that cry—release, release—like the moon
wrenched out of earth and rising
full in its circle of arrows
until they come before you
like dead things, saddled with flesh,
and you above them, wounded and dominant.

In poems like these, Glück withholds the poem's attitude toward its material (rather than advertising it, as she does in the poems of Firstborn), and the result is an ending that directs our experience of the entire poem. “The love of form,” Glück would say in Ararat, “is a love of endings.”

The uncanny power of poems like “Messengers” grows out of acts of willed renunciation: vigorous syntax, energetic rhythms, and colloquial diction had to be banished from this poetry. It is not surprising that from among the five poems published together in 1975, only “Jukebox” remains uncollected: “You hot, honey do she bitch and crab, / her measly and depriving body holding back / your rights?” As these lines suggest, Glück has always remained interested in the poetic possibilities she renounced. But she was unable to find a place for this rough, colloquial diction in The House on Marshland, just as Yeats could not have worked the phrase “greasy till” into the symbolic world of The Wind among the Reeds even if he'd wanted to.

The diction of Ararat, Glück's fifth book, is nowhere as energetic as in “Jukebox,” but the poems do register Glück's will to change: throughout this sequence written in the aftermath of her father's death, Glück forged a more intimate, less ghostly tone. But as Glück has recognized of herself, she has “always been too at ease with extremes,” and it is telling that after the more colloquial Ararat she produced The Wild Iris, her most flagrantly symbolic book. It is her Wind among the Reeds—a collection of disembodied lamentations and prayers: flowers address their gardener, the poet addresses God, and more profoundly, the poems address each other, creating a self-enclosed world of great poetic extravagance and—astonishingly enough—deep human feeling. But even when the poems adopt a point of view opposed to the poet's, the tone remains consistent:

                                                                                But John
objects, he thinks
if this were not a poem but
an actual garden, then
the red rose would be
required to resemble
nothing else, neither
another flower nor
the shadowy heart, at
earth level pulsing
half maroon, half crimson.

These lines contain the seed of the dissatisfaction that would in turn produce Meadowlands, a book of different voices—some of them as rough as “Jukebox.” Describing Yeats's development, Paul de Man once argued that The Wind among the Reeds was a dead-end because its words seemed only to invoke other words, other associations, having relinquished their referential power. Like the Yeats of In the Seven Woods, Glück struggles in Meadowlands to let the red rose “resemble / nothing else.” More profoundly, she also recognizes that the refusal of resemblance inevitably depends on its perpetuation: only through metaphor (“the shadowy heart, at / earth level pulsing”) may the rose be said to resemble nothing.

Throughout Meadowlands, the poet is challenged by the acerbic voice of her husband (who is also Odysseus): “You don't love the world,” begins “Rainy Morning”; your “tame spiritual themes, / autumn, loss, darkness, etc” are completely consistent with “the cat's pathetic / preference for hunting dead birds.” In response, the poet (who is also Penelope) wants to entertain the possibility of including more of the world in her poems. But given the very nature of poetic language, the task is difficult. In “Parable of the Gift” Glück explains how she inadvertently killed a fuchsia plant by leaving it outside—by “mistaking it / for part of nature.” The poem ends with a memory of a friend (who gave her the plant) bringing her “a towel of lettuce leaves”:

so much, so much to celebrate
tonight, as though she were saying
here is the world, that should be
enough to make you happy.

These lines epitomize the dilemma of Meadowlands. Glück is tired of reading the world as if it were an emblematic tapestry, yet she finds it difficult to be sustained by natural things alone. What's more, she has trouble distinguishing the natural from the emblematic. “As part of nature he is part of us,” said Stevens of the poet, but it's not easy for a poet who mistakes a plant for “part of nature” to take this wisdom for granted.

In “Nostos” (perhaps the most beautiful poem in the book) Glück remembers an apple tree that seemed, year after year, to flower on her birthday: seen once, it immediately became an emblem for consciousness, as did every subsequent apple tree she encountered.

of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts—
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

Like “Messengers,” “Nostos” culminates scrupulously in its final lines; it is the kind of poem Glück has mastered. But as Bonnie Costello suggests, the poem's delineation of a timeless lyric space is balanced throughout Meadowlands by a desire for disruptive forward motion—“that pulse which is the narrative / sea.” However representative of Glück's achievement, “Nostos” must be read in dialogue with the rougher poems of Meadowlands. The voice exhorting Glück to abandon “tame spiritual themes” in “Rainy Morning” is really her own: she wants sincerely to push at the boundaries of what “one expects of a lyric poet.”

Even if any word she uses is fraught with emblematic significance and can never be “natural,” the multiple voices of Meadowlands allow Glück to harness words and rhythms that could never have sat comfortably even in Ararat. She is also free to be funny: the brash or deadpan poems, especially those spoken by the weirdly prescient son (who doubles as Telemachus), sound especially humorous when juxtaposed with poems like “Nostos.” Still, this very strength—the achievement of a wholeness of feeling greater than its parts—may have relieved Glück from the pressure to transform herself more substantively. No matter how many times Glück writes a poem like “Rainy Morning,” poems like “Nostos” or “Parable of the Gift” nonetheless stand comfortably beside poems like “Messengers.”

If Meadowlands first seemed like a sign that Glück were expanding her range, the appearance of Vita Nova now makes Meadowlands feel ominously like a dead end. It offered Glück two mutually exclusive choices: she could continue to write hushed, luminous poems like “Nostos” or she could write brash, acerbic poems like “Rainy Morning.” But how much more skeptical, more disillusioned—more pick-your-adjective—could the author of lines like “your cold feet all over my dick” become? Glück's scrupulous talent for self-interrogation is capable of generating its own illusions. “Romance is what I most struggle to be free of,” she has said, but there is a romance bound up in the need never to be deceived, the need always to see through ourselves before somebody else gets a chance. It is a romance of purity, a romance that leads us to be more comfortable in extremes than in the middle. More difficult than heaven or hell, says Glück apropos of Eurydice, is the act of “moving between two worlds.” Vita Nova is her book of the difficult middle.

Like Meadowlands,Vita Nova demands to be absorbed in one long reading. But Vita Nova is built around not one but two mythic backbones—the stories of both Dido and Aeneas and of Orpheus and Eurydice: the book's structure consequently feels like an intersection of various narratives rather than the unfolding of a single one. In addition, Glück's position relative to these narratives is fluid. At one moment the poet will align herself with Dido or Eurydice, but at the next, her condemnation of Orpheus' narcissism will seem directed as much at herself as the lover who has abandoned her: “Tell them there is no music like this / without real grief.” Because Glück recognizes her complicity, the poems don't feel neatly opposed to each other even when they take on opposing personae. If Meadowlands exteriorized as dialogue the conflicts lyric poems more often interiorize as ambiguity, Vita Nova is uttered by a single speaker who contains within herself a variety of overlapping, eccentric positions.

This strategy is appropriate to the book's subject since, as I began by suggesting, the poems of Vita Nova concern not so much the breakup of a marriage as the poet's subsequent attempt to reorder her experience—to provide “discernible form” for “available material.” On the other hand, the poet is cut off from the future; the marriage she thought was eternal has succumbed to time. On the other hand, she is cut off from the past; she remembers how her mother turned away “in great anger” because she had “failed to show gratitude” for her mother's love: “And I made no sign of understanding. / For which I was never forgiven.” This “never” is the dead center of Vita Nova: it signifies a past that is beyond our control but which continues to control us, delimiting our experience in the present.

Throughout most of the first half of Vita Nova, Glück despairs of the possibility of meaningful change. As in “Nostos,” she feels that we enter the world “guilty of many crimes,” that the soul is as a result “inflexible.” Paradoxically, it is the end of the marriage—the source of despair—that offers an antidote to despair. In “Unwritten Law” the poet seems weirdly grateful to the husband who abandons her: if she gave herself to him “absolutely,” he, in his “wisdom and cruelty,” taught her “the meaninglessness of that term.” He taught her, so to speak, that the word never is only as shifting and deceptive as the word forever, that the material of our experience is never beyond change.

Our job is not to “recognize [the past] ‘the way it really was,’” said Walter Benjamin, but to “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Glück's passionate commitment to change is born of a fear of irrefutable memory—of the possibility that, as in “Nostos,” we are permitted to look at the world only once. Throughout the second half of Vita Nova she consequently begins to fight back, seizing hold of the past when it threatens to determine her future. In “Nest” she describes a dream in which she watched a bird construct its nest from the “available material” left in the yard after other birds have finished their weaving:

Early spring, late desolation.
The bird circled the bare yard making
efforts to survive
on what remained to it.
It had its task:
to imagine the future.

The bird's task is of course Glück's. In dreams as in poems she moves—like the master who instructs her—in two directions at once: by moving forward into the future she also moves backward into the past, altering it, commanding it. In “Condo” her dream even confuses past and future, “mistaking / one for the other.”

There is nothing merely innocent or inevitable about the confusion: “Bedtime,” whisper the leaves in “Evening Prayers,” “Time to begin lying.” But however desperate Glück feels in the face of intractable material, her “struggle for form” does move toward moments of repose. “Formaggio” begins with lines that sound like the end of a typical Glück poem.

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

The triumph of “Formaggio” is that it moves beyond what feels like an ending, reconstructing a world. After the world shattered, says Glück, human beings built smaller worlds in the fissures: “blocks of stores” (Fishmonger, Formaggio, Hallie's flowers) are like “visions of safety”; “salespeople” are “like parents” only “kinder than parents.” In this “provisional” world the recognition that Glück has “had many lives” is for once liberating. She is even willing to repeat the phrase:

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they become
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist—
that would be the self in the present.

These final lines of “Formaggio” are liberating both because of what they say (emphasizing the way in which a self is constructed over time rather than predetermined) and because of the way they follow on the previous lines of the poem. The poem sets a scene—a block of stores on Huron Avenue—and weaves a meditation in and out of the scene, implicitly paralleling the poet's casual movement from store to store: the poem's final image of the self gripping its previous lives feels like the wonderfully unpredictable result of having ended a day's journey in Hallie's flower shop. “The place you begin doesn't determine / the place you end,” says Glück in “Nest”: coming from the author of “Nostos,” this realization is the source of all freedom in Vita Nova.

For the simple reason that they repeat language that has already occurred earlier in the poem, the final lines of “Formaggio” feel spontaneous rather than weighty, part of an ongoing process rather than grandly conclusive. Repetition: while Glück laments in “Unwritten Law” that “the mistakes of my youth / made me hopeless, because they repeated themselves,” she eventually recognizes in “The Garment” that “when hope was returned to me / it was another hope entirely.” To exist in time is necessarily to exist in repetition; to exist successfully in time is to recognize that what is returned to us—hope or despair—repeats the past with a difference. Once we recognize that difference, then the past is changed; it becomes a source of possibility. But however powerful in itself, this realization wouldn't matter much if Glück presented it in poems that, like “Messengers” or “Nostos,” carry their weight in their final lines. The real achievement of Vita Nova is a new kind of lyric structure, one that embodies a love of the middle rather than a “love of endings.”

In the first poem called “Vita Nova” Glück revisits the scene of “Nostos”—the apple tree that determines her experience of all subsequent trees. This time, Glück looks at the scene again and again. Her meditation stutters, returning to the scene of the apple tree with fresh observations. She compares the memory to a scene in the present; she wonders if she's remembered correctly. “Crucial / sounds or gestures” from childhood may be “laid down” like a track, but rather than feeling doomed to repeat them, Glück feels enabled by repetition—“hungry for life.” In the poem's final lines, spring repeats itself but with a difference.

Surely spring has been returned to me, this time
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.

The difference is the recognition of mortality—the recognition that we live in time. If “Nostos” offers what “one expects of a lyric poet”—a timeless lyric space—“Vita Nova” offers a new sensibility in a new structure. Like “Formaggio,” “Vita Nova” exists more firmly in the repetitive turnings and hesitations of its middle than in its conclusion; it embodies the movement of a story without telling one.

None of these more dialogically structured poems employs the rougher diction that characterized many of the poems of Meadowlands. Only the second poem called “Vita Nova” recalls the idiom of Meadowlands, and it is telling that this poem concludes with highly charged final lines. It seems to me that after testing her signature idiom in Ararat, honing it in The Wild Iris, and exploding it in Meadowlands, Glück realized that the changes were in danger of seeming cosmetic: her poetic structures—and the determinism they embodied—remained unchallenged. Ellen Bryant Voigt has recently written about how, at least since the New Criticism, we have tended to focus on form, diction, and tone, leaving poetic structure (which is not necessary coequal with form) to take care of itself. Poems like “Formaggio,” the first “Vita Nova,” “Aubade,” “Castile,” “Ellsworth Avenue,” or “Lament” do not flagrantly expand Glück's idiom but offer instead a more meaningful change, a change that reaches through a poem's skin to its bones.

These poems seem more intricately dialogical than the poems in Meadowlands or Vita Nova that are structured as actual dialogues. Since they don't split into different voices, their movement feels endless and manifold rather than end-stopped and oppositional. Because the poems repeat and revise themselves, the dialogues take place within their very linguistic texture. Even if the same thing could be said of the texture of an earlier poem such as “Mock Orange”—

It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
.....I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex

—these repetitions feel static, intentionally wooden, and the poem feels liberated from repetition when its syntax finally arcs across the line:

In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms.

