NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976, he commented: The child in me is delighted. The adult in me is skeptical. Bellow saw a secret humiliation in the fact that some of the very great writers of the century didnt get it.
Louise Glück, who won the prize on Thursday, has long been skeptical of praise as well. In a 2009 interview, she said: When Im told I have a large readership, I think, Oh great, Im going to turn out to be Longfellow: someone easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many. And I dont want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I dont. To the degree that I apprehend acclaim, I think, Ah, its a flaw in the work.
Glück her surname rhymes with click, not cluck is not the new Longfellow. Yet its part of her greatness that her poems are relatively easy of access while impossible to utterly get to the bottom of. They have echoing meanings; you can tangle with them for a very long time.
I have argued, in these pages, that her 1990 book, Ararat, is the most brutal and sorrow-filled book of poetry published in the last 30 years. (Its contained in her collection Poems: 1962-2012.) Its confessional and a bit wild, I wrote, comparing it to Bob Dylans Blood on the Tracks.
One of the things to love about Glücks poetry is that, while her work contains many emotional registers, she is not afraid to be cruel she confronts the monsters in herself, and in others, not with resignation and therapeutic digression but with artery-nicking knives.
The poet Kay Ryan, in her terrific new book of essays, Synthesizing Gravity, writes: I think its good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they arent nice. Glücks work is replete with not-niceness. You would not, you sense, want her as an enemy.
As I write this, I have my copy of Poems: 1962-2012 splayed out beside me on my writing table. Its pretty well marked up. You can flip it open almost anywhere and find flying shards of dark intellect and beasty wit.
You should take one of those chemicals,/maybe youd write more is a characteristic put-down. So is: Your back is my favorite part of you,/the part furthest away from your mouth. So is: I expected better of two creatures/who were given minds. Perhaps explaining such lines, she has also written: You show respect by fighting./To let up insults the opponent.
Glücks free verse is exacting and taut and rhetorically organized. Thematically, the mirepoix is composed of family, childhood, love, sex, death, nature, animals. Her classical allusions are deft. She is a serious poet of the appetites. Even when she ostensibly writes about food, she is writing about 11 other things at the same moment. A poem called Baskets includes these lines:
I take my basket to the brazen market,
to the gathering place,
I ask you, how much beauty
can a person bear? It is
heavier than ugliness, even the burden
of emptiness is nothing beside it.
Crates of eggs, papaya, sacks of yellow lemons
I am not a strong woman. It isnt easy
to want so much, to walk
with such a heavy basket,
either bent reed, or willow.
Glück was born in New York City in 1943, and grew up on Long Island. Her father helped invent the X-Acto knife. Thats a cosmically sublime detail; no other poet slices with such accuracy and deadly intent.
She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, but took no degree. She was United States poet laureate in 2003 and 2004. She has won most of this countrys major poetry prizes.
When Glück was young, she suffered from anorexia nervosa. She doesnt address this subject often, or directly, in her work. But here is a section of her poem Dedication to Hunger:
It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger,
because a womans body
is a grave; it will accept
She has become a profound and witty poet about growing old. In Averno, she writes about the speakers children:
I know what they say when Im out of the room.
Should I be seeing someone, should I be taking
one of the new drugs for depression.
I can hear them, in whispers, planning how to divide the cost.
And I want to scream out
youre all of you living in a dream.
Bad enough, they think, to watch me falling apart.
Bad enough without this lecturing they get these days
as though I had any right to this new information.
Well, they have the same right.
Theyre living in a dream, and Im preparing to be a ghost.
In another poem, she asks, Why love what you will lose? She answers her own question: There is nothing else to love.
Helen Vendler, writing in The New Republic, said that Glücks poems have achieved the unusual distinction of being neither confessional nor intellectual in the usual senses of those words.
Its Glücks abundant intellect, and deep feeling, that keeps pulling you back to her poems. Commenting on the poor choices the Swedish Academy has made in the past, Gore Vidal once advised to never underestimate Scandinavian wit.
In the case of Louise Glück, the academy gets one exactly right.
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