Monday Over Coffee: "Glück"

Published April 1, 2024 by Greg Funderburk

Louise Glück (pronounced glik) was born in New York City in 1943. Her mother taught her Greek mythology as a child, then regaled her with heroic tales of Joan of Arc as she got older. Louise’s dad aspired to be a writer but instead fell into business with his brother-in-law, achieving commercial success after inventing what became known as the X-Acto knife.

Suffering from anorexia, upon graduation from high school Louise didn’t enroll in college as a full-time student but instead took a series of poetry courses at nearby Sarah Lawrence College. Next, she attended poetry workshops at Columbia, taking a special interest in the works of William Blake and Emily Dickenson.

Developing her own poetic voice in her twenties, Glück’s style was to use common words and ordinary diction juxtaposed with disarming content, often focusing on the trauma she experienced growing up. Confessional in nature and imbued with an acute awareness of her own suffering and mortality, her early poems were described as sad but frank, conversational yet portentous.

As she got older, Glück’s writing continued to evolve. Her Biblical literacy became clear in poems entitled Ararat and Cana, while, like Dickenson and Blake, she became more and more drawn to both the wonders of nature and the interior workings of her own imagination. For instance, in a collection of poems entitled The Wild Iris (1992), Glück moves among three voices. Endowing a garden full of flowers and plants with intelligent, emotive voices, Glück penned poems called “Daisies,” “Field Flowers,” “Silver Lily,” “Red Poppy,” and “Wild Iris.” Each one takes on its own compelling personality and unique point of view. Witchgrass, for example, complains that he is not the enemy. Clover, irritated by her likely uprooting, suggests that “If there is any presence among us so powerful, should it not multiply in service of the adored garden?”

Second, hovering above the garden is God, whom one flower addresses as “unreachable father.” This omniscient figure speaks through changes in the weather in poems entitled “Clear Morning,” “Spring Snow,” “Early Darkness,” and “September Twilight,” among others. In a poem called “Retreating Wind,” God scolds the flowers: “Your souls should have been immense by now—not what you are, small talking things.”

The third voice is of a gardener-poet, Glück herself, who watches from the midst of it all, narrating in verse in the morning or evening, offering thoughts about the seasons, her struggles with the garden, or heartfelt words of appreciation of her family working alongside her. It’s this voice that supplies the collection with some light-hearted moments. For instance, the frustrated gardener offers this to her God:

Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree.
Here, in Vermont, 
country of no summer. 
It was a test: if the tree lived,
it would mean you existed.
By this logic, you do not exist. 
Or you exist exclusively in warmer climates,
in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California,
where are grown the unimaginable
apricot and fragile peach. 
Perhaps they see your face in Sicily; 
here we barely see the hem of your garment. 

But more often, as in “Vespers,” what the gardener-poet offers are lines tinged with profound sadness and a desire to be closer to her elusive God:

Even as you appeared to Moses, because I need you, 
you appear to me, 
not often, however. 
I live essentially in darkness. 
You are perhaps training me,
to be responsive to the slightest brightening.

The language Glück uses throughout the collection is humble and plain as was the case in her earlier work, but the suffering so prevalent before has now changed into something else. Something imaginatively spiritual. Or if not purely spiritual, something very much like it as she moves among the voices of Creator, created, and the gardener. God answers the forlorn gardener-poet’s doubts in a poem called “Sunset:”

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become 
your own response.

The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, leading to Glück being named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003. She continued to write, and crowning her career in October 2020 at age 77, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Glück died in 2023 in Massachusetts.

As is the case with a good deal of our most remarkable art, what the poetry of Louise Glück does is map the liminal space between heaven and earth, recognizing that more often than we realize, there’s only a blurry distinction between the two.

God—May I be responsive to the slightest brightening. Amen.