In contrast, the dialogical poems in Vita Nova seek no liberation from repetition—neither formally nor thematically. (And it is telling that they feature longer lines and less enjambment than most of Glück's earlier poems.) Since Glück has abandoned her staunch determinism, freedom may now be found within the unfolding of the poem rather than at its conclusion. Speaking of Robert Pinsky's “At Pleasure Bay” (a poem structured through the repetition of the phrase “never the same”), Glück has noted that the implication of the phrase changes subtly with each repetition and consequently “stands for recurrence even as it asserts the absence of perfect duplication.” She could be speaking here of “Formaggio” or the first “Vita Nova.” The poem “finds in shift and movement what lyric [traditionally] uses stopped time to manifest,” Glück continues; through its “relentless mobility,” it offers “an unfolding, a pattern, as opposed to … iconic stasis.”

In her own “Castile” Glück does not repeat a single phrase but a group of phrases that recombine throughout the poem in different ways: “orange blossoms,” “children begging for coins,” “I met my love,” “the sound of a train,” “I dreamed this.” The poem begins by setting a scene:

Orange blossoms blowing over Castile
children begging for coins
I met my love under an orange tree

But Glück immediately questions this memory, wondering if the orange tree might have been an acacia tree, speculating that the memory might have been a dream. The poem seems to start over several times, moving in and out of the scene, simultaneously presenting it and questioning it.

Castile: nuns walking in pairs through the dark garden.
Outside the walls of the Holy Angels
children begging for coins
When I woke I was crying,
has that no reality?
I met my love under an orange tree:
I have forgotten
only the facts, not the inference—
there were children somewhere, crying, begging for coins

Because each repetition of a phrase occurs in a slightly altered context, the phrases feel both different and the same. And their movement consequently embodies the fluid, errant sense of memory that the poem describes. Near the end of “Castile” she remembers that she gave herself to her lover “completely and for all time”—or so she thought: the poem's final image of movement confirms the vicissitudes both of love and of poetry.

And the train returned us
first to Madrid
then to the Basque country

If the poems Glück has written since Firstborn feel like records of events that have already happened—myths—the dialogical poems like “Castile” feel like events that are happening. They are quite simply the most intricate and beautiful poems Glück has ever made.

Glück's embracing of repetition seems to me the crucial development in Vita Nova: the structure of the poems, their attitude toward change, and their relationship to Glück's earlier work all depend on it. Having seen repetition as Platonic recollection, in which everything new looks backward to its original source, Glück now understands repetition as Walter Benjamin described it in his magisterial essay on Proust: “Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust's mémoire involuntaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory?” While our “purposive remembering” dissipates “the ornaments of forgetting,” Proustian memory looks forward rather than holding us hostage to an unchanging past: it discovers future possibilities by recognizing that what repeats is always subtly different from itself.

“A terrible thing is happening—my love / is dying again,” begins “Lament,” the penultimate poem in Vita Nova. “How cruel the earth,” says Glück, “the willows shimmering.” Then again: “My love is dying.” But surely: “Once is enough.” Yet again: “The willows shimmer by the stone fountain.” And again: “Once is enough.” And again:

My love is dying; parting has started again.
And through the veils of the willows
sunlight rising and glowing,
not the light we knew.
And the birds singing again, even the mourning dove.
Ah, I have sung this song. But the stone fountain
the willows are singing again.

“Ah, I have sung this song”: this sigh of recognition is the crowning moment of Vita Nova. Throughout “Lament,” Glück mourns not the loss of her lover but the loss of her mourning: what will Orpheus have to sing about? The acceptance of repetition (which is the acceptance of mortality) allows memory to become a kind of forgetting; it allows her to imagine a future beyond the death of the death of love. It also enables her to live in the present, in the middle of life, rather than seeking shelter in extremes of language or sensibility. In “Earthly Love” (which stands beside “Immortal Love”) Glück describes a couple who were held together by the “conventions of the time,” conventions requiring them “to forfeit liberty” without their knowing it. The end of the marriage was in this sense fortunate, since it dissipated the romance of convention. “And yet,” says Glück—

And yet, within this deception,
true happiness occurred.
So that I believe I would
repeat these errors exactly.

These are mighty lines for a poet who has said that she disdains the illusions of romance above all else, a poet who has said that she would rather keep silent that repeat herself. The lines themselves repeat the work of another reformed Platonist, the Yeats of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”—

I am content to live it all again
And yet again

—the Yeats who was astonished at the “bitterness” of The Tower and subsequently embraced the fury and mire of experience in The Winding Stair. Yeats is, famously, a poet whose every new volume offers a new Yeats; “It is myself that I remake,” he counseled readers early on. But Yeats is also a poet whose every line is identifiable as his alone. Vita Nova sounds more like the Louise Glück we know than Meadowlands, but given the real innovation in poems like “Castile” and “Lament,” that familiarity is the book's power. Having recognized that real freedom exists within repetition rather than in the postulation of some timeless place beyond it, Glück now seems content to work within the terms of her art—resisting them from within rather than turning against them. The result is a book suggesting that Glück's poetry has many more lives to live.

Oliver Reynolds (review date 30 July 1999)

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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 what Larkin, at the end of “Poetry of Departures,” describes as “a life / Reprehensibly perfect.” Life—incomplete, imprecise, contingent—is complemented rather than opposed by art: the artist's task is to integrate the two. Yeats bypassed the claim of “The Choice” by wresting poetry from the turmoil of his own life; the contingent near-perfections of art climb out of, but still acknowledge, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Louise Glück's seventh book of poems, Meadowlands, [is published] alongside Proofs and Theories a short, weighty book of her brief, essential essays. Together, they provide one of the most interesting and persuasive examples of a contemporary poet integrating life and work in a way that is both rigorous and liberating.

Glück's prose gives the reader the substantial pleasure of accompanying an intellect compelled to work: on itself, on the work of others and on experience as a whole. Like her poetry, it is made up of essentials, of purgings and parings-down, of the movement from accuracy to truth. A prefatory note explains her method: “I wrote these essays as I would poems; I wrote from what I know, trying to undermine the known with intelligent questions.” The first essay, “Education of the Poet,” inherited its title from the name of a lecture series at New York's Guggenheim Museum. Glück prefers to describe herself as a “writer,” applying the word “poet” with caution: “it names an aspiration, not an occupation.” The aspirations and achievements of her poetry, hard and hard-won, also inform her prose. Autobiography, free of self-importance and the confessional impulse, reveals a self that is less an ego than an example, almost a specimen:

I had, early on, a very strong sense that there was no point to speech if speech did not precisely articulate perception. To my mother, speech was the socially acceptable form of murmur: its function was to fill a room with ongoing, consoling sound. And to my father, it was performance and disguise. My response was silence. Sulky silence, since I never stopped wanting deferential attention. I was bent on personal distinction, which was linked, in my mind, to the making of sentences.

The warp and woof of the personal and the familial, subject to a lofty scrutiny, become the patterning of words, become meaning. A general comment from another essay describes both books under review: “My work has always been strongly marked by a disregard for the circumstantial, except insofar as it could be transformed into paradigm.”

The essays suggest a précis of the circumstances of Glück's life: her family, her opting for psychoanalysis at the age of sixteen, her writing, her long periods (up to two years) of not writing, her teaching. They include fastidious discussions of her own work and superb valuations of the work of others—from Keats and Milton to Stevens and Oppen. She refines the notion that the words of a poem are preserved as if cut in stone or caught in amber. This lacks the idea of contact: “and contact, of the most intimate sort, is what poetry can accomplish. Poems do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit.” Much of the book has the pitch of criticism at its best: not just an approach to what we read, but also to how we live. It ends with “On Impoverishment,” an extraordinary leave-taking of her final-year students, a farewell from a teacher who wants them to realize “that impoverishment is also a teacher.” Poverty, here, is not a matter of finances, but—to use a term hard to avoid when discussing Glück's poetry—of the spirit. She tells them how her own struggles with silence finally led her to an acceptance of not being able to do what she most wants to do: to write. Her words are a preparation and an encouragement for them: “but preparation does not preclude suffering. The question isn't whether or not you will suffer. You will suffer. At issue is the meaning of suffering, or the yield.”

Meadowlands can be seen as one of the yields of suffering. Its forty-six poems work as a whole. Two situations give the book its flattened narrative—Odysseus' homecoming to Penelope and the end of a contemporary marriage—with the reader left to judge how one balances the other, how heavily each weighs the scales. (In “Telemachus' Dilemma,” the midway poem, the son of Odysseus and Penelope considers a possible legend for their tombstone: “opposing forces.”) There are recurrent characters and voices (Telemachus speaks seven of the poems; the modern husband and wife bicker throughout) and regular parable poems. “Parable of the Hostages,” superbly sympathetic to male fecklessness, begins “The Greeks are sitting on the beach / wondering what to do when the war ends.”) Bertrand Russell's contention that all Western philosophy is merely footnotes to Plato has a literary parallel: can Western poetry escape Homer? In “Education of a Poet” Glück reveals why this may be harder for her than for most: “Before I was three, I was well grounded in the Greek myths.” The latter, then, are not the fruits of her learning, but how she sees and feels. They are, partly, what she is. Meadowlands extends Glück's tonal range by its desolate humour and its descent into the commonplaces of marriage as war. (“Anniversary” begins, “I said you could snuggle. That doesn't mean / your cold feet all over my dick.”) Its recourse to classical precedent, a previous feature of Glück's work, can be seen here as both triumphant and desperate.

The way Glück has shaped the architecture of her poetic output, setting off the moods and methods of one book from another, can be traced in The First Five Books of Poems (reviewed in the TLS, September 4, 1998). Her sixth book, The Wild Iris (1992), is, of all her work, the most otherly: flowers talk, an absent god is petitioned, another god grumbles back. After this, Meadowlands can come to the reader too immediately. New to Glück is its wretched domesticity: the house, the neighbours, the poisonous routines—whether of the table (“chicken Monday, fish Tuesday”) or the bed (“You didn't want my heart; / you were on your way to my body”)—the cat, the dog. What is perennial with her, and all the more marked in this context, is the outward swoop from the particular to the paradigm, from circumstance to myth, from one life to human life. The final stanza of “Parable of the Dove” could be talking of the dissolution of love, the falling-short of art or the power of the inevitable:

So it is true after all, not merely
a rule of art:
change your form and you change your nature.
And time does this to us.

Life and work, enacting their own choices, approach each other. Glück, like those she praises in her essays, is among “the enduring ones, the voices time can't force life from.”

Tom Clark (review date September–October 1999)

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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 poet finds both faith and value in a kind of wakeful second-seeing that re-interprets ancient mythic fables with the same analytic intensity it applies to personal dream symbolism, insistently relating the lessons of both sorts of dreams to life in the “real” world.

“I dreamed this: / can waking take back what happened to me?” asks Glück's speaker in “Castile,” a poem about a dream lover encountered beneath a Spanish orange tree. “Does it have to happen in the world to be real?” For this poet, a belated Romantic, dreams are events in reality: they alter things, you can't take them back.

That point is made beautifully in the opening poem of the sequence, recounting an expansive dream of youth and springtime that leaves its trace as an emotional sign in the waking world. “When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same feeling … the moment / vivid, intact, having never been / exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age / hungry for life.”

In dreams begin responsibilities, the poet W. B. Yeats once suggested. For poets dreams have always beckoned and tantalized, but Glück goes further and discovers belief there. “I dreamed everything, I gave myself / completely and for all time.” Who else writes with that kind of over-the-top commitment to vaporish states in these late, undeceived days?

“A witness not a theorist” of her inner life, Glück examines her dream material with unsparing honesty (“I hate / when your own dreams treat you as stupid”), and inscribes it with a quiet, at times painful candor, willing to suspend judgment and entertain stubborn unclarities to find the epiphanies she obsessively seeks. The complexity and multiplicity of dream-signifying emerge in passages of shimmering, luminous depth, as when the under-meanings of her springtime dream percolate up to the waking surface: “Surely spring has been returned to me, this time / not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet / it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.”

What imagistic coloration this sequence has appears ethereal and ghostly, a light of nether-worlds and spook-dimensions, as viewed—to quote from a dream-poem about a burning house that turns into a funeral pyre—by one who has “walked out of the fire / into a different world—maybe / the world of the dead, for all I know” (“Inferno”). The poems' movement feels like a gradual descent into the self, where verse music grows eerily quiet, reflective, as if stilled by inward dream silences. And the curious oracular utterances that periodically interrupt the meditative discourse to interrogate and admonish the poet-speaker seem also to emanate from dreams.

Remote, disembodied presences, ominous yet Muse-like, Glück's unseen dream masters turn up now as stern interlocutors, now as deep-seeing mentors and guides. Their inquisition—it is, of course, the poet talking to herself—has an abrupt, immediate urgency about it that yields a call-and-response structure: “Why are you afraid?” “But do you think you're free?” “Who are you and what is your purpose?” “Do you regret your life?”

The challenge to answer her inner questioners honestly drives the poet into terse furies of starkly propositional statement, abdicating conventional writing-school wisdom about avoiding abstraction. Show don't tell is the rule, but in her telling passion, this poet is never afraid to leap aboard a Platonistic Pegasus, “my horse Abstraction, / silver-white, color of the page, / of the unwritten.”

