Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books

Teju Cole

Louise Glück’s last three books turned to the exploration of fable, writes Teju Cole. Photo: Katherine Wolkoff. Courtesy the photographer

A version of this essay was delivered in February 2024 as the Finzi-Contini Lecture at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center. The Finzi-Contini lectureship was endowed in 1990 by the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former Dean of the Yale Law School, and Dr. Paul Calabresi, in memory of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi. Read Meghan O’Rourke’s introduction to the 2024 Finzi-Contini Lecture here.


poems 1962–2012, an omnibus collection of Louise Glück’s eleven previously published books of poetry, ran to more than six hun­dred pages. The heft of it was startling because Glück is not a prolix poet. But, after fifty years, things add up.

What could follow it? The volume itself, a testament between two covers, must have been intimidating to the poet. Something to be proud of, but also an intimation of mortality, and perhaps an omen of decline. In “October,” she had written: “The light has changed; / middle C is tuned darker now.”

Now the light has changed again. The mood in Averno, the 2006 volume in which “October” was published, was like putting on sun­glasses against the punishing heat of day. In Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), the first of three books Glück published between Poems 1962–2012 and her death in 2023, the sunshades come off. Night has fallen. Things are seen at their proper sizes again, but now less distinctly. The book’s title hints at its misty, castellated quality. In the long title poem, the narrator recalls his boyhood:

Much to his annoyance, I shared this room with my older brother.

To punish me for existing, he kept me awake, reading

adventure stories by the yellow nightlight.

The speaker, at the reading level of My First Reader, mishears “knight” as “night” in the title of his brother’s storybook. Faithful and Virtuous Night, like a great many of Glück’s books, is a sequence. The poems inhabit a universe of concerns. Characters recur. In this one, there are lyric poems, some of them long, that set the remi­niscences of an aging man within a tissue of dreams. He is British, it seems (there are references to Cornwall), and a painter, and gay. The poems intricately confront the difficulties of making art and of having a life given over to art making.

Death is omnipresent in Glück’s work: it’s a theme no one can accuse her of leaving late.

Interspersed between the poems that make up this nonlin­ear narrative, in which this painter is frequently the “I,” are other poems of a different character and form: prose poems. They are typically brief—only one of them is longer than a page—and they represent Glück’s first use of the form in her published work. These prose poems are like fables, in the sense that they are fictional, elu­sive, and set in a time immemorial. Their diction is also plain to the point of astringency, though that is no peculiarity within Glück’s body of work in general or in this book in particular. They seem to promise a moral or meaning. But they are poems: the moral is never within easy reach, or any reach at all. The promise is seldom kept. Here, for instance, is one titled “The Horse and Rider”:

Once there was a horse, and on the horse there was a rider. How handsome they looked in the autumn sunlight, approaching a strange city! People thronged the streets or called from the high windows. Old women sat among flowerpots. But when you looked about for another horse or another rider, you looked in vain. My friend, said the animal, why not abandon me? Alone, you can find your way here. But to abandon you, said the other, would be to leave a part of myself behind, and how can I do that when I do not know which part you are?

The poem is a single paragraph. The animal talks, and no one makes a big deal of it (another feature of fables). The search under­taken by the title characters, I think we are to understand, is for wisdom, for how to live. We are, perhaps, in the Tang Dynasty, among the pensive equines of Wang Wei (“You said dismount . . . / You unsaddled your discontent”) or Xue Tao (“In the sound of fine rain / —That of the departing horse / Halting”). But we are also among the horses of Louise Glück, and their enclosure of feeling. In “Horse,” from The Triumph of Achilles (1985), the animal is the object of jealousy:

What does the horse give you

that I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,

when you ride into the field behind the dairy,

your hands buried in the mare’s

dark mane.

And in the extraordinary long poem “Landscape,” from Averno, the horse is steady and sympathetic. This poem of ravishing ache and beauty begins:

The sun is setting behind the mountains,

the earth is cooling.

A stranger has tied his horse to a bare chestnut tree.

