Lessons From Louise Glück

Lessons From Louise Glück

A conversation with the poet and Nobel laureate about her career, teaching, her next book, and more.


Who can speak of the future?” Louise Glück asks in her new book of poems, Winter Recipes From the Collective. “Nobody knows anything about the future.” In its apparent rebuke to both writer and reader, the line might seem exemplary of the stark, unsentimental lyric voice for which Glück is best known. The poem it appears in, less so: “A Children’s Story” imagines a royal family driving back to the city after a pastoral sojourn, “all the little princesses / rattling in the back of the car.” The tone suits the genre invoked by its title; the scene is at once mundane and surreal. (“Outside the car, the cows and pastures are drifting away.”) But unlike other children’s stories, this one is in no rush to console. “All hope is lost,” the poem concludes. “We must return to where it was lost / if we want to find it again.” Wavering between melancholy and resolve, “A Children’s Story” speaks to our national mood better than most overtly political poems of the past few years. It also speaks of somewhere else entirely. All of Winter Recipes walks this line between a shared social world and a parallel world of dreams, symbols, and obscure but profound instruction—a realm often ceded to the young and the old.

I first met Glück 11 years ago, as a student in her poetry workshop. I credit her with teaching me the value of precision, but I’ve found it uniquely difficult to describe the magic of these latest poems, the fabular logic by which they unfold, their astonishing balance of warmth and distance, activity and stillness, disquiet and ease with the nearness of death. This ineffability is one of the book’s great achievements, and inarticulacy—willed or involuntary—one of its sustained themes. “Parable,” the opening poem of Glück’s previous collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), began: “First divesting ourselves of worldly goods…” The characters of Winter Recipes go further yet, divesting themselves of language and reference. One is told, “You have begun your own journey, / not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories”; another says, “I try to comfort you / but words are not the answer; / I sing to you as mother sang to me—”

Glück is the author of 13 books of poems, the first 11 of which are collected in Poems 1962–2012, as well as two collections of essays about contemporary poetry and her own writing life. The breadth and ambition of this work have earned her nearly every honor in poetry, including the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. I visited Glück in early December in Montpelier, Vt., where she recently moved after more than two decades in Cambridge, Mass. Her first teaching job in the 1970s had been at Goddard College, in nearby Plainfield; she now teaches at Yale and Stanford. We spoke about her new book, her return to Vermont, and her changed relationship to teaching and writing during the Covid-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Sam Huber

Sam Huber: I wanted to start by asking you about this house, and how it’s felt being back somewhere that you had a connection to earlier in your career.

Louise Glück: Life, life—not career! I lived in Vermont through so many different lives. I moved here as a young, single person. Goddard in those days was an amazing community of writers and artists and artisans and political radicals and ecological people and experimental builders; it was a hippie ghetto. The place was always a solace, no matter how difficult my life was at a particular period, or how flourishing. I felt that it took care of me in some way, was seeing to me; I lost that sense when my marriage ended. I’ve written about this: The marriage died, but also the life died. Because I was worried about money, I took a job at Harvard for one term—reluctantly, but I had friends in Cambridge. I had no idea what my financial situation was. I felt very poor. And I found as I started commuting that I got happier and happier in Cambridge and more and more depressed every time I came home.

What’s just happened seems a reversal of that change. I thought I had lost Vermont, lost the place that had been the most enduring passion in my life. To be back in it again has been amazing. It’s been amazing. The sense of return coexists with an intense sense of adventure—oxymoronic but true. I was in a different place, but I was in the same place. I don’t mean that every day is a fountain of bliss, but I am always glad I’m here.

SH: Winter Recipes was written before your move, but a paired sense of recurrence and change runs through these poems too. The book is marvelous.

LG: I’ve gotten to like it. I was a little worried about it for a long time, like seven years.

SH: How did you know it was done? The book is quite short, but that brevity feels important to the effect of it.

LG: Well, for a long time it wasn’t; it was just skimpy and a little mannered. But during this period, I finally came to understand the poetry of John Ashbery, whose work had eluded me the whole of my life, though I was moved by him as a person. He was a radiant presence, kind of angelic, but the poems just exhausted me. They seemed interminable—in fact, some of them still do—but those that don’t were like nothing I’d ever read. What changed him for me was Karin Roffman’s book [The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life]. It made Ashbery available to me, but it was also in itself remarkable. Did I tell you the story about reading the book and writing her a letter?

SH: No, I just remember talking to you when you were in the middle of reading it, I think a few years ago. It sounded like it fixed something for you at the time.

