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This item is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Back in 1996, Mark Doty reviewed The Wild Iris for PN Review:

It is very seldom that a new book of poems enters the realm of books to be cherished, inexhaustible volumes which approach with authority the mystery at the core of our lives. Such books are perennials: they open as we reread them, yielding new meanings. The Wild Iris has the stamp of permanence, of lasting achievement. At a time when American poetry too often seems an economy of small gestures, in which limited autobiographical poems present the poet’s life in restricted terms, The Wild Iris is a bold, significant book, one which quickens us, intensifies our sense of being alive, not because of any answers it provides but because it so resolutely embodies our mortal questions. Out of elemental but daunting materials – garden flowers, the desires and gestures of the gardener, the voices of divinity – Louise Glück has built as splendid, haunted and substantive an edifice as contemporary American poetry has yet produced.

A year later, Louise Glück contributed three essays to PN Review: ‘American Narcissism’, ‘Story Tellers’ and ‘Fear of Happiness’, and her books, not only those published by Carcanet, have been regularly reviewed, including Ulrike Draesner’s German translation of Averno appraised by the Austrian poet Evelyn Schlag (2008); she also contributed an illuminating conversation (with Yvonne Green) to PNR 210. She talks there about A Village Life, contrasting its composition with that of her earlier books:

The book was a lot of fun to write. In the sense of its being fabulously interesting and available. Most of my recent books have been written so rapidly that there’s no sense when they’re finished of any agency or role, they simply didn’t exist and then they did exist and I can’t figure out what I did. But A Village Life took about a year and a half which was ideal because I felt that I was always engaged. I could always go to the space where those poems seemed to come from and it was waiting for me. It was quite wonderful – as working, I suppose, on a novel might be –

She is clear about what she resists in the poetry of her more theory-driven contemporaries: ‘there’s also a contemporary poetry that’s built on disjunction and seemingly arbitrary connections and I think those poets feel that content is sentimental I guess […] Most of the work I see like that I think is pretty boring. It’s very hard to tell one artist from another. If investment is in disjunction how many versions of disjunction are there? They’re infinite but they have no character.’ The poets of disjunction, if we can use her phrase, were those most troubled by her receiving the Nobel Prize. They provided list after list of poets they would have preferred, some of them conformant to the emerging norms that see artistic quality as relative and other priorities as absolute, and poets whose work is, most likely, generally unread outside the circles it traces around itself.

She is also clear about what she likes, noticing the work of George Oppen in particular. ‘I like poems that swerve. They seem to be going in one direction and all of a sudden they’re going in another direction. They contain a multitude of tones. That’s what I try to do in my poems, get as many tones in the air as possible.’ She is fascinated too by white spaces – between stanzas, at the ends of short lines. They have a sound, which may be silence or an intake of breath.

Colm Tóibín was introduced to Glück’s work by Eavan Boland: ‘I found her poems riveting and filled with feeling and I suppose that maybe that feeling is underneath – is an undercurrent – it’s a very strong undercurrent and she can use very little means to achieve a great deal of effect.’ We too were first drawn to Glück’s poetry by Eavan Boland, and when I came to write Lives of the Poets (1998) my account of Boland was followed by an account of Glück, in a chapter entitled ‘Language and the Body’. ‘In an essay she writes, “One of the revelations of art is the discovery of a tone or perspective at once wholly unexpected and wholly true to a set of materials.” This truth to materials – language, occasion, antecedent – is the proof of a poem. For the poet the question of truth (variously conceived) outweighs all others.’ The truth is there for the reader: the poem in its full complexity and truth demands the readerly eye and ear. Sound is crucial, but active sound, sound deduced from the text and made by the reader. She has developed a dislike for a performed poem, especially if the poet performs: such reading confines and diminishes it, surrendering it to a shared occasion in time, to voice, and to the audience’s collective illusion that any ‘I’ the poet speaks points back at the poet reading the poem as its subject. She resists the idea of inter-poem patter, of ‘spoonfeeding’ the listener, of directing the listener by entertaining anecdote and gesture. The engagement of a reader with the poem rather than of the audience with the poet matters. A poem is full of voices, and to reduce it to a single speaker constrains it.

At a time when performance is almost de rigueur in the poetry world, it is possible to see how radical the Nobel committee’s choice is, almost, as it were, affirming the primacy of the art against the preferences, not to say prejudices, of the age.

The award of a Nobel Prize to a poet is a rare occurrence, to a female poet even rarer (only Gabriela Mistral and Wisława Szymborska precede Glück). We were thrilled and surprised when the news came through. At a time when other-than-­artistic demands are made of artistic judgement, demands which have to do with a range of – call them – issues and not immediately with the art of the poem itself, it seemed a brave choice by a committee reconstituted in the wake of scandal, knowing that it would be subject to more minute scrutiny than ever as a result.

Glück’s friend and colleague Claudia Rankine declared, ‘She is a tremendous poet, a great mentor, and a wonderful friend. I couldn’t be happier. We are in a bleak moment in this country, and as we poets continue to imagine our way forward, Louise has spent a lifetime showing us how to make language both mean something and hold everything.’ – The poet herself is a little shy of the title. ‘Poet must be used cautiously,’ she wrote; ‘it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.’

This item is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

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