To the uninitiated, Louise Glück — who died on Friday at the age of 80 — could feel like an intimidating or chilly poet, her range of references so lofty and seemingly private that her work could come off as stern, austere. But to read her that way was to miss both her cool clarity and her often puckish wit; her poems, which drew on mythology and nature to explore themes of love and loss and disciplined engagement with the world, were chilly only in the bracing manner of a good martini.
It’s not easy to pluck individual poems from her books, since Glück was particularly adept at conceiving of book-length sequences — each of her collections is best encountered as a whole, like a Pink Floyd album that doesn’t readily yield a hit single. Nevertheless, here are five of my favorites, spanning from her first book to her last, to give a sense of her scope and evolution.
“Early December in Croton-on-Hudson”
This poem, which appeared near the beginning of “Firstborn,” Glück’s 1968 debut (published when she was in her mid-20s), does a lot in 11 short lines, balancing death and desire with a painterly sense of the natural world that demonstrates her ability to set a scene. “Spiked sun,” it starts. “The Hudson’s/Whittled down by ice./I hear the bone dice/Of blown gravel clicking. Bone-/pale, the recent snow/Fastens like fur to the river.” This may not be the poem to cite if I want to convince you Glück isn’t a cold poet — all that ice and snow! — but in its second half the poem takes a turn that suggests the bones it evokes are attached to warm and living bodies, as the speaker recalls a blown tire on the way to deliver Christmas presents the previous year, and concludes directly, bluntly, “I want you.” In this way a poem that opens with death ends with sex, moving along the way from nature (the river) to religion (Christmas) and ending in human communion. If you’ve never read Glück, it’s a great place to start. (Read the full poem here.)
There are actually seven poems titled “Matins” in Glück’s Pulitzer-winning 1992 book “The Wild Iris,” along with 10 titled “Vespers” — I told you she was good with sequences — but the one I’m thinking of here beautifully encapsulates the collection’s naked yearning for a God it can’t be sure of. “I see it is with you as with the birches,” the poem starts: “I am not to speak to you/in the personal way.” I like the slight air of plaintive complaint here, and also the way Glück goes on, in what is plainly a prayer after all, to echo the penitential act in the Catholic liturgy: “I am/at fault, at fault,” she writes, “I asked you/to be human.” Unlike “Early December in Croton-on-Hudson,” this one actually does end in death, in another starkly cinematic image that drives home what a visual poet Glück could be: “I might as well go on/addressing the birches,/as in my former life: let them/do their worst, let them/bury me with the Romantics,/their pointed yellow leaves/falling and covering me.” (Read the full poem here.)
Speaking of cinematic, this poem from Glück’s 1996 collection “Meadowlands” borrows delightfully from the world of film noir to portray the other woman in a love triangle: “I became a criminal when I fell in love./Before that I was a waitress,” the opening stanza reads. The poem continues: “I didn’t want to go to Chicago with you./I wanted to marry you. I wanted/your wife to suffer./I wanted her life to be like a play/in which all the parts are sad parts.” If this cheeky swerve into genre and character-acting feels unexpected coming from Glück, it shouldn’t. For one thing, she always had a novelist’s knack for inhabiting the characters in her work (and in fact wrote a spare novel late in life). For another, it helps to understand that the book “Meadowlands” as a whole is a riff on the “Odyssey,” taking Penelope and Odysseus and the epic’s other figures as archetypes for the contemporary marriage the book explores. In that sense “Siren” is about, well, a siren, of the singing-on-a-rock variety, and we’re back in the world of mythology and desire that Glück wrote about with such authority. This time, she just happened to have more exuberant fun with it. (Read the full poem here.)
“Theory of Memory”
Glück’s 2014 collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” which won the National Book Award in poetry, dealt as explicitly as any of her work did with themes of death and art, and continued her evolution away from her early confessional poems to a more imagined, novelistic world that centered, in this book, on a painter at the end of his life. It also embraced a wider variety of forms than Glück’s earlier books did, with long lines and long poems (the title poem runs to 10 pages) and a smattering of Zen-like prose poems interspersed throughout. “Theory of Memory” is one of those, and it has the charming and mysterious quality of a wry fable that reads like a Lydia Davis short story. The narrator is “a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments,” but “long, long ago,” he informs us, “I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country — so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.” (Read the full poem here.)
This is the final poem in Glück’s final collection, “Winter Recipes From the Collective,” a stripped-down and death-haunted book of just 15 poems that appeared in 2021, a year after Glück had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It again takes art and death as its central preoccupations, and this poem — which returns to the terse lines and stark imagery of Glück’s early career — amounts to a conversation between the ailing speaker and her ceramist friend Leo, who “makes the most beautiful white bowls” and is “teaching me/the names of the desert grasses.” There is an astringency to the poem (which you can read here), and a mournfulness; the speaker knows she will never live to see the grasses in person. But there is also a kind of hope, in which we see Glück’s earlier yearning toward God transformed into a plangent desire for the durability of art: “Leo thinks the things man makes/are more beautiful/than what exists in nature,” the speaker says, and, a few lines later, “He is teaching me/to live in imagination.” The poem ends with a vision that casts Glück appropriately in the role of desert prophet, and offers up a perfect elegy in its final couplet: