Glück, Louise (Elisabeth)

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GLÜCK, Louise (Elisabeth)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 22 April 1943. Education: Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1962; Columbia University, New York, 1963–65. Family: Married 1) Charles Hertz, Jr., in 1967 (divorced); 2) John Dranow in 1977 (divorced), one son. Career: Taught at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1971–72, 1973–74, 1976–80, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1973, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1973, University of Iowa, Iowa City, University of Cincinnati, 1978, Columbia University, 1979, Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, North Carolina, 1978–80, University of California at Berkeley, 1982, at Davis, 1983, and at Irvine, 1984. Scott Professor of poetry, 1993, and since 1984 member of the faculty, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Regents Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1985–87; visiting professor, Harvard University, 1995; Hurst Professor of Poetry, Brandeis University, 1996. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1966; Rockefeller fellowship, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, 1979; fellow-ship, 1988–89; Eunice Tietjens memorial prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1971; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; 1987–88; American Academy award, 1981; National Book Critics Circle prize, 1985; Melville Cane award, 1986; Sara Teasdale memorial prize, 1986; Phi Beta Kappa Poet, Harvard University, 1990; Bobbitt National prize (with Mark Strand), Library of Congress, 1992; Pulitzer prize, 1993; William Carlos Williams award, 1993; poet laureate of Vermont, 1994; PEN/ Martha Albrand award for nonfiction, 1995. Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993. Honorary D.Litt.: Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1993; Skidmore College, 1995; Middlebury College, 1996. Address: Creamery Road, Plainfield, Vermont 05667, U.S.A.



Firstborn. New York, New American Library, 1968; London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1969.

The House on Marshland. New York, Ecco Press, 1975; London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1976.

The Garden. New York, Antaeus, 1976.

Descending Figure. New York, Ecco Press, 1980.

The Triumph of Achilles. New York, Ecco Press, 1985.

Ararat. New York, Ecco Press, 1990.

The Wild Iris. New York, Ecco Press, 1992.

The First Four Books of Poems. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1995.

The First Five Books of Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.

Meadowlands. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996; Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

Vita Nova. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.


Editor, The Best American Poetry 1993, with David Lehman. New York, Collier Books, 1993.

Editor, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. New York, Ecco Press, 1994; Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.


Critical Studies: By Calvin Bedient, in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), winter 1976, and in Parnassus (New York), spring-summer 1981; Joan Hutton Landis, in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), winter 1977; Helen Vendler in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 17 June 1978; "The Poetry of Louise Glück" by Burton Raffel, in The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing (Madison, New Jersey), 31(3), spring 1988; "'Free/of Blossom and Subterfuge': Louise Glück and the Language of Renunciation" by Lynn Keller, in World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets," edited by Leonard M. Trawick, Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1990; "The 'Harsher Figure' of Descending Figure: Louise Glück's 'Dive into the Wreck'" by Laurie E. George, in Women's Studies, 17(3/4), 1990; The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück by Elizabeth Caroline Dodd, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1992; "'It Meant I Loved': Louise Glück's Ararat" by Eric Selinger, in Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism (Cary, North Carolina), 3(3), May 1993; "Without Relation: Family and Freedom in the Poetry of Louise Glück" by Suzanne Matson, in Mid-American Review (Bowling Green, Ohio), 14(2), 1994; "The Problem of Sincerity: The Lyric Plain Style of George Herbert and Louise Glück" by Ann Townsend, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 46(4), winter 1996; The Love of Form Is a Love of Endings: Poetic Hunger and the Aesthetic Body in Louise Glück (dissertation) by Melissa Lee Brown, University of Iowa, 1997; "Between Truth and Meaning" by Allen Hoey, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 26(1), January-February 1997.

