Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2020 review – a grand introduction to the Nobel prize winner

When Louise Glück won the Nobel prize last year, she was, to many in the UK, an unknown quantity. Even though she had been garlanded with literary awards in the US and faithfully published by Carcanet in Britain, she is a poet who never seeks attention. To read her is to encounter stillness and slow time. There is a bare-branched, midwinter feeling to her writing, a leaflessness that has its own beauty. This month, Penguin is presiding over a grand introduction – or reintroduction – to her work, bringing out the collected poems (also including 2006’s Averno, a reimagining of Persephone’s story and one of her finest volumes).

Glück could not have written her poems had Emily Dickinson never existed (she confessed in her Nobel acceptance speech to having devoured Dickinson’s poetry in her teens). But unlike Dickinson, Gluck’s approach is non-ecstatic: she is more undeceived than exalted, not an obvious believer in the sublime. And she is a poet not of dashes but of full stops: she comes repeatedly to a halt to consider. From the beginning, she has been concerned with endings, declaring recently in Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014):

It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
En efecto, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.

She writes about aftermaths (como, to some extent, all poets do) but revisits childhood, her relationship with her mother, the death of her sister and parents, the end of her marriage and old age with bleak and revelatory precision. There is often in her poems a hint of danger, the possibility of cancellation. The Fire (1975) is a wonderful performance, anchored in pain, in which she builds “of pine and apple wood” a mini-funeral pyre to signify the death of a relationship. In another splendidly contrived poem, Here Are My Black Clothes, from the same period, she imagines offering an ex-lover a helping of her version of widow’s weeds.

Si Sharon Olds is America’s poet of the body, Glück is the poet of the soul (she uses the word yet admits its difficulty). I had noted down the word “incorporeal” to describe her poetry before learning about the anorexia that brutally disrupted her education as a young woman. I find it tempting to connect this experience, however loosely, to her poetry’s striving for purity, wish to shed the body and to omit the noisily and superfluously quotidian.

In an early interview, Glück confessed to policing her poetry to check on repeated adjectives. But what strikes me – and this is no flaw – is a repeated noun. Throughout her writing, “window” appears and reappears – not always yielding a view. Windows frame darkness, rain and snow. She holds her son up to a window to look out. She stares at her own reflection and sees her father. In Twilight (2009), ella escribe: “In the window, not the world but a squared off landscape/ representing the world.” The window establishes her poetic position: the sense of life being at a slight remove, a view from a sill – an edge.

The collected poems remind one that what makes Glück singular is the sense that each poem is surprised by its own existence. These are not the work of a poet swankily in possession of her material. You feel Glück does not own anything. She is someone who happens to find herself alive and wonders at it (as we all must), a guest at her own careful feast.

Tonight I saw myself in the dark window as
the image of my father, whose life
was spent like this,
thinking of death, to the exclusion
of other sensual matters,
so in the end that life
was easy to give up, ya que
it contained nothing: even
my mother’s voice couldn’t make him
change or turn back
as he believed
that once you can’t love another human being
you have no place in the world.

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