LG: It did. So I wrote her a letter of ardent appreciation. And then I thought, “I have to write Ashbery.” But when you’re writing to someone you revere, you want to commend yourself to the person; your ego gets involved. Also, I couldn’t say, you know, “I never liked your work, but now I really see how extraordinary it is, though I certainly came to it a little late.” In any case, the letter was hard to write. It was the beginning of the semester at Yale; it was my first night in New Haven for that year. And I thought, “I absolutely have to write this letter. I have to do it. I have to do it this week. As soon as I get home, I have to.” And then I had an e-mail in the very early morning from Frank [Bidart], who said Ashbery had died. And I never wrote my letter. I mean, I’m sure he had other things on his mind. But I would have liked… I would have liked to put some flowers at his feet. I think his work showed me something. But the book I was trying to write came in the most tortured little drips—I thought of it as rusty water coming out of the tap. And then Covid happened, and I thought, “Well, that’s it for writing,” you know.

SH: How much of the book was unwritten at that point?

LG: Probably about a third, but a crucial third. Finally, in the summer of 2020—late spring or summer—I started writing again. I wrote “A Children’s Story,” “A Memory,” “Song,” and “Second Wind,” but the main thing was I wrote “Song.” And as soon as I wrote “Song,” I had a sense of what the book’s architecture would be. The four poems I wrote that summer were pivotal. They were also different, or they seemed different. They were moving away from the sort of stasis and confinement of the earlier part of the book into a greater sense of peril, emergency, but also transformation. I felt I could see the thing.

So I showed the book to a few people, the people who’d been reading all the poems individually. But I still felt very uneasy. I didn’t think the book could be longer; I also didn’t think I could write anything else. I really thought that I was lucky to have anything at all. Then, very slowly, I began to be somewhat proud of it, pleased with it. But I remember thinking when I was writing last summer, “These are pandemic poems.” Not because they were laments, but because there was something in their fortitude that seemed to me triumphant. Though most readers don’t see the book that way.

SH: You mean critics?

LG: There have been some very, you know, praising reviews, but they’re talking about a different book from what I thought this one was. Yes, it’s the end of the road. Yes, you’re getting very old. Yes, the world is falling apart. But here we all are, we’re still alive. And a sense of possibility emerges from that fact, from anything—just that stubborn human need to hope. That’s what I thought it was about… and not just “about”; I thought the book inhabited that state. It’s what I liked about it.

SH: The things that I’ve held onto most from Winter Recipes are proper nouns and concrete details, like the name “Leo Cruz” (an invention, I assume) and the porcelain bowls and the tinfoil chocolate kisses. These images seem to tempt symbolic reading, but they don’t fully satisfy it. Which is maybe just a way of saying that the poems work more like fiction.

LG: I think that, too. They did seem closer to fiction to me, the kinds of things that were beginning in Faithful and Virtuous Night. But not stories, despite their brevity. They seem a highly compressed long form—mainly because of the way they proceed. It did feel different. The last poems I wrote in Faithful and Virtuous Night were the prose poems. I started this book [Winter Recipes] feeling I couldn’t write lines anymore. I didn’t remember how to do it. I was right—I actually didn’t know how to do it. I had to figure it out again. And then I thought, “Yes, I’m writing lines, but they don’t have the same kind of certainty that lyric lines have”: the line ending in the perfect place, the energy generated, the frisson between the end of one line and the beginning of another. So it seemed different, and different in my mind always seems worse.

SH: Even though you aim for it, right?

LG: You aim, oh, of course. But then I experience it as the loss of the gift. It was once there, but now it’s gone. Everyone will notice.

SH: As I read, I wondered if there might be some tension between, on the one hand, my attachment to details like the tinfoil chocolate kisses and the porcelain bowls and, on the other, your characters’ various efforts to retreat from the material world, and even from language. The speaker’s relationship to the world outside herself always seems to be in question. What sources, internal or external, were you drawing from as you wrote?

LG: The name Leo Cruz appeared in a dream. I woke up in the morning and I had in my head, “Leo Cruz makes beautiful bowls,” or “has beautiful bowls.” And I thought, “This is from a dream by me?” I also thought, “What a great line. Leo Cruz—who is he? He doesn’t exist.” That’s why the poem works; we can’t find him. As for the kisses, actually, that’s biography, though there was never a concierge. When my sister and I were little, we spent a summer in Europe with our parents. Most of the time we were in Paris, in a convent school about which I have written already at length. But for two weeks we went to Switzerland, and we stayed in a hotel that had a little balcony. My sister was 4½ and I was 7. We were playing a game of my design: We were lost in the woods, having to survive on nuts and berries. We had to search for nuts and berries—that was as far as the game went. So we started in different corners of the balcony, and my sister almost immediately said, “I found a Hershey’s Kiss.” And I said, “No, Tezzie, we’re in a forest. You can’t find a chocolate kiss. You have to find a nut or a berry.” She said, “I found another.” I said, “You don’t understand the game.” And then she opened her hand, and there was a chocolate kiss. The lady upstairs was throwing them down to the balcony. It was the funniest little scene. All my life I’ve wanted to do something with those magical kisses.

