Louise Glück’s Way of Telling the Truth

Louise Glück is one of those American poets who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.

Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:

I’ll tell you

what I meant to be-

a device that listened…

Not inert. Still.

A piece of wood. A stone.

I was born to a vocation

to bear witness

to the great mysteries.

The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.

Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?

They leave here, that’s the point,

first their bodies, then their sad cries.

And from that moment cease to exist for us.

You must learn to think of our passion that way.

Each kiss was real, then

each kiss left the face of the earth.

Winning the National Book Awards for poetry in 2014.

She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.

Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.

The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.

I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.

8 thoughts on “Louise Glück’s Way of Telling the Truth”

  1. Really interesting post Marina Sofia. I find her working backwards intriguing, I would have assumed it was the drafting and redrafting a poem that finally brought the writer to the abstract, not the other way round. I really like her idea of ‘distilled utterances’ too – I’ve not read Gluck but from this I think I’d like her – I’ll hunt down some of her work now, thanks!

  2. This is fascinating! Thank you for sharing some of her work, Marina Sofia. Restraint and self-possession can be powerful tools, and you see that just in the few bits you’ve shared. I love that line: When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.

  3. Excellent post — and reassuring and encouraging to read ” Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.”

  4. Maybe that’s why I have trouble getting into some of her poems: “find[ing] a real-life example to relate” to an “abstract insight” is the opposite of what interests me. For me the small moments of life are everything, the universe in a grain of sand, as Blake put it. Still, I was pleased to see she won the Nobel.

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