For Glück, nakedly abstract statement provides a distancing instrument, a way not so much to evade the mundane facts of her worldly dramas as to lift off from them. There's a dead or lost husband or lover lurking in here somewhere, along with the grieving speaker who mourns him, but all the potentially vulgar details of a fuzzily-outlined confessional realm seem to fall away when the writing ascends on forbidden wings of abstraction to a curious generalizing tone, at once strangely impersonal and weirdly authoritative, as if the poet were appointed to speak truths not just of her own life but of everyone's.

Among the resulting landscapes of unexplained absences and fictive shapes, a shadowy central poetic telling occurs. In vague mythic underworlds of reverie old stories come back to life, acquiring fresh meanings in Glück's nuanced, deflected reading. These tales of wronged women and faithless paramours, lost girls tumbling back into hell and jilted queens dying brutally for love, carry us all the way down to “the dark existing ground” that underlies Vita Nova. Eurydice and Dido take on a new tragic heroism in their timeless haunted world, where an eternally narcissistic Orpheus always forgets love and an incurably adventuring Aeneas forever sails off to his imperialist destiny, founding Rome while leaving an abandoned but resigned Queen of Carthage to “accept suffering as she accepted favor” (“The Queen of Carthage”).

“My life took me to many places, / many of them very dark,” Louise Glück spells it out in “The Mystery.” A brave and risky book, daring to explore those obscure life-places by flickering dream lights, Vita Nova takes chances in the blind dark of poetry. A book of dreaming, it opens out into imperatives for awakening. …

Terence Diggory (review fall–winter 1999)

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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 increasingly rigorous critique of its materials, in keeping with a general tendency of the arts in this century. Louise Glück's latest volume, her eighth, provides a brilliant example. Its closely woven ironies present what is living and what is dead in scandalous proximity, but the work of discrimination thus demanded of the reader can only be enlivening.

The ironic gesture of proclaiming a new life in a dead language sets the tone for Glück's Vita Nova. When Dante cited the Latin phrase Incipit vita nova at the opening of La Vita Nuova, it helped to distinguish his innovative use of the Italian vernacular in the surrounding prose. Through the ensuing story of Dante's sublimated love for Beatrice, told in both prose and verse, the phrase acquired connotations of religious conversion, the soul's awakening to a new life. Seven hundred years after Dante, Glück cannot hope for novelty in her repetition of vita nova—repetition she highlights by employing the phrase as the title of two poems, the first and last of the volume. Her purpose, rather, seems to be the exposure of hopelessness in the midst of novelty. Although her despair has a personal basis, it seems also to reflect the condition of a culture that has found the material world an inadequate substitute for the consolation that Dante found in the spiritual. Even the imagery of nature, on which the romantic poets had hoped to base a new language such as Dante had found in the vernacular, now inspires only ambivalence. In the poem “Nest,” which turns on the ironic conjunction of “Early spring, late desolation,” Glück meditates on a bird gathering materials for its nest “after the others / were finished,” weaving “carefully but hopelessly,” “like the first Penelope / but toward a different end.”

The bird's difference from Penelope is like Glück's difference from Dante. Penelope weaves out of faithfulness to the absent Odysseus; Dante writes out of faithfulness to the dead Beatrice. Absence and death are types of the experience of loss in which lyric originates, and Penelope's weaving and Dante's writing, from Glück's perspective, are types of the ultimate mode of artwork, song, whose task is to compensate for loss. Song is the poet's mode of faithfulness, substituting the beauty of its music for the beauty of the lost beloved. As Glück writes in “Lute Song,” “I made a harp of disaster / to perpetuate the beauty of my last love.” However, the lingering dissonance that prevents the word “disaster” from harmonizing with beauty in these lines advances a critique of lyric that has become increasingly explicit in Glück's work. In her preceding volume, Meadowlands (1996), she wrote of what “one expects of a lyric poet”:

of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth.


In Vita Nova, substitution, the basic operation of metaphor and, indeed, of any type of sign, is exposed as a betrayal of love:

I knew what love was,
how it places the soul in jeopardy.
I knew. I substituted my body.

(“Timor Mortis”)

Thus, the very operation that had been, for Penelope and Dante, a mode of faithfulness, becomes implicated in what Glück laments as “human faithlessness” (“Eurydice”). This, I take it, is the source of the hopelessness that Glück projects onto the bird in “Nest.” Significantly, this bird does not sing.

Some of the poems of Vita Nova explore “human faithlessness” in personal terms that can be recognized as a continuation of Glück's account of the break-up of a marriage, the narrative core of Meadowlands. In particular, the second, concluding poem entitled “Vita Nova” offers the kind of dialogue that led Telemachus, in a parallel narrative based on the Odyssey, to evaluate the marriage represented in Meadowlands as:

heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.

(“Telemachus' Detachment”)

Part of the humor, and an amusing twist on Glück's critique of substitution, derives from the fact that in the “real life” narrative of “Vita Nova” [2] a dog named Blizzard stands in for Telemachus, taking the place of the child this couple have never had. So when the moment of final break-up arrives, they face the absurd task of explaining it to the dog:

Daddy needs you; Daddy's heart is empty,
not because he's leaving Mommy but because
the kind of love he wants Mommy
doesn't have, Mommy's
too ironic—Mommy wouldn't do
the rhumba in the driveway.

Here, the accusation the speaker directs against herself differs in its particulars from the critique in “Timor Mortis”: the problem seems to be not that the speaker has substituted the body for the soul, but rather that she refuses to abandon herself to the body, to “do / the rhumba in the driveway.” In essence, however, both critiques address the same problem: the self's doubleness, its inherent irony, to use the term the speaker of “Vita Nova” both employs and enacts; or its duplicity, to use the term more often associated with faithlessness. If the soul is the “true” self, the gift of the body seems false; but if the body is “home,” the soul's wandering constitutes an infidelity that Glück treats not only in domestic but also in religious terms. “How will god find you,” the speaker asks the soul in “Immortal Love,”

if you are never in one place
long enough, never
in the home he gave you?

In contrast to the passage I have quoted from “Vita Nova,” these lines from “Immortal Love” are more representative of the kind of music we have come to expect from Glück, and it is the kind of music that predominates in the Vita Nova volume as a whole. Readers who, on the basis of Meadowlands, hoped to see Glück in her new work mix in a little more klezmer (“Moonless Night”), a little more Otis Redding (“Otis”), maybe even a little rhumba, will have to postpone their expectations, though not abandon them entirely, I suspect. It is significant that the poem that most resembles Meadowlands in tone is placed last rather than first in Vita Nova. It is as if Glück felt the need, before moving on, to return to some of the material she had uncovered in Meadowlands and truly to grasp it as material, rather than merely as theme. The first “Vita Nova” poem, placed at the opening of the volume, defines the “new life” into which the speaker has awakened as a restored ability to feel

sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes
and then unused, buried.

Now that they have been unburied, the speaker feels like a child again, encountering the world for the first time, as she reports in the next poem, “Aubade”:

                    I was once more
a child in the presence of riches
and I didn't know what the riches were made of.

To learn what something is made of, the child would instinctively reach out and touch it. But the speaker's dilemma, once again, is that she is divided: between the child's instinct and the adult's knowledge that you can be hurt by what you touch; between “desire / to be safe and desire to feel.”

As “riches” are defined in lyric poetry, they are made of the feeling of hurt, the pain of lost love. So in the next-to-last poem of the volume, entitled “Lament,” the speaker still faces the dilemma:

What will I live for?
Where will I find him again
if not in grief, dark wood
from which the lute is made?

Scattered about the ground from which this wood has grown lie the seeds of epic. In a volume entitled Vita Nova, the phrase “dark wood” inevitably echoes against the “dark wood,” the selva oscura in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the Divine Comedy. In fact, the epic journey that Dante subsequently pursues through hell, purgatory and paradise is figuratively retraced by Glück as far as the second circle of hell, where she subjects the tormented lover Francesca to an interview recorded in a poem called “The Burning Heart.” But the construction of “the lute” from the “dark wood” in “Lament” assigns this material primarily to the lyric tradition, and to another lover lost in hell, Eurydice, bride and muse of Orpheus, the singer with whom Glück evidently wants to come to terms before she decides to tune her own songs to Otis Redding.

Interspersed among the other poems of Vita Nova, a series based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, including “Lute Song,” “Orfeo,” “Eurydice” and “Relic,” constitutes Glück's most direct challenge to the premises of lyric. Against the traditional reading of the story as a paradigm of fidelity lasting beyond death, Glück brings the charge of “human faithlessness” on behalf of Eurydice, in the poem named after her. Presumably it is disgust with Orpheus's faithlessness that makes Eurydice content to remain in hell, though we are not told in this poem why the action that seals Eurydice's fate, Orpheus's turning back to look at her, should be interpreted as a betrayal rather than a sign of love. In the context of Glück's general critique of the sign as substitution, the logic seems to be that love itself has been made a sign through Orpheus's action, because love was given to Eurydice in place of, as a substitute for, the life she would have enjoyed if Orpheus had not looked back. Glück's Eurydice understands that she has been given a gift whose value, as determined by the lyric exchange, is worth the price she has paid. At the opening of “Relic,” she asks,

Where would I be without my sorrow,
sorrow of my beloved's making,
without some sign of him, this song
of all gifts the most lasting?

Yet by the midpoint of this poem it becomes clear that her question is not merely rhetorical, that she is seeking to weigh alternatives by her own standards:

I think sometimes
too much is asked of us;
I think sometimes
our consolations are the costliest thing.

Not surprisingly, Orpheus does not seem to share Eurydice's doubt about the value of the song he produces as consolation for his loss of Eurydice. When he is the speaker, in the poem “Orfeo,” Glück cannot pursue her critique through explicit statement. She must rely on the implication of tone, which turns against the illusion of “real grief” in the first two lines of “Orfeo” with comic abruptness—though the comedy is more subtle than in the address to the dog in “Vita Nova”:

I have lost my Eurydice,
I have lost my lover,
and suddenly I am speaking French
and it seems to me I have never been in better voice;
it seems these songs
are songs of a high order.

How quickly Orpheus seems to forget Eurydice in his preoccupation with himself! But in fact it may be more accurate to say that she has been transmuted into song as he has been translated into French. He discovers he is “speaking French” because he has opened with a line from the more successful French version of the opera Orfeo ed Euridice by C. W. Gluck, originally set to an Italian libretto. In Meadowlands, opera represented music of transcendent passion in contrast to earthier, “sweeter,” more demotic modes. But the operatic allusions in Vita Nova (among which I would include a few poems on the story of Dido and Aeneas) do not merely restate Glück's refusal to do the rhumba. In selecting an opera by C. W. Gluck, Louise Glück is also acknowledging her own implication, as a lyric poet, in the critique she is directing at Orpheus. As she writes at the opening of “Lute Song,” “No one wants to be the muse; / in the end, everyone wants to be Orpheus.”

The divisions in Glück's self-consciousness extend to her identification with both Orpheus and Eurydice, but the cure toward which these poems seem to move is not a choice of one identification over the other—not, for instance, the alignment dictated by gender that some feminist critics would prefer to see in Glück (see Lynn Keller, “‘Free / of Blossom and Subterfuge’: Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation,” in Leonard M. Trawick, ed., World, Self, Poem [Kent State UP, 1990]). Rather, Glück's most recent experience of loss, though perhaps circumstantially similar to earlier experiences that have driven her work, seems finally to have propelled her beyond the dyadic relationship that constitutes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the structure of lyric address: an “I” who claims to recover through song a lost or absent “you.” The desire to be that “I,” confessed at the opening of “Lute Song,” is quickly checked by a detailed critique of the claim of recovery as an instance of “deflected narcissism,” such as we have already seen in “Orfeo.” “Lute Song” then proceeds to a statement of alternatives in what sounds like the poet's own voice, an I that does not have to be framed in quotation marks. Here is the poem in its entirety:

No one wants to be the muse;
in the end, everyone wants to be Orpheus.
Valiantly reconstructed
(out of terror and pain)
and then overwhelmingly beautiful;
restoring, ultimately,
not Eurydice, the lamented one,
but the ardent
spirit of Orpheus, made present
not as a human being, rather
as pure soul rendered
detached, immortal,
through deflected narcissism.
I made a harp of disaster
to perpetuate the beauty of my last love.
Yet my anguish, such as it is,
remains the struggle for form
and my dreams, if I speak openly,
less the wish to be remembered
than the wish to survive,
which is, I believe, the deepest human wish.

The lyric mode in which Glück has been working up to the time of the composition of Vita Nova revolves around remembrance. “You saved me, you should remember me” is the line that opens Vita Nova, and it is repeated toward the end of the volume, in the poem “Seizure.” However, lest this repetition mislead us into thinking that nothing has changed, “Seizure” offers an internal repetition of the line with a difference: “You changed me, you should remember me.” We might imagine Eurydice making this statement, in which case the “change” could refer to the transmutation into song that is the very medium through which she is remembered. But as it applies to Glück, I believe the statement actually rejects “the wish to be remembered,” as we see in “Lute Song,” even as it echoes that wish. Unlike “the wish to be remembered,” “the wish to survive,” which is preferred in the conclusion of “Lute Song,” can find fulfillment through the self alone. “Seizure” concludes: “And yes, I was alone; / how could I not be?”