SH: Your sister is maybe the most consistent character in the book. She gets all the funniest lines. The first time I read them, the poems about her felt like a separate track from the more fable-like poems, though they ultimately merge. Did they feel like they belonged to a single book as you were writing them?

LG: I have never written two things simultaneously. It’s always clear to me that whatever I’m writing during a certain period is part of a single thing. And the task is to figure out the nature of the thing. It’s like you’re doing a jigsaw, and you get the obvious pieces at the periphery with their straight sides, but you can’t tell whether the blue is the blue of sky or the blue of ocean. You fill in from the edges toward the middle.

It seemed to me, the center of the book was my sister’s death. The poems written before that are sort of finding their way in the dark. When my sister died, I didn’t immediately begin the poems in which she figures. Some of the quasi-senile dialogue poems were written earlier. They were, I think, a way I dealt with my sister’s cancer: I wrote us both into the fictional collective, the old age home. I kept us together.

SH: A thread of East Asian philosophy runs through these poems. Where did that come from?

LG: I have no idea. Well, I know a lot of people who to some degree or other make Buddhist noises. So some of it was teasing. But I recognize in my recent books the powerful influence of Iris Murdoch, whose work I’ve been reading for years. Periodically, I just read all of her books; some of her mannerisms and artifacts have slid into my poems. I know that the fermented moss came from a dream. The first section of the title poem was nearly exactly a dream. But the bonsai—there must have been a catalyst, certainly, but once I wrote about them, I thought, “There’s more to be done here.” And there was. I liked using different spellings [bonsai and pun-sai], which emphasizes the idea of translation, which resembles “what returns / is not what went away” [a line from “The Denial of Death”]—which is like the experience of this new house, in a way. Those bonsai poems were the earliest poems written, so that’s seven, eight years ago. Who could remember that far back? I was playing with bathtub toys, that’s what I was doing. I was barely born.

SH: When I was your student, you taught me that lines, ideas, and even images can imply their own consequences, which should be pursued rather than abandoned or digressed from in favor of something else that’s more readily at hand. These poems aren’t digressive, exactly, but they do seem less adamantly in pursuit of a thread.

LG: More blowing in the wind.

SH: Right. They have a different logic to them.

LG: I think they drift. They wander. They’re out of time, in every sense of the term.

SH: Did it feel hard to let them do that?

LG: No. It would have been impossible to do anything else. Everything I write is really the only thing I know how to write at a particular moment. If I could do differently, I might, but this is what I have been given to say. I try to understand what might be interesting. The interest is in understanding the accidents and obsessions: how they arose, what they mean, what might follow.

SH: Teaching has always been important to, even enabling of, your writing. Have you felt its absence since the pandemic began?

LG: Well, that’s what’s so strange to me. For most of my life, I felt that. Partly it was magical thinking, because when I started teaching, I started writing again after the first very long period of silence that I’d ever had. And so I associated teaching with the restoration of speech. I think that was true, because I think that the way I dealt with not writing when I was very young was to feel that I had not sufficiently removed myself from the world, and I just needed to do more of that removing and more of that renunciation of everything outside of poetry. So I had systematically renounced everything in the world except, you know, I had a romantic life—it was the only thing I did. But when I started to teach, it was a way of being back in the world, back where there was agitation, change, the possibility of being changed by another person, the collision with other minds, exposure to minds that could do things yours couldn’t. I don’t know how much was teaching and how much was being in the world. It also turns out that if you’re not writing, you can work on someone else’s poem with intense fascination; it doesn’t matter that it isn’t yours. And that was an astonishment to me, because it meant that I could have the pleasure of thinking about how something could be richer without having generated the work at hand. You could have that without actually writing, which seemed miraculous to me, because I don’t write with any real frequency or regularity.

The first year of Covid, I did miss it. I wasn’t writing at all, and it seemed that that was proof that I really did need to teach, and I really did need the world, and I certainly did not have enough within myself to just produce endlessly like a silkworm. But this second year, I don’t miss it, which is clearly because Vermont now provides that sense of the new, of discovery. What’s at issue is change. For me, aside from dying, there would be two really profound changes. One would be to stop teaching. The idea that that could happen—taking the risk involved in that, that I would indeed dry up as a writer—that would be a huge thing. The fact of having written a [new] book this summer suggests to me that if there were other books to write, I would write them… and that, more likely, they would come out of change. And the other thing would be to form a partnership with another person again. Twenty-five years ago, I’d have said I’d never not be married. The same way, I would have said I’m never giving up teaching. But maybe I will give up teaching.

