Louise Gluck Essayscorer
Louise Glück is considered by many to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. The poet Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing,” and her poetry is noted for its technical precision, sensitivity, and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death. Her poems are frequently described as “spare.” James K. Robinson in Contemporary Women Poets also noted that “Glück’s poetry is intimate, familial, and what Edwin Muir has called the fable, the archetypal.” Rosanna Warren has described Glück’s “classicizing gestures”—her frequent reworking of Greek and Roman myths such as Persephone and Demeter, for example—as necessary to her lyric project. According to Warren, Glück’s “power [is] to distance the lyric ‘I’ as subject and object of attention” and to “impose a discipline of detachment upon urgently subjective material.” Glück’s early books feature personae grappling with the aftermaths of failed love affairs, disastrous family encounters, and existential despair, and her later work continues to explore the agony of the self. In the New York Times, critic William Logan described her work as “the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse—starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.”
Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. Her first book of poetry, Firstborn (1968), was recognized for its technical control as well as its collection of disaffected, isolated narratives. Helen Vendler commented on Glück’s use of story in her New Republic review of The House on Marshland (1975). “Glück’s cryptic narratives invite our participation: we must, according to the case, fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can utter her lines, decode the import, ‘solve’ the allegory,” Vendler maintained. But she added that “later, I think…we read the poem, instead, as a truth complete within its own terms, reflecting some one of the innumerable configurations into which experience falls.”
Glück’s poems in books such as Firstborn, The House on Marshland, The Garden (1976), Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Ararat (1990), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris (1992) take readers on an inner journey by exploring their deepest, most intimate feelings. “Glück has a gift for getting the reader to imagine with her, drawing on the power of her audience to be amazed,” observed Anna Wooten in the American Poetry Review, and Stephen Dobyns maintained in the New York Times Book Review that “no American poet writes better than Louise Glück, perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own nature.” Glück’s ability to create poetry that many people can understand, relate to, and experience intensely and completely stems from her deceptively straightforward language and poetic voice. In a review of Glück’s The Triumph of Achilles, Wendy Lesser noted in the Washington Post Book World that “‘direct’ is the operative word here: Glück’s language is staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech. Yet her careful selection for rhythm and repetition, and the specificity of even her idiomatically vague phrases, give her poems a weight that is far from colloquial.” Lesser went on to remark that “the strength of that voice derives in large part from its self-centeredness—literally, for the words in Glück’s poems seem to come directly from the center of herself.”
Because Glück writes so effectively about disappointment, rejection, loss, and isolation, reviewers frequently refer to her poetry as “bleak” or “dark.” The Nation’s Don Bogen felt that Glück’s “basic concerns” were “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it…She is at heart the poet of a fallen world.” Stephen Burt, reviewing her collection Averno (2006), noted that “few poets save [Sylvia] Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.” Readers and reviewers have also marveled at Glück’s gift for creating poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subjects. Holly Prado declared in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece on The Triumph of Achilles (1985) that Glück’s poetry works “because she has an unmistakable voice that resonates and brings into our contemporary world the old notion that poetry and the visionary are intertwined.” Glück’s Pulitzer prize-winning collection, The Wild Iris (1992), clearly demonstrates her visionary poetics. The book, written in three segments, is set in a garden and imagines three voices: flowers speaking to the gardener-poet, the gardener-poet, and an omniscient god figure. In the New Republic, Helen Vendler described how “Glück’s language revived the possibilities of high assertion, assertion as from the Delphic tripod. The words of the assertions, though, were often humble, plain, usual; it was their hierarchic and unearthly tone that distinguished them. It was not a voice of social prophecy but of spiritual prophecy—a tone that not many women had the courage to claim.
Meadowlands (1996), Glück’s first new work after The Wild Iris, takes its impetus from Greek and Roman mythology. The book uses the voices of Odysseus and Penelope to create “a kind of high-low rhetorical experiment in marriage studies,” according to Deborah Garrison in the New York Times Book Review. Garrison added that, through the “suburban banter” between the ancient wanderer and his wife, Meadowlands “captures the way that a marriage itself has a tone, a set of shared vocal grooves inseparable from the particular personalities involved and the partial truces they’ve made along the way.”
