Louise Gluck’s ‘Education of the Poet’

As Keats once said, several things dove-tailed together. One of these was being asked by Poetry London to review Louise Gluck’s new collection, the PBS Recommendation, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet, 2014). The other – yesterday – was discussing with students the opening quatrain of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ with its marvelous evocation of the happy days he spent with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside in 1914. The opening lines employ an ABAB rhyme scheme, enjambement, judiciously placed caesuras and simple colloquial choices of verb and adverb to create its effects. As often, students asked whether what we were discussing was ‘thought about’ by the poet. My usual answer is that a writer is far more conscious of his craft that they might expect, but also that he considers options and exercises a veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective. This is an idea I first saw expressed in Gluck’s essay, ‘Education of the Poet’ (originally a lecture delivered in 1989, reprinted in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Carcanet, 1999).


Gluck’s over-riding point is that her characteristic mode of thought defines itself “in opposition”. This gives rise to her image of the poet as fundamentally in a state of helplessness much of the time, absorbing whatever is regarded as ‘oppositional’ and looking for opportunities to speak back. She makes it clear that such an idea “does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive”. What it means in practice is that the life of the poet is a life of “yearning, not [one] made serene by sensations of achievement”. The image of the writer effectively, confidently, repeatedly decanting her self, her being onto a sheet of paper is a false one. There are periods of silence, preoccupied with the desire to make art, a restlessness that may be agony. When at last “some sound, some tone” precipitates, what follows is a period of concentrated work: “so called because as long as one is working the thing itself is wrong or unfinished: a failure”. Yet when the poem, the utterance, is finished – Gluck argues – the poet is no more, reverting “simply [to] someone who wishes to be one”.

This pattern of a powerful force, a cacophony being replied to by the artistic voice  can also manifest in the way a poet engages with language. Gluck rejects the idea that poets are people who can’t get enough of individual words like ‘incarnadine’, in favour of language deployed in larger swathes to create contexts in which the “simplest vocabulary” is liberated from custom. It is custom that is thus replied to through using the gestural aspects of language – setting, timing, pacing – releasing words into novel relationships with truth. The poet generates material, improvises, plays with language and replies to what is produced through the process of veto. Like evolution, what fails goes to the wall; what remains becomes more and more coherent and effective.


So it’s no surprise that Gluck’s taste in poets favours those whose mode of poetic speech is more like a spoken confidence, a reply, a conversation: “I read to feel addressed”. Accordingly, her personal preference is not for poets – like Wallace Stevens – whose work is a more solitary musing, like “intercepted meditation”, not concerned to be listened to. I find myself in agreement with much of what Gluck says and – re-reading the essay now – I remember that she also uncovers this pattern in the teaching process. She warmly recalls being taught by Stanley Kunitz, his application to the novice writer of a steady “scrutiny”, the oppositional force “from outside, from the world, from another human being”. It’s a scrutiny and compulsion she herself continues to provide for her own students; the teacher’s presence is to stir, to provoke the reply, to kick start the process of definition.

It seems even one’s own work can be seen in this light. Considering her early collections, Gluck regards each new book as a fresh reply to what went before. This is a good answer to my students’ inquiries about how conscious an artist can be. Gluck tells us – and we should more than half believe it – that here she sought latinate suspended sentences, there how to end a poem without sealing it shut; elsewhere she looked to learn a longer breath, to make better use of the present tense; later still to write something less heroic, devoid of mythic reference. The artist is conscious, manipulative, alert. The artist waits, responds, manoeuvres. The both.

Teaching Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’

We teach the OCR exam board’s AS module F661, opting for Edward Thomas as the poet for close analysis. Oddly, the board do not include ‘Adlestrop’ in their selection of poems. So in the opening sessions, here’s a way of gentling students in to the processes of closely analysing a poem while also showing them Thomas’ most well-know piece.


Discuss with the class the idea of syllable counting in a verse line. Get them to try it by asking students to write an 8 or 10 syllable line beginning “Yes. I remember . . .”. Perhaps one of each.

For the exercise that follows (for those who want more restrictions) suggest keeping to an 8 or 10 syllable per line. Others (possibly the less able) may prefer more freedom . . .

Now . . . tell them to imagine they are travelling – some form of transport, walking, bike, train, bus. Ask around to reveal what they are imagining. Try pushing it a bit further, for more details, the car, the time of day, the scenery . . .

Now write 4 lines – a quatrain – in which you describe travelling and arrival at a particular location, at a particular time of year. They stop there. Maybe suggest they might open with “Yes. I remember . . .”. again – but not compulsory  . . .

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

Next, write 4 lines in which you have stopped at this place – you hear a variety of noises – describe them . . .

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name


Next write 4 lines in which you give a description of what you see – first 2 lines things close by – second 2 lines things further off . . .

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

Finally write 4 lines in which your attention continues to drift away into the distance, ever more remote from where you stopped; suggest it is wholly up to them where they stop with this one – attention may be drifting for miles, even for years . . .

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Very optional 4 lines depending on how well they are going – in which they may conclude the piece in any way they wish. Interestingly, Thomas does not make use of this option, does not conclude in any neat fashion; a point for discussion later perhaps. . .

Finally, show Thomas’ own poem. Give out copies. By this stage, students will be likely to have opinions and/or questions about the way the original piece deals with the same material they have just written about.

Homework: to type out the lines created during the lesson – taking any opportunity to alter or just tidy them up to be presented next lesson.

Next lesson – Take the poems they have typed up. Copy them and re-distribute them, one to each student (not their own poem though). Ask them to identify and annotate SIX items from the poem in front of them where they perceive the writer has made use of technical devices.

Ask each student to present and illustrate orally TWO of these devices to the rest of the class. These will range from the simple (a moment of alliteration perhaps) to the more complex (the way the writer develops over quatrain 2 and 3 a lexical field associated with illness)

The teacher might ‘mark’ the original creative piece; certainly a ‘mark’ might be derived from a student’s annotation of another student’s poem.

The art of the line break

I do like Glyn Maxwell’s thoughts on this in his 2013 book, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012). I’m roughly quoting:

Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss . .  don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It’s nothing for your novelist etc . . . for those folks it’s a tabula rasa, a giving surface. For a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and [Maxwell] might call unpatterned then skillful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got. Put more practically, line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border. . .  a prose poem is prose done by a poet. . .

I like the physical sensation he creates here of the two spaces a poet works with – that almost dizzying cliff-edge of the line breaking, the powerful effect that must have, that it does have. And I’ve, personally, long puzzled over the prose poem, wondering ‘why?’. Some of my best friends write prose poems – look out Linda Black’s published by Shearsman – but they remain a closed book to me – ha ha. Why would you not exploit the white space Maxwell talks of? Surely not just because the art of the line break is a hard one to master? Oh – the discussions in workshops I’ve had! Briefly – something to do with breath, to do with reading the lines aloud, to do with the line having some weight before you snap it off. The rest – intuition.