An Anniversary Special
A Tribute by Taseer Gujral
Louise Gluck : The Poet of Balance, Wit and Wisdom
Louise Glück, poet of stunning candour and deep perception, sounded almost like a sage in her first reaction to being awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 (she was the first American-born poet to win it since T.S. Eliot, in 1948). In an early morning telephonic conversation with Committee representative, she longed for a cup of coffee and then ruminated aloud on the win, “My first thought was I wouldn’t have any friends because most of my friends are writers”. She went on to add what is actually her leitmotif in her own poetry, “But mostly, I’m concerned with the preservation of daily life with the people I love”. The sentiment almost sounded sufi in its earthiness and wisdom. In her writing career spanning six decades, Glück worked rigorously and unflinchingly to preserve a state of balance - a familiar experience that many could relate with, whether talking about relationships or seasons and nature. Even if her poetic register is starkly emotional, at times confessional, it’s never solipsistic. She dives into her own self with a brutal earnestness, not afraid of confronting her own monsters.
Louise Glück (pronounced Glick ) passed on 13th of October, 2023, leaving behind a legacy of lyrical poetry that wove technical precision with profound insights into human nature, relationships, loneliness, and deeper existential questions. Glück was 80 and died of cancer at her Cambridge home in Massachusetts. She had recently been diagnosed, and her former student, the Pulitzer winning poet, Jorie Graham put it so appropriately when he says: “I find it very much like her that she only learned she had cancer a few days before dying from it,” Graham said, “Her whole sensibility — both on and off the page — was cut that close to the spine of time”. In her haunting poem, Song, from her 2021 anthology, “Winter Recipes from the Collective”, Glück reflects on death and art in the conversation between the speaker and her ceramist friend Leo.
There is a kind of detached look at death with emphasis on a fire that keeps the hope alive:
I can see his house in the distance;
smoke is coming from the chimney
That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert
Ah, he says, you are dreaming again
And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive
In awarding the Nobel, the committee praised her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” At the Nobel announcement, Anders Olsson, the chair of the prize-giving committee, praised her for her intelligence and her minimalist voice:
“Louise Glück’s voice is unmistakable,” he said. “It is candid and uncompromising, and it signals this poet wants to be understood.” But he also said her voice was also “full of humor and biting wit.”
Glück was born in New York City in 1943, and grew up on Long Island. Her father helped invent the X-Acto knife, an interesting detail. Is it a coincidence then, that Gluck slices with a ruthless honesty and precision in her poems, even at the risk of exposing her own vulnerabilities and foibles. She is unabashedly herself in her poems and owns her voice with elan.
Gluck attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, but took no degree. When Glück was young, she struggled with anorexia nervosa, a disease she later attributed to her hunger for achieving control. Though the disorder is not her favourite poetic subject, she covertly addresses it in a section of her poem, Dedication to Hunger:
It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger,
because a woman’s body
is a grave; it will accept
By the mid-1960s she was working as a secretary by day and writing poetry in her free time. Soon she was getting published in magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Nation. Even though initially, she was not keen on teaching, she later found that she enjoyed classroom teaching and even drew inspiration from it. She enjoyed her teaching stints in Williams College, Yale and, later Stanford. In an interview with The New York Times, she says about teaching:
“You’re constantly being bathed in the unexpected and the new. You have to rearrange your ideas so that you can draw out of your students what excites them. My students amaze me; they dazzle me”.
In her career spanning more than six decades, Gluck came out with 14 books of Poetry. She began publishing in the 1960s and received some acclaim in the ’70s. Her first book, Firstborn, was a sample of technical mastery and precision, with a sort of “embarrassed tenderness”, in her own words. But what stands out is a deft use of words, clear imagery, skillfully controlled pace and tempo. You have the immediate sense that you are conversing with a highly intelligent and astute person. The poems crackle with energy and verve. In the titular poem, Gluck writes about the linear monotony of time, a sentiment very humanly identifiable:
The weeks go by, I shelve them
They are all the same, like peeled soup cans
In the ’80s and early ’90s, she produced a string of her most lauded books, including “Triumph of Achilles” (1985), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Having fed on generous readings of Greek mythology by her parents at home, she layered her poetry with philosophic and mythical allusions, imbuing it with a fascinating richness and depth. In her 1996 collection, Meadowlands, she weaves together the figures of Odysseus and Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey with the story of the dissolution of a modern-day marriage.
She won the Pulitzer for “The Wild Iris” (1992), where she talks in the voice of the gardener as well as the flower. In the title poem of “The Wild Iris,” she wrote, from the flower’s perspective:
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water
For Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), she won her the National Book Award. While her first books had touched relationships and troubled bonds, the later ones as this take the reader on an inner journey exploring deep, intimate feelings.
Gluck’s creative ability lay in creating poetry that many people can relate to and experience intensely. Her work was both deeply personal —Ararat, for example, drew on the pain she experienced over the death of her father. It can be seen as one of her most painful and disturbing works. As seen here, the power of her poetry lies in using direct, straightforward language, but also that is carefully wrapped in sharp selections of rhyme and rhythm lifting and projecting her verses in a sort of third dimension, in relief.
In her 2006 collection, Averno (2006), she used the myth of Persephone as a lens to mother-daughter relationships, suffering, aging and death. Stephen Burt, reviewing her collection noted, “few poets save [Sylvia] Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting”. In one of the poems measuring love and loss ( The Triumph of Achilles) she says:
“Why love what you will lose?” Then she goes on to answer her own question: “There is nothing else to love”
At the outset, she might appear dark and austere, but with her intuitive intelligence about understanding of human relationships and her sharp wit, Glück transcended from a autobiographical, deeply personal voice to a social and universal catalogue of human sensitivity. About writing from her own experience, Gluck says in a 2020 interview with The New York Times :
…. and I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique. They feel unique as you experience them, but I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on my particular life, and myself but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit. I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever ”
Farewell, Louise Glück, the poet of balance, wit and wisdom!