Poetry is not a Diary — Thoughts on Louise Glück’s poetry, and a bit about her prose
“Glück’s verses often reflect her preoccupation with dark themes — isolation, betrayal, fractured family and marital relationships, death,” (Gramblin).
What’s funny about her, as far as I am concerned, is that her essays are better than her poetry, which was good, but not profound in my humble opinion. Her essays, Proofs and Theories (one of the best books I have ever read) and American Originality — Essays On Poetry, which was recently purchased and I have not read, is the stuff of genius.
Let me give you an example. Glück begins her chapter in Proofs and Theories entitled “Obstinate Humanity,” (p. 65) a chapter about Robinson Jeffers with this sentence: “Robinson Jeffers appears to be a poet other poets chasti[s]e eloquently.” The entirety of that statement is intellectually satisfying. This man, Jeffers, is a poet and other poets chastise him, they reprimand him, as if better than, as if they have something to say about his poetry that is more eloquent than he, but then Glück says that they do so “eloquently,” which is not to say that they are accurate in their criticism, but at least they are interesting in how they talk about it.
As someone, who is more interested in how someone says something and less so about what they have to say, I might be obliged to listen, but then as indicated by my questioning of someone’s writing, in this case Glück’s, and her depth, I might want to reserve the right to say that I am also conscious of content and argument as well as how those things are conveyed.
Glück writes with such beauty as a prose writer that it is poetry. It is complex and beautiful. Here is that whole first paragraph:
“Robinson Jeffers appears to be a poet other poets chasti[s]e eloquently. That is: the inducement to literary reprimand is in proportion to the stakes: the grandeur, the more fundamental the objection, the more inviting the project. The remarkable poems of his little genre, Milosz’s and Hass’s, are devoid of flamboyant condescension, at least insofar as the living can avoid flaunting their ongoing development at the immobile dead. “So brave in a void/ you offered sacrifices to demons”: so Milosz addresses Jeffers. If not exactly tribute, this is nevertheless a particular species of reproach: giant to giant.”
Every paragraph is a work of art. She can articulate the poems and what they mean. She is fascinating. I can imagine her as an English Professor. I would just drink it all up, every word. Having said that however, I have to say that a better poet, at least insofar as one book is concerned is Lyn Hejinian’s my life and my life in the nineties. The poems there are far more complex and weighty than any of Glück’s. There is a thing Hejinian does that I cannot tell you, you will have to find what I am talking about. It brings her work to the highest level. I would spoil it for you if I told you. Poem’s are not just a contemplation, but a commandeering of words. There is a self-centeredness to Glück the Hejinian poems avoid because they are about language. Hejinian is a craftsperson, an artist. We aren’t thinking about her. Poetry is not a diary:
“Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father…,’ (Glück, p. 242)
“Being a woman isn’t a condition so much as it’s a motivation, with momentum, occurring at various velocities and with diverse trajectories,” (Hejinian, p. 105).
“The artist doesn’t paint clouds, she paints time, she paints with the eye of enduring. The sentence, an island only temporarily and tentatively colonized, sails, an aphorism on a page painted by a stranger,” (my life…117).
The following is how Sylvia Plath would talk about her father indirectly. Poetry has a distance, a filter by which it’s message passes into our mind. Glück knows this. Her essays prove this. She is able to explain poetry.
In the following poem by Sylvia Plath called “Child,” Plath is no doubt talking about her child and how she wants to raise it differently than what she experienced. Her father, or even her husband, is the subject inherent in the complaint, but the complaint is rendered in a sophisticated way.
“Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The Zoo of the new…
“…Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.”
I am no expert. I just have my opinions. When I was reading Glück’s Poems 1962–2012, I had just read Hass’s The Apple Trees of Olema, whose work was emotionally even-keeled and flawless, and I was less impressed with Louise Glück’s poetry. Louis Zukofsky in A, works with words in the way James Joyce does in Ulysses. There are things that come out of you and those that have been tinkered with. I read for language and style, how something is said, and less about content/meaning.
“What is a poet
I lie awake; I feel
actual flesh upon me,
meaning to silence me —
Outside, in the blackness
over the olive trees,
a few stars.”
In this poem, I see something deeper appear. It is the reference to “flesh that is upon her,” like another person, not welcome or welcome, but it is not allowing her to be herself, to speak. It’s a kind of rape. She doesn’t seem to be able to say, “No.” There is something haunting in that. She could also be in bed, indifferent but aware and unhappy with her having to lie there perhaps playing a role but not enjoying it. It’s like she is looking off into space, where something like a sexual act is taking place and she is disembodied.
