Poems 1962-2020, by Louise Glück, Penguin, 670 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0241526071
Winter Recipes from the Collective, by Louise Glück, Carcanet, 64 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1800171800
When Louise Glück answered the phone early one morning, just after hearing the news of her Nobel Prize win, the world got a surprisingly candid view of her reaction. “Is this being recorded?” the poet asked somewhat irritably, before continuing, “I really can’t do this.” She reluctantly agreed to a two-minute interview before her coffee; true to her word, the call promptly ended at the expiration of that time.
Such a reaction cannot be said to have been entirely unexpected. Over the past several decades of her career, since the publication of her first collection in 1962, Glück has built up a reputation for reclusiveness in her poetry as much as in her personal manner. It’s perhaps this that accounts for how comparatively little her work is read, especially in the UK and Ireland, despite her numerous accolades. Yet the Nobel Prize has done its work in focusing attention on this famously private and sometimes difficult poet. 2021 has seen the release not only of her second volume of collected poems from Penguin, containing all her poems from 1962 to 2020, but also of two further books from Carcanet: her most recent poetry collection, Winter Recipes from the Collective, and a collection of essays entitled American Originality.
A lot has changed since 1962. Glück has spoken often of her “contempt” for Firstborn, her first collection. Critics have broadly agreed with her assessment of this early work. The collection’s poems are often limited by the specificity of their anecdotal subject matter, their diction betrayed by jangly rhymes and awkward line-breaks (“photogen- / ic”, in a poem called “Letter from Provence”, is a particularly unsuccessful moment). Luckily, Glück’s “conscious attempt to sign off” stylistically between each collection, and her internal “compulsion to change”, as she termed it in a 1989 lecture, have propelled her through an ambitious poetic career and resulted in the undeniably varied portfolio represented by the recent collected volume. And perhaps the most compelling driver of this poetic transformation has been her sustained interest in classical myth.
But while several contemporaries, such as Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood and Ocean Vuong, have chosen to disrupt traditional classicism by retelling its myths with a focus on the experiences of marginalised figures, Glück seems uninterested in the social realities and exclusions of the classical world. Take her career-long interest in the Persephone myth. Glück’s first Persephone poem, “Pomegranate”, comes from The House on the Marshlands (1975) and takes as its focus the mother-daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone. Here, Persephone refuses to eat the pomegranate which is Hades’ heart:
to starve, bearing
out my training.
It’s impossible not to hear an echo of the severe anorexia for which Glück was hospitalised as a teenager. As the poem continues, Hades gradually tries to convince Persephone of her mother’s flaws. To him, Demeter is an overbearing, jealous mother, and her grief excessive:
Consider she is in her element:
the trees turning to her, whole
villages going under
Near the poem’s close, he remarks:
you are your own
This is an unusual telling of the Persephone myth, not least because it seems so little concerned with the central question of most other versions: whether Persephone was taken into marriage with Hades by force or not. By the end of the poem, it remains unclear whether Persephone has been persuaded by Hades’ view of her mother. By contrast, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter which constitutes the earliest telling of the Persephone myth, it is stated four times that Persephone was taken “against her will” (ἀεκαζομένη). When Anne Carson responds to the Homeric Hymn in The Beauty of the Husband, she directly challenges this aspect of Persephone’s narrative:
breezing in she says
“Mother here is the whole story.
Slyly he placed
in my hands a pomegranate seed sweet as honey.
Then by force and against my will he made me eat.
I tell you this truth though it grieves me.”
Made her eat how?
Carson’s treatment of the myth is traceable, adversarial, clear. Glück’s, on the other hand, is harder to tie to its sources. Yet another look at the Homeric Hymn to Demeter gives us a reasonable, if subtler, premise for Glück’s focus. In the ancient Greek, Demeter is strongly advised, by the sun-god Helios and even Zeus himself, to let go of her rage:
But I urge you, goddess: stop your loud cry of lamentation: you should not
have an anger without bounds.
This Demeter of boundless anger is the one Glück channels for her poem. And according to Glück’s Hades, the root of this anger is jealousy of her daughter, since she herself has not been offered “these depths”. It’s also true, however, that Glück has superimposed her own particular preoccupation with toxic mother-daughter relationships onto the classical myth. Other contemporary female poets, such as Carol Ann Duffy and Eavan Boland, have chosen perhaps more naturally to frame the tale of Demeter and Persephone as one of intimacy and the necessary, if bittersweet, distance engendered by growing up. Glück, on the other hand, is keener to explore a strained mother-daughter relationship, already by this point key to her work. In Firstborn’s “Scraps”, she describes “learning / Distance at my mother’s knee”, while a poem called “For My Mother” begins bleakly:
It was better when we were
together in one body.
