Introduction

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Louise Glück 1943–

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American poet.

Glück, whose first book of poetry, Firstborn, was published when she was only 25, has impressed critics with her depth of feeling, sensitivity, and perception despite her youth. Her poems deal with basic human experiences—love, sex, motherhood, and death—and use simple language to express complex emotions.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)

Robert D. Spector

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No softness enters the work of Miss Glück. None of the personae she adopts in Firstborn … speaks gently or regards the world kindly. Her vision is harsh, her verse forms terse and stripped to essentials. In point of view and accomplishment these poems give no evidence of being the work of a young writer, and while it would be difficult to talk about liking these descriptions of a crippled, pathetic, and brutal world, it would be impossible to deny their effective and honest confrontation with reality. From her opening image of "lice rooted in that baby's hair," through her "Pictures of the People in the War," to her very brief narrative about the boarding of a slave ship to steal its gold and slaughter its "living cargo," Miss Glück demands a reader's attention and commands his respect. (p. 33)

Robert D. Spector, "Lyrics, Heroic and Otherwise," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 11, March 15, 1969, pp. 33-5.∗

Robert Boyers

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Louise Gluck is an extraordinarily meticulous craftsman whose [Firstborn gives] promise of a really remarkable career. Working with materials associated with the confessional tradition, but speaking in a variety of voices, she has created a body of work that is painful and shocking, but without sufficient coherence to justify the relentless evocations of violence that reverberate in so many of her pages. In a poem like "Thanksgiving," images of corruption and decay are marshaled, but we do not know why they must have anything to do with the people in the poem…. [All] we can really explain is the poet's desire that her images and observations fit together. (p. 309)

The echoes abound in this poetry. But echoes in the work of a young poet need not always be wholly assimilated if the poet is to achieve a voice of his own. A poem like "Grandmother In The Garden" is no less lovely and moving for the fact that it calls to mind a number of [Randall] Jarrell's better poems…. The poise and serenity of this poem constitute a remarkable tribute to a poet so young, and the dense aural patterns are woven so casually that one cannot but wonder at the poet's mastery of her craft.

Miss Gluck is a poet of few themes, but these she develops with a ferocity that borders on obsession. She appears to write best when she is least herself, when she writes out of contexts which are relatively unfamiliar to her own experience, and which she need not invest with the accouterments of melodrama or terror in order to make them striking. The poems are often extremely lean, several cultivating a stenographic bluntness which owes more to Alan Dugan than to any of the woman poets I can think of. In fact, the more one thinks about the resemblance, the more one can identify Dugan as a presence behind these poems especially in the many combinations of slang words and elaborate Latinisms, as in "Saturnalia."… (pp. 310-11)

What informs Dugan's verse, though, is a moral passion, an earnestness which is largely lacking in Miss Gluck's volume. Instead of moral passion we too often get melodrama, the forcing of images to yield more than they can or ought to yield. Situations are unambiguously awful; mothers become prototypical predators, husbands monomaniacal in their obsessions, lovers indistinguishable from pimps. Details accumulate inexorably, as if by an energy of their own, an energy in no way responsible to the shaping intelligence that presumably controls the poem. A pregnant woman, miserable about the imminent birth of her child, surveys her room [in the poem "The Wound"]…. The evocations are so patently horrible that one is inclined to dismiss them as the meanderings of a morbidly diseased psyche, and it is virtually inconceivable that any serious reader will sympathize with such a vision, for we are given no opportunity to understand why the speaker should see her world from the perspective that is developed in the poem. In a sense it is possible to say that neurosis is here exploited for itself, because its manifestations are bizarre and exotic. Miss Gluck would do well to cultivate the unusual capacity for compassion she demonstrates in her successful poems, among them "Returning a Lost Child," "The Game" and "Letter From Our Man in Blossomtime." One the basis of these we can safely predict a distinguished career. (p. 311)

Robert Boyers, "Mixed Bag," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1969 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 306-15.∗

