Success in poetry is small. What success I’ve had, I owe to Louise Glück. In 2021, I had finished my first manuscript—the only person who had read it was my then-partner—and I was just starting to send it out. I submitted to a contest that was being run by a brand-new press; the press had been started by Louise’s beloved former student, Bennet Bergman, and Louise, in what I would learn was a characteristic act of generosity, had agreed to judge, to lend her status to the fledgling endeavor. It was April. I was living in the hamlet of Germantown, New York, and I’d just returned from the town dump. (No trash pickup on our country road.) My phone, left on the kitchen table, was alight with a voicemail: “Rachel, hello! It’s Louise Glück speaking, and I’m calling to tell you you won this contest.”
Well, it would have been enough. Louise Glück had read my book, and the book would be published. I had no expectation beyond that. But Louise had “a few little queries,” wondered if I was ever in Cambridge, if we could meet. I called her back; she wanted to know about my life. I narrated it, told her I’d been an undergrad at Yale. Why hadn’t I taken her class? The truth was, I had applied and been rejected. I knew absolutely nothing of poetry at eighteen, and the poems were—I can say confidently, without the humiliation of revisiting them—terrible. This suddenly seemed very lucky: had I been her student, I wouldn’t have been eligible to win this contest! Now, it feels less lucky. What I wouldn’t give to have known her all those years, to have had her voice in my head. As it was, our acquaintance was short. To say that, in that time, she became my friend sounds wild, insane. But we became real friends.
I’m struck now, reading others’ remembrances, that she was a real friend to so very many. She had a genuine gift for friendship. She preferred to see people one on one, providing her full attention. (And not, I think now, to be in a position of holding court, being deferred to.) I’m struck, too, that people’s remembrances all feel remarkably similar, recognizable. We all knew, fundamentally, the same Louise; we all experienced true connection. If Louise could be inflexible, it also meant that she was absolutely herself. She had strong opinions, strict standards: this was good, this was bad. Much in the world was mediocre—a lot of poetry that was published, for example, and that was disappointing. Most restaurants she patronized were compromises, except perhaps Chez Panisse (the café, not the restaurant). Yet this meant that when she found something she liked—one dish, one line in a poem—her enthusiasm was vehement, electrifying. Her encouragement meant the world.
I think of Louise in cars. She didn’t drive but had a driver to whom she was deeply devoted, who drove her from Cambridge to New Haven—and, recently, from Montpelier to New Haven—to teach. In Cambridge, I picked her up in my filthy 2008 Honda Fit. In Berkeley, I picked her up in a rented Dodge Challenger. I said, “I’ll pick you up in my muscle car.” Her response: “What’s a muscle car?” When I had the opportunity to visit her in Vermont this summer—with Sam Huber, in an exception to the one-on-one rule—we toured around in Sam’s car, saw the home where she’d raised her son. It changed my understanding of her poetry. I thought: Of course! She’s really a Vermont poet. Devoted to this land, her garden, the neighborhood trees. . . . Certainly she felt deeply affected by her environment. (I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.) Affected by seasons, too. And yet, she was, again, so solidly herself. In a long life, the scene outside the window changes; her sight remained the same.
Louise’s poetry—you don’t need me to say it—was remarkable. Generations of poets will continue to learn from it, generations of readers to find wisdom in it. She gave so much of herself in her poems. But what I admire most is the example of her life. What do you do with what small success poetry might bring you? You share it with others, you lift others up. You make others believe that they, too, have something to offer, and elevate all of poetry in the process.