Writing Without a Mattress: On Louise Glück

Writing Without a Mattress: On Louise Glück

Writing Without a Mattress: On Louise Glück

Louise Glück’s poems aim to get to the bottom of her experience without making an idol of “reality” or brute suffering.


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.

* * *

It is customary, in coming to terms with a poet’s life’s work, to think about stages. But Glück has not progressed in discrete stages, and her trajectory has confounded readers who early expected one thing, only to be surprised by the swerves and eruptions that have marked her progress. Though it makes sense to speak of Robert Lowell’s early, middle and late periods, no such pattern is discernible in Glück’s development. Better to say of her that she has remained true to a number of obsessions without any recourse to self-imitation or self-parody. In their response to the volume Meadowlands (1996), many readers noted Glück’s wit, her penchant for comedy or farce. The turn to domestic comedy, it was said, had liberated in her something unsuspected. Who knew that such a poet would betray an appetite for anachronism and for the weird, playful intrusion into what was, after all, an obviously heartfelt book about the death of a marriage? And yet Glück had often shown a gift for comedy, though she had never been the “stand-up vampire” she was once said to resemble. The comedy, to be sure, was rarely raucous, and often it had to do with the deadpan use of a homely term like “happiness” to describe a situation that seemed anything but happy, or with a blunt assertion like “the only time you’re totally happy/ is when you cut up a chicken.” 

But then Glück’s comedy also has to do with the interest she takes in ideas, her eagerness to explain and to sum things up while suspecting that her efforts are apt to seem futile or laughable. Many of Glück’s poems turn on statement and analysis. They are built, apparently, to arrive at proofs or conclusions, though in the end they are too earnest and confident-sounding to seem anything but wry about their own foursquare certainties. You would not laugh at the opening stanza of “Earthly Love” (1999), but you would at least smile at its deliberate air of irreproachable knowingness:

Conventions of the time
held them together.
It was a period
(very long) in which
the heart once given freely
was required, as a formal gesture,
to forfeit liberty: a consecration
at once moving and hopelessly doomed.

The idiom of such a poem gives the game away, does it not? The parenthetical “very long,” for example, suggests that the speaker is recalling a particular time about which she has something to confide, though really she confides nothing in particular. The opening gambit (“Conventions of the time”) conveys nothing but a sociological cliché, while the words “formal gesture” alert us to the poet’s sense of the entire enterprise she is invested in as a sort of charade, somewhat like the poem itself, which pretends to explicate an experience too painful and inchoate to master. Even the frail tokens of emotion (“the heart once given freely,” “a consecration/ at once moving and hopelessly doomed”) are transparently formulaic and unconvincing, designed to betray the poet’s inability to believe in her own dryly inadequate pretend account of something momentous. There is comedy in the disparity between surface (or ostensive intention) and feeling: in “Earthly Love,” it comes from the feeling that the chosen vehicle (the poem) is too theoretical and confident to get at what is sought. Say, if you like, that Glück is always wise to herself and thus finds ways to signal her disdain for the very wisdom to which she lays claim. She is one of those stoic comedians who both proclaim and suffer their own inclinations and take a modest delight in unmasking them. Comedy for us is in the spectacle of the speaker who “proves” what she doesn’t quite believe.

It is not comedy alone that is often said to belong only to one discrete stage in Glück’s progress. With each of her recent books she has been congratulated for breaking an older style, or repudiating “her former sensibilities,” or writing more accessibly, or more personally or plainly. But in truth, Glück has long been casting off and putting on, restlessly refashioning herself, experimenting with her idiom, giving herself permission to say the unsayable or the unspeakable only to take it back, or laugh it off, or recoil with unconcealed revulsion from her own displays of pique or depressive fatalism. In the poem “Celestial Music” (1990), she can say that she is “always eager to oppose vitality” and that, however “at ease” she is “with death, with solitude,” she is drawn to “love the world” and to “hear celestial music.” No sense in this of contradiction or confusion. No sense for a reader of Glück’s work as a whole, that the instability of sentiment belongs to a single stage, any more than her obsession with death or her love of the world may legitimately be said to mark only a phase. Restlessness is inscribed in all of Glück’s work, even in poems whose closure seems definite, secure against any prospect of revision. Within any single volume there are erasures and reversals. Wariness yields to frank vulnerability, bare assertion to expressive color. Words swim, or run, then slow and walk. Fluency gives way to hesitancy. The poet who can seem at one moment to trust her own language to convey what is needed is suddenly mistrustful of the very words she employs. Such alternations are central to this poet’s intelligence and do not belong solely to any isolated phase of her development.

Of course, it’s fair to say that particular volumes contain more of one thing than another: more obvious recourse to metaphor, more mythology, more and bolder use of autobiography. But what ought to matter most—in the provisional summing up prompted by a collected poems—is that Glück has been prodigal and by no means the prisoner of her crotchets or procedures. She can disparage empty beauty and yet write sentences ravishing in their music and their controlled handling of the mind’s embattled transit from one mood to another. Her poems are by turns eloquent and forbidding, frankly ungenerous and also forgiving. She is an adept of what Mary Kinzie calls “the frozen will,” and at the same time one who struggles to break loose and sing the body electric. We feel, in Glück’s work, an odd, sometimes bewildered countercurrent to the grim, sometimes bitter self-consciousness that often underwrites her poems. Even where Glück evokes a condition of terminal melancholy or grief, there is a discernible craving for life, for connection, though the craving never quite amounts to an endorsement of what usually passes for “life.” The tensions in Glück are indispensable to an appreciation of her achievement, far more than an emphasis on “sincerity” or “directness.”

