Louise Glück is one of the best-known American poets writing today; her work has received numerous awards, and she has also received several honorary degrees, has been selected as judge for numerous national and international contests, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and PEN. She is an essayist as well as a poet and has written a provocative series of essays on the nature of poetry, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994).
A native New Yorker, Glück was educated at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College and has held a number of prestigious teaching posts at Williams College, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Brandeis, and elsewhere. She has been an important voice in American poetry since her first book, Firstborn, was published in 1968. Her style is a distinctive mingling of the personal and the mythic, presented in free verse or experimental patterns. Her spare language and careful attention to sound, combined with her falling rhythms, provide a sense of closure and give weight to her words.
Glück’s poetry resists easy analysis but rewards careful reading, and her latest book, The Seven Ages, is no exception. A poet who has resisted the current vogue of metrically exact formalism as well as the postmodern flatness of effect and difficult wordplay, Glück is not classifiable—her work is not like anyone else’s, not even enough for critics to assign her tentatively to a shelf. Her work is based on her life, but her newer work is not confessional or even, in a sense, personal. Rather, it is myth-haunted and even abstract. Her style is sparse, though not quite minimalist; rather, its distant feminine voice is archaic and oracular. As her work has developed over the decades, her voice has become more disembodied and impersonal. Her first poems (in Firstborn) were criticized by some for being confessional in the manner of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but even these had a reserve that has become more and more distinct. Glück’s poetry from the onset makes a claim for the visionary as an essential element of poetic statement, and therefore, the personal tends to dissolve into the mythic. No one would be likely to suggest that the poems of The Seven Ages are confessional; they hide as they reveal.
The Seven Ages, Glück’s eleventh book of poems, is filled with summer poems, but they are not light reading. Earlier books were more self-consciously mythic, taking subjects and figures from Greek mythology and from the Bible and grafting elements of contemporary life onto them. These poems use the old stories, particularly the family myth, more indirectly. They have an intense stillness, are deep rather than broad, and take the reader on a spiritual search at the height of summer. Although they focus on women at various ages, they give the perspective of a woman of fifty looking at her life from middle age, remembering earlier experiences and interpreting them in the light of what she now knows. They are an analysis of her history and a coming to terms with what inevitably follows. In many ways they may remind the reader of Wallace Stevens’s work, not only for their reimagining of the seasonal imagery but also for the intensity of their concentration and for their tone that combines celebration and elegy.
The seasons have always been a major commanding presence in Glück’s work, as have times of day; her collection The Wild Iris, which won the Pulitzer prize, uses morning and evening as its organizing principle but is filled with seasonal imagery. The Seven Ages is inhabited by two main figures, the speaker and her sister, whom she watches grow up. The summer of the book has all the suggestions of the season, ripening, progress toward decay, idleness, sensuousness, heat, stillness, and a sense of summer vision. The center of summer, fully aware of itself, prepares for the coming, less hospitable seasons. “The Sensual World” begins
I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm
to caution you, to prepare you.
Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly,
subtly, not to say with connivance.
I was not prepared: I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen,
holding out my glass. Stewed plums, stewed apricots—
the juice poured off into the glass of ice.
And the water added, patiently, in small increments,
the various cousins discriminating, tasting
with each addition—
aroma of summer fruit,...
(The entire section is 1865 words.)