On October 13th, unexpectedly, the world lost one of its greatest poets. Louise Glück, the most recent AGNI contributor to win the Nobel Prize, died just two weeks after a cancer diagnosis. Many fellow writers in Boston and beyond lost a dear friend. We’re collecting some of their reflections and appreciations here.
“Those of us who write books presumably wish to reach readers,” Louise Glück wrote (typically sardonic!), “but some poets do not see reaching many . . . as in a filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporarily, sequentially, over time, into the future, but in some profound way those readers always come singly, one by one.”
I’m not sure I remember when I first became aware of her, but it was early on.
As a youngish poet though her elder, I saw the relentless ferocity in writing that was at the same time always—fiercely—beautiful. Her poetry is fearless, and was from the beginning.
I’ve always thought of Louise’s collection The Wild Iris (maybe my favorite early- middle Glück)—a book of eloquent elegant poems, elegiac and defiant, written in the “voices” of flowers (she was as passionate and exacting a gardener as she was an artist)—as a beautiful sequence whose poems also embody the intensity of her lyric voice. The garden’s voices (the iris, the red poppy, etc.) articulate a panorama of human feelings, their maker’s range.
That voice triumphed again and again over her many subsequent books, haunting, unsentimental, defying ease, yet often witty, upending convention. The poems were always always fascinating, each new body of work’s ferocity and elegance—and pain—leading, even changing the reader. With each collection, she meets new challenges she set for herself.
Her challenges are ours, too. I’ll continue to love, and learn from, and be grateful for, them.
Cambridge, October 15, 2023
Dear Louise. I am tempted to repeat that phrase, over and over, in my shock at losing her so suddenly. I have been reading her poems since 1975 when The House on Marshland, her second book, came out. I met her in the early 1980s when I moved to Boston. The Triumph of Achilles had—not “appeared,” as publishers say, but made its apparition, opening with the astonishing, bitter, radical “Mock Orange,” followed soon after by the still more astonishing Ararat. “Widows,” in that book, became a talisman for me, about a ruthless card game that’s also a Glückian ars poetica: “in the end, / the one who has nothing wins.” In book after book, each volume almost shouldering aside the achievements of its predecessor, Louise pioneered the arts of reduction and truth-telling. Her own via negative.
When we were first getting to know each other, I made the mistake of asking her, on the telephone, “How are you?” Grim silence. Then her reply: “Dread and rancor.” Pure Louise: sardonic wit, self-satire, honesty, refusal of social niceties. “What are you saying,” ask the Field Flowers in The Wild Iris. “That you want / eternal life? Are your thoughts really / as compelling as all that?” She was bracingly kind as well as truthful: her truthfulness was a form of kindness. She was woven into our family in three distinct friendships: with my daughter Chiara, my nephew Noah, and with me. I pored over each word of the several French translations of her books, checking them for her French publisher. We are, each of us, grieving distinctly. And perhaps she tried to prepare herself and others for her death—sudden as it was—in the eerie landscape of Faithful and Virtuous Night, which explores fable after fable of divestment:
I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.
(“Faithful and Virtuous Night”)
January morning at 236 Bay State Road, Room 222. Desks in a circle, everyone silent and watching Louise. Because I was alphabetically first in our group of poets, I was first to have Louise workshop my poem. She starts with this: “The title. This is an amazing title. Brilliant title, ‘Clown Applying Face Paint.’ The rest of the poem? Throw it in the trash can.” I transcribed her words into my black Moleskine notebook, “Throw . . . in . . . trash . . . can.” The rhymed, metered exercise I shared was nothing like the original poem I’d written, about my dad, who was selling cars at the time, asking me as he left for work one morning, “Do you ever just get tired of smiling? Like it hurts to smile?” When I told Louise, she said, “Now that is the poem I want to read. Bring it in. This? No.” She went on to explain, down to the syllable, what was artificial and tired in my poem. I was grateful—and mortified.