Of course, even here we can still sense traces of another's presence; the “yes” seems to respond to an unspoken question, and the spoken question that follows implies the possibility of a response. A number of poems in Vita Nova formalize this question-and-response pattern in a structure that reads like the transcript of an official interrogation:

But do you think you're free?
I think I recognize the patterns of my nature.
But do you think you're free?
I had nothing
And I was still changed.

(“Mutable Earth”)

In my view, such a scenario suggests the alienation of speaker and respondent. It contributes to Glück's larger aim of shining a cold, analytical light on the “I”-“you” structure of lyric in a way that leaves no shadows to conceal the reader's presence and complicity. Eurydice springs the trap in “Relic”:

All the way to Dis
I heard my husband singing,
much as you now hear me.

The challenge, then, that Vita Nova poses to its readers is this: how else might we hear the speaker of a lyric poem? How are we to respond to an I who does not “wish to be remembered” but rather “to survive”? Is response in this case simply irrelevant, and if so, is the reader completely shut out from the life of the poem?

As I have already suggested, Vita Nova does not answer these questions, but aims rather at getting a firm grasp on them as poetic material. The shape that material will take in future work can only be determined by the poet in the process of composition. However, certain possibilities already emerging in Vita Nova can be more clearly identified in the light of the theoretical projections offered in Glück's volume of critical essays, Proofs & Theories (1994). With regard to the questions about reading that I have just outlined, the essays are especially relevant, because they show us Glück herself functioning as a reader, both of her own and others' work, and they trace her reading through successive stages of psychological development. In an essay on “Invitation and Exclusion” as alternative modes of relationship between poem and reader, Glück reports that “back in adolescence, I was used to reading poems that appeared to need to be heard, in that they postulated a listener.” The example she cites is Eliot, in whose work the need for the listener appears absolute, with the consequence that the listener takes on absolute qualities, the qualities of god (compare “On T. S. Eliot,” Proofs & Theories 22). “His role, in its highest form,” Glück writes, “fulfills the function of the savior,” redeeming the speaker from a terrifying isolation by promising One in whom the speaker can hope to find response, or rather, correspondence—“resemblance,” Glück calls it. We may recall the opening line of Vita Nova, “You saved me, you should remember me,” and reflect that the line makes equal sense as being addressed either to god or to the beloved.

In contrast to the experience of reading Eliot, who seemed to absorb the reader as a collaborator, Glück recalls the shock of feeling excluded by Stevens: “I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng.” The singer in Stevens's “The Idea of Order at Key West” is not solitary from deprivation, like Eliot's Prufrock, but rather from “independence.” Would not her song, then, represent the poetry of survival rather than the poetry that depends on another for remembrance? Indeed, when Glück opts for the poetry of survival in “Lute Song,” claiming that “my anguish, such as it is, / remains the struggle for form,” she seems to recall her own description of Stevens's singer, “not reaching toward conversation,” but rather manifesting “the rage to order, to give or discern form.” Yet in the same essay Glück insists that “the poems from which I feel excluded are not poems from which I can learn.” She feels excluded as a reader, but it is as a writer that she feels she cannot learn from such poems, since they seem to offer only the possibility of “dogged imitation.” If Glück is to move toward this mode of poetry in her own work, she must do so on her own terms. On the other hand, if she does not move away from the mode of Prufrock, she remains, by her own standards, stuck in “adolescence.”

As a reader of her own work, Glück identifies a turning point that sounds very much like a move beyond adolescence. She connects it with a fire that destroyed her house in Vermont in 1980, and since then has haunted the imagery of her poems, including those of Vita Nova (“Condo,” “Inferno”). Her essay “The Dreamer and the Watcher” offers an interpretation of one of the first poems she wrote after the event of the fire, a poem entitled “Night Song,” which was eventually incorporated into the “Marathon” sequence published in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). Although the scenario of “Night Song” is that of a love poem, according to Glück “the underlying subject seems to me to be individuality,” or what she alternatively calls “autonomy” (“The Dreamer and the Watcher”). Ideally, each of the lovers is accorded a certain degree of separateness while remaining present to the other. “Presence,” Glück explains, is “what the speaker wants,” “not union, dissolution.” This ideal of presence was forged in the fire that destroyed Glück's house, because out of that experience of loss Glück emerged with a sense of release from possessions and freedom from anxiety about the future, now that the loss she had always dreaded seemed to be behind her. As a survivor, she awoke to the world of the present that she felt no need to possess. Thus, the lovers in “Night Song” do not torment each other with need. And presumably, “Night Song” as a poem does not need or seek to absorb the reader as Glück says Eliot's poems do. Like the lovers, poem and reader can simply be present to each other.

I have called the essays of Proofs & Theories “theoretical projections” because the essays formulate an ideal that Glück's poems are still struggling to achieve. The struggle, of course, is what gives the poems their life. Dramatically, “Night Song” is poised at the moment when one of the lovers, the speaker or “watcher,” as Glück identifies her, is about to awaken the other, the “dreamer.” It is doubtful whether the awakening will create the condition of mutual recognition that Glück hypothesizes in her reading, or merely rekindle the possessive passion that ends in loss. The lesson of the poems that Glück has written since “Night Song” is that, tragically, the loss Glück felt was behind her after the fire can be repeated again and again. In Vita Nova, “Lament” begins with the exclamation, “A terrible thing is happening—my love / is dying again, my love who has died already.” No wonder the prospect of “new life” heralded in the title of Vita Nova can sometimes appear so bleak.

Nevertheless, at other moments in Vita Nova there are glimmers of “another hope entirely” (“The Garment”), which may not promise immediately a “new life,” but at least a “new world” in which a new life might gradually be cultivated. To be sure, this promise is also somewhat clouded by repetition. “Terra Nova” was the title of a poem in The Triumph of Achilles, where it introduced a sequence entitled—lest the reader grow too hopeful—“The End of the World.” Again, in the essay on “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” Glück reports among the consequences of the fire a move “into Plainfield village, which seemed, after the isolation of the country road, miraculously varied, alive.” I would connect this move, in particular, with the final lines of Vita Nova: “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.” This implies, of course, that Glück experienced the end of life, again, the death of love, again, after the move to Plainfield. Can the move to Cambridge promise any escape from this hopeless cycle of love and loss?

Among the landscapes of Vita Nova, predominantly mythological, allegorical or theatrical (as in “Orfeo”), two poems especially present a more or less realistic scene that has some features of Cambridge, Mass. One is the poem I began with, “Nest,” which presents the nest-weaving bird as a dream image, but then suddenly breaks at least from the atmosphere of dream:

Then it was spring and I was inexplicably happy.
I knew where I was: on Broadway with my bag of groceries.
Spring fruit in the stores: first
cherries at Formaggio. Forsythia

“Formaggio,” the name of an actual upscale café-emporium off Harvard Square in Cambridge, is the title of the other “realistic” poem, which opens with these lines:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.
It never healed itself.
But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared:
it was a good thing that human beings made them;
human beings know what they need,
better than any god.

Formaggio is one of these smaller worlds, one of “a block of stores” that are “alike in their function: they were / visions of safety.” In other words, they function as nests. Like the bird in “Nest,” “making / efforts to survive / on what remained to it,” human beings go about making “smaller worlds” of their own after the World—cosmos, nature, whatever we choose to call the image of Wholeness—has shattered into fragments. However, unlike the bird in “Nest,” which is an “Image / of loneliness,” human beings share their “smaller worlds” in the spaces they call cities. “I thrived” in such a space, Glück tells us in “Formaggio”:

                    I lived
not completely alone, alone
but not completely, strangers
surging around me.

This is a new kind of space for Glück to occupy in her poems. Previously, the spaces she wrote from were rural (the self in nature) or suburban (the self in family); the new space is urban (the self among strangers). It assumes a relation to other human beings very different from what Glück has previously idealized, and, correspondingly, lays the foundation for a new relationship between poem and reader. The speaker need not cry out from an absolute need that converts the other to god. “In the provisional world,” as Glück calls it in “Formaggio,” there are no absolutes; it is a world made not by god but by human beings, who are not in a position to make absolute demands. Yet they are obliged to acknowledge each other's existence as they lead their separate lives; they are “alone / but not completely.” Something like the mutual recognition that Glück imagined in her reading of “Night Song” is involved here, with the crucial difference that mutuality in “Formaggio” is premissed on multiplicity. There is not one beloved with whom one seeks “simultaneous consciousness” (“The Dreamer and the Watcher”); there are multiple strangers, each of whom is capable of exercising the autonomy that “Night Song” reserves to the speaker. What the speaker acquires at the cost of this concession is a range of possibility corresponding to the strangers' multiplicity. “I had / many lives,” the speaker in “Formaggio” recognizes, and that recognition leads her, at the poem's conclusion, to the most extraordinary image in Vita Nova, an image that reimagines what “the wish to survive” might look like in this new world the speaker has entered:

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they became
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist—
that would be the self in the present.

As strikingly original as these lines are, they convey to me something of the spirit of William Carlos Williams, not so much as an influence but as a co-presence, as if he were one of those strangers whose energy Glück feels “surging around me” in “Formaggio.” No doubt my reaction has been prompted in part by Williams's many flower poems, with their fine balance of delicacy and toughness—like that “gripped fist” at the end of Glück's poem. But I am also prompted by Glück's own appreciation of Williams, in Proofs & Theories, as another poet who, like Stevens, seems “sublimely unconcerned to be heard” (“On T. S. Eliot”), in contrast to the desperate need that Glück ascribes to Eliot and to herself, at least in her work up to now. While her need had been to discover resemblance in a unique Other, Williams's “unconcern” accepts the difference of others. In fact, like the “strangers” in “Formaggio,” they even provide Williams a measure of his own uniqueness. “The absence of the twin, the exact counterpart, authenticates his experience,” Glück observes. This is not to say that others' experience is less authentic than Williams's, but it is theirs, not his. Authenticity is multiple, like the sense of possibility that emerges in “Formaggio.” On the other hand, “truth … is single,” Glück explains in reference to Eliot, because truth is “inclusive,” or in other words, whole. I believe this is the wholeness that has shattered at the opening of “Formaggio.”

One way of summarizing what is new in Vita Nova would be to say that the repeated experience of shattering seems to have led Glück to a new appreciation of the shattered world, based on a different set of standards from what which gives value to wholeness. True and false are the standards by which Eliot judges the world, Glück says, and since “truth … is single” for Eliot, and for the reader in Glück whom Eliot inspired to write, the shattered world must be condemned as false. However, for Williams, Glück says, “living and dead are the critical distinctions.” These are the standards Glück applies in “Formaggio” when she says she “thrived” among strangers, or when she looks back on the love she has most recently lost, in “Earthly Love,” and reflects,

                    what we had for so long
was, more or less,
voluntary, alive.

From this perspective, she is even prepared to assign new meanings to the old terms, so that later in “Earthly Love,” when she declares, “within this deception, / true happiness occurred,” “deception” does not simply mean “false” and “true” is not simply its opposite. “True” in this context means “alive,” and “deception” means something like “fiction”; it refers earlier in the poem to the term “consecration.” It is one of the “smaller worlds” that human beings make for themselves, “hopelessly,” like the bird in “Nest,” but also “carefully,” because human beings know how to care for themselves, and for each other, “better than any god.”

God's standards, the true and the false, remain operative throughout Vita Nova. The poem entitled “Immortal Love” comes immediately before “Earthly Love,” and the two poems together occupy the very center of the volume, the sixteenth and seventeenth positions in a collection of thirty-two poems. To have substituted one set of standards for the other would have been to perform the operation that is the principal target of Glück's critique of the lyric. Instead, by bringing the two sets of standards into productive tension with each other, Glück has given the lyric new life. Poems belong to that class of things of which Glück says “it was a good thing that human beings made them.” The renewal of language that poems make possible is never an achievement of style alone, but an expression of “the wish to survive,” “the deepest human wish.”

Richard Jackson (review date summer 2000)

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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 Orpheus-Eurydice myth (and the myth of Persephone in the distant background) as its central metaphor. What Glück does is revitalize these myths in our contemporary idiom, an act as much of interpretation as transformation. In an austere language she allows the mythic to fill in what the spare words suggest. The book pits the search for clarity against the search for meaning, a sense of isolation against a need for love. Aeneas in “The Golden Bough,” for example, gives up love for clarity, no matter how much his emotions become blurred by his “more human” heart. In “Earthly Love” Glück says: “we protect ourselves / as well as we can / even to the point of denying / clarity.” Nothing is so simple in the world of Vita Nova, and by the end she admits: “It was never focus that was missing, / it was meaning.”

Given that tension, the book provides a number of angles through which to view our mythologized lives. A glance at a sequence of poems suggests the complexity that the book builds. “Orfeo” (alluding to the film) begins with Orpheus's lament, but quickly becomes an apology for his art (“it seems one is somehow expected to apologize / for being an artist”) with a focus on the self, not the beloved. Indeed, the second lament is more self centered: “O Eurydice, you who married me for my singing, / why do you turn on me … ?” The poem ends with Orpheus wondering how he will be remembered: the memory that Eurydice has been dissolved in his art. The poem that follows is from Eurydice's point of view and opens by mentioning “the years of the climb” out of hell, meaning out of the relationship, and the “abstract” goal it was headed toward. What Eurydice loves now is the concrete life of a “fertile and tranquil” Hell:

So that for the first time I find myself
able to look ahead to look at the world,
even to move toward it.

