President Barack Obama presents the poet Louise Gluck with the National Humanities Medal during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, Sept. 22, 2016.

Al Drago/The New York Times

President Barack Obama presents the poet Louise Gluck with the National Humanities Medal during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, Sept. 22, 2016.

October 12, 2020

YANDAVA | Louise Glück’s Poetry of Resilience

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Returning to the books one used to read as a teenager often registers the same unpleasant surprise as finding old photographs of oneself: The words do not sparkle as much, the quotations hastily scribbled down in one’s diary are revealed to be too cliché, too overwrought and stultifying, just as one’s posture is worse, one’s smile decidedly more crooked than one remembers. You can imagine my delight, then, when I cracked open Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012 after learning she’d won the Nobel Prize to find the verse was still (to borrow John Berryman’s words) “fresh as a bubble breaks, / As little false.”

However — knowing more now about poetic technique, about form and meter, syntax and sound than I did then — I cannot say what exactly makes it so. Certainly, the simplicity and immediacy of Glück’s language is a large part of it, belying the gravity of themes like death, loss, grief, aging and love. Yet the architect’s hand seems to move invisibly; out of sight, backstage, someone is pulling the ropes, but the scene must be perceived by the audience as a whole, and the whole here is greater than the sum of its parts. It would be difficult to pick apart a Glück poem like a Shakespearean sonnet, to hold each cog and screw up to the light, and understand precisely how motion gets into the machine: There is only the simple fact of felt emotion once the poem is finished, the palpable sense that one has been moved, the great shiver of great art.

One of the most moving aspects of Glück’s work is its sense of renewal, its underlying spirit of resilience. Glück has often drawn comparison to the Confessional poets of the 1950s and 60s. To be sure, the personal narratives, the emotions and subjectivity and the metallic bite of irony are all still there, but the poems lack much of the solipsism and neuroticism that can be said to characterize that school. Moreover, Glück’s poems do not “confess” so much as quietly confide, as one might confide in a diary. If those Confessional poets find glory, almost perversely, in saying, “Look, I have suffered,” Glück takes a more private pride in being able to admit, “Yes, I have suffered, but I survive.”

In “Vita Nova,” the first poem of the eponymous collection chronicling the dissolution of a relationship, the speaker comes to the realization, “Surely spring has been returned to me, this time / not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet / it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.” In another “Vita Nova,” the last poem of the same collection, the speaker concludes, “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.” “Snowdrops,” from The Wild Iris, ends with the lines: “afraid, yes, but among you again / crying yes risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.”

These moments of joy and acceptance, hard-won and tenaciously held, occur hand-in-hand with the metamorphoses and vicissitudes of the natural world. Glück is a great poet of seasons. Her poems seem to run on what I would like to call “Mythical Standard Time,” a conception of time that is cyclical as opposed to linear, where the past is continually reborn into the present and the present gives birth to the past, where, like the sea or the seasons, everything is churned back upon itself so that, at last, something hard and translucent may be swept up to the surface. In this time zone, childhood acquires a fabulous significance, and the familiar Ancient Greek and Biblical figures are dispossessed of their own contexts so as to serve new purposes in our world. Like the baton of Time passed from winter’s hand to spring’s, Love and Death are kept in continual exchange, each informing and fortifying the other.

“The soul’s like all matter: / why would it stay intact, stay faithful to its one form, / when it could be free?” asks “Lullaby.” Glück recognizes that it is only in unleashing the soul to experience the full flux and fluidity of the world that we realize, despite everything, the moon still rises, no matter how changed, and flowers will break from their graves to taste new consciousness.

 

Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.