Always, her generosity in close reading, open conversation, and honest reaction, her eerie intuition about what a poem was doing and might do, and the fact that she was a poetry polygraph—nothing untruthful stayed—were revelatory. It was harder when she liked a poem. No human being is perfect, but Louise’s poetry is. I carry that perfect voice around with me, grateful knowing I had the dumb luck to be part of that circle.
Today, five days since her death, I taught “October,” Louise’s revision of Keats, to an introductory creative writing class. It wasn’t entirely a failure. We talked about enjambment, ideas of decline, how someone terrified might speak, and how that might look in writing. We talked about how poems can console (“you are not alone, / the poem said, / in the dark tunnel”), about the lingering suspicion that the world of appearances, however beautiful, is false. Of course, “we talked” is a euphemism. As her wardrobe always did, her poems take for granted a fine discrimination in gray tones, and an impatient familiarity with their ersatzes. These are hard qualities to impart before their time, especially in southern California.
Yet I was my students’ age, nineteen, when I walked into her classroom, fell under her spell. A warm fall in New Haven: the heavy windows open. We were all seated when she came in, wearing tasteful black, arranged herself at the head of the room, and took attendance, with a brusque seriousness I later learned to recognize as nerves. I remember a feeling of surprising relief after the first workshop, when, after letting my classmates mince words, she dismantled my poem (“Narcissus in the Bath”) so thoroughly that nothing remained, except for half-lines floating like errant strands of DNA. It was the first time I felt I had been read deeply and generously, and I knew the result, though hard, was fair.
The clarity of that justice, and the cosmogony it bespoke—where truth was rare, but latent, and could often be cut down to, arrived at—exhilarated me. I’d grown up with Bush-era doublespeak, I’d learned the fine art of bullshitting through a seminar, and now I had to pay for it. She delivered the verdict gently, resignedly, after a cold read that could excruciate for minutes. “Mixed bag.” It was as relieving as its shadow, Obama’s Hope. I loved her for it.
I thought that the clarity I felt during these scenes of examination—at the cluttered kitchen tables of her condo in Cambridge and, later, her rental in Berkeley—could be carried outward, that it would light the opacity I found everywhere as an adolescent. If I must, sadly, report that the world remains obscure, at the same time the optimism that lay behind her stark edits, and the amount of time she devoted to working with others’ drafts, sketched for me an ethics and a litmus. It was under that sign that I saw her last, when she married my wife, Aria Aber, and me, in early August. Her blessing was just a few sentences long. She spoke frankly of the luck and the difficulty that comes when two writers find each other. She spoke from experience: there was no padding, no false hope. There was deep goodwill. In the photographs she’s beaming. Slight, wearing black in August, the ocean behind her.
A newbie approached her as, you imagine, a newbie approached Sontag: in a trance of consummate intimidation, clutched by an awe for her genius and a mercy for the carefully fortified frailty beneath it.
If you were tasked with conducting a substantive profile of her, the task began with another task: convincing her to do it. She might have to tell you again about how she loathes profiles and interviews, about having to revise herself “out of banality and hyperbolic extravagances,” at which point you’d think: Banality? You? Because you’d never before beheld a poet less capable of banality.
Notes from her might have to follow, notes about her dislike of being photographed, or ceding control, or “the idea of simply reciting old histories and old opinions, performing the self, learning nothing.” Performing the self. Glance around at all the performers among us. She wasn’t one of them. No, she asserted the self—the Self—and in so doing made the assertion art. But the necessity of that photograph would loom like an axe ready to fell the operation: “The photo may take the whole thing off the table,” and then another note about the “state of agitated horror over the photos.” You’d have to carefully, carefully coax her from that state.