What Glück does here is reverse our expectations: earth is the hell Orpheus creates and wanders in, hell is the peaceful place Eurydice dwells in. Art is pitted against life and comes out the loser: this is why, later on, the speaker partially blames herself, her art, for the breakup. She, too, is Orpheus, and to think we live either in his world or Eurydice's is to over-simplify our images, to settle for a simplified language. This is precisely what Glück suggests a few poems later in “Eurydice”—“Transition is difficult,” she says, “And moving between two worlds.” Eurydice does indeed grieve for the beauty of this world, as it turns out, but she must reject it because of Orpheus's lack of faith in her: “But to live with human faithlessness / is another matter.”

One of the most powerful poems in the book is “Unwritten Law” where the speaker describes how her earlier loves were “always with rather boyish men” pitted against her “inflexible Platonism.” Her vision was narrow (as she says in other poems about the present lover, “focused,” “clear”), motivated by a language that “ruled against the indefinite article.” So far all seems, as it were, an analysis defined by its “clarity,” but then the poem turns on itself:

But in you I felt something beyond the archetype—
a true expansiveness, a buoyance and love of the earth
utterly alien to my nature. To my credit,
I blessed my good fortune in you.
Blessed it absolutely, in the manner of those years.
And you in your wisdom and cruelty
gradually taught me the meaninglessness of that term.

The savagery shows us, in those last lines, and as we saw in the worlds of Simic, Halliday, and Wier, how unsafe and perilous the world is around us—“I walked out of the fire / into a different world—maybe / the world of the dead, for all I know,” she says in “Inferno.” In the final poem of the book she understands that her “child-self” was “inconsolable because / completely pre-verbal.” It is only language that brings, as with these other poets, some momentary consolation against time and loss—“this is / all material: you'll wake up / in a different world, / you will eat again, you will grow up to be a poet.” The irony here suggests precisely the failure the lines try to deny. And in the end, in the last lines of the book, myth and language fall completely aside, and she undercuts much of the emotive feel of the book: “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.” The result is a tough-mindedness that perfectly matches the spare language: the book blames the self as much as the other, poetry as well as life, for all its troubles in a vision that is tightly controlled and expansive at once.

John Perryman (essay date fall 2000)

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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 treating them with mere irony, thereby demonstrating how one can gracefully accept some parts of the past while refusing others. In fact “nostos”—usually translated from the Greek as “return”—not only serves as the provocative title of a poem from Meadowlands but also provides a principle of organization for that work and her book of essays Proofs and Theories (1994), which won the Pen/Martha Albrand Award. These two works, when read in conjunction with her collection of poems The Triumph of Achilles (1985), suggest that for the last several years Glück has been preoccupied with how antiquity and literary modernism, specifically the often maligned high modernism of Pound/Eliot/Joyce, bear on the present.

In some respects, this is as unpopular an interest as a popular American poet can have today. No less an authority than Harold Bloom has proclaimed the iconoclastic Emerson the fount of the American literary tradition, anointing him the “authentic prophet-god of discontinuity” and identifying John Ashbery as his foremost contemporary apostle (168, 333). Yet Glück's attention to the past, and specifically to the themes and forms of the ancient and very recent modernist periods, suggests she falls outside of this tradition. She returns to these two eras of uncompromising and exclusive standards in order to win a new settlement with them and set them into a meaningful relationship with the more democratic, postmodern 1990s.

Glück appears to be on the verge of a substantial reconsideration of the high modernists, and of Eliot in particular. Her attempt to achieve a new understanding of him is one few writers of today seem willing to undertake. Christopher Rick's T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (Faber and Faber, 1988), Anthony Julius' T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form and Kenneth Asher's T. S. Eliot and Ideology (both Cambridge University Press, 1995), and most recently the 1997 Fall/Winter issue of the South Central Review: The Journal of the South Central MLA—which devoted an essay to the topic of Eliot and anti-Semitism and reviewed two books of related subject matter, including Asher's—serve as barometers of the contemporary critical climate; and, in general, the climate is neither kind nor generous to Eliot. The irony regarding the popular acceptance of Glück's work is that so few have acknowledged the influence of this modernist expatriate as it has manifested itself throughout the course of her career. Glück cuts against the grain of contemporary American poetry. Examining how she accomplishes this helps establish her debt to the high modernists and suggests she is moving away from postmodern assumptions, a movement likely to be followed by artists from other media who have also grown weary of postmodernity's fixation on irony, novelty, and shock value.

For at least the last fifteen years, Glück's poetic has revealed an Eliotic grasp of dramatic situation and multivocality, and even a Poundian concern for personae. These poetic elements are too often taken for granted, assumed to have been in existence since time immemorial, but in fact they only entered the American poetic idiom some eighty years ago. And as in the work of these modernist predecessors, Glück's voice cannot be identified with any single voice in any of her poems but emerges as the totality of all of the voices considered in unison. An unwillingness or inability to understand this has led many critics to mistakenly identify Eliot the poet as the detached or intolerant voice(s) in some of his poems. Glück's recent work suggests that she understands the problems inherent in this interpretive approach which too easily identifies a poet with a poem's voice.

Though several essays in Proofs and Theories focus on Eliot the critic, his presence asserts itself most clearly in Glück's poetry. Her ability to arrange voices in a dramatic situation recalls such Eliot poems as “Portrait of a Lady,” “Conversation Galante,” and even portions of The Waste Land. The fact that Meadowlands unfolds as a series of dialogues while The Wild Iris—Glück's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems—is structured loosely along the lines of the Catholic Church's canonical hours (with poem titles to match) is significant: dialogues require an “other” with whom to converse, and the canonical hours imply an “other” outside and greater than the self. Both these structural principles refute the dictum of most contemporary poetry, whose interiorized and indulgent monologues typically focus on the poet's loss of love and/or creative powers.

In addition, Meadowlands' conflation and juxtaposition of voices from different time periods (the Homeric past, modernism, and the present) achieve something like what Eliot identified in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as a “simultaneous order” (38). The result is that Glück's recent work seems to share some similarities with what Joseph Frank described as the high modernists' spatial sense of time: “a timeless unity that, while it may accentuate surface differences, eliminates any feeling of sequence by juxtaposition” (63). Thus, the past no longer lies behind us on a timeline but in a strange way coexists with the present. In Glück's work, as in Eliot's, the past exerts a subtle pressure upon—and is in return subtle pressured by—the present. The richest poetry would then bind together past and present and affirm the whole. Thus, since the past is never absent or unspoken for, it can not be stripped of its voice, uncritically denigrated, or disempowered.

This attunement to, and valuation of, the past is one not many American poets or critics value today. Such a conception of time views all claims to progress with a healthy skepticism and undermines the quality Bloom claims to be the defining American characteristic: “discontinuity.” “The mind of Emerson is the mind of America,” Bloom has written, adding that the main preoccupation of that mind is the “American religion, which most memorably was named ‘self-reliance’” (145). Glück's work constantly reaches out for community, attempts to reconcile “opposing” poets and periods, and asserts continuity where others see division.

Surely Glück is the most important, popular poet of this generation to acknowledge a debt to all of the modernists. Meadowlands and Proofs and Theories reveal how she is rendering untenable oppositions which have divided much critical debate of the last half century. In contrast to those contemporary American poets who trace their lineage exclusively to Emerson (“On Self-Reliance”) through Whitman (“Song of Myself”) and William Carlos Williams, Glück aims neither to ignore the classics and high modernism, nor to undermine them through irony; rather, she ambitiously and optimistically insists that there are more important things to sing about and more important things to rely upon than the self. One does her an injustice by failing to acknowledge how she actively engages Eliot's poetry, refusing to use it merely as a point of departure or as a sort of straw man. Her interest in personae, dramatic situation and multivocality, as well as her renunciation of literary separatism, suggest that she would concur with the conclusion Edward Chamberlayne reaches in Eliot's The Cocktail Party: “Hell is oneself, / Hell is alone. … One is always alone” (I.3). Glück does not view the poet's task as merely a romantic, Promethean struggle against oppressive conventions and traditions. She would avoid sentencing anyone to such permanent isolation. In the process, she manages to balance the claims of the past with the needs of the present, a respect for community with a cool critical detachment, and multivocality with dramatic monologues.

These aspects of Glück's work have gone largely unnoticed, falling in a blind spot of contemporary criticism. Some critics today choose to remember Eliot and Pound as little more than cranky prigs or eccentric reactionaries, and in the process they fail to recall how formally innovative The Waste Land and the early Cantos were. Politics in academia have helped foster this misconception by producing partial views of complicated literary figures in order to further various agendas. It is worthwhile to note, however, that Eliot was once considered radical, revolutionary, and dangerous. Arthur Waugh, Evelyn's father and himself an influential editor, publisher, and critic, was so distressed by Eliot's work that he declared in 1916, “if the fruits of emancipation are to be recognised in the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary ‘Cubists,’ the state of Poetry is threatened with anarchy” (69). Later generations would feel equally threatened, but replace the charge of anarchy with ones of extreme conservatism. Glück eschews such labels and focuses mainly on influence.

Ironically, though Pound and Eliot were at one time considered members of the avant-garde, their work has recently been most capably defended by critics with training in the classics or the Middle Ages, fields which are today often considered outdated and unpopular; Marjorie Perloff and others have astutely argued that knowledge of these disciplines attunes one to an understanding of history and its pressures which Eliot and Pound shared and which other modernists—notably Wallace Stevens and Williams—found anachronistic (504). Still, the fact that Glück believes it possible at the turn of the century to be both a poet and an American links her to Stevens and Williams and suggests that she feels Eliot's expatriatism and inability to believe in America were unsatisfactory solutions: unsatisfactory because he misunderstood the question, a question Perloff more accurately identifies. In fact, Glück's work boldly answers the question proffered in the title of Perloff's seminal essay, “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” The era belongs to them both, Glück suggests, and to all the members of their respective coteries. She seeks to reconcile the vanities of modernism that Frank Kermode, among others, has capably described. Her work testifies to how ambivalence can be put in the service of art and how antagonists—to paraphrase Eliot—might be folded into a single party by the strife dividing them.

Precisely because Glück has made constructive use of these high modern expatriates, she is something of an enigma on the landscape of contemporary American poetry—an enigma more perplexing given her prominence and popular acceptance. Glück, stealthy student of Pound and Eliot, is being canonized by a generation of critics who in general abhor them and their exclusive, aesthetic standards. This curious phenomenon begs an explanation. Perhaps critics have come to a realization made by Eliot in “The Music of Poetry,” a seldom read essay of nearly sixty years ago: “no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job. … [A] great deal of bad prose has been written under the name of free verse” (37). Glück avoids this pitfall of contemporary poetry. She seems to realize that much recent poetry written in the name of freedom, individuality, and innovation has been poorly executed by those either unwilling or too lazy to learn from the past: much of it is simply the result of shoddy craftsmanship or immaturity. Glück's use of The Odyssey to help structure and stabilize Meadowlands affirms the idea of employing a principle of organization originating outside the self in order to control and shape one's material. The Odyssey does not constrain her work but liberates it by allowing it to resonate down the corridors of time with other works. This approach recalls Eliot's 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in which he identified a similar structuring principle at work in Joyce's novel. To an extent unmatched by most of her peers, Glück concerns herself with form and structure; these elements are central, not incidental, to her project. Thus, Meadowlands gains in significance because of its relation to the Odyssey as The Wild Iris gains resonance from, and takes its place within a tradition because of, its allusions to the canonical hours. Form, subject matter, and meaning become inextricably linked.

By absorbing elements of Pound, Stevens, Eliot, and Williams into her work, Glück has created a new model for inclusiveness. Though it may be a common platitude that we must observe the past in order to avoid repeating its mistakes—and certainly Eliot and Pound made substantial mistakes in the public and private realms—Glück suggests that recent observance has taken the form of a detachment so severe, perhaps even pathologically self-righteous, that it has ended in denial. She wants to correct this tendency. And she has succeeded in doing so, realizing that not only is it wrong to renounce the past but that it is impossible to escape it. Those who believe they can do so are fated to find out that they cannot.

Glück's concern for balance and desire for variety and inclusiveness might stem from the particulars of her migratory (some might even say Persephonean) living arrangement. Half the year she lives among students and academics at Williams College, where she teaches and counts among her close friends the noted classicist Meredith Hoppin and fellow award-winning poet Lawrence Raab. The other half of the year she spends in the more secluded environs of her home in Vermont, far enough removed from the bustling corridors and classrooms of academia. The unusual and ambivalent qualities of this dual existence seem to be responsible for helping shape her critical and aesthetic sensibilities, which are at once concerned with matters didactic, domestic, and historic.

So considered, Proofs and Theories can best be read as a companion piece to Meadowlands, which unfolds as a sort of conversation between two types of poems: those that involve meditations on, or recreate scenes from, the Odyssey, and those that resemble lovers' dialogues. Meadowlands' juxtaposition of quotidian and epic serves to embed the domestic present within the heroic past. The reader becomes vaguely aware of an ethical motive behind this inclusive modus operandi. Glück's essays enlighten the reader of her poetry as to how daring and didactic this formal element of Meadowlands is. By virtue of their subject matter, the Odyssean poems are meant to appear timeless and, in a sense, objective: the stuff of high culture. Likewise, the dialogues, which could seemingly have transpired in suburbia, are revealing but not indulgent. The individual personalities of the dialogues are held in check by the degree to which each voice achieves meaning only through its relation to the other voice(s) and by the manner in which they echo the Odyssean pieces. Identity is asserted not through individuality but through the number and nature of relationships with others. Important likenesses and differences are effectively set into relief, and through this contrast moral complexities are explored.

