While I have been convalescing from a flu virus, I’ve spent the last week reading. I finished Louise Glűck’s “Poems 1962-2012” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012) – a most rewarding and deeply moving book. I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her spare, honed style, her precision with language, the ever-present, needling emotional trouble with which she imbues her poems have always won me over. Her poems are clean and swift, except for the longer form she uses in her 2006 volume, Averno, which is my least favourite of her books because it seems to lack the intensity of the others. Her work penetratingly explores layers of emotional and psychic life. She holds her gaze steady, never flinching from the pain or discomfort. No emotional material seems out-of-bounds. In this regard she is very similar to Sharon Olds, though Glűck is more interested in symbol and mythology and the work is more emotionally severe and abstracted through emblems and story. Of course, one should never assume that the speaker in the poems is Glűck herself, but her speakers do have the ability cut right to the bone. Here is her poem, “Mock Orange” which has always been one of my favourites:
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
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union–
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. So you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
You can see how searing, brutal and honest the feelings are. Glűck is also an exponent of the question. You can see the questions in the penultimate and last stanzas of “Mock Orange”. I love the use of questions in poems, though I know I don’t employ them enough in my own writing. I will aim to improve on this.
Questions are great tools for shifting tone, voice, perspective and for drawing the reader into an intimacy with the speaker. They are like nodes which allow for openings and possibilities, points of intersection between speaker and reader. They are so prevalent in Gluck’s poems because her speakers are constantly probing and interrogating themselves, their circumstances and situations, and the uncertainties they are faced with. Glűck often opens a poem with a question, or ends a poem with a question. Here’s the beginning of “Copper Beech”: “Why is the earth angry at heaven?/ If there’s a question, is there an answer?” There is the expectation that the questions will somehow be answered by the poems – or perhaps not, leaving the reader still guessing, the question still resonating. Glűck does both – sometimes she provides answers, sometimes she doesn’t, but you always get the feeling there is an intense and important dialogue going on.
As well as Glűck’s collected poems, I also read The Open Door: 100 Poems 100 years of Poetry Magazine, edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman (The University of Chicago Press). Curiously enough there is no Louise Glűck in the anthology, but it is an enjoyable volume of 100 poems selected from the 40,000 that have been published in the magazines’ 100 year history. Not all the names were familiar to me and they provided some wonderful surprises. However, my favourite poems in the volume are mostly by well-known poets: “The Hereafter” by August Kleinzahler; Charles Wright’s “Bedtime Story”; Josephine Miles’s “The Hampton Institute Album”; Stevens’s delightful “Tea at the Palace of Hoon”; Louise Bogan’s “Night”; Thomas Sayers Ellis’s remarkable “Or,”; Frederick Seidel’s “Mu’allaqa”; Anne Stevenson’s brilliant “Inheriting My Grandmother’s Nightmare”; H.D’s “His Presence”; Don Paterson’s absolutely chilling “The Lie”; A.R. Ammons’s “Gravelly Run”; one of my all time favourite poems, “The Widow’s Yard” by Isabella Gardner, and Yeats’ delightful “The Fisherman”. Other readers will, of course, have their own favourites. There is a superb introduction by the editors. Here is one of their thoughts I particularly liked:
“And poetry, which is a kind of quantum entanglement in language, is not simply a way of helping us to recognize the relations we have with people and places but a means of preserving and protecting those relations. For many people, true, poetry will remain remote, inaccessible…. but who knows by what unconscious routes poetry is reaching into lives that seem to have nothing to do with it? Who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being – shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what – back to them?” (page 4). Whether this is true or not I have no idea, but it’s an enabling and encouraging idea.
One of the things I found irritating about the anthology (apart from the fact that the poets are all either British or American) is the inclusion of quotations selected from the “Comment” section of Poetry. While some of these are memorable, such as this from W.S. Di Piero, “Good descriptive poems are like perfumes made tactile” – others seems silly or a little ill-conceived. This comment from Michael Hofmann from September 2005 I found very puzzling, “I, too, dislike it,” are the immortal beginning words of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”, and they seem to me to be the only possible credentials for a poet and a reader of poetry. I sometimes wonder if there are any poets who “like” it, and whether I would like them.” Surely he can’t really mean it? And I’ve never really understood why Marianne Moore said that about poetry in the first place. If anyone has any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.