If on a spring afternoon you were to stroll from your home to hers, just a few blocks east, you might find her there in the back, in the small sanctuary of a garden she’d made, and whether that week’s yield was bountiful or not, you’d later be strolling back with a paper bag of basil and thyme for that evening’s pasta. If it was winter and New England had just been dumped upon, you might arrive to see a snow shovel stabbed there into the plowed alp by her curb, an invitation to clear the sidewalk and driveway, which you’d immediately set about doing. And in the panting ache of it you might recall lines from her poem “First Snow”: “So the snow has to fall, sleep has to come. / Because the mother’s sick to death of her life / and needs silence”—hoping, by this time, that this mother’s not sick to death of you, as your own mother came to be by your tenth birthday, and vanished.
If you happened to have young sons, she might impart detailed remembrances of raising her own son. And she’d teach you this, in her poem “Brown Circle,” a wisdom you badly needed then and are still trying to carry now: “I must learn / to forgive my mother, / now that I’m helpless / to spare my son.”
Arranging to meet for dinner with Frank Bidart and you—it was Viale in Central Square, Cambridge, when it wasn’t her and Frank’s preference for Chinese, Zoe’s on Beacon Street, just over the border in Somerville—she might have to let you know: “The next weeks are ghastly.” She was off to San Fran, or New Haven, or New York; proofs lay waiting her hand; student poems, student papers too. Packing for ten weeks in California would, she half-joked, “ruin” her life. You’d tell her: Do just a toothbrush; don’t do the whole house. And she’d say: “I do the house.”
And you’d ponder that word: Ghastly, yes, that’s precisely what these next weeks are, though for you they’d be ghastly in different ways, for different reasons. Though perhaps not. Perhaps the world’s demands for certain writers, the incessant chores it gives us to live, are always ghastly in diverting our energies from where we need and want them: on the literature, the books we read to sustain us, and the books we write in a bid to join the sustenance.
Finally at Viale or Zoe’s, her poise and beauty unflustered, she wouldn’t let you touch the check when it came, though you tried. She’d want you to bring your young sons to dinner—“Our largesse expands to include all your relations”—and you’d have to tell her that they are a veritable wrecking crew that would not leave you three space to eat, would leave no plate, no glass unshattered. And only too late would you realize that she wanted this not for your sake, but for her own, to be enlivened by the youth of your boys as she was once enlivened by her own—her own boy, her own youth.
If you have an acid reflux malady that’s never happier than when you’re swallowing rice, and this acid reflux announces itself at Zoe’s, forcing you to dash into the restroom to gag and heave in peace, you might return to the table to find her not pleased—maternally, it seemed to you. Because you’ve been looking for the maternal your entire life, spotting it where it is and where it isn’t. “Do see your doctor,” she’d say. “You probably don’t have one. See somebody’s doctor. This isn’t one of my personal disorders.” And if by the next time you saw her you had not seen your doctor about this personal disorder, you expected and deserved the ear-load she dished you.
Maybe, by some chance, you had been a competitive bodybuilder in your New Jersey youth, and maybe she’d come across a photo of you from those peacocking years, on stage in a competition, and you might get a note about that photo: “That’s you? Modeling for porn mags?”
If you committed the error of telling her how sweet she’s always been to you—because in the nook of New Jersey you come from sweet means kindness dished with a gentle, comprehending hand—you’d then have to brace for a fierce if tiny lecture on what sweet means in the nook she came from, “a synonym for insipid, reeking faintly of duplicity.” You’d never quite see the word sweet the same way again, though you’d never stop thinking of her as such.
If your wife was round with your third son, a note from her might say, simply: “Three little boys? Good Christ,” and you’d grin because the thought was yours exactly: Good Christ. One son she could understand. Three she could not. “Are you collecting children?”
Perhaps a note arrives one afternoon, beginning: “I’ve been thinking of you”—five words that are the only five you wanted to hear that day, provided they came from her. Because her words meant and mean more than the words of the multitude. Because when the Nobel Committee called, you and a million others thought: Yup. That’s right. And because when the end came too soon after, you and that same million thought: No. And then: What now?
Well, what now? But don’t you see? The words now. The eternal. There she is.