SH: You just mentioned some new writing, begun since finishing Winter Recipes. Is it too soon to talk about it?

LG: Well, no, I don’t mind, because I finished a book. I wrote a book in July.

SH: I can’t believe that’s true, but that’s amazing.

LG: I can’t either. I don’t quite know how it happened, but it seems a blessing on the decision to buy this house. Though I wrote it here and in Cambridge, I wrote it because of being here. It was such a strange summer—the euphoria of being in this house and my terror of an impending surgery. It was as though every possible emotional dial was turned to the highest point. And then I wrote this book that is so funny, and joyful, and odd—and prose! It went by very fast, but I felt inhabited. The minds that the book takes place in, they were my companions for a month. It was wonderful.

SH: Did this new prose book feel continuous with the poems of Winter Recipes?

LG: In mood and in situation, utterly different. But I think there are thematic connections.

SH: I think I’m supposed to ask you about the Nobel Prize. Can you feel its shadow when you’re writing?

LG: I don’t feel its shadow. I feel a kind of relaxation, a little less vulnerability to the whims of critical opinion. I had one other such moment: I had put off doing a Selected or a compendium of any kind, because I thought the gesture was valedictory—that it imposed an ending on a body of work. And I thought that was very dangerous; even to consider it was very dangerous. I also felt that it was important to repudiate past books as a way of propelling yourself forward. But I began to discover after A Village Life [2009] that I was actually proud of my books. This seemed to me the most dangerous possible emotion: complacency. Then I started thinking, “Well, maybe this is a feeling I’m supposed to explore.”

I actually did a tarot reading with Dana Levin’s sister, who is a professional clairvoyant; these were the matters that she spoke of. She said, “Maybe you have to experience pride in your work.” I realized that I had adamantly refused to do that, and I knew by then that these automatic refusals of mine, this magical thinking, precluded change. So I started putting together Poems 1962–2012. And when I proofed it, I felt pride. Instead of its inhibiting me, this relaxed me. Then I started writing Faithful and Virtuous Night, which is one of my favorite of my books, and for me really experimental, loose. I even found a new thing to do, a prose poem, that was really an adventure and an excitement.

So the Nobel Prize? Well, it was completely surreal. I’m sure you can imagine: I mean, a white American lyric poet who doesn’t write political poems? The initial moment was harrowing. What I felt as I thought about it was a sense of an amputation, as though my work had been taken from me. It had been promoted to some sort of glorious high place, but I had been detached from it. I was left behind somewhere to make do. And it was devastating. Then I had to write a Nobel lecture. I didn’t know what I would do. They were supposed to be very long; they were supposed to be in the third person. Finally I thought, “Well, I can write about panic.” No one had done that, as far as I knew, but I couldn’t be the first person to be frightened in this way. And it became interesting. I think having to do that got me used to writing prose, so the next idea I had came out as prose.

SH: That’s lucky.

LG: It was! That’s what I mean, it felt… in other ways, it’s been enormously helpful, but there’s a sense of great eeriness that comes with helpfulness.

SH: Has it come with obligations?

LG: No, because I just say no. There are things I would like to do, or would like to want to do, like go to Sweden. I feel very indebted to Sweden. This house is my Swedish house; it came with a blue room, so I found yellow chairs. Otherwise, [the Nobel Prize] makes certain things easier, but mostly it just… I mean, people are both warier of you and more eager to annex you, befriend you. But my world of friends hasn’t changed. I was afraid that all my poet friends would exile me, but that didn’t seem to happen.

The other great worry was that this would change my relation to students. It certainly didn’t change any of the relationships I had with the former students who were my friends—at all. They’re already used to thinking of me as a teacher, so now I’m a teacher who got a prize. But there’s a feeling of the uncanny about it. And especially once I got this house, I thought, “I must be about to die. Because things like this don’t happen.” That feeling is hard to shake. In fact, I often have this feeling after I write a poem: Something very bad has to happen, because it seems such amazing good fortune to have written a poem. Surely I’ll lose an arm or leg, or get a terminal disease.

SH: You have to pay for it somehow.

LG: I have a lot of that bookkeeping going on. But then I think, “Well, if so, then I’ll have had a really splendid life.” I think if I hadn’t written a book this summer, I might feel more frightened. But writing something so fast again, I thought, “No, my life has changed, but I don’t feel I have been silenced.” A very wise and very good friend pointed out that a prize like the Nobel makes critical reading harder, because people decide now they know who you are. There’s a kind of period put to the work. That may be, I don’t know… you can’t control that. Well, you can’t control anything.

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