Vita Nova (1999) earned Glück the prestigious Bollingen Prize from Yale University. In an interview with Brian Phillips of the Harvard Advocate, Glück stated: “This book was written very, very rapidly…Once it started, I thought, this is a roll, and if it means you’re not going to sleep, okay, you’re not going to sleep.” Reviewing Vita Nova for Publishers Weekly, a critic remarked: “Glück’s psychic wounds will impress new readers, but it is Glück’s austere, demanding craft that makes much of this…collection equal the best of her previous work—bitter, stark, careful, guiltily inward…It is astonishing in its self knowledge.” Although the ostensible subject matter of the collection is the examination of the aftermath of a broken marriage, Vita Nova is suffused with symbols drawn from both personal dreams and classic mythological archetypes. Glück’s next collection, The Seven Ages (2001) similarly takes up both myth and the personal.In the New York Times Book Review, Melanie Rehak stated: “It’s a book in which repetition functions as incantation, forming a hazy magic that’s alternately frightening and beautiful.” The Seven Ages contains forty-four poems whose subject matter ranges throughout the author’s life, from her earliest memories to the contemplation of death. While Rehak acclaimed “every poem in The Seven Ages [as] a weighty, incandescent marvel,” a Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked: “Considering age and aging, summer and fall, ‘stasis’ and constant loss, Glück’s new poems often forsake the light touch of her last few books for the grim wisdom she sought in the 1980s.”
Glück’s next book, Averno (2006), was a critical success however and many judged it to be her finest work since The Wild Iris. Taking the myth of Persephone as its touchstone, the book’s poems circle around the bonds between mothers and daughters, the poet’s own fears of ageing, and a narrative concerning a modern-day Persephone. In the New York Times, Nicholas Christopher noted Glück’s unique interest in “tapping the wellsprings of myth, collective and personal, to fuel [her] imagination and, with hard-earned clarity and subtle music, to struggle with some of our oldest, most intractable fears—isolation and oblivion, the dissolution of love, the failure of memory, the breakdown of the body and destruction of the spirit.”
William Logan called Glück’s A Village Life (2009), “a subversive departure for a poet used to meaning more than she can say.” The book is a marked formal departure for Glück, relying on long lines to achieve novelistic or short-story effects. Logan saw A Village Life as a latter-day Spoon River Anthology in its use of “the village as a convenient lens to examine the lives within, which counterpoint the memories of her [Glück’s] life without.” Dana Goodyear, reviewing the book for the Los Angeles Times found A Village Life “electrifying,” even as it presumed to tell its “polite” story of a “dying agriculture community, probably in Italy, probably some time between the 1950s and today.” Goodyear added: “Ordinariness is part of the risk of these poems; in them, Glück hazards, and dodges, sentimentality. The near miss makes us shiver.” Glück’s selected Poems 1962-2012 (2012) was published to great acclaim. While highlighting her work’s fierceness and “raking moral intensity,” in the words of New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner, the collection also allowed readers to see the arc of Glück’s formal and thematic development. According to Adam Plunkett, reviewing the collected poems in the New Republic, “Very few writers share her talent for turning water into blood. But what emerges from this new, comprehensive collection—spanning the entirety of her career—is a portrait of a poet who has issued forth a good deal of venom but is now writing, excellently, in a softer vein.” Poems 1962-2012 won the Los AngelesTimes Book Prize, and Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014) won the National Book Award.
In 2003 Glück was named the 12th U.S. Poet Laureate. That same year, she was named the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her book of essays Proofs and Theories (1994) was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction. In addition to the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, she has received many awards and honors for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, a Sara Teasdale Memorial Prize, the MIT Anniversary Medal, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2008, she was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award.
Glück currently teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
An Interview with Louise Glück
Elisa Gonzalez, Issue 35
“As soon as I can place myself and describe myself—I want immediately to do the opposite thing,” Louise Glück says. Yet her desire for the unexpected is a constant: she says that she wrote her second book, The House on Marshland, in response to a review of her debut, Firstborn, that claimed to know “what we can expect from Louise Glück in the future.” Glück has many times emphasized the need for change in accomplishing the poet’s work: “If I have any message to any of you who write, it’s that you cannot sit calmly repeating yourself.” This failure is serious because “[t]he dream of art is not to assert what is already known but to illuminate what has been hidden.”
In Faithful and Virtuous Night, Glück approaches the subject of silence for the first time in her career. Silence, in her world, is perhaps the most terrifying affliction for the artist, since the artist can only be considered an artist in moments of production. “‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport,” she writes in her essay “The Education of the Poet.” Artistic silence is a torment—not just in its present agony, but in the fear that silence will go on forever.
