The cool thing about poetry — and yes, there’s a cool thing about poetry, so you’d better un-arch that eyebrow — is that you can be reading a poem and not get it and not get it, and then suddenly you really, truly get it and the moment of recognition is so startling it’s like a truck has rushed past your house and made all the windows rattle.
Louise Glück is my favorite non-dead poet. She’s spent 50 years obsessed with our differing capacities for love and joy, and our grasping, tentative stabs at understanding life, never mind death. Glück can be severe. But the flashes of beauty in her writing are more profound because they’re clearly hard-won. In ”Vespers,” from her Pulitzer-winning collection The Wild Iris, Glück wondered at the ”ecstatic” way her husband gardened while she stood numbly by: ”sometimes I watch/from the porch near the upper garden until twilight makes/lamps of the first lilies: all this time,/peace never leaves him. But it rushes through me,/not as sustenance the flower holds/but like bright light through the bare tree.”
If this is the sort of thing that rattles your windows, you’ll find Glück’s collected works, Poems 1962–2012, to be unnervingly frank and resonant. The poet (whose last name rhymes with click rather than cluck) dislikes when people regard her writing as autobiographical. But she should have thought of that before she wrote her elegiac 1990 book Ararat, about an inert Long Island father affixed to the couch and a mother permanently wounded by the loss of a child. From such beginnings, Glück managed to extract just enough hope to mess with her head forever: ”in childhood, I thought/that pain meant/I was not loved. /It meant I loved.”
After Ararat, Glück devoted herself to book-length cycles, juxtaposing her own progress with fiercely reimagined myths, as well as microscopically attentive meditations on nature. (When she and her husband divorced, she imagined him savaging her own gardening skills in a poem: ”ostensibly/working hard while actually/doing the worst job possible.”) Glück used the myths partly because she wanted what she wrote about real life to feel timeless and universal. But for all their bleakness — ”I am your future, here is your cargo of sorrow” — her poems have always been universal. And, for me, necessary. ”I wished for what I always wished for,” she once wrote. ”I wished for another poem.” And the best part is that when she gets a poem, she gives it to us. Poems 1962–2012: A
Come to me, said the world. I was standing
in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal —
I can finally say
long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure. Beauty
the healer, the teacher —
death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.
— from ”October” (2004)