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‘A Major Poet in a Minor Range,’ Michael Robbins Reviews Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012

By Harriet Staff

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Robbins reviews Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012, observing that “Glück is as important and influential a poet as we have in America, a tagline whose strangeness deepens the more one reads her.” And indeed Robbins draws out the strangeness in Glück’s lifework, the good and the bad.

Now that we can read Glück’s poetry as a lifework, both her greatness and her limitation become more evident. Both might be summarized by these lines from The Wild Iris (1992), her most famous and adored collection:

The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me.

These lines, like many in The Wild Iris, are spoken by a flower; nevertheless, someone with a mind has produced them. Glück’s principal weakness — it mars all of her books to some extent — is that she too often allows herself to be so governed by her feelings she forgets she has a mind. If she weren’t aware of this tendency — the lines above prove she is — she’d be insufferable. Instead, she’s a major poet with a minor range. Every poem is The Passion of Louise Glück, starring the grief and suffering of Louise Glück. But someone involved in the production knows how to write very well indeed.

Robbins goes on to note where Glück sits in relation to her poetic siblings and finds that her chair is often misplaced at the confessional poets’ table:

For her sins — the melodrama, the litanies of intimate, first-person life — Glück has often been grouped with the confessional poets. But the best of the latter (Plath, Lowell, Berryman) are word-drunk and always onstage. Their inner lives, their embarrassing personal revelations, are proscenia that enclose a sold-out performance (“The big strip tease,” Plath calls it). Insofar as they seek exculpation, to attain which is the purpose of confession, they do so theatrically: proud, not able truly to repent. But this is not Glück; unlike Plath or Berryman, she depends upon the fiction of privacy. The poems exist within the illusion that their speaker is addressing precisely nobody but herself — and perhaps some flowers. Even in their frequent apostrophe, they seem letters never sent; even God, when he appears, seems to be only a less accessible region of Glück’s psyche. She doesn’t care who, if she cried out, would hear her: “It doesn’t matter / who the witness is, / for whom you are suffering.”

Of course this is a fiction: poems are written to be read by others. But it’s a fiction that sustains the poems’ confined tone, their weirdly detached intimacy. What saves the confessionalists is their care for the words on the page, which in their best poems they place before the funerals in their brains. In this, Glück is like them, but it’s the vocabulary that does the strip tease: “everything is bare.” Even the soggiest early work — before the twin pinnacles of The Wild Iris and Meadowlands (1996) — contains lines that stop you cold in admiring recognition of her right placement of right words. “The moon throbbed in its socket,” she says in “12.6.71,” a poem so bare it can support only a date above it.

Assessing her work Robbins finds Meadowlands to be the achievement of Glück’s career, for both its realism and its comedy, which Robbins notes is often lacking in her other books:

This is a risk only certain poets should take. It pays off for Glück in the merciless, darkly comedic Meadowlands, in which the marriage finally crashes and Homer takes over metaphorical duties from the Yahwist. (Genesis is about exile; The Odyssey is about trying to find your way to a home you no longer recognize.) Glück makes comic verse from the bickering that dominates conversation at the end of a relationship. “Ceremony” begins in the middle of an argument, ostensibly between Glück and her then-husband John, about dinner: “I stopped liking artichokes when I stopped eating / butter. Fennel / I never liked.” The exchange that follows is a small triumph of realism, as one partner’s (presumably the wife’s) responses lag behind the other’s accusations:

One thing I’ve always hated
about you: I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.

Flaubert was crazy: he lived
with his mother.

Living with you is like living
at boarding school:
chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.

I have deep friendships.
I have friendships
with other recluses.

* * *

Another thing: name one other person
who doesn’t have furniture.

We have fish Tuesday
because it’s fresh Tuesday. If I could drive
we could have it different days.

I know of nothing else in contemporary poetry, besides James McMichael’s Each in a Place Apart, that portrays this minutely the inane friction of falling out of love. Much of it is surely invented, but, as Plath says, it feels real.

Robbins covers more territory. Make the jump to read it all.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.