The book intertwines two primary voices—a male painter and a female poet—moving back and forth between the two to tell its stories. Through these personae, Glück can approach her subjects at angles: the painter speaks most directly of silence and its consequences for the artist. Faithful and Virtuous Night concerns itself with a more fundamental type of silence—that of death and aging. Mortality is not a new subject for Glück, but her treatment of it here is—its observation is fearless, devoid of resistance and struggle. The book is open about “the kingdom of death,” but aligns that realm with “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction. And with that phrase I became / a glorious knight riding into the setting sun.”
It’s this sensation of freedom that keeps Faithful and Virtuous Night from plodding its concentricity around death and age and silence. An ecstatic freedom pervades the book, as if any journey could be undertaken, as if the success of the journey is irrelevant. Glück’s imagination ranges widely, spinning the extended story of the painter as a boy and as an old man, creating surreal dream-poems, crisscrossing the border between life and unlife as if the mind’s willingness to do so were the only barrier. Glück heightens this sense of freedom by employing a wide range of tones: there is reflectiveness, resignation, disappointment, but also joy, whimsy, and humor. Her capacity for humor is often underestimated. In Faithful and Virtuous Night, it’s a natural extension of the poet’s meandering mind, which is going to include everything rather than cull. (An example: “Neigh, neigh, said my heart / or perhaps nay, nay—it was hard to know.”)
Glück also journeys for the first time into the domain of the prose poem, for brief moments of philosophical reflection or surreal world-building. Clipped and explosive in their simplicity, they punctuate the book, aerating the longer lyrics and lyric sequences, allowing both moments of reflection and a way of moving forward without exhaustion.
“Moving forward” is perhaps the wrong phrase to use because the book’s journey is not linear. The kingdom of death approaches and yet “how quiet it is / now that life has triumphed.” The painter nears death in “Approach of the Horizon” and then moves to Montana and acquires a much-younger boyfriend. The horizon is always approaching.
Elisa Gonzalez studied with Glück as an undergraduate at Yale University. They spoke at Glück’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home on October 18, 2014 for the podcast series Fear of Language (fearoflanguage.squarespace.com), where this interview originally appeared. The text has been edited for clarity and concision.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Before we talk about the new book, I want to talk about workshop and teaching. In particular, about the structure of your workshop. I certainly think it’s unique. Everyone turns in a poem every week, and we all read, including you, and we all give comments back, including you, but there are only three poems discussed in about a two and a half hour seminar. I think that part of the extensive attention that gets paid to each poem means that you achieve a breakthrough about twenty minutes into the discussion where all the facile, easy things have been said and you get to something deeper. This doesn’t happen every time—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s remarkable and has always been extremely useful. I was wondering how you came up with that format. Also, when you were first teaching did you do that? How did that develop?
GLÜCK: I’m trying to remember how the workshops I was in went, and I think they must have been something rather similar because I didn’t spend a lot of time brooding on pedagogy. It was clear to me that within five minutes you could say a great deal, but it was also clear to me that some of the first opinions I formed I would then question. And I know also that in writing something seems a marvelous epiphany and then you look at it and you think, yes, but . . . And that’s when it gets interesting. When the grand solution in which all is contained is revealed as porous. I like that moment. And then you really inquire. When I was teaching at Williams I taught the same way, because I had a class of approximately the same size, and it was always three poems, and I always annotated all the poems, which is for me a great pleasure. There are moments where it’s terrifying because there’s not much on the page. But then you think, well, where is there life? And how do I explain why it’s there and not elsewhere? And it often changes people. I think just that degree of scrutiny invites them to use their own quite brilliant minds on their work in a way that they haven’t. Not always, but . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I have always said you taught me how to revise—what I mean by revision isn’t just tweaking what’s on the page but reimagining the entire thing, starting over, maybe only having just an idea that is maybe interesting. The stamina to keep going through that process is always a struggle. That is a thing that I think you’ve taught me. I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about your own revision process—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: But I was wondering about that, and whether it’s different book by book.
GLÜCK: Yes. That is the quick answer to that. Some books, everything seems to be written very fast and comes out oftentimes the way it stays. But when I was starting I revised constantly. I had a sense that was instilled in me in those early classes—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: With Stanley Kunitz.
GLÜCK: Yes. I would have a poem that I could see had a kind of authority or freshness, something I prized and felt competent to recognize, but there were places where it went dead, inert—and he was infallible at pointing these places out and handing me back the poem. What would he say? He had phrases that he used. Not “back to the drawing board.” It was more about labor. “Back to the fields with the shovel.” “Back to building the highway.” I thought that was a kind of dedication I believed in because I seemed to be a very slow writer. I thought how many real poems am I going to write? And that I’d best take pains to make each one as exciting as I could make it. I later had teachers who thought quite differently. Adrienne Rich thought, “You write, you toss, you write, you toss, you write, you toss.” You don’t critique heavily. At least this is what I heard. And you don’t try to resolve the problems there, you try to write another poem and hope that the accumulation resolves.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As if there’s some kind of subconscious revision process happening in each draft?
