Sunday, January 14, 2007

Louise Glück: The search for a conclusion

I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.
- Louise Glück, Disruption, Hesitation, Silence

Last night, I read The Wild Iris, the Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry by Louise Glück. As I began this collection of seasonal poems, all I felt was dismay that such writing could be awarded such high honor. The didactic poems are presented as motif. Yet any pretense of symbolism in this collection is overwhelmed by statements. This is not poetic language, I'm thinking. this is statement. There is a coldness in the objectivity, so cold that no tinkling of shared experience is allowed. In fact, the initial poems are so distant from the touch of humanity, that their use must be a device to separate.

It is that sense of separation that caused me to continue with the collection.

Glück is accused of writing "confessional" poetry. Joan Aleshire in her essay, "Staying News, A Defense of the Lyric, adds that label to Glück. Is The Wild Iris a reaction? Is Glück showing just how impersonal she can be? Can the lacklustre poetry be forgiven if the poet's agenda is not poetry but statement of another kind? Are the poem/statements a thinly disguised mask for the writer? Is this political poetry?

Well no, lacklustre poetry cannot be forgiven. But if her collection is reactive, if it is intended as a jab at her critics, and if this backhanded mimicry of what is acceptable wins a Pulitzer, then G
lück has made her point. Lacklustre poetry is celebrated, if it is not confessional.

I'm inclined to believe my hypothesis. My belief is based on the poems.

I treaded through the first few poems of The Wild Iris, hearing the camouflaged mention of grief, isolation, depression, futility. I got through to the first Trillium, where the poet says: "I think if I speak long enough / I will answer that question." I managed to pass the incoherent similes in Lamium, the tired resurrection cliche in Snowdrop and the equally bad simile in Spring Snow. But now the poet 's voice is growing louder, defiance shouts through the final lines:
I have shown you what you want:
not belief, but capitulation
to authority, which depends on violence.
The mechanistic poems of the first section fall into a scheme. There, says Glück, I've given you the kind of impersonal triteness you demand. I've capitulated. No more confessional poetry. And her reward? The Pulitzer.

End of Winter, the next poem, becomes less didactic and more figurative. Glück finally lets the reader determine meaning. She aligns her poetry with her statement: "I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence."

Matins, number four in a series of Matins, confirms my suspicion. Here the poet's voice becomes clear.
I am not to speak to you
in the personal way. Much
has passed between us. Or
was it always only
on the one side? I am
at fault, at fault, I asked you
to be human - I am no needier
than other people. But the absence
of all feeling, of the least
concern for me - I might as well go on
addressing the birches,
as in my former life: let them
do their worst, let them
bury me with the Romantics,

Can there be other interpretations? Yes of course. But can this pointed and poignant poetic statement mean just what it says? It is poetry with the "absence of all feeling" that becomes the underlying intention of this collection. In my view, Glück is showing what this modernistic strand looks like, how it lacks resonance, freshness, heart.

In April, the cruelest month, the poetry of despair has "no place in this garden." The omnipotent speaker shows disdain for this foible: "But I mean you to know / I expected better of two creatures / who were given minds." Violets continues the strain of coldness cast in its persona of the uncaring god:
has brought you among us
who would teach you, though
you kneel and weep,
clasping your great hands,
in all your greatness, knowing
nothing of the soul's nature,
which is never to die: poor, sad god,
either you never have one
or you never lose one.

An interesting aside, violet is the color represented by the seventh chakra, the Crown chakra associated with consciousness. When in alignment, an individual is at one with the universe, in contact with the divine; when afflicted, the result is a metaphysical depression, a lack of oneness, separation from the spiritual.

In the second Vespers,
Glück allows the fragile flower to express its vulnerability.
I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term.
If its voice is a channel for the poet, what does this say? If it can be pulled out of context and overlaid in the scheme of anger toward critics, what is its meaning? Granted, this is a stretch. But lack of compassion is a recurring theme. We have to ask: who lacks this compassion?

works as another hidden voice for
Glück. The entire poem is a cry against criticism, against the modernist preference for dispassion.
No one wants to hear
impressions of the natural world: you will be
laughed at again; scorn will be piled on you.
Its conclusion demands reserve, the violent capitulation to authority already voiced:
as for what you're actually
hearing this morning: think twice
before you tell anyone what was said in this field
and by whom.
The next Vespers (number four in the series) is one of the few first person narratives in the collection.
Glück is revelatory. She defies authority. Peace, the constant search, "rushes through me, / not as sustenance the flower holds / but like bright light through the bare tree."

Her final poems descend and ascend, taking solace in inevitability. Their range is much freer, truer in tone, accessible, perhaps
Glück has found a way to bypass the label of confessional. Perhaps she doesn't care anymore about the label.


With Hammer And Tong...The LetterShaper said...

As a poet, I very much enjoyed my walk through your an avid reader, I think I enjoyed it even more. Time well spent...

Anonymous said...

To me, The Wild Iris seems to achieve something remarkable: playing between persona (flowers, God, etc.) and confession (the voice as the author) so expertly it enhances and transcends both genres. For the longest time, I couldn't stop reading and re-reading this book.