I first read the poems of Louise Glück in 1966. They were very early poems, and I was very young, having brought out but one issue of the quarterly magazine I had launched with a few friends several months before. (Glück, born in 1943, was young too.) The poems arrived with a letter from Glück’s teacher, Stanley Kunitz, who urged me to publish them, recommending their “strong voice” and “intensity.” He did not characterize the poems as “confessional” or attempt to link them with any school or predecessors in a tradition. Clearly he believed the poems would speak for themselves, and they did. Though Glück would write very different kinds of poems in later years—and speak with misgiving about the work she brought together for the volume Firstborn in 1968 (which included the poems I had published in Salmagundi)—I am not surprised that poets like Robert Lowell and Ben Belitt wrote to say how much they admired those early poems that appeared in our pages.
Though intensity has been a characteristic feature of Glück’s work from the beginning of what is now a long career, the poems have inspired a wide range of epithets. Often they are said to be “chilling,” “supremely reticent,” “distant,” “scrupulous,” “on guard.” And yet the early poems, with their mainly short lines and controlled air of violence and disparagement, seemed to me at first, and now again, to be anything but reticent or aloof. It’s comical, actually, to think of Glück, at any point in her career, as being “on guard” or “distant.” The early poems seethe with opening lines like “Sometimes at night I think of how we did/ It, me nailed in her like steel,” or “Time and again, time and again I tie/ My heart to that headboard/ While my quilted cries/ Harden against his hand.” That a standard, largely misguided line about a major poet should harden into dogma and be repeated, over and over again, is bizarre, as in a 2009 New York Times review featuring the assertion that “All these years…Glück has been writing her stark, emaciated verse,” as if the poet-critic responsible for that observation didn’t know the difference between emaciation and a disciplined refusal of mere ornament, and hadn’t noticed the obvious marks of fullness and feeling in poems frequently anthologized. Emaciated? Not these closing lines from “Mock Orange” (1985), to select but one famous example:
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
Nothing emaciated there, surely, the senses on display excitable and shivering with expectation, the lines chaste but quick, anxious, alert.
Nor is there chill or detachment in the poem “Metamorphosis” (1985), where the speaker observes “the angel of death” flying “low over my father’s bed”—especially in these closing lines:
For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.
From time to time, I run my hand over your face
lightly, like a dustcloth.
What can shock me now? I feel
no coldness that can’t be explained.
Against your cheek, my hand is warm
and full of tenderness.
Such tenderness is not the accent we familiarly associate with this poet, but it is present throughout her work, as are the accents of obsession, and fear, and strenuous self-interrogation. There is nothing pinched or withholding in this poet. What’s pinched is the standard line on her, and the emphasis in a recent London Review of Books essay on Glück’s studied inhibitions is simply incomprehensible.
Glück’s latest volume, a collected poems bringing together all of the work included in her previous eleven books, through A Village Life (2009), reminds us that she has been not only a resourceful and versatile poet but also an astonishingly brave one. Brave in what sense? In the way she has steadily enlarged her range and idiom, working, to be sure, within the compass of her own nature, but ever testing the limits of her gift, so that the impression made by the work as a whole is not of limitation but of an overwhelming fullness of invention and abundance of life. Glück’s poems at their best have always moved between recoil and affirmation, sensuous immediacy and reflection. She has found ways to engage with the world as it is without capitulating to its felt demand that she renounce any alternative sense of what is real. For a poet who can often seem earthbound and defiantly unillusioned, she has been powerfully responsive to the lure of the daily miracle and the sudden upsurge of overmastering emotion. Though one would never think to say of her work that it represents a triumph over reality, the poems often refuse to abide by the decorums associated with realism or straightforward first-person lyric. It is not simply that Glück is adept at speaking in the voices of flowers, or gods, or men, or other improbably loquacious personae. More to the point is that reality has existed for Glück simultaneously as foundation and irritant. She acknowledges what seems to her indisputably true—like the fact of death, or the loss of love—while refusing to concede that the soul is merely what Wallace Stevens once called a “rustic memorial of a belief” long consigned to irrelevance. Fierce in her determination to see things as they are, she fashions poems that suggest how much more there is to know than she can say. Incorrigibly committed to lucidity and alert against even the slightest imprecision, she ventures in and ventures out as if full comprehensibility were a chimera and an obstacle to true understanding.