The horse is quiet—he turns his head suddenly,

hearing, in the distance, the sound of the sea.

After eight pages, it ends:

                          if I am asked

to return here, I would like to come back

as a human being, and my horse

to remain himself. Otherwise

I would not know how to begin again.

The horse remains himself. It is not until Faithful and Virtuous Night, I don’t think, that a horse speaks in Glück’s poetry. “Why not abandon me?” “To abandon you . . . would be to leave a part of myself behind.” Now, in the tentative light of evening, in the eve­ning of life, we are in the zone of equality between animal and man. All things have or lack voice equally.

Though the prose poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night do not resolve into easy allegories, it might still be legitimate to see in this dyad of horse and rider a type of the companionship evoked in “Crossroads,” from A Village Life (2009): “My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer / I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you.”

Death is omnipresent in Glück’s work: it’s a theme no one can accuse her of leaving late. But it seems to me that Death’s colors become muted in her final books, softened by the same mist that softens everything else. This is “Forbidden Music,” also from Faithful and Virtuous Night:

After the orchestra had been playing for some time, and had passed the andante, the scherzo, the poco adagio, and the first flautist had put his head on the stand because he would not be needed until tomorrow, there came a passage that was called the forbidden music because it could not, the composer spec­ified, be played. And still it must exist and be passed over, an interval at the discretion of the conductor. But tonight, the con­ductor decides, it must be played—he has a hunger to make his name. The flautist wakes with a start. Something has happened to his ears, something he has never felt before. His sleep is over. Where am I now, he thinks. And then he repeated it, like an old man lying on the floor instead of in his bed. Where am I now?

The title brings to mind “Entartete Musik,” the attempt by the Nazis in the 1930s to ban or destroy music they considered “degenerate,” music by Jewish composers like Schoenberg, Eisler, Korngold, and Zemlinsky, but also music by Black composers.

“It could not, the composer specified, be played”: the mean­ing goes two ways. It could not be played because the composer wished it not to be played (it was forbidden), or it could not be played because it was too difficult to play (hence the conductor’s “hunger to make his name”). The two meanings perhaps meld in this poem, which to my ear is a nocturnal poem. The mystery is co-produced by what must not be played for occult reasons, and what is hard to play properly for technical reasons.

A myth we might define simply as a story that has always been there and that lives through its numerous, inconsistent retellings.

The flute is not the most characteristic of night instruments. The mandolin and the guitar, for instance, associated with sere­nades, are more directly present in Nachtmusik passages of works like Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. But the flute carries spiritual power; it is associated with the soul, and with aloneness. “Like an old man lying on the floor instead of in his bed”; to the andante, the scherzo, and the poco adagio we might add the fugue, the fugue state.

There is humor in “Where am I now?,” which acknowledges an orchestral player’s perpetual fear of losing her place in the music, but the main connotation here is the darker, existential one. This flautist is not the only figure who is at a loss in the book; he is not the only one who is overcome with fatigue and out of place. The speaker of another of the prose poems, “A Foreshortened Journey,” in a gesture of similar pathos, goes to sleep on a public staircase, and passersby say of him, “He is at that point in life at which nei­ther returning to the beginning nor advancing to the end seems bearable; therefore, he has decided to stop, here, in the midst of things.” Anyone who’s taken a nap too far into the evening knows how dangerous a game that is; you might wake up in a different day. Faithful and Virtuous Night is narcoleptic, and the sleep it so frequently evokes is a translucent one: Death is visible through it. You go to sleep and might not wake up at all.

The prose poems, with their frequent recourse to displace­ment and recursiveness, are indebted to Kafka. (Glück, in her Paris Review interview, mentions having gone back to his work on a friend’s recommendation.) I think of such stories of Kafka’s as “The Imperial Message,” in which a messenger is sent out with a message from the dying emperor for a “you,” but faces so many obstacles on the journey that the message is not delivered and can never be delivered. I think also of “Before the Law,” in which a man from the country arrives before the Law and finds a doorkeeper on guard who refuses to let him in. The man pleads in vain for days and months and years, until he becomes aged and close to death. Finally, with his dying breath, he asks the doorkeeper why no one else has come, all these years, to seek admission to the Law. “This door was intended only for you,” the doorkeeper says. “I am now going to shut it.”

