The Triumph of Achilles Critical Essays

Louise Gluck


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Glück’s poetry challenges definitions of desire, and her work also redefines lyric and confessional poetry. Revelations of the personal are counterbalanced by the need of the woman poet to mask herself. By grounding her poems in myth, Glück distances herself from the personal, though she may be addressing issues of desire, relationships, or sexuality that among her contemporaries, such as the poet Sharon Olds, would be given explicit expression. Eschewing outright narratives and favoring allusive but disjunctive dramas, Glück risks a nihilistic vision in which the contemporary world is always constructed in mythic archetypes. Glück finds in classical myth and biblical allusions, however, a way of preempting narrative structures (since the stories are already known) and favoring the lyric aria or collapse that follows; for Glück, that is where the possibility of reflection is the greatest.

In “Mythic Fragment,” death and freedom are bound together in sexuality. Adapting the myth of Daphne, Glück sees in her transformation not rescue from Apollo but stasis and the loss of freedom. The myth is not recast; instead, Glück emphasizes the depth of desolation that is implicit in such myths of transformation and desire. Daphne says, “Reader,/ pity Apollo,” for in his arms she was able to stiffen into a laurel tree, thereby thwarting his desires—yet her power was granted only by her father, a river god, who otherwise abandons her: “of his encompassing love/ my father made/ no other sign from the water.” Within the compass of myth, argues Glück, female sexuality can either be denied or be the object of ravishment.

In “Marathon,” Glück utilizes elements of confessional poetry while also muting the reader’s expectations. Stylistically, “Marathon” departs from much of Glück’s poetry in its use of longer lines that are often end-stopped. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the pause or silence at the line’s end corresponds to her use of shorter lines that usually end at what would have been a caesura or at the point at which the breath breaks on an accented word or syllable. This use of end-stops is one form of control that Glück exerts over the embedded...

(The entire section is 900 words.)