Richard Howard

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Two phenomena keep the sour-mouthed, tight-lipped, sharp-tongued little poems of Miss Glück [in Firstborn] from being merely compulsive exercises in oral eroticism: the wretchedness is not hers alone, and the observation lavished upon it is of such high energy…. More remarkable, she has the imagination, alway rare but at twenty-four quite improbable, to dramatize the other, not merely to attest and oppose it, but to let alterity have its say in a voice of its own. She does more than invoke or inveigh against others…. She allows them to invade her, to inveigle her into being them, so that in many of these mini-monologues the poet is no more—and no less—than a medium; which is where she thrives, creating out of the unheard-of but instantly recognized detail and the altogether alien character that twist of idiom we call style…. The perils, of course, of abandoning your poem to the merely convulsive energies of an identity—your own or another's—is that however sharply you see and hear, however scrupulously you record (think of [Robert] Lowell, think of [Anne] Sexton, evident exemplars here), your work risks the arbitrary, the willful, the merely journalistic without some principle of order, of decorum, some axiological necessity. Whence those insistent rhymes of Louise Glück's, even to the breaking of words at the line's end; whence, too, her terror of letting the line stand unbroken with its entire energy revealed, exposed. For her, enjambment is a way of assuring the poem a continuity she does not dare find in her own line, preferring to plough the accrued profits back into the poem as a whole…. Which is not to say "Relax, baby" to a poet of Louise Glück's achievement and resource; she gets what she gives by not relaxing; it is merely to note what is gainsaid—the movement of a certain mastery, the confidence in an open music—for what is gained. "I pay with my life," she says in the title poem, and her victory is that we believe her. (pp. 130-31)

Richard Howard, "Some First Volumes," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1970 by Kenyon College), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 130-37.∗

Lisel Mueller

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[In Firstborn, Louise Glück's] poems are brief and terse; her diction is like a clenched fist, or a muscle-cramp. Her poetic world is an externalization of intense inner experience, and instead of the wholeness of nature, she impresses on us, over and over, the trauma of being alive, of feeling anything at all. Her poems are a succession of shocks, and it doesn't particularly matter whether the specific piece is autobiographical or not. Miss Glück mixes the autobiographical and the persona poem, but both of them come out as "I" poems and are powered by the same painful charge. She is working out for herself an idiom which is interesting and recognizable and will, I imagine, become even more personal in the future. That it is firm, tough, jerky, and often understated is not remarkable in a time when firm, tough, jerky, and understated writing is de rigeur; but in Miss Glück's case it hangs together—no, sticks together; there is a glutinous feeling about the successful poems. The elemental physical connections she writes about are, more often than not, realized in her diction….

Miss Glück's world is often violent, but the violence is not imposed from the outside; it is the price we pay for being born and, therefore, involved. (p. 324)

Lisel Mueller, "Versions of Reality," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVII, No. 5, February, 1971, pp. 322-30.∗

Charles Molesworth

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Judging from her titles [in "Descending Figure"]—"Dedication to Hunger," "Lamentations," "World Breaking Apart"—we might expect Louise Glück's world to be replete with emotional excess. Yet something like the reverse is the case. She draws on the world of romance, where the deep wish becomes fact, but her poems are more often about various kinds frustrations: misunderstanding, absence, powerlessness. She says "everything fixed is marred," but she longs for the "need to perfect, / of which death is the mere byproduct." The objects of her world are stars, statues, swans, and children: Things that, while symbolizing changelessness, inevitably suggest the threat of loss….

Miss Glück's language seems partially starved, as if determined to register plainly a fullness that never appears, and yet her words inadvertently record their own diminishment. In her retelling of the Eden story, she describes the creator: "He was god, and a monster." At the end of the tale God arose, "His great shadow / darkening the sleeping bodies of His children, / and leapt into heaven." With a shift of perspective brought on by the need to find the unique emotional vantage point, Miss Glück then says: "How beautiful it must have been, / the earth, that first time / seen from the air." Longing for original views, her vision is transfixed by what it leaves behind. (p. 14)

Charles Molesworth, "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, pp. 14, 36-7.∗

Booklist

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Love and death, particularly the latter, are the recurring, indeed obsessive subjects in Glück's third book of poems ["Descending Figure".] With a strange mix of realism and fantasy, the poet evokes the fears of death and dying, the anxieties of love and sexual need. The scenes are typical—a father walking with his young daughter, a baby learning to speak, lovers awakening in a bright room—but the speech is extraordinary, plainspoken and strikingly metaphorical by turns, undefinably the poet's own. Cool, almost remote, the insistent voice calmly sets forth image after image from a stripped-down dreamscape whose placid surfaces belie regions tensed with suppressed emotions, desires, longings. Thus, however bleak the views of death seen from the many angles of memory, they are seldom boring. The reader, almost against his will, follows the course of Eros and Thanatos as it makes odd but oddly right turns through the poet's imagination. A strange, but strangely moving book.

