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Louise Glück's Quiet Affirmations of Life

by Anwesha Dutta

With the banality of evil around us, the mournability of some deaths take priority in our minds over others. Against such nihilistic closing of our hearts, if there was one poet who embodied the urgency of perceiving such routineness to invite in it a radical crack, it was the poet Louise Glück, who died on October 13, 2023.

Photo: Gerard Malanga
Photo: Gerard Malanga

The first poem I'd read of hers was perhaps “Telemachus' Detachment” because I remember placing it in my mental drawer of tiny poems that made me shudder with recognition, like W.S. Merwin’s “Separation” and Mary Ruefle’s “Deconstruction”. The poem is a part of her 1997 collection Meadowlands which ushered her indelible style to dive into mythology but even without that contextual knowledge, it exudes a vein of truth which was her signature style throughout. Just a glance at another poem from the same collection, "Anniversary", where she writes, “I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean / your cold feet all over my dick,” reveals how unprecious she was about her dispositions which had the potential to become aphoristic. The remembrances I’ve read in the last few days from her friends and students all stressed on a few of her consistent qualities that I noticed across relationships - her steadfastness, her generosity, and her allegiances. She was known for writing with austerity about the variety of negative affects and moods that shaped her poetic voice, but what I’m most drawn to in her work is the way she had the unrelenting capacity to transform seeming cliché into beauty. Not only was she interested in excavating her desires to ground the human body in the verse, but she did it with a moral clarity in order to deeply engage with the emotional lives of the people in the world of her poems. Her poems take you to another place only to bring you closer to yourself - “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.”

I have always loved poetry that is conversational, which is why I’m so drawn to contemporary poetry that eschews a more context-dependent approach to meaning and derives its potency from an intimate, affective relationship either with the imagined reader or with the immediate subject of the poem itself. This is why some of my favourite poets are ones that are unabashed, intense and kinetic, where I can feel a real person behind their composition, almost catching them in their private, often humiliating, act of writing, and for a purpose - be it aesthetic, emotional or political - poets like Frank O'Hara, Diane Di Prima, Ross Gay, Eunice De Souza, Hera Lindsay Bird, David Berman et al. These are the kinds of poets whose work feels so resonant to my inner life that I sometimes imagine to have written their poems myself. The urge to imagine yourself as the writer of the poems you read is not just a rare event among a spattering of readers but really a canonized emotion. Longinius had even included it in his demands from great writing, that reading it one might be “filled with a proud exaltation and a vaunting joy, just as though we ourselves had produced what we heard.”

“Matins V” is undoubtedly one of my absolute favourite poems from Louise, one that can bring me to my knees if I read it when I’m especially desperate for a moment of solace. It epitomizes many of her thematic and stylistic priorities and turns them into a prayer, a divine askance. Out of the seven poems in the series titled “Matins” in her Pulitzer-winning collection The Wild Iris, I don’t think anything captures my attitude towards the existential burden of the quotidian than when she says “I'm looking for courage, for some evidence/my life will change, though/it takes forever.” Poetry that unmoors me like this often refuses to be grasped in words I try to describe it with later, which is why my reach towards meaning here keeps faltering, but if I’ve learnt anything from her, it is that reaching towards a finite quantification of knowledge will always prove evasive, because as she articulates in her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”, “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know.” Maybe if you try to find a linear atmospheric coherence from her poems, you won’t find one, because they derive their meaning from their spatial and temporal totality. The first and last lines often work in conjunction to furnish what the poem is trying to point at, and the centrality of its meaning is this very simultaneity. This is especially well illustrated in a poem like “Moonless Night” which begins with the astute lines “A lady weeps at a dark window. / Must we say what it is? Can’t we simply say / a personal matter?” and nears the end suddenly professing, as if by mistake, “Such a mistake to want / clarity above all things.” This, again, betrays a reluctance to come to a tidy, conclusive significance that one can draw from events, as tempting as they are. Such a mistake, indeed, to want clarity above all things.

There was a viral debate a few weeks ago on social media about whether analysing poetry in a ‘literary’ fashion, i.e. a close reading of poetry, takes the magic or joy out of them for people, especially children in schools, or whether a knowledge of context, language, metre, history et al deepens our appreciation of it. In the first insistence, there is a primacy given, in contemporary parlance, to a “vibe” based reading of poems instead of a more “difficult” approach from literary devices, being deemed elite. I think such interactions or instances of such conversations happening online are a delightful affair to be a witness of and crucial, too, in understanding the evolution of approaches to literature from the children, parents and really, everyone else around us, inside or outside the so-called “literary community”. My preference falls somewhere in the middle depending on the kind of day I’m having but I do think there is merit to the hesitation that people have about incorporating additional elements into a medium of literature that is already difficult to comprehend to begin with, especially considering the shortening of attention spans of both children and adults and the implications of centering our ease in all aspects of life. Foregoing the anchors of history and thrusting our immediate knowledge as superior is already showing its cultural impact in the kinds of information we have access to and pursue most readily. However, poetry has a strange, singular and intractable relationship to the readers it pursues in the space it creates between composition and reception, and Louis Glück had an absolute and unembellished control over an articulation of an ever-expanding interiority that was capaciously interested in gaining universality through exacting specificity. To conclude, I am a believer of the Joan Didion quote where she had unerringly proclaimed how we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and to me, those indeed are the narratives that more or less complicitly constitute our selfhood. Glück’s oeuvre, too, is an affirmation of these personal, intimate stories that we tell ourselves and that creates bridges between a self inside and the world outside - “the answer/depends on the story.” As she also fittingly concludes her 2020 Nobel lecture, she attests: “I believe that in awarding me this prize, the Swedish Academy is choosing to honor the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace.”


About the Writer:

Anwesha Dutta is a writer and researcher. She is interested in articulating the subtle gaps at the intersection of culture, literature, and interpersonal relationships to make the world a place of nuance, justice, and equity.


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