Louise Glück and the Aspiration of Poetry


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

Related Post Roulette

20 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I’m realizing, after reading this, that I have always known of what you speak in my heart, without ever thinking about it with my head. I’ve never liked poetry anthologies, even those that act as Greatest Hits albums for a single poet. I’ve never really thought about this avoidance before, it’s just kind been there.

    All of which is to say that this post really spoke to me.Report

    • I think it depends on the poems. An Elizabethan sonnet cycle clearly cries out to be kept intact. So too does Leaves of Grass. But I’m not sold on the idea that every poetry collection is a similarly unified whole, artfully crafted. Many come across more as the stack of poems not yet published in a book reached a certain height, so it is time to ship them off to the publisher. This is not–or at least need not–be a criticism. Quite the contrary. It is to say that the individual poems stand on their own, not needing the context of being surrounded by other poems by the same poet and in a certain order.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Leaves of Grass was shredded so many times, it’s no longer one entity, but several, like pages in a flipbook, each one slightly different than the next.Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        I think that’s a very true point. Part of it, frankly, is simply the arrangement: a poem a page is a very different experience than as-many-as-you-can-fit. And this, honestly, holds for the various, typically well-edited, “Collected Works of X, Y, or Z” volumes that make up most of my poetry shelves.

        I mostly just find that I have to remind myself that the anthology isn’t the original environment of (most? all?) the poems in them.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I am a fan of Glück.

    My guesses are that the number one is the original poem from the first group and that the number one from the second group was originally prose.

    When I read the group of the first examples, “More like a moan or cry” is something that feels like poetry while the other examples are just absurd enough to stand on their own within a paragraph of its own.

    When I read the second ones, “I now realized, with the scent of roses—doucer de vivre filling the air, the sweetness of living, as the saying goes” is how a poet would talk if a poet was asked to talk. The fortune teller and the ruler of a divided country is something that a poet would try to put into a poem. Especially that last line.

    And those justifications could probably be flipped to explain why, no, that’s exactly why my guesses were wrong.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Jaybird says:

      I also like Gluck. I think she’s the best there is at what she does. Does it make any sense if I say that she perceives more intelligently than most contemporary poets?

      These thoughts mostly came out of the realization that while the poems in FAITHFUL AND VIRTUOUS NIGHT are lovely things, I couldn’t quite single out any one that stood out significantly — which led me to think about how they were doing what they were doing. And, I think, that’s telling variants of the same story over and over and over — not as a progression; just as variants, each capturing something different.

      Which, combined with how close the “verse” poems felt to the “prose” poems in their form, made me wonder just what genre/form I’d be inclined to group these with.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        I’m stuck using emotional language rather than analytic but the differences feel to me to be the difference between painting a picture with words and trying to tell a story.

        Painting a picture is poetry. Telling a story would be prose.

        And, of course, this ain’t binary. It can flow and wish and wash together.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’ve little ability to tease out meter and spacing from written text, and free verse breaks all that down anyway, so I’m at a complete loss to play this game. For instance, in high school when we did the read-Shakespeare-out-loud thing, I always mangled the readings by pausing in the wrong spots except when the thought happened to conclude right at the end of the fifth iamb and ol’ Bill seemed to me like he was perfectly read to cut a sentence off in the middle of a line if that’s what he wanted to do:

    I have no way and therefore want no eyes
    I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
    our means secure us, and our mere defects
    prove our commodities.

    Do I pause after reciting “eyes”? Or is “I stumbled when I saw” part of the sentence bleeding over? Could go either way and just reading it doesn’t really give me any clues or directions. Worse, I know that Elizabethian-Jacobean era English wasn’t exactly precise when it came to things like spelling and punctuation so the absence of a punctuation mark at the end of that first line is hardly dispositive. And still worse, to modern ears, there are subtle differences of inflection and emphasis between:

    I have no way and therefore want no eyes, I stumbled when I saw.


    I have no way, and therefore want no eyes, I stumbled when I saw.


    I have no way and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw.


    I have no way, and therefore want no eyes. I stumbled when I saw.