"'Descending Figure'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1980 by the American Library Association), Vol. 77, No. 5, November 1, 1980, p. 389.

William Doreski

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Louise Glück's poems remind us that mythmaking is closely related to allegory even when the "thing itself" retains its integrity. The most ambitious poem in her new book Descending Figure … is a sequence entitled "The Garden." It makes models both of a mind and a culture, and renews an old myth through an imitation of the creative process itself. Glück's bleak imagery presents a set of possibilities that voice and metaphor resolve into a gray and Barbizon-like merging of self and landscape. The first part of the sequence is a complex restatement of Genesis…. The sequence ends with a poem entitled "The Fear of Burial."… This is a rich metaphor of the history and failure of Christian dualism, which ties the Romantic and modern existential angst to the ages. The poem then ends with a metaphor that aptly mythologizes the necessities of physical life and evokes once again the failure of the Christian ideal of redemption through virtue and austerity. (pp. 157-58)

The sequence is 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. It is a "model of the mind" in that it replicates the overlays of association with which the mind works; yet is aesthetically uncompromising in its reliance on straightforward imagery. It is a poem that reminds us that "no ideas but in things" does not mean "no ideas," but is a challenge for us to discover resonances of the physical world in secret rooms of the psyche. Glück has found these rooms to be filled with language, as a monk's secret rooms might be filled with God. Poetry is not religion, but it is salvation, sometimes…. (p. 158)

Glück's aesthetic is grounded in her imaginatively-apprehended landscapes, but her ultimate faith is in the power of the creative mind to resolve the isolation of the self from the external world through language.

This topographical aesthetic contains a certain danger aggravated by the influence of Surrealism. If the poet presents us with a purely imaginative landscape he or she may sentimentally underscore the isolation of the individual, and trigger the bathos of solipsism that Wallace Stevens took such trouble to avoid. Rather, we need redeemed landscapes, in which the imaginative self is a concrete presence that infuses our vision of our culture with a viable symbolic content. Allegory, the model of the mind, is not here a set of simple signs: it is the affirmation that the poet and the reader might understand the world through this exploration of the self and language. Resorting to evocation instead of infusion leaves us with imaginary gardens inhabited only by imaginary toads. (pp. 158-59)

William Doreski, "The Mind Afoot," in Ploughshares (© 1981 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 1, 1981, pp. 157-63.∗

Alan Williamson

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[Louise Gluck] combines the stripped-down, the imagistic, with a kind of splendor usually associated with the full-voiced masters….

[The title, Descending Figure] suggests both the descent to the dead and the descent from Eden or a Platonic pre-existence. And the theme of an almost suicidal recoil again the death inextricably entangled with life is explored throughout the book, both in personal contexts (mourning, anorexia) and in cosmic ones (a retelling of the first chapters of Genesis). This gives the book a scope and unity missing in Gluck's fine earlier collection, The House on Marshland. There are occasional lapses: sometimes Gluck … falls into banal psychologizing ("the need to hurt / binds you to your partner"); sometimes the poem's judgment seems grimmer than any provided context would justify ("Portland, 1968"). But at her best, Gluck reminds one of those early Renaissance painters she often alludes to: the gold leaf; the sparse, delicate, angular figures; the never-absent sense of the impingement of Last Things.

Alan Williamson, "The Concise and the Conversational," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), January 11, 1981, p. 6.∗

Jay Parini

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Between Firstborn and her new book, Descending Figure, Glück published one other volume, The House on Marshland (1975), a book full of blazing little legends recalling Blake's realm of Generation, in which fertility degenerates into the rote grind of witless reproduction. Glück pictures that world as a place where "schools of spores circulate / behind the shades, drift through / gauze flutterings of vegetation". In characteristic fashion the mood of the opening poem of that book hovers between harvest and pestilence. Working in a symbolist mode, Glück cannot be pinned to a specific interpretation; childbirth appears to be the poem's subject, but other possible meanings radiate from it.