Such complexes are enduring. In her most recent collection, Glück again looks back to the days of her infancy as a time of never-recovered intimacy:
What a shame I became
verbal, with no connection
to that memory. My mother’s love!
For Glück, the classics provide a rich framework to flesh out existing preoccupations, rather than a prompt to explore new ideas. In her book-length treatment of the Persephone myth (Averno, 2006), her view of its dynamics is stated even more starkly:
the tale of Persephone
[…] should be read
as an argument between the mother and the lover ‑
the daughter is just meat.
For Glück by this point, the question is not one of will: either way, Persephone has none. Rather, it’s a matter of to whose authority she submits. Neither inspires much hope: her mother is oppressively controlling, and Hades is unable to imagine the trauma of her sudden transition to the Underworld. Interestingly, the poem provides a fitting preface for the long autobiographical poem which follows it, called “Prism”, in which Glück considers a failing relationship with parents utterly unable to understand her rich inner world:
My parents couldn’t see the life in my head;
when I wrote it down, they fixed the spelling.
Yet despite a general resentment for remote parental figures, Glück’s characters frequently crave their approval. In her unique version of the Apollo-Daphne myth, taken from the 1985 collection The Triumph of Achilles, Daphne’s lingering impression is not of the god’s violence but of being rejected by her father. Again, it’s characteristic that Glück strives to cover her tracks with the enigmatic title (“Mythic Fragment”) and by only once mentioning a character’s name. Again, it seems that Glück’s own distinct poetic interest guides her version of the myth; a troubled father-daughter relationship provided a central subject for her next collection, Ararat (1990).
It’s not just figures of human authority that haunt Glück’s work. More often than not, she is obsessed with the power of death and the decay of the physical body, and futile human attempts to resist these; in fact, these constitute her most consistent themes. The Triumph of Achilles provides her most compelling treatment of the subject with its focus on a hero defined even in Homer by his almost-divinity: Achilles’ inhuman strength is derived from his divine mother, Thetis, but in his mortal status he takes after his father, Peleus. In the collection’s titular poem, this tension is at last resolved by Achilles’ response to Patroclus’ death, which makes him fully and tragically human:
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.
Here, Glück’s equation of Achilles’ mortality with an ability to love prevents the poem from slipping into gloom. But it’s fair to say that Glück does not always escape this charge. Readers could be forgiven for rolling their eyes when in her most recent collection, for example, a bonsai leads her to reflect, predictably, that “all things die eventually”, or when she claims that “there is no point beginning / so much as a sentence” because everything “will end soon”. Lines such as these might be what have led critics such as William Logan to declare the poet “capable of hokum” and her recurring interests “monotonous”. While re-reading The Triumph of Achilles, I was drawn to these lines from “Winter Morning” as emblematic of Glück’s weaknesses:
When I shut my eyes, it vanishes.
When I open my eyes, it reappears.
There’s an undeniable echo here of Plath’s “Soliloquy of the Solipsist”, who imagines that their seeing of the world creates it:
I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
At best, reading Louise Glück provides an insightful guide to the inner self, its fears and its anxieties. At worst, however, her poems risk being solipsistic and impenetrable, even pretentious. The regular invocation of an unknown “you”, the insistence on referring to characters only by third person pronouns and the use of images tangentially linked to the poems’ narratives can render them inaccessible. It could be that this effect is not altogether unintended by such a reclusive, private poet. In her Nobel acceptance speech, she spoke of her attraction to intimate over collective speech, claiming Emily Dickinson as her “companion in invisibility”. If parental fixing of spelling represents external attempts to police her idiosyncratic expression, Glück has remained almost impervious to it throughout her career. For many, her intermittent lapses into esotericism are worth enduring for her stunning, distinctive bursts of creativity.
Tanvi Roberts is a critic on the Diversifying Irish Poetry programme. Her reviews have been published in Poetry Ireland Review and The Irish Times; her poems have appeared in The Moth, Trumpet and Poetry Ireland Review.