In “The Parable of the Dove,” the narrator identifies a relationship between form and ethics: “So it is true after all, not merely / a rule of art: / change your form and you change your nature.” This passage suggests the telos of Glück's formal parallel between antiquity and contemporary domesticity: change one's poetic form and one's (human) nature—and by implication one's ethics—improve. One of the frequently burdensome aspects of the modernist legacy has been that any sustained, formal use of Homer inevitably brings to mind the achievement of Joyce; but Glück's work might be said to attempt to render accessible the ancient: to reveal its presence here in our midst. Reading Meadowlands with an eye (and ear) directed to its dramatic situations and voices reminds one of a passage on theater from Eliot's essay “Poetry and Drama.”

What we have to do is bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theater. … [T]he audience should find that it is saying to itself: “I could talk in poetry too!” Then we should not be transported into an artificial world; on the contrary, our own sordid, dreary, daily world would be suddenly illuminated and transfigured.


Glück aims for the reader of her poetry to have an experience similar to Eliot's theater-goers; she does not attempt to transport her readers elsewhere, but to transfigure their daily world. By retooling antiquity and modernism, Glück hopes to appropriate aspects of their achievements. She wants as many readers as possible to participate in the western poetic inheritance, and yet she clearly expresses ambivalence about this tradition.

Near the end of her essay “Invitation and Exclusion,” Glück makes some interesting aesthetic insights regarding the influence the past should exert upon the present. The comments, when read with her essay “T. S. Eliot,” implicitly indict the ethics of the high modernists, who placed great esteem on tradition and a respect for history and form. Glück forges a definite link between the didactic and the moral. “The poems from which I feel excluded are not poems from which I can learn,” she writes, adding that “[m]y definition of learning depends on seeing a difference between that appetite for change and the process of anxious duplication” (123). Further caveats concern the dangers of “dogged imitation” and “mechanical and stationary” “repetitions of mimicry” (123). Such poems burden the present and provide hollow echoes of the past. Their subject matter is exclusive and their high valuation of form uncompromising. Glück's comments recall similar ones made by Williams in “Prologue to Korah in Hell,” where he insisted that “Nothing is good save the new [work of art]” while accusing Eliot of obscurity, conformity, and blind obedience to tradition (21). Certainly The Waste Land's abundance of allusions and languages is not geared toward inclusion, and in fact genuflects to the past. This type of imitation invites no new understanding of poetry or what Glück terms in the Eliot piece, the “life force” (19). If her valuation of the new reminds the reader of Williams' poetry and criticism, her sensitivity to exclusion inevitably recalls another modernist work: Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

Because Glück offers that change is desirable and moral, she seems to imply that the refusal to change is to be avoided, and might even be immoral. With this in mind, “Invitation and Exclusion” advises poets not to “work always facing the monument, so as to recreate it perfectly. … [because] the monument remains the monument. Or the obstacle. And the poems we write in this state are the dead products of fear and inhibition; they have no author at all” (123). These remarks gain further significance when considered in light of her comments in “T. S. Eliot.” In this short essay, she describes Eliot as, “in aesthetic terms, the easiest target” among the moderns: a man whose “particular spirituality … [and] intense desire to be divested of temporal facts … may seem immoral,” when contrasted with Williams' “moral commitment” (19, 20). Glück adds that it is Eliot who is taught today only with “animosity or pity” (19). Many of Eliot's aesthetic and moral commitments were notoriously conservative. But to her credit, Glück does not want merely to pity or condemn Eliot; she wants to put him to work for her. What emerges is a sense that Glück views the past—the entire past—not as a burden or an obstacle but as a potential source of vitality in need of both reprimand and reconsideration. Ultimately, she seems to desire that the great figures of the western canon be viewed as neither a collective millstone nor the denizens of a necropolis but, as Eliot suggested in the last sentence of his famous essay on tradition, as the “already living.”

It is no coincidence that the Telemachus of Meadowlands expresses similar ambivalent feelings for his forebears: his parents, the ur-couple of western literature. The bemused, somewhat embarrassed child of these two talented and troubled parents is as confused about his inheritance as are most late-twentieth-century western intellectuals about their inheritance. In “Telemachus' Detachment” (itself an Eliotic title), the pensive narrator writes that in his youth he had always been heartbroken over his parents' relationship: “Now I think / heartbreaking, but also / insane. Also / very funny.” In “Telemachus' Kindness,” these feelings expand: “[A]s a grown man / I can look at my parents / impartially and pity them both: I hope / always to be able to pity them.” Telemachus' relation with his parents seems not unlike Glück's with her modernist predecessors: another poem is entitled “Telemachus' Burden.” So it would seem that Odysseus, like Eliot, is fated for pity.

In fact, Eliot's influence is felt throughout much of these books; his spectral presence wanders its way in and out of Glück's work, never quite at home, but never far off. In addition to the essay “T. S. Eliot” and the references she makes to him in other essays, Glück even entitles one of her poems—“Marina”—after one of his, giving a twist to the Poundian axiom “make it new.” Marina, the reader will remember, is the daughter of Pericles in Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre. But, whereas the Marina of Shakespeare and Eliot enjoys a much awaited reunion with her father, Glück's Marina remains bitterly separated from a figure more closely resembling a lover; thus, the reunion and reconciliation have yet to be worked out, or rather are in the process of being worked out. Meadowlands itself might be read as an effort at reconciliation through the recognition of ancestors and family. Rather than banish Eliot and Pound to the attic of literary eccentrics—thereby writing them off as reprehensible, if occasionally avuncular, extremists—she wants to invite them down from their isolation and into contemporary discussion, provided they can be made to behave. To an extent, Glück is consciously and respectfully rewriting modernism and the classics. Indeed, the very act of reworking inherited material into something new was a practice familiar to Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and the high modernists, and its very expression here serves to link Glück to a tradition. This important feature of her work is too often overlooked or assumed to be incidental to her poetry. Thematically, this practice represents a rejection of Emersonian discontinuity.

However, Glück's ability to resist easy classification has proven her most enduring hallmark. In “Telemachus' Dilemma,” the perceptive son rebukes those who would romanticize the past: “[O]ne does not / honor the dead by perpetuating / their vanities, their / projections of themselves,” adding that “they are / my parents, consequently / I see them together, sometimes inclining to husband and wife, other times / to opposing forces.” This description constitutes Glück's view of the dynamic relation between past and present, as well. She continues to remove blinders from our vision of history in “Circe's Power.” There, the enchantress sings: “I never turned anyone into a pig. / Some people are pigs; I make them / look like pigs. … Your men weren't bad men; / undisciplined life / did that to them.” Glück, like Circe, would reveal the necessity for both maintaining discipline and exposing the ugly reality commonly found beneath the veneer of respectability. It is noteworthy that virtually all the Odyssean poems are told either from Penelope's or Telemachus' point of view, almost never from Odysseus'. The man of many turns is revealed only in his domestic, quotidian roles as husband and father, never as king, warlord, or explorer. Nonetheless, these poems evince a willingness and genuine desire to be kind to ancestors. Glück conceals neither their inadequacies nor their remarkable achievements. This is nostos as good will, not nostalgia, and the generosity permeates virtually all of Meadowlands.

But in truth, Glück began this project as early as The Triumph of Achilles. There, in the title poem, she writes one of her most moving passages:

Always in these friendships
one serves the other, one is less than the other:
the hierarchy
is always apparent. …
In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.

This is a very didactic piece. In order to comprehend what Glück is offering—that is, how her antiquity differs from Eliot's and Pound's—it would be fruitful to read this poem while keeping in mind the Cantos, and especially “Canto XXX,” in which the speaker rants: “Pity spareth so many an evil thing. / Pity befouleth April. … Nothing is now clean slayne / But rotteth away.” In truth, even the fosse in “Canto I” is not dug so that an emasculated Achilles might be given voice but so that the uncompromising and exclusive axiological standards of classicism might be reasserted. Glück is offering something diametrically opposed to this: that the ability to feel pity, to empathize with the sufferer and so become a sort of “victim,” is the true stuff of triumph. Hers is the Achilles who mourns Patroclus and who sympathizes with Priam, a different sort of man than the swift-footed warrior whose awful wrath ruins Troy. Glück is redressing the exclusive standards of Pound's variety of modernism by crafting a kinder, gentler Achilles; clearly she traces this part of her genealogy to Whitman through Williams. Still, she can not fail to acknowledge the influence of Eliot and company. From these ambivalent feelings for ancestors emerges Glück's art. Indeed, her assertion that Eliot is often regarded with “pity” suggests a willingness to consider a point of view from which it might be accurate to describe him, were one so inclined, as a sort of “victim,” if “victim” is the right word.

What Glück often recoils from is the confidence with which high modernist assertions regarding standards of excellence were made. “Moonless Night” allows that: “Nothing / is always the answer; the answer / depends on the story.” Gone are the confident pronouncements associated with Eliot: his polemical claim that Hamlet was a failure. The title Meadowlands is itself partly an allusion to the famed New Jersey sporting complex, which is home to Giants Stadium; one poem even mentions New York Giants' greats Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. Thus the book's very title invites large scale and democratic access, resists the exclusionary tactics of the Cantos. This apparent incongruity—of high and low culture, of sacred and profane—is carried out with skill and seldom seems forced. The two types of poems are slowly brought into harmony with each other. The end result is that their union is greater than the sum of their parts. This is the sort of inclusiveness for which Glück aims.

But to achieve this, she affirms that the need to confront cultural origins is inescapable; to an extent, these origins govern all we are capable of today. Like her high modernist predecessors, Glück realizes this. In “Nostos,” she writes: “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” She knows that refusing a relation to the past, isolating oneself from its community, is as doomed a position as the “uncreative isolation” she accuses Eliot's Prufrock of in “Invitation and Exclusion” (114). Provincialism, she suggests, is comprised of spatial and temporal components. Ultimately, denying a relation to as much of history as is possible is as dangerous as never venturing forth from the village of one's birth. The “healthy” individual is the one who is able to balance the competing claims of numerous eras, styles, and points of view: those of the critic, the professor, and the poet.

In her 1989 delivery of the Guggenheim Museum's annual “Education of the Poet” Lecture, Glück was especially candid and even included in her talk a revealing, short poem written years earlier. The strangely titled “Conversation with X.” concerns her relationship with Eliot and perhaps alludes to his poem “Conversation Galante.” Glück's piece even reads like a snippet from one of his late plays: “‘You,’ he said, ‘you're just like Eliot. / You think you know everything in the world / but you don't believe anything’” (14). Glück seems to have been able to make peace with such destructive skepticism in her own life by reconceiving Eliot's legacy to all contemporary poets. Eliot, of course, would convert to the Anglican Church in 1927, and so become a believer at a time when such belief was not popular among intellectuals. The trajectory of Glück's life might follow a similar path though she has become a different sort of believer: a believer in the importance of the past, in the relevance of the “great dead” such as Homer and Shakespeare. In the same lecture, she writes: “for those of us attempting dialogue with the great dead, it isn't a matter of waiting: the judgment we wait for is made by the unborn; we can never, in our lives, know it” (4). Glück's spatial sense of time allows her to engage the past in dialogue and not ignore it. She seems to realize that one prepares for judgment by the unborn by coming to terms with the dead. And the specter from this century that has most troubled her coming to terms with the past—her preparation for judgment—is Eliot's.

There can be little doubt that during the decade since the publication of The Triumph of Achilles, Glück has been engaged in her own peculiar campaign of exploration and return, culminating in Meadowlands. Her willingness to venture where fellow writers dared not to tread took her to the underworld of the poetic past to regenerate her craft. In her capable hands, Homer and Eliot look better than they have in years. And so does contemporary American poetry.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980.

———. “The Music of Poetry.” On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

———. “Poetry and Drama.” On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

———. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

———. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” The Idea of Spatial Form. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Glück, Louise. Meadowlands. Hopewell: The Echo Press, 1996.

———. Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. Hopewell: The Echo Press, 1994.

———. The Triumph of Achilles. New York: The Echo Press, 1985.

Kermode, Frank. “The Modern.” Modern Essays. London: Fontana Books, 1971.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” New Literary History. Vol. XIII, Spring 1982.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Waugh, Arthur. “The New Poetry.” Quarterly Review. October 1916.

Williams, William Carlos. “Prologue to Korah in Hell.” Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1954.

Linda Gregerson (essay date winter 2001)

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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 of direct imitation. In 1992 Glück published a sixth book and in 1996 a seventh, which, in their sustained engagement with inherited fable and inherited form, in their simultaneously witty and deadly serious subversions, constitute a deepening so remarkable that it amounts to a new departure. These books are unlike one another in any number of outward dispositions, but they share a common intellectual purchase; they are two poles of a single project.