GLÜCK: No, there aren’t more drafts. You just write new poems. And I’m not capable of doing that. I cherish each little utterance. Especially if there are these frustrating pockets of deadness, and I want to figure that out. So the books up through Ararat were slow. In Ararat, there were little gusts of writing rapidly. And at the beginning of Descending Figure there was a period of writing quite fluently. Then starting with The Wild Iris things were very fast and hardly revised. The last couple of books it was a lot of revision as I was working. Poems would get . . . Well, the last books have been different. A Village Life was very different because I kept getting to the end of what I had and the poems seemed a little conventional. Something wasn’t right. So I thought, why don’t I just write past the ending? I feel as though I’ve ended but suppose I keep the people moving? And that was an amazing discovery. I mean, I really learned how to write another kind of poem. Actually, I learned a bit of this from working with some young writers judging [the Yale Younger Poets, Bakeless, and Honickman first book prizes]. Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale—when I first saw it in manuscript, it was full of marvels but there was a lot that had to be just thrown out and there were a lot of poems that seemed unsatisfying. He had a gift for shutting a poem down in a pithy couplet. And the title poem, for example, was about a third shorter than it is in the book. So I could see as a critic before I could see or do anything about this in my own work. I could see the poems were just sealed off in the end because he couldn’t figure out what the next move was. It was clear they had to be opened up again and continued, and by then I knew his work well enough that I could say, “Why don’t you use the lines from this in Clerk’s Tale, pick it up here, not at the very end, pick it up there, right on the table, and go further?” So he would have this series of endings, like the Spoils of Poynton, with ending after ending after ending. I think that’s where I learned that technique—watching and realizing that Spencer’s poems needed it because they had a kind of brittleness that had to be got rid of. We would talk on the phone four or five times a day. And I’d never met the guy, but we had this intense phone relationship, and I was like a coach, saying, “Try this, try this, try this.” But it was all about getting back in and keeping the poem alive longer. He needed to get to a place in each of these expanded poems from which he had a different point of embarkation. He’d gotten to a line that had to close down, but it was temporarily closed down and then reopened, and finally he ended up in another place entirely. Then he could see a turn. I know this is all painfully abstract, but I think that’s where I learned.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And A Village Life is certainly very different. Each of your books, you’ve said, is a rejection of what comes before.
GLÜCK: Yeah, well, I try. It has to seem like an adventure, it has to seem fun, it has to seem like something you’ve never done before. I’m not interested in polishing the monument or whatever you might do.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I was wondering what you were reacting to in Faithful and Virtuous Night and what kind of adventure that was.
GLÜCK: That was different. It wasn’t like any of the others. I’d been reading a lot of prose—I’ve always read a lot of prose—but I was rereading Iris Murdoch. And I love Iris Murdoch, and I love her wisdom and archness, which seem not possibly to go together. I hadn’t written anything in about two and a half years when I started this, and I felt frightened the way I always get when I can’t write. And at some point I started writing trivia. It was trivia, but I was just so happy to be writing, and I didn’t care that it was trivial. I thought, this is just joyful, to be able to move a pen on a page. And I’d begun writing longhand again. I was just grateful to be writing, so I just started playing around. I think the first poem that I wrote is a short poem called “The Past,” which is a lyric, ordinary lyric, heavily influenced by Peter Streckfus. I mean I had to make sure I wasn’t using his language, which I wasn’t, but that kind of dreamy quality I admire in him. It took me a while. But I had some, I thought, pretty lines, and I was sitting on the terrace, and I experienced this intense happiness, and I didn’t think I was writing anything sublime, or even, possibly, interesting. I was just happy to be writing. There’s something about having such extremely low expectations that was novel to me. And I had this long poem that I started once in this voice that’s the voice of all the poems in the title poem series—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The painter.
GLÜCK: Only in the first version it wasn’t a painter—it was a child who lived in a farmhouse with her mother who took in sewing. There were a lot of lines about sewing, but I ran out of steam after about three stanzas because I had no idea what this voice was for. But I had all those notes, and I thought, well, could I use them again? Then I started work on the title poem, and I was having fun writing it, but I thought it was a piece of shit. I really thought it was terrible. And I thought that about—I don’t know that this should be recorded—I thought that about a lot of these poems while I was working, that this was really flyweight stuff.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Were they close to the form in which they appear, or were there a lot of changes?
