Louise Gluck: I have survived my life

Following the award of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature to the American poet, Louise Gluck, Belinda Cooke explores her early work which is conveniently gathered together in Carcanet’s  The First Five Books (1997).

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Louise Glück (b. April 22, 1943) is an American poet and essayist. She won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, whose judges praised ‘her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal’. Her other awards include the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Bollingen Prize. From 2003 to 2004, she was Poet Laureate of the United States.

Glück was born in New York City and raised on Long Island. She began to suffer from anorexia nervosa while in high school and later overcame the illness. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University but did not obtain a degree. In addition to being an author, she has taught poetry at several academic institutions. Glück is also an adjunct professor and Rosenkranz Writer in Residence at Yale University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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ReviewLinks to poems

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The First Five Books by Louise Glück. £18.95. Carcanet. 978-157543124.

Subsequent to David Pelzer’s spawning of the ‘misery memoir’ with A Child Called It, only Andrew Collins’ Where Did It All Go Right? Growing up Normal in the 70s, saved us all from thinking we lacked the credentials for a literary career. No question – bleak can pack a poetic punch. But only if it’s good. Enter 2020 Nobel Prize winner, Louse Glück, up there with Plath in evidencing how, to quote Larkin’s famous maxim: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ Depicting family situations comparable to Sartre’s Huis Clos, where ‘hell is other people’, she does not, like Shakespeare in Macbeth, bring in the porter as light relief in the midst of familial slaughter.

Glück’s brilliantly dark line on her grandmother, ‘I have survived my life’ (‘Grandmother in the Garden’) is equally applicable to herself, and makes her the ideal  Capra-esque stand-in to give us the ‘wonderful life’ Plath might have had. Similarities abound: difficulties with her mother, issues with mental health, motherhood and marriage breakup – all of which lead to a kind of poetry that might be defined as ‘confessional’. In Glück’s case, her mother’s loss of a first child led to Gluck, her second, being neglected and, subsequently, triggered rivalry between her and the other remaining sister, while their father was absent in some nebulous elsewhere. The result of this toxic mélange was a deep sense of alienation and years of battling anorexia.

However, after her divorce, Gluck’s second marriage and her glittering career as a poet and academic  steered her to calmer, albeit more cynical, waters, as she committed herself to artistic expression and a thought-provoking personal poetic (see Proofs and Theories, 1994). In spite of continuing difficulties – loss of all her possessions in a house fire, and the end of her second, 19-year, marriage – her poetry continues to evolve in myriad ways, with increasingly nuanced language assisting her perennial exploration of the human condition. Yet, in spite of all of this, in the fifth book, Ararat, she still struggles for closure, where lines like this abound: ‘That’s why I’m not to be trusted / Because a wound to the heart / is also a / wound to the mind’ (‘The Untrustworthy Speaker’).

Plath comparisons aside, her debut collection, First Born (1968), though ostensibly the least personal, has a darkness completely its own. She opens with a desperate family on their uppers in an awful, enforced co-habitation: ‘his barren / Skull across the arm-rest’, ‘And they sat – as though paralysis preceding death / Had nailed them there’ (‘Chicago Train’). We have the stomach-churning description of a woman forced to have an abortion, herself also ambivalent about the unborn:

The thing
Is hatching. Look. The bones
Are bending to give way.
It’s dark. It’s dark.
He’s brought a bowl to catch
The pieces of the baby.

(‘The Egg,111’)

Love itself is paradoxical with marriage and rape verging on the synonymous, her fragmentary style enabling abortion itself to be transformed to a metaphor of a doomed relationship:

That all that flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant
Love, you ever want me, don’t

(‘Hesitate to Call’)

Family traditions become tense, sinister shots from a horror movie: ‘while bits of onion / Misted snow over the pronged death’ (‘Thanksgiving’), and as the subjective gradually begins to surface we see her ‘…at seven learning / Distance at my mother’s knee’ (‘Scraps’). Even, Plath, dark as she is, includes some joyful expressions of motherhood, not to mention some wicked humour, but Glück’s dark goes off the scale without a joke in sight, the entire collection offering up a razor-like tension.

In The House on Marshland (1975) she continues to exorcise family trauma, now more directly, as in this ironically titled family photo: ‘Not one of us does not avert his eyes’ (‘Still Life’). Dramatic monologues are thinly veiled struggles between sibling as in ‘Gretel in Darkness’. Poetry’s often positive tropes: nature, the seasons, love and family, human kindness, religious festivals, are just some kind of plot not to be trusted: ‘It is Spring! We are going to die’ (‘For Jane Myers’); wondrous deer sightings just ‘like dead things, saddled with flesh’ (‘Messengers’); the star of the Magi revealing nothing new; people’s kindness a ploy to make one beholden in ‘Gratitude’. Titles as simple as ‘Poem’, ‘Love poem’ ‘For My Mother’ or ‘To Autumn’ have stings in their tails, often conveyed in killer one-liners: ‘blacker than childhood’ (‘The Pond’)’. Death is seen as preferable. The section ‘The Apple Trees’ moves on to her first marriage breakup: ‘I think now it is better to love no-one / than to love you’ (‘Here Are My Black Clothes’), subject matter that feeds well into her growing skill at anthology-worthy poems such as ‘The Letters’ and ‘Japonica’.

Before structuring each new collection, she reflects very consciously on the one that has preceded it.   For me, Descending Figure (1980) is her most beautifully austere, coldly sad, collection realised through a pared-back and plain, yet  richly associative diction which enables her to universalise her own experiences, as in this heart-breaking poem to her dead sister:

Far away my sister is moving in her crib.
The dead ones are like that,
always the last to quiet.

Because, however long they lie in the earth,
they will not learn to speak
but remain uncertainly pressing against the wooden bars,
so small the leaves hold them down.

(‘Descending Figure 3: For My Sister’)

Though the tone is less strident, her message remains the same: there is something absolute and awful about human relations, though her awareness of this is now less raw, more absorbed into a world-view. Her stylistic shifts, are particularly sharply defined as she moves to the universally lauded The Triumph of Achilles (1985), where she comes closer to prose narrative in places, along with a greater use myth – style and subject matter well-illustrated in this rather strange portrayal of Mary and child of the Nativity story: ‘sitting in perfect composure on the tired animal / as the child stirred, still sealed in its profound attachment –’ (‘Winter Morning’), that ‘profound attachment’ beautifully nuanced to somehow incorporate the potential to suggest Christ might also suffer parental dysfunction as well as the weight of the future task assigned him. Finally, Glück tells us in the introduction that Ararat (1990) is her favourite of the collection, perhaps due to its more directly conversational style and its clear agenda to return to her earlier demons in an attempt to lay them to rest.

Belinda Cooke’s translations include Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov (Kazakh N.T. A., 2018); Forms of Exile: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (The High Window Press, 2019);  Contemporary Kazakh Poetry (C.U.P, 2019). Her own poetry includes Stem (the High Window Press, 2019) and Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists forthcoming (Salmon Poetry).

You can read a selection of Louise Gluck‘s poetry and a more extensive biography by following this link to the  Poetry Foundation website.

4 thoughts on “Louise Gluck: I have survived my life

  1. Dear David, Thank you for posting the review of Louise Gluck. I am at present reading The First Five Books and not quite sure what to make of it so every little helps. Best wishes Kathleen

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. This article has been a help David. I’m not familiar with her early work, so found this very informative. The biographical details were interesting too, although I always have doubts about how far to pursue curiosity about a writer’s life rather than soak up the works for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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