Pulitzer-Prize Winning Poet Louise Glück (pronounced “Glick”) addresses the themes of rejection, loss, and isolation in language that is as deceptively simple as it is technically precise. Author of eight books of poetry as well as a book of essays, Proofs and Theories, Glück is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (Triumph of Achilles), the Academy of American Poet’s Prize (Firstborn), as well as numerous Guggenheim fellowships. Glück’s poems engage the reader with a gripping directness that is startling in its colloquial, jagged quality. Central to most poems is a narrator who is isolated from her family, or bitter from rejected love, or disappointed with what life has to offer. As Helen Vendler notes, Glück’s poems invite the reader’s participation by asking us to “fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can solve the allegory. . .” After numerous readings, her poems consistently betray their original bleakness, offering a glimpse at the lyrical beauty of a fallen world.
The various chapters in Proofs and Theories function as disparate meditations on the craft of writing and the poet’s life. In them Glück contends that the fundamental experience of the writer “is helplessness. . .most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, not being able to write differently. It is a life dignified. . .by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement.”
The 54 poems which make up the Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Wild Iris, were written in ten weeks--a period which lends the book a certain seasonal structure. Beginning in spring and winding towards late summer, the poems reveal a nagging, epistemological dialectic between poet, God, and the natural world. In “Witchgrass,” the unwanted weed grapple defiantly with the gardener, protesting: “I don’t need your praise/ to survive I was here first,/ before you were here, before/ you ever planted a garden/ and I’ll be here when only the sun and the moon/ are left, and the sea, and the wide field./ I will constitute the field.”
The poet repeatedly chronicles her loss at the same time she engages in praise for the thing lost. In “Vespers: Parousia”, she laments: “how lush the world is, how full of things that don’t belong to me--. . .what a nothing you were/ to be changed so quickly/ into an image, an odor--/ you are everywhere, source of wisdom and anguish.” In the absence of a loving God, the poet’s task is to celebrate the splendor of the natural world with language, and to locate the door at the end of suffering where, “from the center of my life came a great fountain, deep blue/ shadows on azure sea water.”
In her most recent volume Meadowlands (1996), Glück intersperses the ancient myth of Odysseus and Penelope in a modern narrative about marital discord and separation. The title evokes both the eternal and the contemporary--alluding to both timeless pastoral beauty and a New Jersey football stadium. The juxtaposition of the two worlds makes an interesting experiment in the mixing of high and low art, with the modern couple providing comic relief: “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.”
Glück’s revisionist Penelope bears more resemblance to the modern wife of the doomed couple than to her mythical predecessor, and her cynicism and aggression in matters of love can hardly be contained. Urging her soul to kee watch for Odysseus she adds: “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.”
In both her poetry and essays, Louise Glück’s vision of the artist is one in which despair is transformed into survival through the creation of art. In a sense, the artist strives for that which is nearly impossible to achieve, and is engaged not so much in an occupation as an aspiration. Yet in Glück’s canon, the poet consistently gets in the last word, and the poem disrupts the sorrow and despair which accompanies the modern world, encouraging us, above all, to engage in hope: “I wished what I always wish for/ I wished for another poem.”