Louise Glück is considered by many to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets. Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing,” and her poetry is noted for its technical precision, sensitivity and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death. Frequently described as 'spare,' James K. Robinson in Contemporary Women Poets also noted that “Glück’s poetry is intimate, familial, and what Edwin Muir has called the fable, the archetypal.”
Rosanna Warren has described Glück’s “classicizing gestures” – her frequent reworking of Greek and Roman myths such as Persephone and Demeter, for example – as necessary to her lyric project. According to Warren, Glück’s “power [is] to distance the lyric ‘I’ as subject and object of attention” and to “impose a discipline of detachment upon urgently subjective material.” Glück’s early books feature personae grappling with the aftermaths of failed love affairs, disastrous family encounters, and existential despair, and her later work continues to explore the agony of the self. In the New York Times, critic William Logan described her work as “the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse – starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.”
Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. Her first book of poetry, Firstborn (1968), was recognized for its technical control as well as its collection of disaffected, isolated narratives. Helen Vendler commented on Glück’s use of story in The New Republic review of The House on Marshland (1975). “Glück’s cryptic narratives invite our participation: we must, according to the case, fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can utter her lines, decode the import, ‘solve’ the allegory,” Vendler maintained. But she added that “later, I think . . . we read the poem, instead, as a truth complete within its own terms, reflecting some one of the innumerable configurations into which experience falls.”
The poetry in books such as Firstborn, The House on Marshland, The Garden (1976), Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Ararat (1990), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris (1992) take readers on an inner journey by exploring their deepest, most intimate feelings. “Glück has a gift for getting the reader to imagine with her, drawing on the power of her audience to be amazed,” observed Anna Wooten in The American Poetry Review, and Stephen Dobyns maintained in The New York Times Book Review that “no American poet writes better than Louise Glück, perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own nature.”
Glück’s ability to create poetry that many people can understand, relate to, and experience intensely and completely stems from her deceptively straightforward language and poetic voice. In a review of Glück’s The Triumph of Achilles, Wendy Lesser noted in The Washington Post Book World that “‘direct’ is the operative word here: "Glück’s language is staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech. Yet her careful selection for rhythm and repetition, and the specificity of even her idiomatically vague phrases, give her poems a weight that is far from colloquial.” Lesser went on to remark that “the strength of that voice derives in large part from its self-centeredness – literally, for the words in Glück’s poems seem to come directly from the center of herself.”
Because Glück writes so effectively about disappointment, rejection, loss, and isolation, reviewers frequently refer to her poetry as “bleak” or “dark.” The Nation’s Don Bogen felt that Glück’s “basic concerns” were “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it . . . She is at heart the poet of a fallen world.” Stephen Burt, reviewing her collection Averno (2006), noted that “few poets save [Sylvia] Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.” Readers and reviewers have also marveled at Glück’s gift for creating poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subjects. Holly Prado declared in a Los Angeles Times Book Review piece on The Triumph of Achilles (1985) that Glück’s poetry works “because she has an unmistakable voice that resonates and brings into our contemporary world the old notion that poetry and the visionary are intertwined.”
Glück’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, The Wild Iris (1998), clearly demonstrates her visionary poetics. The book, written in three segments, is set in a garden and imagines three voices: flowers speaking to the gardener-poet, the gardener-poet, and an omniscient god figure. In The New Republic, Helen Vendler described how “Glück’s language revived the possibilities of high assertion, assertion as from the Delphic tripod. The words of the assertions, though, were often humble, plain, usual; it was their hierarchic and unearthly tone that distinguished them. It was not a voice of social prophecy but of spiritual prophecy – a tone that not many women had the courage to claim."
Of Glück’s Poems 1962-2013 (2013), Adam Plunkett at The New Republic said, “what emerges from this new, comprehensive collection – spanning the entirety of her career – is a portrait of a poet who has issued forth a good deal of venom but is now writing, excellently, in a softer vein.” This softness is ever apparent, even in poems about deep loss, such as in the fourth section of ‘A Summer Garden’ (originally published as 'Nocturne' in the December 2013 issue of Poetry) which begins: “Mother died last night,/Mother who never dies.” Throughout the poem, solace is built with images of beautiful domesticities, such as the fragrance of “Hyacinth and apple blossom” and folded laundry that forms “dry white rectangles of moonlight.” These domesticities combine with the unending cyclical calendar, whose presence continues through the final lines:
as it had been the ninth, the eigth.
Mother slept in her bed,
her arms outstretched, her head
balanced between them.
The persistence of loss is also present in ‘Aboriginal Landscape’:
You know, he said, our work is difficult: we confront
much sorrow and disappointment.
He gazed at me with increasing frankness.
I was like you once, he added, in love with turbulence.
Although permeated by loss, there is something comforting in these poems, which seem to just barely sidestep complete isolation. In ‘A Summer Garden,’ the presence of songs (even those about isolation) and images of daily life (“the dishes were in the sink, / rinsed but not stacked”) remind us that life continues, even when it confronts “much sorrow and disappointment.”
In 2003 Glück was named the twelfth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Library of Congress. That same year, she was named the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her book of essays Proofs and Theories (1994) was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction. In addition to the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, she has received many awards and honors for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, a Sara Teasdale Memorial Prize, the MIT Anniversary Medal and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2008, she was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award.
Firstborn, New American Library, New York, 1968
The House on Marshland, Ecco Press, New York, 1975
The Garden, Antaeus, New York, 1976
Descending Figure, Ecco Press, New York, 1980
The Triumph of Achilles, Ecco Press, New York, 1985
Ararat, Ecco Press, New York, 1990
The Wild Iris, Ecco Press, New York, 1992
The First Four Books of Poems, Ecco Press, New York, 1995
Meadowlands, Ecco Press, New York, 1996
Vita Nova, Ecco Press, New York, 1999
The Seven Ages, Ecco Press New York, 2001
October (chapbook), Sarabande Books, Louisville, 2004
Averno, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2006
A Village Life, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2010
Poems 1962-2012, Farrar, Straus, Girous, 2013
(Editor, with David Lehman) The Best American Poetry 1993, Collier, New York, 1993
Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry, Ecco Press, New York, 1994
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Summer Garden’ read by Louise Glück
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Afterword’ read by Louise Glück
PoetryFoundation.org, Poetry Magazine Podcast: ‘Dumb Pig Fate’, audio recording
The New Republic: ‘The Knife: The Sharp Poetry of Louise Glück’
The New York Times: ‘Verses Wielded Like a Razor: Louise Glück: ‘Poems 1962-2012’'
The New York Review of Books: ‘The Triumph of the Survivor’
The Academy of American Poets:
‘For a Dollar: Louise Glück in Conversation’