News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

The laureate

Why Louise Gluck's intensely private poetry is just what the public needs

THOUGH BRITAIN HAS had a poet laureate for centuries, the United States has had one only since 1986, when legislators renamed the position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Library itself now describes the poet laureate, perhaps alarmingly, as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.''

Recent appointees have certainly worked hard to bring poetry to a democratic public. Robert Hass (1995-97) inaugurated a weekly newspaper column in the Washington Post called "Poet's Choice.'' Robert Pinsky (1997-2000) -- a professor at Boston University -- created the Favorite Poem Project, which used a website, anthologies, videos, and public events to chronicle 18,000 Americans' most cherished verses. Billy Collins (2001-03), whose gently comic, accessible work had made him the best-selling poet in recent memory, brought verse into high schools with his "Poetry 180'' effort.

America's new poet laureate, Cambridge resident Louise Glück, who will take up the office on Oct. 21, is of a very different type. She may be the most private occupant yet of this most public post, both in her work and in the life that work describes. Glück's spare and carefully assembled poems take their subjects from the nuclear family, from romance, marriage, motherhood, solitude, and divorce, from contemplation and prayer. She is a poet whose favorite metaphor is the garden, for whom crowds, nations, technology, publicity barely exist.

And she may be just what the office needs.

Glück was born in New York in 1943, but grew up on Long Island. Her early life, described in some of the essays in "Proofs & Theories'' (1994), combined material fortune with lasting psychological troubles. "I remember my childhood as a long wish to be elsewhere,'' she later wrote. Relations with her parents and older sister were hard. "My sister and I,'' the 1990 poem "Animals'' explains, "never became allies''; "we both felt there were/too many of us/to survive.'' Even her style, with its terse lines and frequent stops, its "attraction to the unsaid,'' she has written, recalls her youthful "sulky silence.''

To treat a life-threatening anorexia nervosa, Glück left high school at 17 to begin seven years of psychoanalysis, whose intense self-questionings informed the manner and the matter of her verse. Psychoanalytic "discipline gave me a place to use my mind,'' Glück remembered in prose, when "my emotional condition, my extreme rigidity of behavior and frantic dependence on ritual, made other forms of education impossible.''

At 18, after her first year of analysis, she enrolled in poetry workshops at Columbia University's School of General Studies, first with the very traditional poet Leonie Adams, and then for five years with Stanley Kunitz, a renowned teacher of poets who became a laureate himself (2000-01). Kunitz, Glück would write, was "a companion spirit, someone my poems could talk to.''

His teachings took a while to bear fruit. Glück's "Firstborn'' (1968) revealed a forceful but clotted poet, an anxious imitator of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. After two years of not writing, Glück accepted a teaching job at Vermont's Goddard College, and there she found forms of her own. Her second book, "The House on Marshland'' (1975), eschewed biographical detail and rejected Lowell's stanzas and rhymes. It offered instead chilling, compact retellings of myths and fairy tales (such as the often anthologized "Gretel in Darkness'') and utterances unafraid to shock. "Love Poem'' exclaims to an obstinate man: "No wonder you are the way you are,/afraid of blood, your women/like one brick wall after another.'' Here was a poet who saw truths -- about her own emotions and about other people's -- that other people would not see, or feared to say.

Her next book, "Descending Figure'' (1980), included stark, mythological parable-poems, but also sequences dealing more explicitly with Glück's own life, such as "Devotion to Hunger,'' which identified her anorexia as a "fear of death'' and a "need to perfect.'' The noted critic Helen Vendler, lauding the volume, found there "the aesthetic of Glück's verse -- or of part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self.''

The 1985 book "The Triumph of Achilles'' opened with "Mock Orange,'' a poem of rejection indeed:

It is not the moon, I tell you.

It is these flowers

lighting the yard.

I hate them.

I hate them as I hate sex,

the man's mouth

sealing my mouth, the man's

paralyzing body --

and the cry that always escapes,

the low, humiliating

promise of union --

Read aloud, the poem once reduced a thousand-strong crowd in Harvard's Sanders Theatre to silence and awe. Who else hates sex? Who else would dare to say so -- and then explain, haltingly, why?

Other poets might have stopped with the hard-edged, clean-lined style of "Achilles,'' and started repeating themselves. Glück tried hard to go forward: "Each book I've written,'' she explained in 1989, "has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off.'' Her next book, "Ararat'' (1990), told the story of her relations with her late mother, her father and her sister, in unadorned, long, and deceptively straightforward lines.

After that almost archaeological task, Glück turned to cultivating her garden. "The Wild Iris'' (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize, remains her strangest and most widely admired collection. Many of its poems are spoken by plants: "Clover'' asks why human beings consider it "a weed, a thing/to be rooted out.'' Other poems imagine speech to a creator-God, or anticipate that God's replies: "When I made you I loved you./Now I pity you.'' The book also perfected Glück's technique of drawing one-sentence conclusions about life and love: "Sometimes a man or woman forces his despair/on another person, which is called/baring the heart.'' The flowers of "Daisies'' invite readers put off by the book's allegories to "say what you're thinking. The garden/is not the real world.'' Glück gambles that her garden poems are instead the world simplified, so that its most important parts (growth, decay, separation, death) stand out.

With "The Wild Iris'' Glück acquired not only fans but imitators; her stark, shockingly isolated phrasings remain a frequent choice among younger poets looking for models, including her students at Williams College (where she has taught for most of the past 20 years). But in 1996 Glück herself pursued new directions with "Meadowlands,'' a book divided between poems about her collapsing marriage and poems about characters from "The Odyssey.'' Both sets of poems foregrounded a bitter humor: "Someone should discuss/ethics with the cat as it/inquires into the limp bird.''

John Ashbery once wrote that "the ideal situation for the poet is to have the reader speak the poem.'' Glück's latest poems think hard about how her conclusions might describe not just her own life, but the lives of her readers as well. Her language of timeless myths and needs stands against not only the crowded contemporary public world -- the world of advertisements, freeways, pixels, hanging chads -- but also against the poetry of autobiographical detail, of confessional narrative, which the most popular poets of her generation, such as Sharon Olds, have produced. Glück will not tell us what happened to her unless she can find in each event a larger meaning, a reason why others should care. "You are like me, whether or not you admit it,'' one poem from her most recent collection, "The Seven Ages'' (2001), insists. Her poem "Memoir'' lasts only 19 lines; it declares "if when I wrote I used only a few words/it was because time always seemed to me short. . . And my story, in any case, wasn't unique.''

Glück's poetry is not to be taken lightly, nor advertised as improving, exciting, fun. Instead, it offers profundity, care, "deep privacy'' (as she puts it) and unparalleled seriousness about what words can do. "Art is not a service,'' Glück insisted in her introduction to "The Best American Poetry'' (1993), "or rather it does not reliably service all people in a standardized way.''

One might ask how this attitude can possibly serve a poet laureate whose job is to make poems public, sometimes in front of a microphone, or on camera. The laureate's tasks may detract from her inward strengths, but they seem more likely to reinforce them. To represent her art, as she sees it, in public, Glück will continue to show us just how private, how personal, and how serious poetry can be.

Stephen Burt teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. His new book is "Randall Jarrell and His Age.''

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months