But Kafka’s stories, which originate in parable, tend toward meaning. Even when the meaning is a frustrated search for mean­ing, or the impossibility of closing the gap between a story and its real meaning, a credible meaning is accessible. The prose poems of Faithful and Virtuous Night are not so directly soluble. This, I think, is because in addition to being stories, they are poems. They can­not be pure parables or fables; at best they are parabolic, fabular; and this is not a failure on their part.

At the same time, I am moved by Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka, The Nightmare of Reason, in which he speaks of the Talmudists and Kabbalists of Prague. Kafka, he writes, “was their child, last in a long line of disbelieving believers, wild visionaries with split vision who found two answers to every question and four new questions to every answer in seeking to probe the ulti­mate riddle of God.”

Well, he couldn’t have been the last. Louise Glück is of that lin­eage, too.


the poems i am discussing reached me in book form. Beginning with Averno in 2006, I have bought each of Glück’s books as it has been published. Each poem in each book exists in context with its fellows. There is a sequence; there is the experience of white space on the pages; there is the handsome design, the dust jacket over hard covers; and there is the memory of each time I reached for a volume in silence, and each time I read a poem out loud to a friend.

Winter Recipes from the Collective, which followed Faithful and Virtuous Night, was Glück’s last book of poems. Published in 2021, it runs forty pages and contains fifteen poems. (By way of comparison, there were fifty-four poems in The Wild Iris.) But Winter Recipes is not a slight work. It pushes forward and breaks new ground. The prose poems are gone, but the story-time feel­ing remains. The first poem in the book is called “Poem,” the last “Song.” “Poem” begins, “Day and night come / hand in hand like a boy and a girl.”

The cover of the book is pale, illustrated with a painting of a pheasant’s chick by the seventeenth-century Buddhist monk Bada Shanren. The painting’s Chinese inscription alludes to divestiture from worldly concerns. Gently, we are nudged toward a lightness, toward what the book’s long second poem, “The Denial of Death,” calls “that enviable emptiness into which / all things flow, like the empty cup in the Daodejing—.”

With simple diction, in vignettes easy to read but difficult to follow, as though told by a patient under hypnosis, the poems in the book return again and again to the questions of storytelling, of narration, of fiction. Several of them revisit the figure of the speaker’s sister, much explored in Glück’s previous work. The sis­ter is treated with the poet’s usual candor, though here also with a great deal of tenderness. But the poems in Winter Recipes seem drawn less from biography than from inner life, life as seen from behind closed eyelids. The fabular approach predominates.

“The Denial of Death” is a good example. The first section, titled “A Travel Diary,” begins midway through a journey in an unspecified land. We meet the speaker and the speaker’s companion, and we hear memories of their travels together and their dreams of other journeys. The atmosphere of felicity and the tranquil European setting recall lines from “Vita Nova,” the title poem of her 1999 book. “The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats. / Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.”

But in “The Denial of Death,” there’s very quickly trouble in Paradise. The speaker has misplaced her passport and is stuck in a kind of limbo. In the nine-line opening stanza, every third line has a “would,” shading it with a conditional hue:

I had left my passport at an inn we stayed at for a night or so

whose name I couldn’t remember. This is how it began.

The next hotel would not receive me,

a beautiful hotel, in an orange grove, with a view of the sea.

How casually you accepted

the room that would have been ours,

and, later, how merrily you stood on the balcony,

pelting me with foil-wrapped chocolates. The next day

you resumed the journey we would have taken together.

