Louise Glück

A poet you couldn’t hide from

Aria Aber

Louise Glück (center) officiating the wedding of Noah Warren and Aria Aber. Photo: Kannetha Brown. Courtesy the author

Louise Glück altered my life in many ways: some monumental and public, others small and private. I encountered her work late. I was twenty-one, newly recovered from a psychotic break, and in an undergraduate poetry class in London. The first poem I read was “Mock Orange,” now a classic, which she had grown to dislike. But as an aspiring poet utterly new to American poetry, I felt a revolutionary thrill at lines such as “I hate them as I hate sex.” The voice was one of confidence and severity and humor; her lines spoke directly into my mind and nestled there. And yet, as in all her work, the clarity of self-knowledge, this momentary epiphany, is cut through by the mystery of the surrounding world: Everything is changing, death is always near, and the answers are never certain or obvious.

My dream of studying with Louise—among other American poets like Sharon Olds and Yusef Komunyakaa—was one of the reasons I decided to move to the United States. But I didn’t meet her until many years later, in 2020, when I started the Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University, where she taught the winter workshop. On the first day of class, I saw her on Zoom, calling in from her iPad. What a strange time it was, for all of us: awkward because of the technology, emotionally charged because of the separation, tender because of the uncertainty about the future.

She tore my poem apart that day. She made me cry. I had arrived at an impasse in my writing, hiding behind imagery and nonsense words, and she could see right through the aesthetic masquerade. I was hurt, but it was a privilege and a joy to be read by someone—especially someone with her kind of genius—so rigorously and deeply. When she spoke, I felt seen in a way I hadn’t in a long time.

After class, we spoke on the phone to discuss my other drafts. I remember the scene vividly: I’m pacing through my studio apartment in Oakland, listening to Louise’s soft, thoughtful voice on the other end of the line. The beginning of the conversation was rocky; we were awkward with each other, but then something clicked. There were similarities in our lives—early madness, a suspicion of romance, a hatred of the body, a fixation on beautiful objects—and she seemed to love that my first language was German, my poems informed by its wordiness. “It’s my favorite language,” she said. “It can’t hide behind the sappy sounds of Romance languages.”

The first poem of mine Louise praised was one I had written on my phone during a hike. “This is your mind at work,” she said. “That’s what I want: I want to see your mind at work in the language.” Her intuition about poems was both otherworldly and erudite. Rather than hindering it, her intelligence and literary education only deepened her connection to the other realm. She wanted her students to find their true voices, their own “sounds,” by allowing their subconscious to surface and find life in language. When she spoke about poetry she loved, she always used the word alive. “Don’t give it to me if it doesn’t sound alive,” she would say. Well, here we are. She is dead, but her voice in my head is rattling.

After that, Louise and I met weekly—sometimes even twice a week—on her porch in Berkeley to discuss my work. She would read twelve, fifteen drafts of the same poem until it felt successful, surprising, and alive to her. Her calendar was always full of meetings with students, dinner dates, and training sessions. “The poems were an excuse to be close to her,” the poet Callie Siskel, another of her students, said to me recently. Yes, we were awed by her presence, this legendary, serious-but-funny, sometimes shy, always brilliant woman, and yes, sometimes we were afraid of her, too, because we knew we were standing alongside greatness. The poems were a medium through which we could speak about ourselves, make our inner lives and concerns and admirations known. And after a lifetime of psychoanalysis, she had surpassed the role of analysand and turned into an analyst, easily decoding and interpreting the symptoms in our poems. Louise could derive and understand entire relationships and family feuds from just a few lines. How impossible it was to hide from her; how exhilarating, almost shockingly so, to listen to her. She was always sharp, often transformative. She was also gifted with something I rarely encounter in professors: humility. “Teaching helps me write,” she often said. “I am doing it for myself, too.” She became the mentor I had dreamed my whole life of meeting. She read and workshopped every single poem I wrote since I met her.

But she was more than that; she became a friend and confidante, too. Around the time I met Louise Glück, I also met the poet Noah Warren, one of her longtime friends, and soon fell in love with him. My friendship with Louise deepened and accelerated, I think, because of her friendship with Noah; they had met when he was eighteen, a freshman in her poetry class at Yale. She would take the two of us to 5 p.m. dinner dates, where we gossiped and laughed and talked about childhood and family and news and TV shows. We talked about her grandchildren, the twins whom she loved with ferocious adoration. They conjured a real softness in her. We often talked about clothes. She could identify the vintage designer items I wore from a mile away (Armani blazer, YSL dress). “How do you know?” I asked, meaning, how could anyone tell that this nondescript black frock is Armani? “I just know,” she smiled. Her taste was refined and astute, and even here, it was impossible to hide from her. At those restaurants, she always ordered fish. When we drove her home and watched her recede into her house, we’d glimmer with her wisdom and warmth. “I love her,” we said to each other, but rarely to her; she eschewed the performance of sentiments.

Just two months before she died, in August of this year, she officiated our wedding at a small promontory in Rhode Island, wearing all black, accentuated by a Tiffany pearl necklace. She spoke a few beautiful words—honest and severe and true. I remember the laughter and nervousness we all felt during the rehearsal dinner. “We always dream of attention, but we rarely want the reality of it,” she said to me that night. I also remember her seriousness, wisdom, and genuine tenderness on the wedding day, when she stood by the water and wed us. That whole weekend, I understood, perhaps for the first time, that the shackles of family could be loosened by the love of friends. Louise was instrumental in that lesson.

Everything happened so suddenly. I still cannot fully grasp that she is dead. It will take a lifetime to understand the loss—but if the poems were an excuse to be close to her, then let the loss be a reason to dedicate ourselves to the poems, to making them alive again.

Aria Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Good Girl, and the poetry collection Hard Damage, which won a Whiting Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
Originally published:
October 19, 2023


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