Louise Glück

Making an art of conversation

Sam Huber

Photograph by Katherine Wolkoff. Courtesy the artist

In the hours after Louise Glück died, I resolved not to read the remembrances and appreciations I knew to be forthcoming—knew were even then being drafted and filed. I feared for my shaky raft of private grief amid the waves of public eulogy. I didn’t want other people’s versions of her to encroach on the person I knew for thirteen years, the entirety of my adulthood.

Mainly I was afraid of forgetting what it felt like to be around her, to talk to her, an experience that obituaries threatened to smooth away. The way her face changed shape over the course of my sentences, for instance, weighing them in real time as I groped through an idea. Her eyes would widen, and a smile would erupt if I said something that pleased her; few things in life have made me prouder than when an insight or turn of phrase elicited, “That’s good.” No one was more exhausting or enlivening to talk to, because no one else so made me want to think and speak better. (Once, sitting on her couch in Vermont, as I struggled to explain what exactly my partner’s new job entailed, she cut in with a giggle. “‘Incentivize’! I never thought I’d hear you say a word like that. Incentivize—did I teach you that word?”) She made me understand the old-fashioned notion of conversation itself as an art form: something one could do poorly or well, maybe even master.

Our routes toward mastery were divergent. Louise spoke slowly, testing each phrase in sequence, diagramming the sentence as she made it. Sometimes she’d rewind a few words to an implied comma and fork her thought in a different way. Meanwhile words poured out of me but likewise—frantically—disciplined by syntax, spooling out clause after subordinated clause, piling on qualifications to keep the thought intact while incorporating as much of what I thought (and what I thought she thought) as I could.

Because of the care with which she deliberated each word, even apparent truisms were hard won and come by honestly. The last time we had lunch together—just a few weeks ago, in early September—I unfurled some minor wrinkle in my social life. My partner and I had been easing our way into a new group of friends, who occasionally self-segregate by gender. Louise paused in genuine contemplation before observing, “But straight women love gay guys.” The idea seemed to awe her for what it suddenly made intelligible. She savored it for a moment and continued, “I mean, we have so much in common.”

Her speech resembled her poems in at least these aspects: rigor, syntactic discipline, the rejuvenation of enduring truths through the clear-eyed trials of thought. (She was also very funny.) In her essay “Education of the Poet,” Louise identified her lifelong “preoccupation with syntax” and made of it a kind of ethical virtue:

Its opposite is music, that quality of language which is felt to persist in the absence of rule. One possible idea behind such preferences is the fantasy of the poet as renegade, as the lawless outsider. It seems to me that the idea of lawlessness is a romance, and romance is what I most struggle to be free of.

In class, where I first met her, Louise was keenly attuned to the fantasies at work in our poems—we were teenagers!—and to the ways these fantasies might tempt a poem to go slack, get lazy, turn prematurely away from what was most difficult and alive in itself.

So insight was something to be pried from the mouth of fantasy; its opposites were sentimentality and false consolation. And yet, in conversation, Louise consoled freely and never falsely. “But straight women love gay guys”—the reminder awed me, too, and made me blush in conscious gratitude. She was always descending into a problem alongside me and digging around for the lesson in it. This was a genuine pleasure for her, and as we grew closer in recent years I caught myself looking forward to it whenever some new problem arose. I had mostly stopped writing poems by then, but she took on my work anxieties, family history, and petty gossip with the same immersive exactitude. (“She’s just like you! Endlessly worried,” my partner once said.)

Louise had a great memory for the lives of the people she loved. This strengthened the feeling—no matter how many months had passed since we last spoke—that I was always talking to her, or for her, wherever she was. When I interviewed her for a magazine a couple of years ago, she texted me the following day to share where the conversation had taken her after my departure:

I have some things to say about age. Good things. . . . What I realized was that there is suddenly new information and new subject matter. . . . The new information is about diminishment. Very different from death. About this I knew very little. And while I don’t welcome it I find it has opened up whole new vistas; it has given me poems I’m proud to have written. When that can be said of a calamity the calamity becomes a piece of good fortune.

I was moved then, and I’m moved now, by the unillusioned optimism of these messages. Setting aside my portion of intimate loss, I also feared that obituaries would obscure this Louise who believed deeply in life, gratitude, even happiness—hard won because actively fought for.

She rooted for my happiness as fiercely as anyone else I’ve known. When I enrolled in her intro workshop I was just beginning to come out; I was mopey and terrified and self-absorbed in inhibiting, painfully predictable ways. As I stumbled more fully into my queerness, Louise was the first person to point out how happiness was making me a stronger, more inventive writer and thinker. Her essay collection American Originality ends by impressing happiness upon us: “Occasionally something will give pleasure, will actually charm or divert or entertain, will, to use that terrifying word, disarm. Insofar as our fearful, compulsive, rigid natures allow, I think we should welcome what follows.”

My resolve to avoid remembrances and appreciations, like most plans made in panic or heartbreak, didn’t last. Reading them has been a real solace, revealing the error in my fear of Louise’s effacement. My memories have instead bloomed and deepened through contact with the memories of so many other people—students, colleagues, friends, readers—who loved her as I did. I wish I could talk through that transformation with her, both my initial guardedness and subsequent relief. She knew the fear of diminishment. She turned toward and wondered at it. Like anything else that might be interesting, difficult, or potentially instructive, she tried to share it with me.

Sam Huber is a writer and senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
October 19, 2023


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