We understand that what is to follow is an account of life other­wise. The speaker is stranded, like the exhausted character who can neither ascend nor descend the steps in “A Foreshortened Journey.” The speaker’s companion has moved on, leaving the speaker to the kindness of strangers. Among these strangers are a concierge who “procured an old blanket for me” so that the speaker might camp outdoors, and a panoply of busboys who bring the speaker food. (The concierge is male; neither the speaker nor the speaker’s com­panion are identified by gender.) For a time, postcards arrive from the companion’s further travels, confirming the stasis into which the speaker has fallen—perhaps a month passes, “but really I had no idea of time.”

The first chronological wrinkle in the narrative arrives in the fifth stanza of the first section. The speaker seems to give an account of memories in that place with the companion: “I could see the cove where we used to swim, but not hear anymore / the children calling out to one another.” But how would that be possi­ble if the companion had only stayed one night before continuing on alone? The next stanza helps somewhat, as the speaker says, “I saw myself standing under the balcony in that rain of foil-covered kisses.” What seems here like a simple remembering is revealed to be some kind of do-over, because this time around, “the concierge, I realized, had been standing beside me.” The concierge, evoking Daoist precepts, tells the speaker, “You have begun your own jour­ney, / not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself and your memories.” And this wisdom seems to arrive precisely while the speaker is in those memories.

Time continues to eddy. The concierge adds, without irony, “Everything returns, but what returns is not / what went away—.” In a retake of the section’s opening scene, the companion leaves, now watched by both the speaker and the concierge.

The poem’s second section begins with a demonstration of this idea of recurrence which is also change. The lost passport is returned, and the speaker finds its return unbearable:

There was my face, or what had been my face

at some point, deep in the past.

But I had parted ways with it,

that face smiling with such conviction,

filled with all the memories of our travels together

and our dreams of other journeys—

The face is altered by suffering, as in Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, in which, outside the prison in Leningrad, the poet gives a woman a modicum of hope, and “something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.” The passport, with what had been the speaker’s face, is thrown into the sea and sinks “downward, downward” as the speaker stares into the empty water (the “emp­tiness into which / all things flow,” of which the concierge spoke). No matter how softly it is described, fate drives us in one direction only. In “Poem,” the poem with which Winter Recipes opens, there had been an account of a couple falling into oblivion: “Downward and downward and downward and downward / is where the wind is taking us.”

Like Marigold, like Father, Glück has been known to have a propensity to stop.

The passport is drowned in a sea but, in a gesture of substituting the small for the great, the speaker and the concierge begin to walk around a lake. The concierge returns again to the idea of divestiture, this time phrasing it as “that stillness at the heart of things.” Time passes, the concierge is not a young man anymore, and the speaker is also past youth; this change seems to happen in the blink of an eye, like when you look down and then look up to find that all of life has already happened. You thought you’d have more time! But things are moving “in a circle,” not in a line, the concierge insists, comparing the speaker’s passage through life to the hands of a clock. The children who were no longer audible in the first section are now present, splashing in the clear lake, “each body circled by a rubber tube.” The chronology is the wrong way around, as though the thing that happened later was already present as a memory when the speaker observed the thing that happened earlier.

The speaker’s struggle for basic competence in the workings of time prompts the concierge to suggest the speaker is perhaps too absorbed in the wrong problem:

You must ask yourself, he said, if you deceive yourself.

By which I mean looking at the watch and not

the hand holding it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But isn’t the life of the philosopher

exactly as you describe, I said. Going over the same course,

waiting for truth to disclose itself.

Going round in circles, the concierge suggests, only leads to wis­dom if you make things. In the speaker’s case (as in the case of the poet), that making involves writing, specifically telling stories, sto­ries that a reader might find intimate, accurate, and even personal. We might detect an ars poetica here:

             Remember when you kept what you called

your travel journal? You used to read it to me,

I remember it was filled with stories of every kind,

mostly love stories and stories about loss, punctuated

with fantastic details such as wouldn’t occur to most of us,

and yet hearing them I had a sense I was listening

to my own experience but more beautifully related

than I could ever have done. . . .

What had seemed to be dream logic is revealed as narrative strat­egy: the poem returns to where it started. The concierge has gotten so close to the speaker that he (the concierge) is shown to be—this is revealed to us, with minimal fanfare—the companion at the beginning of the poem, the one the speaker refers to three times in the opening stanza as “you”:

Concierge, I said. Concierge is what I called you.

