Louise Glück

The poet who taught me to write books

Meghan O’Rourke

Louise Glück once said that she couldn't write poems; she wrote books. A selection of her books on the author's desk. Courtesy the author

The first book of poetry I ever read was Ararat (1990), by Louise Glück. I had read many poems in classes, from anthologies, but had never actually read a collection of poems front to back, or even thought about a collection as a meaningful record of a poet’s creative output at a given time. At the time—this was 1994—I was an eighteen-year-old sophomore at Yale, enrolled in my first poetry workshop. Our professor, the poet Wayne Koestenbaum, had given us the task of reading a book of contemporary poetry and writing a brief report. On a dull spring day, I sat on the floor at the Yale Co-op leafing through books, until I found Ararat, and opened it randomly to the poem “Celestial Music”:

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth, she’s unusually competent.
Brave, too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality.
But timid, also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
according to nature. For my sake, she intervened,
brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down across the road.

The opening of the poem (it goes on for another page) riveted me: the way it parsed its own thinking, each new line bringing a refinement of what had come before, moving casually yet devastatingly to the insight “For my sake, she intervened,” in which the relationship between the speaker and the friend flips, with the friend, suddenly, seeming to have a kind of knowledge the speaker can’t muster in the face of suffering.

What astonished me was the way the poem thought on the page: about real people, real relationships; and didn’t flinch from the power of its own judgment. To encounter “Celestial Music” was to encounter a way that a poem could do more than add up to a moment of lyric insight. I bought the book, brought it home, and studied it, marveling at the characters peopling Glück’s poems—friends, sisters, family, people who were at odds yet loved one another. Here was a poetry in which being among others led to devastating, even dramatic, insights. In the tone—sharp, knowing, by turns vulnerable and amused—I recognized a way of experiencing what it is to be an individual among others that I had not yet articulated to myself. Reading that book helped me grow into my own mind, as a poet and as a person—not least because to read it was to see the way the poems spoke to one another, critiqued one another, enacted compensatory fantasies and then dismantled them.

I did not know then that I had selected a book by a poet who, among other things, was a master at thinking about the book as a vehicle for lyric poetry. That Glück, who died last week at the age of eighty, wrote books and not just poems is central to her poetics—although she has written so many iconic standalone poems that this is easily forgotten. In our conversations over the years, including an interview I conducted with her around 2007, she told me that she couldn’t write poems; she wrote books. If she couldn’t organize the poems she’d written in a given time in a way that felt right to her, she knew the book was not yet complete. Her work came to define how, as a young poet, I thought about the act of putting together a collection that could be larger than its parts.

More obviously, her work came to define how I thought about lyric poetry. Glück’s poetry is deeply serious, and often meditative, at times concerned with abstraction and myth, and for these reasons it has often been described as “chilly” or “austere”—a characterization I can’t help but think of as partly gendered. But her poetry is also remarkably full of people—people who are deeply funny, loving, and pained. If she could be scathing and severe about the nature of human self-deception, her poems also have a tenderness, a wryness about our limitations. At their core is the dynamism of thought and perception, especially around conflicting ideas of meaning, mortality, desire, and love. I read her obsessively in graduate school, learning to understand tone and the line as a unit of thought, one that kept evolving with self-analyzing fluidity. (My first book owes a lot—too much—to her early work; one day, someone will study how much influence she had on a generation of poets that followed her.)

Glück had a profound understanding that syntax was style, and style was feeling, which is why her poetry changed book by book. As she told me in the interview we did, she changed her syntax, her style intentionally for each book. In Firstborn (1968), she played with ellipses and sentence fragments, evocative of her speaker’s struggles to unite their powerful intellectual and emotional acumen with their disorientation and dissociation. She moved on to declarative sentences in The House on Marshland (1975)—an incredibly powerful second book of poems. In The Triumph of Achilles (1985)—perhaps the book in which she became the poet we recognize today—she turned to the interrogatory mode, which would become essential to her. Continue to trace the arc of her books, and you’ll find a new formal mode, or challenge, driving each one.

If mortality haunted all her work (and her, from a young age), she understood early that she needed to find the dramatic possibility of change that lay within the lyric poem—not the stasis of insight but a drama of reflection that held the possibility of recompense. More change could come. At least for now. In between books, there were silences; the first one, she said, was agonizing. But by the time I knew her, in her mid-late career, she seemed to be at peace with the silences, describing how the voice of a poem would eventually come to her. By a certain point, she never sat down and forced the writing, in that capitalist model of literature as an assembly-line product or performance of identity encouraged in many MFA programs.

With me, as with so many poets, she was almost impossibly generous: coming to readings, telling me which poems she thought stood out. She was honest, too, in a way that could have been painful if she weren’t herself, always herself. I remember her coming to a reading of mine, then taking my arm and saying, “Your second book is so much better than your first book”—a compliment, of course, that cut both ways. But she looked me in the eyes and nodded, slowly, as if to say, Keep going. She would ask me to send poems and then tell me, on sunny Saturday mornings, by phone, how to make them better.

But this remembrance is too earnest to capture Louise: the distinctiveness of the person and the poems. First, the person, her voice, which I hear as I reread the emails she sent me over the years. In 2017, I went from Brooklyn to Cambridge to give a talk when my first son was a few months old; it had been a busy two years and I’d fallen out of touch. When I wrote her to say I’d be in town, on short notice because “my son has been sick,” she immediately wrote back from her iPad (from which she seemed to do all her emailing):

Name? Photo? Planned?

That third question, partly joking but also genuine, was classic Louise. That interest in character, drama, and fate undergirds her poems but has perhaps gone less remarked than it should be, along with her sense of the comedy of embodiment. Before I’d gotten pregnant, years earlier, we had talked over lunch in Cambridge about the strange physicality of pregnancy and its aftermath; she had told me, laughing, about what it was like to roll over in bed in your third trimester, how it continued to feel laborious for a year after, due to (she grimaced; I can still see her wry expression) “the shelf of skin” a child leaves behind on the body of the person who bore it. That physicality is in her poems, almost all of them: as much as they are about existence and mortality, they are deeply embodied.

Much of what you need to know about her work and its interest in the predicaments of embodiment can be gleaned, of course, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Wild Iris (1992), a starting point for many readers. The brilliance of the book lies in the fact that it is set in a garden and comprises dramatic monologues by a gardener, God, and—perhaps most surprisingly—the flowers. As a book, The Wild Iris is far greater than any of its one parts, though it contains some of her most famous poems. But its pathos and comedy emerge from the triangulation of viewpoint, which allows each speaker (or group of speakers) to reveal their fundamental solipsism, cruelty, vulnerability, and comedy. Glück understood that poetry was always dramatic—that you had to lean not only into what her friend Frank Bidart called the drama of the poem’s being “fastened to the page” but the drama implicit in each lyric poem only ever being a fragment of a larger work.

When I teach poetry, I always teach Glück, both her poems and her prose essays, which have become essential to me. Often I start by assigning the first poem in The Wild Iris so that students understand that a poem is not a poem unless the language is structurally enacting something:

At the end of my suffering

there was a door.

So says the iris, who has been underground for a year—a perennial that doesn’t know it is perennial. Note that the iris doesn’t say:

There was a door

at the end of my suffering.

Which would, after all, be banal—a failure to enact, through syntax, the drama of discovering a change at the end of agony. Louise was never banal. Although she was often identified with post-confessional poetry, she was too interested in others to risk the solipsism of mere selfhood. Her poetry talks to us about us, not to herself. Yet it is she herself who will be missed now.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
October 18, 2023


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