The Wild Iris makes its entrance late in the life of a tradition and its self-wrought woes: the moral and aesthetic dilemmas of sentimental projection, the metaphysical dilemma of solitude (if the others with whom I am in dialogue are merely the projections of self, I am alone in the world, and, worse, the world has been lost on me). The poet plants herself in a garden and dares its other Creator to join her. The poet construes her garden to be an anthropomorphic thicket and a series of moral exempla. The poet ventriloquizes all the voices—floral, human, transcendent—in a family quarrel about love and sustenance. With equal portions of bravura and self-deprecation, wit, and rue, The Wild Iris mindfully renders its dilemmas by means of an interwoven series of dramatic monologues. These have, some of them, been published separately (they are poems of great individual beauty), but they are not separable: the book is a single meditation that far exceeds its individual parts.

The monologues are of three sorts: (1) those spoken by a human persona to God, or to that which holds the place of God, (2) those spoken by the botanical inhabitants of the garden cultivated by the human persona, and (3) those spoken by divinity. The poems addressed to God take their titles and their rhetorical premise from the Christian canonical hours (here reduced from seven to two), which mark the daily cycles of prayer. The poems spoken by flowers, groundcover, and one flowering tree take their color and argument from the circumstances of individual species (annuals vs. perennials, shade plants vs. sun plants, single blossoms vs. multiple): excluded from voicing are only those vegetable denizens identified with human “use” or consumption. The God-voiced poems take their titles from the saturating conditions of nature: weather, season, the qualities of wind or light. The poet is clearly aware that her central device, the affective identification that characterizes so large a portion of nature poetry in English, has sometimes borne the stigma of “fallacy,” so she incorporates a preemptive ironist:

The sun shines; by the mailbox, leaves
Of the divided birch tree folded, pleated like fins.
Underneath, hollow stems of the white daffodils,
                              Ice Wings, Cantatrice; dark
leaves of the wild violet. Noah says
depressives hate the spring, imbalance
between the inner and the outer world. I make
another case—being depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately
attached to the living tree, my body
actually curled in the split trunk, almost at peace,
                                        in the evening rain
almost able to feel
sap frothing and rising: Noah says this is
an error of depressives, identifying
with a tree. Whereas the happy heart
wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for
the part, not the whole.

(“Matins” 2)

If we are paying attention, we can discern the season before Noah names it: daffodils are a spring flower; the leaves of the birch tree are as yet unfolded. But the foreboding that attaches to the season is entirely inexplicit until Noah is made to comment upon it and, commenting, to deflate it. “Entirely” is perhaps misleading. In situ, in the full Wild Iris, some portion of foreboding inevitably infects this poem by way of the poem that immediately precedes it. In that previous poem, which is also the title poem, the awakening rendered in the voice of an iris is a transition of stirring beauty (“from the center of my life came / a great fountain, deep blue / shadows on azure seawater”) and intractable pain (“It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”). But that which is metaphysical in “The Wild Iris” and mythic in the mind of the “Matins” speaker (notice her partial invocation of Daphne) is in Noah's breezy analysis a thing considerably more banal. Instead of ontology, the garden's resident ironist discerns psychology; instead of tragic insight, the symptomatic “presentation” of temperament or disease. This witty, transient pathologizing of point of view produces a marvelous mobility of tone, a mobility manifest in local instances of Glück's earlier work but never so richly developed as in the present volume. And never so strategically important. By anticipating and incorporating the skeptical reader, by fashioning the poetic sequence as a dialogue with disbelief, the speaker procures considerable license for her extravagant impersonations of violets, of witchgrass, of Eve in the Garden, nay, of God. We find early on that we will grant this speaker any number of investigations-by-means-of-likeness. And why? Because we like her.

God and the flowers speak with the voice of the human; the human writer has no other voice to give them. The flowers sense, or describe sensation, in unabashedly human terms: “I feel it / glinting through the leaves,” says the shaded vine, “like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon” (“Lamium” 5). They measure aptitude by contrast or analogy with human aptitude: “[T]hings / that can't move,” says the rooted tree, “learn to see; I do not need / to chase you through / the garden” (“The Hawthorne Tree” 18); “I am not like you,” says the rose, “I have only / my body for a voice” (“The White Rose” 47). God speaks in the voice of an earthly parent who has reached the end of his tether: “How can I help you when you all want / different things” (“Midsummer” 34); “Do you suppose I care / if you speak to one another?” (“April” 20). God explains himself by analogy and contradistinction to the human: I am not like you in this, / I have no release in another body” (“End of Summer” 40). God, like his creatures, assumes the simplifying contours of the familial: “You were like very young children, / always waiting for a story. … / I was tired of telling stories” (“Retreating Light” 50).

But likeness marks an irreparable chasm as well:

So I gave you the pencil and paper.
I gave you pens made of reeds
I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows.
I told you, write your own story.
Then I realized you couldn't think
with any real boldness or passion:
you hadn't had your own lives yet,
your own tragedies.
So I gave you lives, I gave you tragedies,
because apparently tools alone weren't enough.
You will never know how deeply
it pleases me to see you sitting there
like independent beings …

(“Retreating Light” 50)

That “like” is ice to the heart. Those who achieve authentic independence require no “like.”

Shadowing this book is the troubling possibility, indeed, the certain knowledge, that its analogies are false or partial. “Whatever you hoped,” says God in the voice of the wind, “you will not find yourselves in the garden, / among the growing plants. / Your lives are not circular like theirs” (“Retreating Wind” 15). Worse yet from the poet's perspective, her analogies may be forced: “[I]f this were not a poem but / an actual garden,” one skeptical interlocutor opines, “then / the red rose would be required to resemble nothing else, neither / another flower nor / the shadowy heart” (“Song” 27). Our Renaissance forebears had a term for the clothing of divinity in earthly garments: they called this process “accommodation.” Because we are weak, because we cannot behold divinity face to face, God “accommodates” himself to our limits, agreeing to be known by elements available to human sense. These measures, however, are imperfect and interim:

I've submitted to your preferences, observing patiently
the things you love, speaking
through vehicles only, in
details of earth, as you prefer,
of blue clematis, light
of early evening—
you would never accept
a voice like mine, indifferent
to the objects you busily name,
your mouths
small circles of awe—
And all this time
I indulged your limitation …

(“Clear Morning” 7)

Glück's couplets do not in any straightforward sense coincide with the divisions of dialogue, but they do, subtly, remind us that accommodation is a two-part contract. God's patience is not infinite: “I cannot go on / restricting myself to images // because you think it is your right / to dispute my meaning” (“Clear Morning” 8). In order to grant his creatures an interim meeting place, the Creator agrees to interim diminishment. But this delicate contract breaks down the minute it is presumed upon:

You were not intended
to be unique. You were
my embodiment, all diversity
not what you think you see
searching the bright sky over the field,
your incidental souls
fixed like telescopes on some
enlargement of yourselves—

(“Midsummer” 34–35)

Do not flatter yourselves, the Creator warns. Despite what you imagine, what I allow you for a time to imagine, I am not like you.

2. WE

And you are plural. You are mere repetitive examples, as the crowd beneath your feet can witness:

Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we—waves
of sky blue like
a critique of heaven: why
do you treasure your voice
when to be one thing
is to be next to nothing?
Why do you look up? To hear
an echo like the voice
of god? …

(“Scilla” 14)

The plural pronoun is a reproach to vanity, and in The Wild Iris it issues not only from below but from above as well, and in the harsher second person:

You wanted to be born: I let you be born.
When has my grief ever gotten
in the way of your pleasure?
Plunging ahead …
as though you were some new thing, wanting
to express yourselves …
never thinking
this would cost you anything,
never imagining the sound of my voice
as anything but part of you—

(“End of Winter” 10)

The accusatory mode is one the human persona can adopt as well. “[H]ow can I live / in colonies, as you prefer,” she asks, “if you impose / a quarantine of affliction, dividing me / from healthy members of / my own tribe” (“Matins” 26). This counter-complaint, with its foundational recourse to a singular self, is all the more credible for missing the point. But the leverage inherent in the first-person plural has not been entirely lost on the human speaker: she too can manipulate the moral advantage in numbers when she will: “Unreachable father, when we were first / exiled from heaven, you made / a replica, a place in one sense / different from heaven, being / designed to teach a lesson” (“Matins” 3). In one sense, the speaker's imperturbable assumptions about didactic function are simply another manifestation of self-regard: the garden cannot simply be; the garden must mean; it was made for me. And though the speaker describes an affliction shared with others, or one particular other, of her kind, the shared aptitude appears to be for solitude: “Left alone, / we exhausted each other” (“Matins” 3). What lifts these passages above the common run of vanity is the ground of knowing they describe: “We never thought of you / whom we were learning to worship. / We merely knew it wasn't human nature to love / only what returns love” (“Matins” 3). In The Wild Iris as in its dominant line of lyric forebears, unrequited longing is the constitutive feature of consciousness. The garden is a sign because it is redolent with absence. The sharers in the garden come to know themselves by knowing that something is missing; their very failure to sustain one another is part of the message.

Given all this absence, what may we infer about the Maker? He has absconded. His voice is “the persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye— / the one continuous line / that binds us to each other” (“End of Winter” 10–11). The “we” that includes deity is a “we” shot through with departure, so in his leaving, the deity has left us one another, another “we.” And how have we made use of this solace?

No one's despair is like my despair—
You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs: the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.
Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.

(“April” 20)

The irritable reaching after uniqueness (“No one's despair is like my despair”) has taken its toll on human community. Despair has become for the couple in the garden a competitive pastime. But behind the orthodox proposition that despair is a species of pride, self-made and self-sustained, lies a yet more chilling possibility: what if we are on to the truth in spite of ourselves? What if grief is indeed our only claim to distinction? When the biblical faithful are forced to consider that their ends may not be coincident with the ends of the Creator, they have generally contrived to find this difference reassuring: God knows better; God makes us suffer for our own good. But what if God doesn't know better at all? Or what if his knowing doesn't have much to do with us? What if, except for our suffering, God could not tell us apart?

The distributed personae of The Wild Iris think through to the other side of this all-but-unthinkable proposition from time to time, think beyond the obvious panic such a proposition induces, and address deity as another of the vulnerable species of creation:

                                        —I am ashamed
at what I thought you were,
distant from us, regarding us
as an experiment …
                                        … Dear friend,
dear trembling partner, what
surprises you most in what you feel,
earth's radiance or your own delight?

(“Matins” 31)

This is not the voice of first, or naive, intimacy, not the voice of the child who takes for granted that the parent is near, but the voice of willed, or revisionist, intimacy, the voice of the adult who has wearied of blame. It is a voice that may be adopted not only by the privileged species for whom the garden was created but also, and with equal eloquence, by the garden's humblest residents:

Because in our world
something is always hidden,
small and white,
small and what you call
pure, we do not grieve
as you grieve, dear
suffering master; you
are no more lost
than we are, under
the hawthorn tree, the hawthorn holding
balanced trays of pearls: what
has brought you among us
who would teach you, though
you kneel and weep,
clasping your great hands,
in all your greatness knowing
nothing of the soul's nature,
which is never to die: poor sad god,
either you never have one
or you never lose one.

(“Violets” 21)

Nowhere in this limpid book does its triangular logic emerge with greater resonance. The human addresses God for the most part; the flowers and God address the human. And sometimes, to the flowers, the human appears in the guise of God, as flawed as the God to whom humans turn. But where is the human in “Violets”? Between “our world” and “your great hands,” the human may be present, for once, chiefly by omission. And the posited soul: how is it that the violets know it? Do they have a soul? Does God? Does one have to have a soul in order to know the nature of the soul? Or does one know the nature of the soul only from the outside, only by being without one? Are we to imagine that the poor sad god in the garden grieves at being without a soul? Or does he grieve because he is unable to be rid of the soul? The only point on which the violets appear to speak unambiguously, a point quite devastating enough, is that grieving will not make a soul.

We three then: the two in dialogue and the one just beyond the bounds of dialogue, in whom the dialogue is grounded. The triangular manipulation of presence is as old as the lyric itself. He who sits beside you, writes Sappho. She that hath you, Shakespeare writes. Jealousy stands for but also masks a more frightening possibility. “Much / has passed between us,” writes Glück; “or / was it always only / on the one side?” (“Matins” 13).


The spectral possibility that gives lyric its urgency is not that the beloved isn't listening, but that the beloved doesn't exist. Prayer takes place at the edge of a similar abyss:

Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree.
Here, in Vermont, country
of no summer. It was a test: if the tree lived,
it would mean you existed.
By this logic, you do not exist. Or you exist
exclusively in warmer climates,
in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California,
where are grown the unimaginable
apricot and fragile peach. Perhaps
they see your face in Sicily; here, we barely see
the hem of your garment. I have to discipline myself
to share with John and Noah the tomato crop.

(“Vespers” 36)

The poet's logic here is that of clever blackmail. God won't show? Perhaps he can be taunted into breaking cover. The speaker plants a fig tree, or the story of a fig tree, as a dare. When the fig tree predictably dies, the dare modulates to witty demotion. Are you not here, Father? Perhaps you are somewhere else? Or perhaps you are littler than we thought. To propose that God might “exist exclusively in warmer climates” is to bait a withholding deity: it goes without saying that God can be no God unless he is everywhere at once. Or does it? Perhaps the absurdity cuts both ways. Perhaps comedic gesture throws into relief the deep peculiarity of an all-or-nothing system that is premised on “jealousy.” A jealous God gets the jealous children (“I have to discipline myself,” etc.) he deserves.

If there is justice in some other world, those
like myself, whom nature forces
into lives of abstinence, should get
the lion's share of all things, all
objects of hunger, greed being
praise of you. And no one praises
more intensely than I, with more
painfully checked desire, or more deserves
to sit at your right hand, if it exists, partaking
of the perishable, the immortal fig,
which does not travel.

