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.