    Yes, the big picture is the same all four ways, there’s ways to deliver each that put the emphasis variously on 1) Lear’s despair over not knowing how to proceed, 2) Lear’s disregard of his own blindness, and 3) Lear’s regret over his past mistakes. But to my modern ears,

    I have no way and therefore want no eyes I stumbled when I saw.

    is the monotone rant of a crazy man that takes up verbiage but doesn’t communicate anything meaningful. Lear is many things, and while crazed (more like enraged and frustrated, for I don’t think he is ever truly insane) may be one of them, he’s definitely got something to say.

    All of which is to say, looking at Glück’s work and saying that it’s really prose or trying to figure out when line breaks ought to show up in poetry is a task well beyond my abilities and it’s not for having never wrestled with it before.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Ah, the beauty of a cryptic work with many readings.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Shakespeare is great. He’s so great that he’s even the Shakespeare of the Zulu, so they say. But sometimes I really wonder whether we’re teaching poetry (or Shakespeare!) correctly by starting with him (or putting him near the start — being the “sane” followup to Poe doesn’t help much here).

      Maybe this isn’t what you were talking about, but I don’t know that using Shakespeare to teach people to read poetry initially is the best of ideas. Though I don’t have a really good suggestion for who comes first. Just probably not Poe.

      Of course, I loved reading Poe in middle school. It’s just that everyone else thought he was BATSHIT INSANE. (Which is probably not wrong.) And I was the only one I know of from my 6th-grade English class who went on to really love poetry. So clearly, there’s both correlation and causation there.Report

  4. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    The one guess for which I felt some confidence, approaching certainty, was #2 from the first group.

    I was renting, at the time, a house in the country.
    Fields and mountains had replaced tall buildings.
    Fields, cows, sunsets over the damp meadow.
    Night and day distinguished by rotating birdcalls,
    the busy murmurs and rustlings merging into
    something akin to silence.

    The first four lines unfold as a series of images of heightening intensity, with the fourth spilling into an extended description that climaxes in a reversal or erasure of what has come before. In addition, line 3 and lines 4-6 are sentence fragments. If all six lines were folded into a paragraph without line breaks, I would still be comfortable in describing the sequence as prose poetic – thus my relative certitude. You could tell me it was “really” prose – you’d tricked me – and I could still argue for its poetic qualities undeterred.

    The line breaks create a set of breaths or steps culminating in an extended breath, or a run and leap. Each line is also a triadic expression, if not in strict counts of syllable and accent, then by natural pauses aligned with sense and grammar. So, if I were reciting the lines, I would be attending the following additional breaks – indicated by /’s – if not necessarily emphasizing them all equally.

    I was renting, /at the time, /a house in the country.
    Fields and mountains/ had replaced/ tall buildings.
    Fields, cows,/ sunsets / over the damp meadow.
    Night and day/ distinguished /by rotating birdcalls,
    the busy murmurs/ and rustlings/ merging into
    something/ akin to/ silence

    In another lifetime I happened to attend a reading by Glueck. She was the undercard for John Ashbery, and both gave renditions that were quite flat for my tastes at the time, but it’s a style that over the years I have come to appreciate more – and much prefer to the tedious lilt affected by so many poets in performance.

    As for the other examples, they are all written in standard if at times less then elegant prose – that is, in whole sentences. To judge whether the only other example originally laid out “like a poem” deserved to be, or whether there was an aesthetic argument for laying it out that way, I’d have to see the original breaks, and possibly the whole poem.

    I don’t have anything against anthologies. The classic lyric stands alone, primarily, however handed down to us.Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    I like poetry anthologies, but I don’t tend to buy ones by a single artist.
    The sweeps and swoops from one style to another are fun.
    I like them better than a single poem presented by itself, mostly.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Kim says:

      The most “important” books of poetry I bought when I was a teenager were all well-curated selections from 5-10 poets. So I could read through one and get a decent sense of hte poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, or another and know the major works of British Romanticism. And those, I’ve always liked more than the heavy anthologies.

      And those sweeps and swoops–they definitely lend themselves to letting you notice what you might not have otherwise. Sometimes the juxtapositions are delightful, or weird, or delightfully weird.Report