The first time I heard Louise read her poetry was on September 18, 2002. It was a hot, sticky evening—odd, uncomfortable weather. I was seated in a wooden pew in Center Church on the New Haven Green, a church organized by the Puritan founders of the city and built on top of thousands of graves.
Louise was reading that evening as part of a celebration of the Bollingen Prize in American poetry hosted by Beinecke Library at Yale. Video of the event was being streamed to the overflow crowd in the church next door. Many hundreds of people had come to hear the living winners of American poetry’s premier prize on one program. All of the poets were white. All but Louise were men.
I remember almost nothing of the other poets because Louise erased them from my mind. She read only one poem, a new work in six sections. The first section was a single run-on, trance-like sentence, twenty-eight lines long, beginning
Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted
didn’t the night end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters
wasn’t my body
rescued, wasn’t it safe
and ending on the next page
didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted
didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,
the vines, were they harvested?
When the poem appeared in an unusual two-page spread in The New Yorker, I could pick out themes and admire effects—for example, how generalized symbols (the night, the earth, the seeds) were being played off the personal and particular: “didn’t Frank just slip on the ice.” At the time all I heard was how much poetry counted. How much it was possible to say.
The poem was titled “October.” It was about violence and the strange resilience of beauty. Remember: this was September 2002. As we sat listening that night on the New Haven Green, “October” captured—painfully, uncannily—what everyone there remembered without prompting and would have liked to be able to forget: how it had felt to be alive, in this part of the world, in the days and weeks after 9/11, one year before. That the poem did not explicitly refer to this context made it more present and pressing. Fallen towers and endless war were part of the poem without being mentioned in so many words.
That first sentence felt like rocks rolling down a hill. Louise read it with a vatic intensity. As if to say: you think this event is about wit and eloquence, beauty and sentiment. You think it is a parade of eminence, of the sort of distinction and celebrity our poetry culture, such as it is, confers. No, it is about poetry, and poetry is about Now and your life—and about the death all around you and ahead of us all.
The range of her voice always included that forbidding, accusatory register. Her own version of Lamentations and Proverbs. But she wouldn’t be the astonishing poet she was if her voice did not include, among other manners, something very nearly the opposite: a measured, skeptical tone that was realistic and generous, even consoling. That tone defined poetry’s role in the contemporary world in a way that was plausible and modestly scaled but, for all that, urgent and important. In “October” she writes:
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
Louise was the most recent winner of the Bollingen Prize. Reading on the program with her that evening were Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, John Ashbery, Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Stanley Kunitz. Kunitz had been her teacher and the sponsor of her prize-winning first book. Strand was her friend and the closest in age to her in this group. Otherwise she felt, I suspect, little noticed by these poets, and her regard for them, at this point in her career, was limited. Louise was not the sort of feminist who locks arms with others in the street. But part of what she was doing as she read “October” was shouldering a generation of older men to one side. A year later, Louise was one of the judges for the Bollingen. That prize went to Adrienne Rich.
Richard Brodhead, then dean of Yale College, was impressed by Louise’s poem and performance, and he convinced her to leave Williams College, where she had taught for exactly twenty years, and come to Yale as the Rosenkranz Writer in Residence. She began teaching at Yale in that role in 2004. Starting in 2005, and off and on over the next fourteen years, I was Louise’s English Department chair and nominally—I’m laughing about this—her boss. We had lunch on Tuesdays. Time was tight between her morning workshop and the afternoon’s round of student conferences. She would walk into the mail room to fetch me, visibly annoyed if I did not already have my coat on. We would rush into the street, debate where we would eat this time, and almost invariably return to Scoozzi, “the restaurant that apologizes,” as she liked to say.
One semester I went through a difficult period and spent a few nights in my campus office. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Louise said. “Take my apartment.” That meant she would have to stay somewhere else in town or commute back and forth from her home in Cambridge on the two days she was teaching. Lest this gesture seem too much like the gift it was, she added, “The place is so dark I can’t stand it”—as if I would be doing her a favor. I accepted the offer. When I moved out, I gave her a Japanese woodblock print in appreciation. It was a quiet, melancholy scene: two shadowy porters carrying a heavy palanquin—was someone inside it?—on a road beside the sea. To my surprise, she put the image on the cover of her book A Village Life.
Louise was always moving between places, houses, sets of friends. The poem that follows “October” in the book in which it appears, Averno (2007), is called “Persephone the Wanderer.” When I first knew her, our Persephone was going back and forth between Cambridge and New Haven. This meant moving between her life as a writer and her life as a teacher, although the distinction wasn’t hard and fast, and her students, whom she cared passionately about and didn’t like to be without for long, would visit her in Cambridge when she wasn’t teaching, and she would make special trips to see them in Connecticut. (Teaching wasn’t something that happened only in the classroom or only during term time.) Later Louise would teach at Yale in the fall and at Stanford in the winter. Later still she bought a house in Vermont. Between California, Cambridge, New Haven, and Montpelier, her schedule was complicated, to say the least, although carefully planned and coordinated, like the goddess’s, with the seasons.
Over the past decade or so, there had been many deaths for her to deal with. Louise’s mother at 101, her sister, her former partner, colleagues, fellow poets, friends, and a former student she had been especially close to. She seemed to weather it all or perhaps even grow stronger. The bracelet she habitually wore around her wrist—a man’s, cheap-seeming, and out of keeping with Louise’s elegant clothing—was Tibetan: a ring of hand-carved, yellowish skulls. (At her own memorial service this past week in Cambridge, her son Noah wore it.)
When the university opened up after the pandemic lockdown, the first big public event to be held was a reading by Louise. The auditorium seats four hundred people, and it was full for the new Nobel laureate. She stood there at the podium, only a little taller than the microphone, a small woman who was by now the author of a monumental body of work. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and it was striking how much she had aged. It was also striking how happy she was. She did something I had never heard her do: read poems from across the whole of her career, including “October.”
This October, when she was dying, the Israel-Hamas war erupted. Newspapers called the initial attack by Hamas “Israel’s 9/11.” The war now unfolding is its own horror, yet also a continuation of an unspeakable cycle of violence for which Louise, so-called private poet that she was, nevertheless found words. In “October” she says, bitterly and wearily,
My friend the earth is bitter; I think
sunlight has failed her.
Bitter or weary, it is hard to say.
Louise was a truth-teller. But she was not entirely honest in “October” when she suggests beauty is over and done with, at least so far as poetry might honor and “restore” it. The poem, which began with a question, ends with another:
From within the earth’s
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness
my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?
Let’s leave that question hanging in the air.