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Louise Gluck- Bio

03-17-10

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. 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 the University of Columbia in New York. 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.”

For admirers of Glück’s work, the poetry 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 (1998), 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.” Commenting on the link between Glück’s work and the narrative of Homer, Leslie Ullman added in Poetry that the dynamic of Meadowlands is “played out through poems that speak through or about principle characters in The Odyssey, and it is echoed in poems that do not attempt to disguise their origins in Glück’s own experience.”

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. James Longenbach, writing in the Southwest Review, noted that “Vita Nova is built around not one but two mythic backbones—the stories of both Dido and Aeneas and of Orpheus and Eurydice.” Longenbach found the central theme of Vita Nova to be the poet’s desire for change, and Glück’s ultimate resolution to involve an embracing of recurrence rather than transcendence. “Having recognized that real freedom exists within repetition rather than in the postulation of some timeless place beyond it,” Longenbach concluded, “Glück now seems content to work within the terms of her art…The result is a book suggesting that Glück’s poetry has many more lives to live.”

Echoing Longenbach in a review of Glück’s next collection, The Seven Ages (2001), for 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, 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 his review for Tower Poetry, Stephen Burt described Glück’s “bracing transitions and her scary omissions, her sudden claims and terse rejoinders,” adding that “she has rejected most of the effects by which other poets depict life’s attractions, or its distractions.” In the New York Times, Nicholas Christopher also 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 A Village Life (2009), Glück’s twelfth book, “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.” For Goodyear, the collection demonstrated how “Glück is a master, finely calibrating the shocks and their intervals… Glück camouflages herself in language so plain it’s almost banal; then she shows her teeth.” Goodyear added: “Ordinariness is part of the risk of these poems; in them, Glück hazards, and dodges, sentimentality. The near miss makes us shiver.”

In 2003 Glück was named the twelfth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Library of Congress. 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.