Is there a characteristic Glück poem? The popular consensus suggests there is. Legions of younger American poets, for whom Glück is an exemplar, are certain that she is the author of an identifiable product fit to inspire, and that the product is often to be found in the anthologies. Such poems ring with the sharp, punishing desolation of these opening lines from “Epithalamium” (1980):  

There were others; their bodies
were a preparation.
I have come to see it as that.
As a stream of cries.
So much pain in the world—the formless
grief of the body, whose language
is hunger—

The work is marked by its austere idiom and air of bald declaration, while also intimating something more that might be said but is unaccountably withheld. A poem apparently blunt is yet somehow a model of hard-earned reticence. It is also informed—so it seems—by the conviction that nothing can be done to alter (or not for long) the fact of pain or dissolution. The conventional bonds we invent to deal with hunger or chaos are vulnerable to attrition. Life is not what we want. What is most needful is to tell the truth. Such a poem has seemed attractive in refusing to say too much while managing to speak with barely controlled foreknowledge and disappointment. It is notable for its realism, if by that we mean a willingness to draw unwelcome conclusions. “Epithalamium” does not bristle with the disgust sometimes present in Glück’s work (no tomatoes “misshapen, individual, like human brains covered in red oilcloth”), but it does pulse with the sense of the bad ending that awaits every fresh beginning. It is remorseless, iron in its resistance to complacency: characteristic in that sense and compelling in its stark negotiation of the stops and stations marking the path through a life.

In her book of essays, Proofs and Theories (1994), Glück contrasts poems that evoke “the presence of the abyss” and others that call to mind “the mattress under the window.” No question, is there, that Glück herself has done without the mattress? That she has moved not always cautiously on a ledge stationed over one abyss or another? That a Glück poem will put us in mind of the safety nets it has repudiated or refused to acknowledge? Consider “April,” from The Wild Iris (1992):

No one’s despair is like my despair—

You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.

Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.

Notable here are the traces of what sounds almost like ordinary human utterance, but also the diagram of strenuous (if improbable) interactions, of voices not at rest but urgent with their respective burdens. Glück has long employed this form, congenial to her habit of disputation and experiment, her need to grab the other—any other—by the throat or collar and to insist, or provoke, or chasten. But what is most characteristic in “April” is not the direct address to an other (or an alter ego) but the charged air of confrontation and contention, the felt pressure to reprove and to force a response, the peculiar intensity we associate with an internal dialogue, where a speaker at odds with herself and struggling to find an equilibrium cruelly denied throws her voice and conjures opposition.

In “April,” the decisive admonition comes from on high, from a god-figure whose voice conveys an uncommon authority. This is by no means an isolated instance, though Glück’s impersonations do not always entail speakers endowed with a comparably authoritative command of pitch or psychology. The miscellaneous voices she employs do, however, invariably compel our rapt attention and do bespeak a profound confusion of identity, itself a central feature of poems in which the internal dialogue, mounted to underline conflict and rebuke, betrays the speaker’s unstable sense of self. The throwing of voices, then, in Glück’s poems is a transparent device, each persona embodying some essential or vagrant aspect of the divided self, the god in “April” more like an exasperated parent who speaks in an admonitory accent that Glück herself will often assume and elsewhere project onto a male speaker—a husband, say—also exasperated and spoiling for trouble.

In the poem called “Horse” (1985), for example, when the “husband” flings at the “wife” the accusation that she is barren (“I see/ there are no children in your body”) and that she wishes only to find “passage out of this life,” the reproach seems to us especially terrible because Glück has made it ring with the force of immitigable self-loathing. No poet has been as resourceful as Glück in discovering ways to mount a campaign of punishing self-interrogation.

* * *

No doubt it is helpful, in thinking of a writer who has given us dozens of works loved and admired by many readers, to focus on individual poems. And yet, as Linda Gregerson has rightly noted, the poems in The Wild Iris are finally “not separable: the book is a single meditation that far exceeds its individual parts.” Much the same might be said of the poems collected in other volumes by this poet. To speak of the god-voice in “April” obliges one to think of the way that voice is picked up and varied elsewhere in The Wild Iris, though one may also want to reflect upon the echoes or parallels that can be detected in poems conceived for other volumes. If each book is, as Gregerson contends, a “single meditation,” there is also reason to argue that no single volume, or single poem, can now seem to us set off from the others. The present volume of collected poems reminds us that in the case of a major poet, it is not possible to come to terms with any single work without reading and coming to terms with everything the poet has written.

