Louise Gluck’s Poetry: Whole But Not Final

Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).

Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.

It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.

Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:

[. . .] there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.

                                                                        ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’

This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).

In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).

To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.

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.