GLÜCK: They were pretty close.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: But this book you said was very slow relative to the other recent ones.
GLÜCK: Five years.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So you had time to come to terms with them?
GLÜCK: Well, other people seemed to be more interested in them than I was, though not all other people. Some people said, this voice is excruciating and implausible and you have to grossly rethink it. But then some people were quite keen. Particularly my prose writer friends. Kathryn Davis has been an amazing reader, and she was an enthusiast. She thought it was all very interesting, and a couple of my poet friends thought that too. But it didn’t matter what they thought because it was clearly what I was doing. And I was a little bit ashamed. When I had to do a reading, when I read new work, I felt humiliated, and the audience always seemed to me to be kind of appalled, and I thought, well, so be it, that just seems to be how things are going. At a certain point I started writing the poems in sections, the sort of surreal poems, and those I—no, I actually didn’t like them either. It’s funny because now I think this is one of the best books I’ve ever written, but I certainly didn’t think that all along. But I also had nothing like the design for it; that came about through the realization of certain kinds of recurrences and the feeling that that long poem needed some kind of aeration. Then I began to see what I hadn’t seen before.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Such as?
GLÜCK: The same story told from multiple vantages, which I hadn’t seen was a factor. And then at the very end I was once again in a period of thwarted-ness because I had all these piles of pages and I’d begun to rather like some of it, but it clearly wasn’t a book. And Kathy Davis suggested that I reread Kafka’s short short stories. And I didn’t love them but that was good, that meant that I could use them. So I tried writing a prose poem.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And that was the first time you’ve done that?
GLÜCK: Yes. And I thought, well this is probably complete garbage. I was having dinner that night with Frank Bidart, and before I threw it out, or put it in my folder, I thought, well, I’ll show it to Frank because I don’t mind being humiliated. With my close friends, I’ve been humiliated many times. So I showed it to him and he adored it. It’s not usual for us to have such a wide discrepancy of opinion.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which poem was this?
GLÜCK: “Theory of Memory.” Then I started writing these things, and they were very easy. And I was ecstatic. I could see the book, I could really see the book, and I could see . . . it was as though I knew how it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be floaty and billowy and dreamlike and sort of ecstatic, but it had seemed so plodding. What these interruptions did and these echo chamber things and these recurrences, which were probably simply the result of an impoverished vocabulary—still there was a way that they could be made resonant. And then I fell in love with it. But when I was working on it I didn’t have a sense that I was sitting on a triumph at all. Quite the opposite.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’m thinking about what you said about the sense of ecstasy and the sense that it’s aerated because when I read the first poem that appeared in The New Yorker, “An Adventure,” I thought, this is really different. That’s the knight one, with the the “neigh, neigh,” and then “nay, nay,” which is actually also something I want to talk about—how funny you are and humor in your poetry, especially in this book—but it felt like—not that you had not been free before . . . But in the way that A Village Life expanded your form, I thought that this book seemed a freer imagination, maybe, or a wider range of journeying.
GLÜCK: It seems that way to me too, but I think it was mainly a result of— and this sounds so contradictory to everything I do as a teacher—I think it’s because I had such pitifully low expectations. But I remember Richard Siken once saying after I finished something—I think it must have been Averno, of which I was proud because it was beautiful—he said, “Now you’re just going to have to play in the mud for a while, just play in the mud, make things in the mud.” And I thought, that’s exactly right. I have to have very low standards, much mud, finger-painting kind of stuff. And this book seemed like that. Also I felt that I had done everything I knew to think of. I felt I needed another person’s brain.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The voices [painter and poet] interact in terms of their concerns: the difficulty of expression, the loss of things in the self, the progress toward death. Awareness of mortality is certainly not new to your work, but this particular way of dealing with it—how much did the painter free you to talk about the process of creation and loss?
GLÜCK: The one thing I felt I was an expert in was silence. I had had all my life these periods of agonizing silence, inability to write, which initially I didn’t mind because it came after a period of euphoric conclusion of something. But as the time went by, I would get more and more despondent, and at the beginning I thought it was because I hadn’t written anything I would choose to be remembered by, but then I realized it was just that I felt thwarted and bleak when I wasn’t thinking on the page. I tried all those ways of getting yourself jump-started, and they didn’t work, and after a period I also felt something was being accomplished in this ordeal. But I realized I’d never written about it, and I didn’t want to write about it in the first-person, or at least not from my life.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That some distancing was needed.