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Louise Glück's first volume, Firstborn, does not lack for influences, as discerning critics have been quick to remark. Most obvious are the traces of Stanley Kunitz, with whom she studied at Columbia University, and of early Robert Lowell. There are also indications that she has looked to Plath and Sexton, Crane, Jarrell, and Dugan. "My Life before Dawn," with its emphasis on sexual violence and male mental cruelty, may well represent such influences. The poem begins,

   Sometimes at night I think of how we did
   It, me nailed to her like steel, her
   Over-eager on the striped contour
   Sheet (I later burned it) and she makes me glad
   I told her—in the kitchen cutting bread—
   She always did too much—I told her Sorry baby
   you have had
   Your share (I found her stain had dried into my hair).

There already is a subtle command of a basically five-beat line, of slant rhyme, of a character sharply conceived and convincingly rendered.

One experiences a great leap, however, with the collection that comes seven years later, for The House on Marshland is decisively Glück's own. Its pervasive theme is loss, and the obsessive feeling is pain in relationships with men. The triumphant achievement is the balancing of an almost bitter attitude with an undeterred hopefulness. Most of the poems are in the confessional tradition, though there is no reason to assume that they are autobiographical. Paradoxically, Glück, like Tennyson and others, writes most powerfully when she turns away from presumably private or personally apprehended experience. The less personal the experience, the more intense is the feeling with which the expression is charged. "All Hallows" seems to derive from a landscape painting, with a scene of "barrenness / of harvest or pestilence" pointing to a wife leaning out of a window. Amid all this barrenness can she be fertile? "Brennende Liebe-1904" is a poetized love letter from an aristocratic woman in which the mood of longing is elegantly conveyed. If the supposed writer was an ancestor, one can understand why Glück has retained the umlaut in her name.

The most psychologically penetrating poem is "Abishag." The account in 1 Kings of the young woman taken to King David's bed is told from David's perspective, as are treatments by Rilke, the Hebrew Fichman, and the French Spire. Glück, however, offers Abishag's voice and perspective in a dreamlike recollection. Only a single mark of punctuation impedes the flow of the opening stanza, but the concluding stanza of the first section is firmly end-stopped, staccato, and bitter:

   They took me as I was.
   Not one among the kinsmen touched me,
   No one among the slaves.
   No one will touch me now.

Abishag has a classical Electra fantasy. She rages at her father for letting her be taken by someone other than himself.

The final section deserves quotation in full:

   In the recurring dream my father
   stands at the doorway in his black cassock
   telling me to choose
   among my suitors, each of whom
   will speak my name once
   until I lift my hand in signal.
   On my father's arm I listen
   for not three sounds: Abishag.
   but two: my love-
   I tell you if it is my own will
   binding me I cannot be saved.
   And yet in the dream, in the half-light
   of the stone house, they looked
   so much alike. Sometimes I think
   the voices were themselves
   identical, and that I raised my hand
   chiefly in weariness. I hear my father saying
   Choose, choose. But they were not alike
   and to select death, O yes I can
   believe that of my body.

Rage at her father has become hatred of self for feeling that she has been used.

In The Garden Glück seems to be signaling a new phase. As she has written, "The impulse to write is usually spent in a brief lyric." (The forty-nine lines of "Abishag" make it by far the longest poem in The House on Marshland.) Consisting of five almost independent lyrics about fear, The Garden is a coherent, powerful whole, perhaps Glück's highest achievement.

Descending Figure reminds one in its title of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, for it, too, takes descents as a subject. Beginning with the first section, "The Garden," it gives us the conversationally triumphant "The Drowned Children" and then proceeds to incorporate the previous book. "Descending Figure" is a child's view, in three parts, of a dead sister—a figure descending, a sick child in a painting in the Rijksmuseum, and the speaker's dead sister. Collectively, the three lyrics deal vividly with the fear of death. The second part of Descending Figure, "The Mirror," begins with "Epithalamium," a lyric ode to a bride and bridegroom that suggests an end to descending

   the terrible charity of marriage
   husband and wife
   climbing the green hill in gold light
   —and then refutes the suggestion.

