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The verse of Louise Gluck has been described as technically precise, grim, and insightful. She often uses myth to explore the universally and emotionally painful experiences involving family, relationships, and death. She has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was the U.S. poet laureate from 2003 to 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Wild Iris. in recent years, she has taught poetry at prestigious universities across the United States and is currently on the faculty at Yale University.
Biographical and Historical Context
On April 22, 1943, Gluck was born to a Wellesley-educated mother and a father who was a first-generation Hungarian American businessman. Her parents’ first daughter died before Gluck’s birth, and this tragic fact inspired Gluck to explore themes of death, grief, and loss throughout her future work, particularly in her inaugural collection of poetry, Firstborn. Her struggle with anorexia as a teenager also influenced the stark imagery and personal themes in her poetry. Gluck left her last year of high school to engage in a seven-year program of psychoanalysis. Gluck has frequently said that going through that the intense internal exploration taught her to think and to analyze her own voice. Gluck began writing poetry at an early age, and in an essay called, ”Education of the Poet,” she noted:
From the time, at four or five or six, I first started reading poems, first thought of the poets I read as my companions, my predecessors—from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary. What fascinated me were the possibilities of context.
After finishing her cycle of psychoanalysis, Gluck enrolled in a poetry workshop at Columbia University, taught by Leonie Adams, a poet known for her metaphysical, devotional style. After two years, Gluck met and studied with distinguished poet Stanley Kunitz, a relationship that would shape her work as a poet. In 1967, Gluck was honored with the Academy of American Poets Prize, and a year later, her collection Firstborn was published.
Firstborn comprised lyrics Gluck had previously published in various journals. Critical reception was favorable, and she was hailed a poet of great promise. Though the subject matter of the collection is for the most part apolitical, the personal, confessional, and often angry tone of the book reflects the mood of the United States during that year, as the nation became further engaged in the Vietnam War and reeled from a string of political assassinations and societal changes.
Mythological and Historical Tradition in the 1980s and 1990s
With her award-winning collections Descending Figure and The Triumph of Achilles, Gluck used mythology to contextualize the limited scope of ordinary, human experiences. Similarly, in Ararat, Gluck unified a series of lyrics into an archetypal, yet decidedly personal narrative about the death of a father, bereavement, and the surviving family. For that collection, Gluck was honored with the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. Two years later, in 1992, Gluck won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award for her collection, Wild Iris. In 1996, she published the collection, Meadowlands, which employs the epic Greek tale of the Odyssey to show the disintegration of a marriage. In 1999, Gluck won the coveted $50,000 Bollingen Prize from Yale University for her collection Vita Nova (1999). In an interview with Gluck for the Harvard Advocate, Brian Phillips observed:
Something … that struck me about Vita Nova as a title was the irony of its historical reference. Obviously, in the late middle ages in Italy the phrase ‘vita nuova’ was used by Dante and others to indicate a new commitment of a romantic ideal of love. But you [Gluck] seem to sort of update that phrase to mean life after the disintegration of the romantic relationship.
Honored Titles and Teaching
Because of her poetic prowess, Gluck has held a number of prestigious titles and honored positions. For example, in 1999, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in the fall of 2003, replaced Billy Collins as the Library of Congress’s twelfth Poet Laureate Consultant in poetry. In 2003, she became the new judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a position she held until 2007. Gluck has also taught poetry at many schools including Columbia, University of Iowa, University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard. Gluck is currently an adjunct professor and the Rosencranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale University.
Works in Literary Context
Gluck’s poetry resonates with the influences of other famous poets. Critics often comment on how shades of mentor Stanley Kunitz are apparent in her work, as well as on the ”confessional” style Gluck borrows from Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Gluck often revises poetic, historic, and mythic traditions to provide her own twist on common subjects.
Gluck’s poetry has few themes and few moods. Whether she is writing autobiographically or assuming a persona, at the center of every poem is an ”I” who is isolated from family, or bitter from rejected love, or disappointed with what life has to offer. Her world is bleak; however, it is depicted with a lyrical grace, and her poems are attractive if disturbing. One reason reviewers cite for
Gluck’s seemingly unfailing ability to capture her reader’s attention is her expertise at creating poetry that many people can understand, relate to, and experience intensely and completely. Her poetic voice is uniquely distinctive and her language is deceptively straightforward. She also has the ability to create poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subjects.
Most of Gluck’s work is about family; the relationships are generally selfish if not hostile. Whether the personae are apparently based on Gluck’s own family (grandmother, mother, father, husband, sister, cousin) or part of an imaginary family of misfits (hunchback, cripple, whore), they are united, not by love, but by the heated blood of anger or the cold blood of their shared ambivalence. All seem to have inherited a basic pessimism and resignation to the letdowns of life. Instead of finding solace in the company of one another, they find conflict. What should be love between a man and a woman is the most disappointing of all relationships, In some poems there is sexual desire but there is no sense of tenderness or affection associated with sex, only an animal brutality.