GLÜCK: That it needed to be a story about someone. I didn’t want to say, “then words did not come.” I’ve read poems like that, and I don’t like them. Somehow, I hadn’t talked about silence, but I’ve also been obsessed with mortality for the whole of my life, from the time I was conscious. These poems [in Faithful and Virtuous Night] seem very different. It seems to me there’s no struggle in them. They’re not outraged at the fact that time on earth is limited. I’m sure that I will not be able to hold onto this happy feeling, but at the moment it seems to me that when you realize you’ve been fighting death for the whole of your life, at a certain point you think, fuck it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I definitely see that in this book, and I have to admit that it surprised me a great deal in reading it, especially because when we talked when Poems 1962-2012 was coming out, I think you said to me that you had resisted calling it your “Collected” because you didn’t want to imply that there was nothing to come after it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And also I think you used the phrase “a premature death,” or something.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Valedictory. At the time, were you writing this book? Did you know you were going to write it?
GLÜCK: No, no. But I had begun to allow myself—I’ve always had this sort of magical-thinking way of detesting my previous books as a way of pushing myself forward. And I realized that I had this feeling of sneaking-up pride in accomplishment. Sometimes I would just stack my books together and think, wow, you haven’t wasted all your time. But then I was very afraid because it was a completely new sensation, that pride, and I thought, oh, this means really bad things.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did you think it was going to undermine your ability to create?
GLÜCK: Absolutely. I thought that this was that sort of dangerous contentment, which comes right before complacency, which comes right before silence. Or worse, blathering. Much worse. And I remember sometime before I started putting [Poems 1962-2012] together—I mean I didn’t really have to put it together, all I had to do was proofread a million times all these books.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You didn’t change anything?
GLÜCK: No. I had never any temptation to go back.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Some poets do.
GLÜCK: I know, and sometimes they do really terrible things, like Marianne Moore often did. But in any case I’m not interested; I want to see what else there is. But I remember a birthday right before I had decided—maybe it was even before I decided to do [Poems 1962–2012], or it became possible. One of the things I have done periodically on birthdays is have Dana Levin do a tarot reading for me. Her sister’s a real bona-fide clairvoyant, so Dana does a reading and then we refer it to Karen for comments. And we started talking about this, the anxiety that I felt about feeling a sense of creeping pride. And she thought that that was the problem of the moment, that was the thing that had to be worked out. I realized when I proofread for this book that I basically thought that some of these—I was pleased with what I read. I didn’t read these and think, oh my God this is terrible, aside from my first book I didn’t think that at all. Sometimes I was kind of amazed at the verbal variety that I don’t seem to be able to pull off anymore, but aside from that reprimand, mainly it was a pleasure. And it felt in the end like a complete liberation. I didn’t have to contribute to the monument anymore. I could just do anything. It wasn’t as though I had this long list of things I wanted to do but didn’t dare to do. Everything I could think of to do I had done. But there was something very pleasurable in thinking, this exists, and now I’m going to have whatever I will have. There was something exuberant in the feeling. Not a sense of completeness—the opposite. A sense that something had been achieved and now speculation could begin.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speculation of the kind you had when you were first becoming a writer, or . . . ?
GLÜCK: No, because there was too much urgency then. Very different—no urgency. So then I could sit on the terrace writing trivia and thinking, this is the best there is in life, this is the sweetest thing, just moving sentences around and thinking, mmm no, maybe there. That pleasure. And a beautiful summer day, things blooming in the garden, no obligations. It wasn’t as though there were thousands of days like that. There were just a few, but I was aware what a gift they were. Whereas twenty years before I would have thought, this is all fine but this poem is a piece of crap, rather I didn’t care. I didn’t care. And I don’t know why that seemed to produce an interesting result—certainly a lot of the time I was working I was very depressed by what I thought was the accumulation of really wretched work. That was painful, and especially when I read during that period at Yale, and I thought, my students pity me. My students don’t know what to say to me because they’re so shocked at how dreadful this is. And who knows what they were doing. But one of the things I have noticed about [Faithful and Virtuous Night] is that many of the people who actually seem to understand it the way I understand it are about twenty-five to thirty.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Why do you think that is?
GLÜCK: I think that the people my age are so frightened of the subject matter that they bring to the book all their own notions about the horror of mortality. But I feel as though that that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about some kind of weird bliss state, the throwing out of certain kinds of expectations. I don’t know. It seems to me like the end of The Tempest, you know that “I give it up.” You feel reading it that you can give it up because it’s everywhere in you, you don’t need the book, even though in the play that’s not what happens. But some kind of divine carelessness. I don’t mean to say this is The Tempest. But something—just a set of emotions I haven’t felt. But older people react to it; they fixate on the poems that are most concerned with mortality, and somebody seeming to be dying.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Like in “An Approach to the Horizon?"
