Each year when the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, I like to read the recipient’s work and decide if I concur with the committee’s choice. The year 2020 was no different, so I tackled the 627-page collection, Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012.
I started at the beginning, reading the poems in the order of composition. In this way, I could see her development as a poet over five decades. I was immediately struck by the obscurity and highly personal references that make some of the poems difficult to entirely understand and concluded she most probably belonged to the confessional school of poetry. The titles did not serve to enlighten, although the images and turns of phrase are often striking and unusual. I want to understand how they connect, what it all means. Should I work longer at it to unravel her inner angst? Or am I just too lazy and read on to the next poem, hoping that the pieces of the mosaic will all be illuminated as one brilliant stained-glass window at the end?
As I read, I marked the poems that I thought were outstanding, intending to re-read them to determine if I still felt the same on a second reading. Some passed the test and others did not. More of the later poems passed the test, because they are not as highly personalized as the early ones. Here are some that passed the test: “Widows,” “A Novel,” and “Retreating Light.” The images are concrete and translatable to any reader’s experience. “Parable of Light” is poignant in its explicit comparison of the flight and disappearance of birds to the flight and disappearance of passionate love. Particularly good were her voice poems giving new looks at Odyssey, Penelope, and Telemachus. I feel her writing gains in comprehensibility and expands beyond the pity pot personal school of poetry.
In addition to the personal nature of her subjects, she addresses in many of her poems an unidentified “you” who may be her own psyche, one of her relatives, or lovers. Another characteristic is the posing of questions. In this regard, the poems are a search for answers – answers that may or not be implied, making the poems open-ended enough for the reader to supply his own answer. Her poems, then, are a continual dialogue with self.
She writes prosaic poetry, arranging prose – admittedly beautiful prose – in poetic lines. Not my cup of tea, yet some of the ideas are cogent and startling. For example, “Birthday” is a pretty good description of the teenage years although not poetical. It could have been delivered in one text paragraph. Two pages later, a poem appears that rises above the prosaic – “Ancient Text” – a successful extended metaphor in balanced two-line stanzas.
She and other moderns are writing in a new form – a crossbreed called prose poetry. It is a style out of the mainstream of traditional prosody. I don’t contest its validity and appeal to a wide audience, but my preference remains with formal traditional versification.
Because of her limited range of subjects, the poems grew tiresome to read as I progressed through the collection. I hastened to finish. On page 565, “Noon” is a curious piece, more of a vignette or cameo, not really even a prose poem. On the next page, “Before the Storm” ends with pedestrian lines I’d be embarrassed to have written: The night is an open book/But the world beyond remains a mystery.
So it is that not every poem that a poet writes is a memorable poem. Evaluated as a whole, do I think her work will be read one hundred years from now? Most likely, she will be read as much as John Greenleaf Whittier is today. We know from the record the Nobel Prize committee has not always been accurate in its predictions. I suspect mine will not be either. But for what it’s worth, I found Louise Glück’s collected poems a mixed bag. Some I liked and some left me cold. Nothing unusual about that.
The image of Louise Glück is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1926 and 1977, inclusive, without a copyright notice.