Myth is a common theme in much of Gluck’s work. In entitling her 1990 collection Ararat, Gluck uses the reference to the biblical myth—Ararat, a mountain in present-day Turkey, was the biblical site of Noah’s landing of the ark—to connect to universal themes and subjects. These poems address how a father’s death results in his widow’s personal crisis, and conflict between sisters. In her third collection, Meadowlands (1996), Gluck used the epic story of King Odysseus, his wife Penelope, and their son Telemachus to illustrate the ordinary theme of a marriage coming apart.
Works in Critical Context
From her first collection, Tirstborn, Gluck has been a critically acclaimed poet recognized for her ability to hone in on a universal experience with intimacy and communality. Helen Vendler, a reviewer in New Republic, summed up Gluck’s appeal for the reader:
Gluck’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. Or such is our first impulse. 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.
Wrote Anna Wooten in the American Poetry Review, ”Gluck has a gift for getting the reader to imagine with her, drawing on the power of her audience to be amazed. She engages a ‘spectator’ in a way that few other poets can do.” However, some critics have not embraced Gluck’s work as passionately and have critiqued her negative portrayals of women, particularly the way in which artistic expression and female sexuality, at times, seem like opposing forces.
The Triumph of Achilles
Critics praised Gluck’s The Triumph of Achilles not only for its exploration of love through the metaphor found in classical myths and the Bible, but for Gluck’s direct style. Wendy Lesser noted in the Washington Post Book World:
‘Direct’ is the operative word here: Gluck’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.
In their biographical and critical study of Gluck, James K. Robinson and Martha Sutro commented on Gluck’s innovations and poetic risks, writing: In The Triumph of Achilles, Gluck sticks with her perennial subject, that of human loss, but she experiments with new types of poems, from narratives and extended, mixed sequences to songs and orientalist attempts at capturing the immediate.”
The House on the Marshland
Critics lauded Gluck’s lyrical ability with the publication of her second collection, The House on the Marshland (1975). Helen Vendler commented on Gluck’s poetic development in her review of the collection for the New Republic: ”The leap in style from Gluck’s relatively unformed first book to The House on Marshland suggests that Gluck is her own best critic.” Gluck’s mentor Stanley Kunitz wrote: ”Those of us who have waited impatiently for Louise Gluck’s second book can rejoice that it confirms and augments the impression of a rare and high imagination.”
Gluck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Wild Iris (1992), adapts the meditative, hymnal lyric and garden metaphor of nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson and seventeenth-century poet George Herbert to investigate questions of faith and the role of human beings in the larger, natural world. Judith Kitchen from the Georgia Review also connected Gluck’s style in this collection to the natural world of poet Robert Frost:
Like Frost, Gluck looks for the moment she will see beyond and through. The poems are simultaneously passionate and remote, as though written with the white heat of a distant star. Their visionary mode may even provide an entry into the snowy fields.
In a positive review in the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Burt compared the volume to the poetry of Sylvia Plath. He commented, ”Gluck’s skeletal lines, with their unexpected stops, make her poems all gaps and essentials, full of what art books call ‘negative space.”’ Burt noted that this was the first of Gluck’s books to be published in England, and he concluded: ”Like those spare, demanding poets, Dickenson, Housman and Plath, Gluck’s can appeal to many people who don’t read much modern poetry; those who do had better not miss out.”
- Contemporary Women Poets. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press,1997.
- ”Gluck, Louise (Elisabeth).” Major Twenty-first-Century Writers. Vol. 2. Edited by Tracey Matthews. Detroit: Gale,2005.
- ”Gluck, Louise.” Modern American Literature. Edited by Joann Cerrito and Laurie DiMauro. Detroit: St. James Press,1999. 435-37.
- Robinson, James K. and Martha Sutro. ”Gluck, Louise (Elisabeth).” Contemporary Poets. Edited by Thomas Riggs. Detroit.: St. James Press, 2001. 428-430.
- Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
- Baker, David. ”Kinds of Knowing.” Kenyon Review.15 (Winter 1993): 184-92.
- Burt, Stephen. ”The Nervous Rose.” Times Literary Supplement. No. 4911 (May 16, 1997): 25.
- Hart, Henry. ”Story-tellers, Myth-makers, Truth-sayers.” Georgia New England Review. 15:4 (Fall 1993): 192-206.
- Kitchen, Judith. ”The Woods Around It.” Georgia Review. (Spring 1993): 145-159.
- Philips, Brian. ”A Conversation with Louise Gluck.” Harvard Advocate. Summer 1999. Accessed December 9, 2008, from http:// www.thehar vardadvocate.com/.
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