GLÜCK: Yes, that one. It’s one of the lesser poems in the book but some people my age just fix right on it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Well it has the hospital monitor and the death, really.
GLÜCK: But then he goes to Montana and he seduces his nephew.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I love that part.
GLÜCK: I do too. I gave him a love after that whole sort of miserable life. He got a boyfriend!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you get a boyfriend at the end of your life, that’s a wonderful thing. I also love in the poem that it seems as if it’s going to end and then it surprises you. And there’s something in the Montana specificity and in the wide-openness that—I really felt so much space in this book, which you’ve talked about. But in terms of the boyfriend thing and what I call “the funny parts”—I wanted to talk about that, because I think people don’t necessarily consider you a funny poet.
GLÜCK: I’m a very funny poet.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think you’re a very funny person and when you were reading at Barnard a few weeks ago, it was funny to me that there were many moments of laughter. And some of it I think is that the humor is emphasized by the way you read it.
GLÜCK: The “neigh, neigh.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The “neigh, neigh” is hilarious. But also “You’re stepping on your father / my mother said . . . You’re stepping on your father, she repeated, louder this time, which began to be strange to me, since she was dead herself; even the doctor had admitted it.” That has definitely a quality of the punch line, that last.
GLÜCK: Yes, it certainly does.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In a lovely way.
GLÜCK: That was a line I thought about taking out because it was too punchline- y, but in the end I thought . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think that the disjunction contributes to not making the poem so neat, but I did wonder whether you consciously injected humor in this, or how it . . .
GLÜCK: Well, it’s part of how I talk, so it was more . . . There are other books I think are really—I think Meadowlands is funny and people used to laugh . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Meadowlands is funny.
GLÜCK: But they were also alarmed because I wasn’t supposed to be a funny writer. I’ve always thought what I wanted to do was to get as many tones as you can possibly get onto the page and shift gears. I like poems that do that, so that you think you’re reading one poem and then you’re reading another poem and then you’re reading another poem. I like that. Not every line, so that every line is another non sequitur. But when I think of some of the operas that I love best they’re the ones that have that spaciousness, that generosity and humor, and at the same time they’re wrenching.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which operas?
GLÜCK: Magic Flute. Marriage of Figaro in a more terrestrial way. Or some other kind of lightness like you find in—it’s not humor at all—but there’s a something in Rosenkavalier that’s very different from what you would find in Tosca, say. And Ariadne auf Naxos.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I don’t know that one.
GLÜCK: It’s a Strauss opera, also. Very beautiful. And the productions of it are always filled with bizarre stage effects. Or not always, I’ve only seen one, what am I talking about? But I like laughing and I hate lugubriousness. And I think that I’m often read as though I were lugubrious, gloomy, and bitter. And maybe some of these books are. I would hope not, but maybe they are. I don’t know. But I’m happiest as a writer when I feel that there’s no danger of that word cluster. But who knows?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I was thinking about that poem, and I’m sorry, I forget the title—
GLÜCK: I may too.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: “Your cold feet / off my dick.” That poem is hilarious and also has an incredibly dagger-like kind of pain—
GLÜCK: “I said you could snuggle.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yes, and I think a lot of times, for me at least, your poems do achieve that. And that’s true in your new book as well, that variation that creates an interesting constellation of feelings at the same time. That complexity is interesting to me in all poems, rather than a perfect expression of a single thing.
GLÜCK: The thing that you fear is a kind of dogged insistence on an idea. A kind of bombast. Or just insisting that the reader understand something. But I usually don’t have any ideas when I begin, so that last thing I am unlikely to be guilty of, because I don’t begin with anything I wish to impart.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You don’t begin with “I want to write a poem about X . . . ”
GLÜCK: I have, but it never works. No, I begin with some little swatch of language, sometimes a remark, but I don’t know who’s talking, and sometimes I’ll have the lines in my head for years and not have any idea what situation they come out of or whose mind—it’s all unknown to me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s remarkable patience. One of the things that has struck me—Richard Siken Skyped my class Thursday because we read Crush (the class is called “The Art of the Book” with Deborah Landau and we read a book and the author comes in for half the class and talks to us)—
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It has been wonderful because we get both time to discuss the book honestly within ourselves and then get to ask the authors questions and hear them talk. So we talked about Crush, obviously. And one of the things that struck me—you guys are friends and he loved working with you, so it was complimentary—but your quotes were so vivid in his mind. And I’ve always found that to be true for me as well.