Descending Figure has as its final sequence "Lamentations," reminding us of the biblical book. The five chapters of the Old Testament book are a lamentation for Jerusalem, like a widow bitterly mourning loss. Glück's poem, however, has four parts: "The Logos," "Nocturne," "The Covenant," and "The Clearing." "The Logos" speaks of the Creation, God's withdrawal from the universe, and man and woman alone. "Nocturne" details God's abandonment of the vegetable, animal, and human. "The Covenant" describes parenthood. "The Clearing" presents the evolution of beauty as "seen from the air," that is, distantly.

Glück's poetry is intimate, familial, and what Edwin Muir has called the fable, the archetypal. She often goes to the source of things—to the Old Testament, as in "Abishag" and in "Lamentations," or to Greek myth as in "Aphrodite" and "The Triumph of Achilles." This last, the title poem of a volume, moves from fable to story, for the great hero becomes humanized in lamenting the death of his friend Patroclus.

In The Triumph of Achilles Glück sticks with her perennial subject, that of human loss, but she experiments with new types of poems, from narratives and extended, mixed sequences to songs and orientalist attempts at capturing the immediate. "Mock Orange," the severe, often anthologized poem that initiates the collection, is spare, intense, and nonnegotiable in its stance:

   It is not the moon, I tell you.
   It is these flowers
   lighting the yard.
   I hate them.
   I hate them as I hate sex,
   the man's mouth sealing my mouth, the man's
   paralyzing body—
   and the cry that always escapes,
   the low, humiliating
   premise of union-

Erotic life has long been one of Glück's obsessions. "Marathon," a group of nine poems tracing the phases of erotic life, works as a long-lined song, gaining in lucidity as it proceeds. Although she maintains her mistrust of simple transcendence, the sequence looks closely at the legitimate ecstasies sex can provide. For Glück desire ultimately renders one isolated as much as, if not more than, it unifies one with another. In "Night Song" she states, "the bond with any one soul / is meaningless; you throw it away." The Triumph of Achilles is the great range of characters, stances, and worlds collected in it.

Ararat is the twin-peaked mountain in present-day Turkey that was the biblical site of Noah's landing of the ark. In titling her 1990 collection Ararat, Glück uses the reference to the biblical myth to illustrate the great human subjects that all art must touch on, what Glück calls "time which breeds loss, desire, the world's beauty." Not as prophetic and solemn as her previous work, the poems in Ararat

work in a lighter, more popularly accessible style that attempts to flesh out experience almost as prose would. Although the book tells the story of a family's dissolution, it situates it in recognizably Glückian mythic terms. In "A Novel" she writes,

   No one could write a novel about
    this family:
   too many similar characters. Besides,
    they're all women;
   there was only one hero.
   Now the hero's dead. Like echoes,
    the women last longer;
   they're all too tough for their own good.

The poems in Ararat address a father's death, the widow's resulting crises, and the dilemmas between sisters. The poems seem to foresee, in their own way, the poems in the later collection Meadowlands, which gives voice to both members of a marriage locked in its own patterns of quarrel and worry. A once precious intimacy erodes between the man and woman as they discover the degree to which they "flew under different banners," as Glück says of a male and female swan in "Parable of the Swans." Not as mythic as her previous works, Meadowlands works in a tragicomic, highly personal style and ultimately suggests that the unforeseeable and unsympathetic forces of change are as great as the forces that drive one to austere, anorexic solitude.

When single life begins to bring a newness after a marriage has dissolved, it has, for Glück, another and profound mythic resonance. In Vita Nova two poems, both titled "Vita Nova," frame the collection. One is spoken by Persephone, and the other is an ironized treatment of a dream, a divorce, and a dog by the name of Blizzard: "Blizzard / Daddy needs you / … the kind of love he wants Mommy / doesn't have, Mommy's / too ironic—Mommy wouldn't do / the rhumba in the driveway." The myth of Orpheus, the substance of dreams, and the shards of memory are the material for these poems, and they proceed with Glück's raw, highly crafted, careful, remarkably self-knowing style: "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."

—James K. Robinson and

Martha Sutro