Sunday, April 15, 2012

Louise Glück: American Poetry's "Silent Soldier"

There’s a moment in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994) when Louise Glück describes her father’s decision not to become a writer; Daniel Glück lacked, she writes, “the adamant need which makes it possible to ensure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting.”

Glück herself understood from the beginning the stakes were that high, the risks vertiginous; over the years her desire to prevail has become apparent in the fierceness of her own writing and in the measures she’s used to gauge her progress. From the age of “four or five or six” the poets Glück read were “my companions, my predecessors.” “When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition, as English was my language. My Inheritance. My wealth.”

The disposition of that wealth has been fairly consistent ever since. Across ten poetry titles Glück’s poetry has been routinely singled out for its chthonic power, spare lyricism, and iron loyalty to poetry as a particular way of understanding and expressing the world. Glück’s luminous, occasionally abrasive devotion to the lyric is only outdone by a seemingly congenital instinct to quarrel with her earlier impulses, a “swearing off” of her past work as a kind of subtle reproach to what she might be doing in the present. The key points of resistance are the ones you’d expect, the themes and “fundamental preoccupations” observed in a previous book of poems. “(Y)ou see as well the poems’ habitual gestures,” she writes, “those habits of syntax and vocabulary, the rhythmic signatures which, ideally, give the volume at hand its character but which it would be dangerous to repeat.”

Safer to repeat her objections to other people’s poetry, notably the finished rigidity in poems by Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston, which Glück is at pains to avoid in her own poems. Glück dedicates herself to the idea that closure, thematic and aesthetic, weakens the poem and that the strongest poems defer fixed interpretation. This general openness is aided in turn by her sustained preference for the unsaid over exhaustive elaboration, by a partiality for silence. “I love white space, love the telling omission, love lacunae, and find oddly depressing that which seems to have left nothing out.”

Glück’s anxiety about closure and her emphasis on the role of silence in poetry are intimately linked to a third article of faith: that the human self, open to experience and constantly changing, constantly reinterpreting its own life narratives, remains the best material for writing great poetry. Where ordinary human beings habitually uncover, validate and reproduce habits of mind in their behaviour, the gifted poet undertakes a more signal, complex operation ending in self-redefinition: key assumptions about the self are upended, and along with them central assumptions underlying the art. If the poet is very lucky, her work changes, deepening and becoming more subtle.

Silence plays a pivotal role in that operation: no longer is it simply a technical strategy for withholding information from the poem, but a necessary condition for changes in the ground of the poet’s being that prepare her for the fresh poetic act:

“I began, thirty years ago, to chart periods of silence in the same way I dated my poems. And I have repeatedly seen silence end in speech. Moreover, the writing that begins after such a siege differs always from what went before and in ways I couldn’t through an act of will accomplish.”

A two year period of silence in the late 1960s stands out for the assault Glück felt upon her impulse towards poetry. In that time “of great panic and helplessness” she wrote nothing, she later tells graduates at Williams College; she could not remember “a time when I had been fully alive;” her “life seemed over.” Silence had been imposed upon her; she had not sought it out but in its sway her gifts, she felt, had atrophied. 

Eventually Glück would learn to draw silence closer to her, to help clear away the detritus of an earlier self and to make way for a new voice.

“...the long silence, like the silence in the valley
before the mountains send back
your own voice changed to the voice of nature.

This silence is my companion now.
I ask: of what did my soul die?
and the silence answers

If your soul died, whose life
are you living and
when did you become that person?

(From "Echoes, Averno, FSG, 2006)

Silence answers Glück’s question with a question, pressing her to better understand the shift towards a new self and its contents. If the past is dead, the silence seems to say, the demands of the present remain indefatigable.

The life and death debate around silence is cast in startlingly militaristic terms, the “siege” upon her sensibilities cited above and the “involuntary relinquishing of a self” that is all too reminiscent of the stripping away of self that occurs in marine boot camp. Conditions such as these are always imposed first upon the young. Sensing her personal authority under assault early on and her childhood eventually “closed to her”, Glück assumes the only posture remaining to her: she girds for war. Her mother, at best a failed ally, fortuitously “leaves her cross bow in the high grass”:

“A golden bow: a useful gift in wartime.

How heavy it was – no child could pick it up.

Except me: I could pick it up.” (33)

The Spartan tone, the long pauses between stanzas and the end stopped lines convey the quiet self-assurance required of the good soldier at a time of utmost engagement. War is hell, but it is also a metaphor: Glück’s bow converts into poetry, brandished over the years with precision and necessary ferocity, but like Excalibur producing other, more sanguine properties.

“…The bow
was now a harp, its strings cutting
deep into my palm. In the dream

it both makes the wound and seals the wound.” (33)

What softens the military analogy is Glück’s insistence that the changes within a poet’s life required to create anew cannot occur through an act of will. Learn despair instead, she tells us. Only through despair can a self emerge that “will not be willed back.” Moreover, “Flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.”

Like the bloodied and sometimes beaten general who returns from war, Glück’s last agony is for those going forward to fresh wars. “It is very strange to stand here, wishing you desolation,” she tells her Williams College graduates, but what succeeds the first gift of life is “the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege.”

Riding out into life poets dream of love and of a blessed future; returning, what remains is a gentler, more chastened understanding of the outer world as it engages, and so often clashes, with the inner world.

“To such endless impressions
We poets give ourselves absolutely,
Making, in silence, omen of mere event,
Until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.”

(From "Omens", Averno, FSG, 2006).
A collection of Louise Glück’s poetry is scheduled for release this fall.


David Godkin said...

This note from Naomi Beth Wakan: "Great to have you back David. I particularly liked your blog on Louise Glück. Her preference for poets who leave things out, of course, resonates with all haijin, where a 60% clear haiku is considered quite perfect. And, of course, it is those ‘gap’ moments in the poet’s own psyche where creativity can slip through. We all have to stay with those silences, whether we like it or not, for the unconscious growth that is happening during those times will ultimately produce the connections that give freshness to creative efforts.”


Sef Greene said...

Really enjoyed this. Many thanks.

anngw said...

beautifully done. thanks David.


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