Consider, in this regard, the by now commonplace observation that in the poems of A Village Life, Glück gave herself permission to “chatter” and tell stories, liberating the “inner short-story writer itching to break out” and demonstrating a long-suppressed “faith in speech.” But it is clear that Glück has long displayed her reliance upon speech, and voice, and story, albeit in narratives at most fragmentary, intermittent, implied, like the versions of “story” embedded in A Village Life. There is no way, really, to engage with the narrative deployments and challenges of the recent book without setting them alongside the related narratives and driven speech acts of earlier volumes. Why not? Because, for all of the radical departures that have marked her progress, Glück has been writing out of a sensibility complexly unified, her every poem in some way a correction of every other poem she has written. The storytelling in her most recent volume is, without question, a response to the barely implied narrative gestures discernible in early volumes that are distinguished in part by their resistance to narrative elaboration, by their minimalist allusions to a story never to be told. Just so, it is impossible to think “storytelling” in A Village Life without thinking of the related, though more pointed, stories half-told in a book like Meadowlands.

But then this emphasis upon the notion of “a single meditation that far exceeds its individual parts” also drives us to the more telling observation that underlying everything Glück has done, encompassing every singular volume and singular poem, is what might be called an embattled negotiation with reality and what Hegel called “the age of prose.” Consider the wayward accents that often punctuate or dominate a Glück poem, accents especially prominent in Meadowlands but by no means limited to that volume. Consider simply “I want to do two things:/ I want to order meat from Lobel’s/ and I want to have a party.” Or consider what follows: “You hate parties. You hate/ any group bigger than four.” The age of prose, no? The poet has succumbed, so it would seem, to the least satisfactory of measures, to what Rilke once called “mischief and senseless caprice.” She has relaxed into the idiom of the mundane and prosaic. Made her peace with ordinary voices steeped in ordinary domestic and marital discord. Relinquished eloquence and exaltation. Settled for too little. “On market day, I go to the market with my lettuces”: so she concludes A Village Life. As though nothing more were to be said. As though she were tired of her turmoil and of the turmoil that marks a life consigned to thinking big thoughts too unwieldy and difficult and, in the end, irrelevant to be borne. Lettuces. Caprice.

Yet even to suggest the shadow of capitulation in the case of this poet seems somewhat ridiculous. Even the trivial in Glück conveys, or suggests, some possible meaning or mystery we would give our lives to uncover. The fall into the quotidian is no small matter. A boy, in Glück, sits at a window as the room darkens. Nothing. Except that outside “The grass shudders a little” and “The mountain stands like a beacon.” Everything is as it is, the sounds the familiar ones of the night. Only we know that there are “signs,” that “The night is an open book.” The age of prose, of the ordinary, the given and indisputable, has never looked as promising, or pregnant, or frightful as it looks in the lines of this poet, who knows how to make exaltation casual, palpable. Whatever her attraction to the near and the actual, Glück permits no sanctification of the world of getting and spending. Always in her work there is a sense of the yearning for something more than a good meal or a good lay or a perfect lettuce. Even in poems laced with hilarious or poisonous repartee, we never feel that the poet has settled for what T.S. Eliot once called a “few meager arbitrarily chosen sets of snapshots” or “the faded poor souvenirs of passionate moments.”

How not settled? Say that agitation is central to Glück’s work. Agitation, as in poems that often subvert their own motions, setting against one thought or accent another not quite easy to reconcile, the trip to Lobel’s to purchase meat yielding to the reflection that “for one night, affection/ will triumph over passion,” the “point” (“whether or not/ the guests are happy”) yielding to another “point” (“whether or not they’re dead”). There’s nothing programmatic in these juxtapositions. Nothing, really, but an expression of the poet’s gift for irony and her insistence that life not ever seem what Proust called “mediocre, accidental, mortal.” The agitation in Glück has often to do with her inconstancy. Her characteristic voice belongs to someone strangely old and yet still unborn, someone desperate to live in this world and yet not quite of it. The agitation unmistakable in the alternation between immediacy and detachment, the swerve from the quotidian (“the dog waits for me in the doorway”) to the elevated (“I move through the dark as though it were natural to me,/ as though I were already a factor in it”). Contrary to what some have said, Glück doesn’t rely on myth, Greek or otherwise, “to give the incidents in her life greater importance.” She uses myth not to “explain” her troubles (or ours) but to speak in a voice bequeathed to her by the tradition she has embraced and extended. “She writes,” as Charles Simic notes, “in an idiom that is as old as literature,” and yet she writes also as if the myths she employs, as if language itself, were hers to charge with fresh potency—as if no one had ever used words, or myths, so purposefully before.

Reading Glück, it is hard not to think that the poems come from what R.P. Blackmur once described as “the whole history of the common language of the mind, or as Yeats calls it of the soul.” And yet—one more time and yet—Glück’s poems can also be thought of as expressions of a very particular and troubled person, a poet determined to get to the bottom of her own experience without making an idol of “reality” or brute suffering. As with other great poets, Glück does not invite paraphrase. Her poems at their best—and they are very often at their best—embody not just the rage to order, but also the rage to identify a “truth” that no order can approximate or touch.

The work of Robert Pinsky, US poet laureate for three consecutive terms, was reviewed by Jeremy Bass in our July 17-23 issue.

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