Among the most affecting poems in [Descending Figure] is "The Gift", cast in the form of a prayer for her son, who is "so little, so ignorant", and just beginning to talk. He stands at the screened door, crying "oggie, oggie", "and sometimes / a dog will stop and come up / the walk". This happy accident confirms the child's simple faith in language; his mother prays that he may believe it was no accident at all but evidence of a magical link between language and vision. Glück, in poem after poem, explores the possibility of this link, although she knows that it may not exist. In "Illuminations", again about her son's early attempts at speech, she celebrates the simple mystery of word and object….

A few of Glück's poems seem frankly autobiographical, but in general her work is peopled with ghostly figures caught in paradigmatic struggles, such as husband against wife or child against mother. Hunger is a prime motivating force in her world and the fear of death casts a shadow over the small joys that occur almost gratuitously. In "The Fear of Burial", she forces us to adjust our angle of vision in conformity with her own, which is original and strange….

In a final sequence called "Lamentations" the implicit mythos (in Northrop Frye's sense of myth as the organizing principle of literary form) of Descending Figure becomes explicit. Glück has attempted a revision of Genesis in which the Fall is identified, as it was in Blake, with the lapse into creation, which includes the separation of the sexes. Glück adds to this the separation of the woman from her own body. In a cycle of four terse poems, she moves from incarnation, with "the woman mournful, the man / branching into her body", to the birth of the child "that grew between them / as they slept". Out of this generation the race of man evolves, on whose flesh "the wounds show clearly / like words on a page". The association of words with wounds is not accidental, for each of these poems registers a particular stab. The cycle ends with God absconding from the garden into heaven. "How beautiful it must have been, / the earth, that first time / seen from the air", Glück writes, blending despair with a sense of wonder. This same mixture of tones accounts for the originality of Descending Figure.

Jay Parini, "After the Fall," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4073, April 24, 1981, p. 466.

Linda W. Wagner

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[Louise Glück in Descending Figure] may be working from the same themes as do [other modern poets] …, but her focus is much darker. The Descending Figure is that of a dying or already dead sister; the themes of death, of needing to feel emotion and passion in life, of the intense need to create meaningful language are paramount. The tone of the collection is, appropriately,… somber. Language is spare. Movement is slow. Words are repeated often, as are thematic clues.

The centrality of language occurs even in the opening title sequence, which is ostensibly about death. In part 3, Glück defines the dead as those who "however long they lie the earth," "will not learn to speak." Language, coming to words, speech, is the essential act of the human life. She offers her reader a sequence of poems about a small child, her son, in which his process of language acquisition is the controlling image. His maturing is equated with his gaining control over "the map of language."… (p. 304)

[Glück] ties language to feeling, and the sequence "The Garden" as well as other single poems expresses the need for risk, vulnerability. The persona seems to have come through debilitating losses. The poem "Palais Des Arts" speaks of "Love long dormant showing itself." Glück helps to unify the collection by using a poem about a child and the child's abilities to reinforce the theme of the need for feeling ("Portrait")…. Reminiscent of both W. C. Williams' and [Kenneth] Rexroth's concern with the power of language, and the place of language in modern life, Glück's new volume is somber and hesitant in its conclusions. (pp. 304-05)

Linda W. Wagner, "Idiom and Wisdom in Some Recent Collections of Poetry," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1981), Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 301-07.∗

J. D. McCLATCHY

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Descending Figure is a considerable advance on Glück's previous work. It is spare, exact, mysterious; it has a rhetorical elegance and control, and a new emotional power both reinforce, that mark it as one of the year's outstanding books. Glück has stripped her poems of exposition's local colors, of pretension, of any comfortable effects of melodrama or moralizing. She starts with a few givens—a lake, a house, some trees, a table and bed, a lover or child—and uncovers the ordinary's buried life. As her title predicts, it is her figures of speech that descend to these ghostly encounters—as when, at the end of "The Fear of Burial," a spirit has left its dead body and the poem hovers over the corpse still lying in a field…. The genuine pathos of … [this poem] derives as much from its having taken up a powerful traditional trope of alienation as from the poet's handling it with new authority. The placement of phrase and image, the slowly modulated rhythms, the mournful assonance and careful enjambment—these give the [poem] … its force. It is a tribute to Glück's art that such effects seem, in the reading, so natural and inevitable. (p. 234)