(“Vespers” 36)

Gospel has promised that the poor shall possess the kingdom of heaven, and the poet wants her share, “the lion's share,” of this compensatory promotion. Far from admitting greed as grounds for penance, she brazenly advances greed as the badge of special comprehension and thus of special desert. If God has bounty to dispense, then perhaps, like other patrons, he may be bribed. Praise is the coinage of patronage, whose darker side is “if.” “If there is justice in some other world”: the conditional clause says justice in the present world has fallen short. “If it exists”: the conditional clause insinuates that part of the power, and part of the power to judge, resides with the believer. If the Father, in order to exist, requires our faith as we require his bounty, we may have found the key to reciprocal consent. But lest the contract prove too dry, the poet does not stop here, does not pause too long to congratulate herself for unmasking the circular structure of vested interest. She returns instead to the object that passes between the master and the lovers in the garden, that makes the longing palpable, or nearly so: the promised, the withheld, the here-and-absent fig.

For the lover is a gardener too:

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment.

(“Vespers” 37)

This gardener glances obliquely at the parable of the talents (see Matthew 25; see Milton's 19th sonnet). It is a useful parable, invoking spiritual and mercenary economies in unseemly proximity. Unseemliness prompts resistance, a common heuristic device. It also prompts reproach:

                                                                                                                        I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.

(“Vespers” 37)

Adopting the disconsonant diction of spreadsheet and quarterly report, the gardener achieves a wicked deadpan, fair warning that she does not intend to shoulder the failure alone:

I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer.

(“Vespers” 37)

The multiplying indecorums now include domestic comedy. The disgruntled dependent resourcefully finds that she is not to blame after all, that someone else has caused her fault, someone whose crime is the misapportionment of original love. And then, apparent concession: “All this / belongs to you.” But the concession is quickly withdrawn:

                                                                                                    … All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

(“Vespers” 37)

The hilarious, instantaneous taking back of that which was fleetingly granted—God's proprietary interest in creation—begins in petulance: mine, says the poet; the suffering is mine. But petulance expands to a countercharge—you have no heart—that bit by bit accumulates plausibility. God's loftier perspective, his comprehensive vision, begins to look like insufficiency. For comprehensiveness is by its very nature incapable of something too, incapable of “foreshadowing,” of temporal habitation, of partialness and partiality, the realms of feeling possessed by those who are subject to time. Unfolding these realms, the human voice becomes tutelary, makes concession to the newly contemplated incapacities of deity: “You may not know.”

And then the inventory of terror: the spotted leaf, the falling leaf, the early darkness. And, signaled by the colon, the syllogistic revelation: I am the only one left to be responsible. The line is not merely syllogistic, of course. Spoken within the parameters of apostrophic address, and spoken to one who might have been assumed to be responsible himself, it is a reprimand: unlike you, I take my responsibilities to heart. The reprimand is also a piece of gamesmanship, another in the series of rhetorical moves designed to flush God out. By what standard may we judge its success? God has not, we must confess, been coerced into unambiguous manifestation. On the other hand, the game has not quite stalled. For even as the speaker makes her sinuous case for self, something beyond the self—a “we” who bear the terror, the vines—has claimed the self's attention. This may be small. It is certainly strategic. But even in the momentary, the strategic assumption of responsibility, the self accrues a new degree of moral dignity. This moment may be as close as God will come.

In poem after poem, The Wild Iris delineates a reciprocal drawing out of spirit. This is not to say it is a sanguine book:

Sometimes a man or woman forces his despair
on another person, which is called
baring the heart, alternatively, baring the soul—
meaning for this moment they acquired souls—

(“Love in Moonlight” 19)

Moonlight is reflected light, light “taken from another source,” and love in this light a kind of violent seizing, or theft. The God who may or may not exist may take his logic from moonlight or love or, failing that, from parables. “You are perhaps training me to be / responsive to the slightest brightening,” the poet ventures. “Or, like the poets, / are you stimulated by despair?” (“Vespers” 43). The poet takes a walk at sunset in the company of her despair. And in helpless arousal or deliberate grace, in one of two contrary modes, the God she refuses to look for appears:

                                                                                          As you anticipated,
I did not look up. So you came down to me:
at my feet, not the wax
leaves of the wild blueberry but your fiery self, a whole
pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling
                    nor rising—
I was not a child: I could take advantage of illusions.

(“Vespers” 43)

This final resolution might be epigraph to the entire book of the garden.


The domestic comedy that offers counterpoint to metaphysical debate in The Wild Iris assumes center stage in Meadowlands, the book of poems Glück published four years later. In this new book, the garden has given way to landscape of a different sort: the grasslands behind a childhood home on Long Island or surrounding the home of a twenty-year marriage in Vermont, the grasslands long buried beneath a football stadium in industrial New Jersey. Glück's subject has long been the zero sum game of the nuclear family (even when she grants a place to grandparents, aunts, and a sister's children, they are merely the reiterative instances of nuclear entrapment). The wit and the paradox, the razor-edge renderings of human motivation and human stalemate have been in place for decades. But now they are fresher, deeper than ever before. What has moved the project forward so dramatically is a structural insight: the deployment of inherited patterns (devotional hours, growing season, garden epic, voyage epic, scripts for different voices) on a book-length scale. Like The Wild Iris,Meadowlands has been constructed as a single argument, internally cross-referenced, dramatically unified. Its story is the breakdown of a marriage, and its template is Homeric.

What has the marriage in Meadowlands to do with the story of Odysseus and Penelope? Its time span is roughly twenty years, divided into two decade-long segments, one of them “happy.” Its measure is roughly the span of a young son's growing into manhood, and judgment, and ironic commentary. Its outward incidents are driven by a husband's appetite for adventure. Its deeper momentum derives from the tension between excursus and domesticity. But the template yields rich results precisely because its fit is only approximate.

Little soul, little perpetually undressed one,
do now as I bid you, climb
the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree;
wait at the top, attentive, like
a sentry or look-out. He will be home soon;
it behooves you to be
generous. You have not been completely
perfect either, with your troublesome body
you have done things you shouldn't
discuss in poems. Therefore
call out to him over the open water, over the bright water
with your dark song, with your grasping,
unnatural song—passionate,
like Maria Callas. Who
wouldn't want you? Whose most demonic appetite
could you possibly fail to answer? Soon
he will return from wherever he goes in the meantime,
suntanned from his time away, wanting
his grilled chicken. Ah, you must greet him,
you must shake the boughs of the tree
to get his attention,
but carefully, carefully, lest
his beautiful face be marred
by too many falling needles.

(“Penelope's Song” 3)

If the second Homeric epic has held enduring appeal for female narrators, this surely has something to do with Penelope's leveraged position in a complex economy of desire. The human heroines of the Iliad are essentially single-function figures, the bearers of prophecy, grief, beauty, and fidelity in a world whose primary contests—erotic, political, martial—are waged by men. But Penelope's position is sustained by ambiguities as rich as those that sustain Achilles. She weaves a shroud for a patriarch who is not yet dead; she rules a royal household, albeit in a compromised and declining state, during the prolonged absence of her husband and the minority of her son; she entertains a populous band of suitors whose extended address makes her uniquely immune to the erosions of age. Penelope has every reason to delay, and the reader has every reason to lodge in her vicinity. Her cup is never empty, her position ever summary: wife, mother, queen, perpetual subject of desire. If the quality of that desire is somewhat clouded by a husband's waywardness and the suitors' greed and boorishness, its breadth and duration are nevertheless the stuff of fantasy. Finally, crucially, Penelope's composite position makes her a center of consciousness, something to which not even the paragon Helen may aspire.

“[B]ut carefully, carefully, lest / his beautiful face be marred / by too many falling needles.” The poet wears her mythic trappings lightly when it suits her: the frank anachronisms of Maria Callas and grilled chicken are fair indicators. The falling needles of a pine tree may be a poem's only oblique allusion to the heroine's clothworking artistry, which signifies retirement (the upstairs loom) and an aptitude for aggression (some damage to the hero's face). The framework of Meadowlands will open to admit any number of irreverent intrusions from late in the second millenium: a dishwasher, a purple bathing suit, the neighbors' klezmer band, a resolute vernacular. Nor are the book's mythic templates exclusively Homeric: one poem draws its title and its premise (the ordinary miracle of marriage) from the wedding at Cana, one is addressed to the serpent of Genesis, several make of birds and beasts and flowering plants a built-to-purpose parable. Narrative foundations are overlapping and distillate: the wife divides her perspective among several alter egos, several island wives, including her chief rival, Circe. The husband's reiterated departure seems sometimes to be his departure from the modern marriage, sometimes the infidelities that prepare for that departure, sometimes Odysseus' departure for Troy, sometimes his serial departures on the homeward trip to Ithaca, sometimes the shadowy final departure rehearsed in epic continuations like the Inferno or the lost Telegonia.1

The great advantage of broad outline is its suppleness, its freedom from clutter.

The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home, back
to that bony island; everyone wants a little more
of what there is in Troy, more
life on the edge, that sense of every day as being
packed with surprises. But how to explain this
to the ones at home to whom
fighting a war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one's capacity for diversion
is not.

(“Parable of the Hostages” 14)

This freedom from clutter is a rhetorical talent shared by Telemachus, whose earlier incarnation was as Noah in The Wild Iris. Telemachus has learned that ironists need never be out of work:

When I was a child looking
at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.

(“Telemachus' Detachment” 13)

The domestic quarrel, with its soul-destroying pettiness and convolution, would seem to be inimical to lyric poetry. One of the great technical triumphs of Meadowlands is to have found a form in which the soul-destroying can be transmuted to the spirit-reviving. The genius is not just in the leaving out, though elision is its indispensable method, but also in the undressed, unwashed leaving in:

Speak to me, aching heart: what
ridiculous errand are you inventing for yourself
weeping in the dark garage
with your sack of garbage: it is not your job
to take out the garbage, it is your job
to empty the dishwasher. You are showing off again …

(“Midnight” 26)

But Glück's finest formal innovation in this volume is reserved for the structure of domestic dialogue. She tracks the wild non sequitur, the sidestep and the feint, the ambush, the afterthought, the timed delay. As in Penelope's weaving, the thread that seemed to have been dropped resurfaces, having meanwhile lent its tensile continuity to the underside of the narrative.

                              How could the Giants name
                              that place the Meadowlands? It has
                              about as much in common with a pasture
                              as would the inside of an oven.
New Jersey
was rural. They want you
to remember that.
was not a thug. LT
was not a thug.
                                        What I think is we should
                                        look at our surroundings
                                        realistically, for what they are
                                        in the present.
That's what
I tell you about the house.
No giant
would talk the way you talk.
You'd be a nicer person
if you were a fan of something.
When you do that with your mouth
you look like your mother.
You know what they are?
Kings among men.
                              So what king
                              fired Simms?

(“Meadowlands 3” 34)

Ten such dialogue poems appear in the course of Meadowlands, eleven if one counts, and one should, the epigraph. All are distinguished by the same minimalist annotation—the woman speaking in indented stanzas, the man flush left—and by a handful of recurrent themes. Once the convention and the leitmotifs have established themselves, the poet is free to begin and end in heady, hilarious medias res: three bare lines and a single speaker in “Meadowlands 2,” another single speaker in “Void.” No matter that the partner in speech is silent for the moment: these poems are cast as rejoinders and thus take part in a two-part song. Their workings are in situ, inseparable from the tonal and semantic resource of the book. Given the theme of the book, of course, this indissolubility of the whole achieves no little poignance. And greatly to its credit, it achieves delight. The reader is granted the pleasures of an initiate, one who knows the players without a scorecard, and the pleasures of an exuberant pace. No small prize to rescue from the ashes.

5. ONE

                    Let's play choosing music. Favorite form.
                    Favorite work.
Figaro. No. Figaro and Tannhauser. Now
it's your turn: sing one for me.

(Epigraph to Meadowlands ix)

Mozart's is a comic opera of marriage. Wagner's is a tragic romance, in which the hero philanders and the heroine dies of a broken heart. Sing one, says the hero: make the one tradition comprehensive. Do the different voices, and make them add up to a whole. Sing for me: make me miss you when I am gone.

“[A] figure for / the part,” said Noah in an earlier book. “[N]ot,” he said, “the whole” (“Matins” 2). But his subject was the happy heart. Part of the wit that unites these books is their tracing of great epic themes—Milton's in the first instance, Homer's in the second—to their origins in the domestic. By means of this tracing they continue the logic already inherent in their lofty predecessors. But the latterday garden and the meadowlands share another logic too, a logic more specific to the lyric. They posit conversation in a fertile world: my part, yours, the whole making more than the sum of its parts. And always they hear the conversation breaking down, the answer reduced to echo, the several voices to one. “The beloved doesn't / need to live,” says the weaver in equal parts grimness and joy. “The beloved / lives in the head” (“Ithaca” 12).


  1. The Telegonia (sixth century B.C.) takes its name from Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe. On the structural kinship and durable erotic powers of rival women, this lost epic was apparently superb: its plot is said to have included the ultimate marriage of Circe to Telemachus and Penelope to Telegonus, two mothers to two sons. Odysseus had by this time succumbed.


Glück, Louise


Glück, Louise (Vol. 22)