And yet, I question it, and I do so by announcing my own observations, as if they are better, authoritative. I claim a poet has wounds from bumping into the furniture and from doing drugs, drinking. But, as a poet, I do not drink and write, and I tend to miss the furniture, and certainly I do not take drugs, which contradicts my argument:
A poet without dreams? A poet is a summarizer, a keen observer. He is scurrying around gathering scraps. He measures the light in the neighborhood. He hears music and sees shadow. He sees the humming bird appear and disappear. He looks at the texture of the blue astroturf and the cacti. He sees the collection of paintings and photographs, a room he’s worked on, and he still sees death. He has no relevance to the planning that goes into living. He is always so full of information that he bumps into things. Knicks the corners of furniture. Look for bruises and you will find a poet. Look for needle marks. Look for the bottle. So, maybe there is enough depth to the poem with the line about pressing flesh and its unwanted pressure.
One of my favorites:
“Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor —
Bergen street.” (Zukofsky, which Glück cited in Proofs and Theories and thus I feel in love with Zukofsky)
“The virtue of the mind
Is that emotion
To see” (Zukofsky)
Here is a poem “Nostalgia” by Mark Strand, which I feel is a good example of great poetry:
“The professors of English have taken their gowns
to the laundry, have taken themselves to the fields.
Dreams of motion circle the Persian rug in a room
you were in.
On the beach the sadness of gramophones
deepens the ocean’s folding and falling.
It is yesterday. It is still yesterday.”
In terms of poetry, I do not remember Glück doing something like this.
In ekphrastic response to the Strand poem, I wrote this:
“Maybe it was in summer that I saw the birds, collected consciousness, overlooking the nostalgic view. I thought for a second of the timeless landscape of the two women looking back, both of the same type with their hands at their sides.
The waves wash sheepishly crouching under a spotted sky. I see in the torment of this otherwise barren place some signal of the connection to the figures of their dream. What is this fluidity of what has risen from the ocean and now looks back, hearing and feeling something that would drown? We say goodbye to the water almost as soon as we have met. And we do so just to be sure that it remains.
We may not share the actual words that bridge this gap, but we speak in terms to that affect: As long as there are Andrei Tarkovskys and those who know Tarkovsky, the world may be seen in this light.”
And in discussions with a friend, I wrote the following about Strand’s poem:
I believe you are correct about a poem meaning anything given individual interpretations and experiences, but meaning must also derive from denotation and connotation as indicated by the language within which it is written.
I admit “professors of English” as written by a successful poet “have taken their gowns to the laundry,” may not express hypocrisy of those professors, but to me it relates to judges in their robes having to cleanse themselves of bad judgements.
Horses go out to pasture to heal or because they are no longer of use.
“Renewal” then is inherent in a willingness to go to the laundry or out to the field to die.
“Memory” is inherent in both phrases: “longing for yesterday” and “dreams” of the person in a room as motion remind.
“Sounds” come from phonographs.
“The unknown depth of our souls” refers to a feeling that cannot be expressed. The only time language has meaning is when both parties know the concept or thing that is named.
Perhaps, “the ungraspable intent” is a bit confusing. What I meant to imply was that as the poem goes, there isn’t certainty as with this meaning debate we are having as to the poet’s or persona’s exact intention with this image of professors going to the laundry or out to a field. It is surrealistic. We wade in the reality of a good poem only up to our calves, we don’t quite touch it with our hands but we know it feels good on a hot day, when feet need the pampering of water against otherwise entombed toes.
What specifically then that a poet says that announces his meaning or intent is mere wording. How he says something, what grammatical angularity he uses, denotation or connotation lying there.
“We can never escape how the past colors our view of the present” does not imply a desire to escape the past, but it does say one effects the other. Yes, poem=soul insofar as the poem communicates to the soul. I am not sure if there are levels of souls as there are levels of poems, and perhaps a great poem like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” could ever communicate to a person who didn’t like good poems to begin with. But, a poem is a list of grammatically infused words, whereas a soul is the inner temple of being. At best, a poem can trigger a description of that temple, give a whisper as to how that temple feels inside. A poem then can be a “swirling of paralleled angst” in that angst or catharsis is the emotion that swirls in a good poem and in the reader.
As it is with Zen, you good Buddhist, a poem is not a container but like the contemplation of water in a container that does not touch that within which it is contained, i.e. the space between ladder rungs. A poem is profound shared meaning.
I am connected to Strand. I am not as connected to the poetry of Glück.