The book asks itself the hard questions of gender and generation—a woman's body the link between these two obsessions. Her own child and her memories of being one lead her to explore, with an honest and an austere beauty, the kinds of ties we choose for ourselves (love, marriage, maternity, writing) and are chosen by (blood, language). Those who will not care for this book will think it too bleak and evasive. Dealing with such material Glück never takes a convenient perspective, never offers an easy solution. If, as she says, "everything fixed is marred"—or dis-figured—then it is appropriate that she seeks out crepuscular moments of change, even of transformation, and describes them so well that their own eerie, disjunctive character emerges. Many poems in this book—"The Garden," "Tango," "Happiness," "The Return," "Lamentations"—accomplish this in a wholly original and heart-catching manner. (pp. 234-35)

J. D. McClatchy, "Figures in the Landscape," in Poetry (© 1981 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1981, pp. 231-41.∗

Helen Vendler

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[In Descending Figure,] Glück has some of Sylvia Plath's willed immobility, but her rhythms are not spiky and hysterical like Plath's. Instead they are mesmeric, trancelike, almost posthumously gentle….

Glück is not at her best in expository verse, where her hieratic rhythms can begin to sound portentous. But the poem reveals the aesthetic of Glück's verse—or of part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self. Denying itself the possession of the sacred object, the soul finds identity. Acquiring an object means absorbing it into the soul and losing it from view; renouncing it, the soul keeps it in view forever, and is able to see it clearly, free of projection. The sacred object is exposed, its underlying body visible, its form known in the X-ray vision of desire, which by renunciation is enabled into perception. It is an aesthetic Emily Dickinson would have recognized.

But there is another aesthetic at work in Glück besides this renunciatory one. It appears, this other one, almost unwittingly, in the concession, for instance, that "everything fixed is marred." And yet the unfixed is repellent in its fickleness…. Glück's struggle to find a fluent that is not false is the shadow-twin of her claim that there is a fixed that is not marred. Her wonderfully suggestive poems about art (whether about its governing dreams or its formal expression in a medium) bring her embattled oppositions into their finest confrontation. It is often by means of a luminously enwound syntax that she combines the opposing forces.

Here, for example, is a child in his crib, afraid of nightmares, who stands up and spreads out his arms in the light of the night light to ward off the threat of beasts in the dark—and yet his own shadow thrown on the wall is the type and forerunner of those beasts. In making the defensive shadow-gestures of art, the mind creates anew those terrors which are only projections of its own self. Or so a paraphrase of this poem might read. But the poem itself does not read like that; instead, it winds itself immediately and sinuously into the child's experience, into his imperfect understanding, his futilely brave pretenses, his helplessness, his corporeality. Three simple sentences form the skeleton of the poem:

              He knows he will be hurt.
              He spreads his arms.
              He cannot sleep apart from them.

But what unspeakable insinuations envenom the spaces between the simplicities….

Glück's poems about her son (of which this seems to be one) are eerily successful in catching the incomprehensions and discontinuities of a childish understanding as yet unformed. Glück has a gift for the skewed perspective, best seen, I think, in another of her reflections on art as death, one linked to the memory of her sister, who died in childhood. The poem takes its title ("The Sick Child") from a painting in the Rijksmuseum; but it is not Glück, looking at the painting, who is the spectator, but rather the mother in the painting holding her sick child at night, willing her not to die. As the mother looks out "into the bright museum" from the painting, Glück begs her to let the child die, so that her other children can live, and can wake to find themselves living children, not objects (as the dying child will be) on a painted canvas. The livingness of the painted mother exists in desperate conflict with the wish to live of her other children, menaced by the deathliness of art. (Art here stands too for the inability to forget; if the mother remains fixed in grieving for the dead child, her other children will feel, themselves, somehow obliged to die too.)…

The painted Pietà of mother and dead child (matched in another poem, "Pietà," by a pregnant mother's unwillingness to send her unborn child into the disorder and pain of life) exists, in Glück, to be gainsaid—the living children wake (even if terrified), and the baby is born (even if to the "dark context" in which a single star shines)….

[In her poetry, song, icon, and dream engage] the realities (among others) of death, marriage, motherhood, mourning, and the invention of religion. The style in which Glück engages these realities is the style of the rock, rather than the stream of consciousness…. Glück's sternness reminds us that we have also a precipitate, a residue, from life's fluidity—that which we recite by heart, the immutable, the unadorned, the skeletal, the known. (p. 26)

Helen Vendler, "Sociable Comets," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 12, July 16, 1981, pp. 24-6.∗

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