And before that, you, which is, I believe,

a convention in fiction.

There was no abandonment, the poem’s final lines seem to sug­gest, only some lag of recognition. But that serene conclusion, that potentially consoling wisdom, is troubled by the “downward, downward” at the center of the poem.


a poet’s greatness depends on her discovery of a diction and the subsequent exploration of the path made possible by that diction. The argument I am making for a shift between Glück’s mature works and her late works is necessarily modest. The work is unified. After casting off the ill-fitting gothic affect of her debut collection, Firstborn (1968), Glück deployed a remarkably consistent vocabu­lary: lean, plaintive, thematically parsimonious, cool to the touch. And for a long time before these final books, her work had elements of myth, legend, fable, and parable. She has titled individual poems with these very words. Think of “A Parable” and “Legend” in The Triumph of Achilles; “A Fable” in Ararat (1990) as well as “A Fantasy” and “A Novel”; the several “Parable[s] of . . .” in Meadowlands (1996); and the three poems titled “Fable” in The Seven Ages (2001). But these are titles, and they do not necessarily deliver a demon­stration of the given form. The poem titled “A Novel” isn’t a novel.

In the content and affect of her later poems, there was a general shift from the exploration of myth to the exploration of fable. A myth we might define simply as a story that has always been there and that lives through its numerous, inconsistent retellings. A fable, meanwhile, is a fiction, and a fiction can be and often is new. Alongside its theological sibling the parable, the fable purports to teach a lesson. It is, we could say, about how to be, while a myth is about how things came to be.

Glück’s fabular turn has its origin in the fictions that constitute A Village Life (2009), the last volume included in Poems 1962–2012, whose made-up characters live their lives in a quasi-novelistic frame without recourse to mythical precedent. The turn was com­plete in Faithful and Virtuous Night, with the aid of the compression provided by the form of the prose poem. Winter Recipes from the Collective, while reverting to verse, continued the practice of nov­elistic invention.

The last book Glück published in her lifetime was not a volume of poems but “a fiction.” Marigold and Rose (2022) is a short book of prose, novella-length, in ten chapters. Its subject is the first year in the life of a pair of twins. Rose is social, capable. Marigold is intro­spective, anxious, and withdrawn. Stark differences, but mutually sustaining: “Together they included everything.” Marigold is a reader and writer, working on her first book, which is titled Mother’s Childhood. Greatness interests Marigold, and she is undaunted by the fact that she cannot, for now, actually read, or write, or even talk. She can at least think, as can Rose. Over the course of the book, Rose begins to talk, “in loud gusts and torrents,” not in words, but Marigold remains outside speech: it is her thoughts that are torren­tial. Many of her thoughts are about what it means to tell a story. She longs for “adulthood with its vast cargo of words.”

There are other characters in this fiction. There is Mother, who is more like Rose. There is Father, who is more like Marigold. There is Grandmother, and Other Grandmother, and a Grandfather as well. It is a prelapsarian world, one that easygoing Rose accepts unquestioningly. But Marigold—ah, Marigold—she has intima­tions of future loss. “Everything will disappear,” she thinks to herself, and is puzzled that Rose just lives as though that weren’t the case.

Marigold and Rose evokes, in enchanting form, the spirit of childhood. It is the spirit of beginning on the great enterprise, the fresh unstained pages of life. When we think of Glück as a poet of earliest experience, we naturally recall the famous lines from “Nostos”: “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” Things are somewhat more agonized in “Night Thoughts,” from Winter Recipes: “There is no one alive anymore / who remembers me as a baby.” That poem’s end is a memorable account of the transition from infant wordlessness into verbality:

All too soon I emerged

my true self,

robust but sour,

like an alarm clock.