I always feel like I can quote you verbatim from years ago because whatever you said was so stark and perfect. Obviously this is just a compliment and not a question. But it is, I think, that you are perhaps peculiarly yourself in every way in which you resist things and enact them.
GLÜCK: Well, that’s good—I have to show you something of Richard’s. We were having a conversation and he said, “How are you?” and I said, “Afflicted with malaise.” And then he wrote me this.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s so wonderful.
GLÜCK: Isn’t it great? It’s visually hysterical.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Maybe this will be my last question for you . . . which seems like it has to be so much more important than it actually is. I’m not sure that I’ve ever told you this, but the first book of yours that I read was Descending Figure and I bought it in a bookstore in Indiana when I was traveling across it to go somewhere, probably Chicago—I don’t know, it was the Midwest, I didn’t get to travel much. I remember reading it and there were two poems that completely transformed me in a very particular and adolescent sort of way. I was twelve or thirteen at the time so it wasn’t particularly sophisticated. But the one about one sister being the watcher and one the dancer, and my next youngest sister is a dancer so I always felt like the watcher, so it was even quite literally very powerful.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yes . . . And I quite literally thought, this is the first person who’s ever understood me.
GLÜCK: Kafka. He understood you too. Have you ever read “The Hunger Artist?”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I will, after this. But I was wondering when you’re sitting on the terrace and moving words around, do you think about the reader or does it matter to you that someone will respond in that way? Is it just a happy surprise when it does? Or does it even particularly affect you?
GLÜCK: No . . . I think that what you’re doing when you’re writing is that you’re playing both roles, you’re playing the reader and the writer and I don’t think about—in fact, I hate it and I don’t understand it when a teacher will say something about the reader. I think, there’s some uniform person who goes by the name of The Reader? There’s every kind of reader in the world— there’s the subtle reader, the opaque passionate reader, there’s the informed reader, there’s the uninformed reader with a feel for the form, there’s the uninformed reader with no feeling of the form—do you explain the form on the page to the reader? And I don’t know how you conceptualize the reader except that if you show your work to ten different people and they all have problems, there’s a good chance there will be a problem even if not one of them may actually have put into words what the problem is. But possibly, possibly that’s not the case either.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: But you can glean an impression perhaps.
GLÜCK: If ten people you trust don’t like it, it tells you something. But every once in a while, they just aren’t seeing it in the context that makes it intelligible, and sometimes you can’t know that. But if you continue to like it, then that’s what happens. Because I always have such decided opinions, I sometimes have to remind myself to tell my students that what they have to develop is the attentiveness to their own work and bravery in its regard so that they can, if they think I’m wrong, they can resist. And if they think I’m wrong, they should resist. But then if they begin to be troubled in their leisure hours, their feelings about the thing will have changed. But in a way that was one of the things that was so nice.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: About Faithful and Virtuous Night.
GLÜCK: I really had no concern. I mean, now I do, because I’m in the world of the reader, the reader who opines in print, and that’s painful.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You had talked about wanting to keep it to yourself.
GLÜCK: So I had a very relatively happy year last year because I had the sense that I had done something I was quite daffy about and which had a little bit of private-public support and enthusiasm, but the world hadn’t seen it, and its limitations were not yet apparent to me in a painful way. Anyway, it was a very happy time, but happy too was just the scratching in a kind of doesn’t-matter doesn’t-matter. And part of me also thought, if I can get words on page, I can make a poem. I mean, once there’s language . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You can do something with it.
GLÜCK: I feel pretty confident that I have editorial instincts of high quality. And I like work of different kinds. And I think that’s what hones those instincts. I’ve worked on books completely different from what I do. That intimacy with young poets has been the great thing in my life in the last few decades. Absolutely great. And I pity people who don’t realize this is the energy source, so, you know, avail yourself of it. I love teaching, I’m fascinated by my students—I don’t mean that every one is a marvel, but there are marvels who come into a classroom, like you. And various kinds of minds, and also the ten books that I worked on.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: For the Yale Younger series.
GLÜCK: Eight for Yale, one for Bakeless, one for the Honickman. Dana, Spencer, Peter, and then Peter, Richard, Jay, Jessica . . . And they were all different.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: They are all extremely different.
GLÜCK: It was thrilling, extremely thrilling. Except for writing the damn forewords, which was so hard, year after year. Anyway.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think we should close by saying “Louise wins” again.
GLÜCK: But you really need the picture.