Shortly after the first anniversary of September 11, when The New Yorker had published a slew of poems memorializing the events of that day–Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell” and Charles Simic’s “Late September,” to name a few–Louise Glück’s poem “October” appeared in the magazine’s pages. Laid out in four long columns across two full pages of the magazine, the format recalled the imposing form of the twin towers. Its allusions to “terror,” “violence” and “death” seemed to invoke September 11, as did its repeated questions about physical survival: “didn’t he heal,” “wasn’t my body/rescued,” “wasn’t it safe,” “wasn’t the earth/safe,” the speaker persistently asks. But unlike the poems that describe September 11 in graphic detail, this poem is about the aftermath of trauma: not September but October, not 2001 but a year later, not violence but, as Glück twice reminds us, “after violence.” The poem conveys a powerful nostalgia for “everything that was taken away.” “The eye gets used to disappearances,” Glück writes, immediately conjuring New York’s dramatically reduced skyline.
But now, published as a handsome if austere chapbook, the poem can be understood on its own terms. October is Glück’s first book since being anointed America’s Poet Laureate in October 2003, and its diminutive size gives it a sense of intimacy and humility that is strangely at odds with her new public position. The poem is an elegy of sorts, but not one tied to September 11 in the way, say, Kinnell’s poem seems to be. There is no “blackened fire,” no “burning alive,” no “sifting for bodies.” Instead, we find Glück’s spare language and her usual tropes: the garden, the seasons, the earth, the sun and the moon.
Glück has said about writing poetry, “No process I can name so completely defeats the authority of event.” What interests her is not how the poet “transcribes” actual occurrences but how she “transforms” them into art. Her poems, she insists, originate in language, not occasions:
For me, all poems begin in some fragment of motivating language–the task of writing a poem is the search for context. Other imaginations begin, I believe, in the actual, in the world, in some concrete thing which examination endows with significance…. My own work begins at the opposite end, at the end, literally, at illumination, which has then to be traced back to some source in the world.
An extended meditation on the poet’s changing relationship to language, October attempts to do just this: to locate its own sources of illumination–and darkness. For it is a “cold light” of an increasingly “darker” hue that illuminates this poem: “The light has changed,” she explains. “This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring./ The light of autumn: you will not be spared.” October is an ars poetica, charting Glück’s poetic development from a bookish girl (“I was young here. Riding/the subway with my small book/as though to defend myself against//this same world”) through her many silences (“silenced,” “silence,” “silent,” “not speaking,” “unspeakable”) to her present state as mature poet (“Bitter or weary, it is hard to say”). But it is from her stance as seasoned bard that she can look back–with a touch of irony–on her earlier work: “I can finally say/long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure.” Part of this pleas-ure, as the enjambed lines suggest, stems from the mere fact of overcoming silence.
This is not to imply that the poem is auto-biographical in any conventional sense: It does not provide a chronological narrative of growth and fulfillment. Just as Glück’s poems are not “about” events per se, they are not “about” private experience. “Personal circumstance may prompt art,” Glück has written, “but the actual making of art is a revenge on circumstance.” October is only autobiographical in the sense that, at least according to Glück, all poems must be: “Poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.” That is, poems map a highly associative inward terrain that may or may not correlate to an external reality.