Marigold and Rose is a work of ringing sympathy with the first glimpses of the world, and is preoccupied by the question of how a self becomes a self. A chapter titled “Once Time” opens:

Long, long ago, Marigold wrote. And then she stopped. I am Father all over again, she thought. Which she was, the Mother half being largely silent. It will come later, Rose said. She had lots of the Mother half but lived in hopeful expectation of wak­ing up one day to find Father had surfaced in the night. That would be the way, she thought.

Marigold stopped because she did not know where to go next. But perhaps you never knew, Marigold thought. Greatness, she felt, would not come easily to her.

Marigold is like “Father all over again” in their shared propensity to stop. This may lead us to ask about this book’s relationship to life, to the life of the author. It is a fiction, made up, but it is also true that, like Marigold, like Father, Glück has been known to have a propensity to stop. Her career was marked by long, painful peri­ods during which she couldn’t write at all. Marigold shows some of her creator’s agonized patience, her willingness to wait for the next book to “take shape”:

Marigold was a strong-willed baby who had overcome great odds, given how little she was when she was born. But what was happening was not willed. Of that she was sure. This was why she trusted it. She could never, naturally, trust herself. She trusted her book, but even so she was having problems. . . .

Once time, Marigold repeated to herself, leaving out the upon. She was trying to hear what the book wanted. Then she listened and waited. But the book was completely silent in that way of nonexistent things. I will wait as long as I have to, Marigold thought. When the book is ready to talk it will talk. Like us, Marigold thought. Like Rose and me.

Writing comes from listening. But writing also comes from know­ing how to be at odds with the world: “Marigold was difficult. Well, life was difficult, she thought.”

“Difficult” Marigold, robust and sour Marigold, is Rose’s more inward other: call her Glück.

Marigold and Rose has a parabolic mood. The possible readings are multifarious. Certainly one thinks of the various roles sister­hood has played in Glück’s work, the numerous poems about the sister who died in infancy before Glück was born, the numerous poems about her other, younger sister, who was an ally and a rival, and a kind of twin. As Glück writes in “Tango,” from Descending Figure (1980):


how we used to dance? Inseparable,

back and forth across the living room,

Adios Muchachos, like an insect

moving on a mirror: envy

is a dance, too; the need to hurt

binds you to your partner.

The specter of these sisterhoods hovers over the pages of Marigold and Rose. It is also true that Glück became grandmother to a pair of twins in 2020, and it is they to whom the book is dedi­cated. But I want to suggest a further reading, one in keeping with the idea that this fiction is not up to quite the same thing as the quasi-confessional poetry of her earlier work. I want to suggest that Marigold and Rose can be read as a story about the distinct personae Glück feels inside herself. “Beautiful Rose, lovable Rose” is beautiful Louise, lovable Louise. She is the social self, friend to many, teacher and colleague to countless, winner of prizes, shopper at Formaggio, writer of letters, diner out in Vermont, Cambridge, and New Haven. “Difficult” Marigold, robust and sour Marigold, is Rose’s more inward other: call her Glück. She’s the one who pos­sesses an inwardness that expresses itself as ambition, focus, and achievement:

Marigold had understood since she was very little (really very, very little) that it was necessary to acquire the discipline of stay­ing inside the lines before you began the great work of drawing outside them.

I am enchanted above all by that parenthetical “really very, very little.” Glück knew all along what she was. The great work lay ahead. With her on the journey was her capable and generous twin, Louise. The private self and the public self; the rider and the horse; the mind and the body: this elemental, unnameable division inside a wild vision­ary with split vision, those binaries alive in her all the way to the end. “Except it isn’t the end, Marigold thought. It’s the beginning.”

Or, as the concierge says, no longer did she move in a straight line but rather “in a circle which aspires to / that stillness at the heart of things.”

“Forbidden Music” and “The Horse and Rider” from Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück. Excerpt from “The Denial of Death” from Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück. Excerpt from “Once Time” from Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2014, 2021, 2022 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and The Wylie Agency LLC. All rights reserved.

Teju Cole is a Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. He is the author of the novels Open City and Tremor and the essay collections Known and Strange Things and Black Paper.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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