A High Keening

Poems 1962-2012by Louise Glück

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 656p $40

Louise Glück has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Rebekah Johnson Bobbit National Prize, the Bollingen Award, the William Carlos Williams Award and the Melville Kain Award. She has served twice as the poet laureate of the United States and for a decade as the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets; she is also chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her first four books of poems have already been republished in a single volume. And now we have her Poems 1962-2012, which brings together all 11 previous books. Let’s call it an übercollection.

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Seldom does a poet have to bear the weight of so many laurels. In fact, she must be far sturdier than the self-portrait her poetry suggests: reclusive, even isolate, more highly strung than other poets, more dedicated to her art, gladder to suffer for it. Like John Keats, she is “half in love with easeful death.”

The poems, often characterized as confessional, speak of despair, heartache and mourning; and she shares this territory of funk and angst with Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Theodore Roethke. Yet Glück shies from exposing autobiographical details. Where Plath’s poems are clinically precise, Glück’s are deliberately diffused. Similarly, she makes a strategic choice to limit her working vocabulary. Vague words like very, light, bright, shimmering, shining, dark, fields, cold, terrible throw a veil over the poems, allowing a reader to feel that the poet is as ordinary as anyone, while the poems themselves declare she is not. Her poems, then, are not so much confessional as they are myth-making. The voice is exhausted, but for that reason it effectively underlines the disparity she perceives between body and soul and evokes her longing for death. The myth is that she is a martyr to high art, married to it as none other is.

Although she has been called a poet of ideas, what she writes about most are her feelings. As it happens, her feelings are interesting, attuned to delicate delineations among sounded notes. These poems are built on rhythm and repetition. Lines are repeated within a poem and then within other poems. Titles of poems are repeated within a single collection and then within other collections. For the most part, declarative sentences move the poems along. Gluck also gets a lot of mileage from questions, which are often repeated, and answers that seem to move deeper as the questions persist, as if an interrogation is uncovering secrets. Glück is intelligent, and often her lines are striking. The repetitions create an incantation and then the echo of the incantation. She owns the energy of her resistance to the “objective” world, which sets up something of a paradox a critic might like to explore. (Can one resist the real world while remaining passive?) The reader, hypnotized by the repetition, enters a reverie, experiencing the poet’s poem even as the poem wends its way toward its end, which can be quiet or shocking, filled with possibility or slamming the door on possibility.

My favorite collection-within-the-collection is Averno, which plays on the mythical entry to the underworld near Averno, Italy. In these longish (but not long) poems, her repetitions have more room to work, and the sense of being below the upper world is remarkable, a vivid reminder of death’s centrality in life.

Nevertheless, a reader may rebel against the notion that death is peace. Death is not a single night’s sleep.

It is not Gluck’s fault that I read her Poems 1962-2012 while the tragedies in Newtown, Conn., unfolded in the news, but it is memorably agonizing to read about anybody’s love affair with death at a time when children and teachers were mowed down by means of a semi-automatic assault weapon. Fortunately, her best work is smart, graceful, clever and lovely.

The Plathian connection is clear from the first book, titled Firstborn. A short love lyric, “Early December in Croton-on-Hudson,” describes the “bone dice/ Of blown gravel clicking. Bone-/ pale, the recent snow/ Fastens like fur to the river.” Firstborn made its first appearance in 1968, only five years after the literary world was shaken by Plath’s suicide. There were, I imagine, few women poets writing then who were not propelled into poetry by the news. But there are also echoes of T. S. Eliot, in “Cottonmouth Country,” in which “there were other signs/ That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us/ By land....” Her second collection, The House on Marshland, which is somewhat lighter than Firstborn, includes her excellent short poem about Jeanne d’Arc and the beautiful and romantic poem “Brennende Liebe” (“Burning Desire”).

One of the luxuries of reading a volume like this is that one can choose favorite books; Glück’s productivity has generously made it possible for us to do this, and The House on Marshland is on my list with Averno. The Triumph of Achilles includes several poems worth rereading repeatedly. Ararat is the collection in which a Freudian view of family is most plainly assumed. Meadowlands is ingeniously braided from Homer’s Odyssey and Bellini’s opera Norma; here, a marriage is in a death spiral. Vita Nova continues that story. A reader’s response to The Wild Iris, for which the author received the Pulitzer, will hinge on whether the reader can accept the conceit of talking flowers. The most recent entry is A Village Life. Perhaps my favorite poem among all those collected here is “Fugue,” in Averno. Although it returns to the myth of the wounded poet-priestess, there is wit here, and more intelligence, and complaint becomes a high keening that seems to arise from the very earth to pierce even the by-now familiar tropes as the poem closes:

I know what you want—

you want Orpheus, you want
death.

Orpheus who said “Help me find
Eurydice.”

Then the music began, the lament
of the soul

watching the body vanish.

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