Critics make expansive claims about poetry, but can get tripped up by poems that refute their thesis. Perhaps our poets can better articulate the climate of opinion on the art and its cultural role. Poetry, after all, is an abstraction, while poems are art-objects. Robert Frost warns that abstractions become “a new toy in the hands of the artists”, yet those hands are richly marked from working on poems. And so we might trust them to grapple with murky Platonic forms, as poet Louise Glück manages in her essays on American versions of originality, narcissism, realism and revenge, along with topics closer to her own verse: estrangement and the fear of happiness.
Glück’s poems shift from mythic re-enactment to dour meditation. Her most famous lines, perhaps, come from the dark petals of Mock Orange: “I hate them as I hate sex,/the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth…”. What, then, to expect in her prose? The essays are quick and associative, darkly amusing, ironic and sceptical. American Originality first depicts “white America’s myth of itself”: “a nation of escaped convicts, younger sons, persecuted minorities, and opportunists”, a myth elaborated in “images and narratives of self-invention”. The old American cult of the new. Readers looking for observations on America’s present identity-melodrama will be disappointed: the title-essay was published in the prelapsarian year of 2001. The other essays are 10-20 years old.
No matter: Glück’s piquant declarations won’t fold like calendar pages. Droll and contrarian, she calls American culture “a curious hybrid of Romanticism and psychiatry” and “almost fascistic in its enforcement of optimism”. This produces “poets looking inward [who] have begun, simultaneously, to watch themselves looking inward”. Glück can be paradoxical (“detachment is entirely preoccupied with the self”), aphoristic (“durability distinguishes the archetypal from the anecdotal”) and, despite winning the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the US Poet Laureateship, wilfully obscure: “The selflessness, the receptivity, which are, formally, the inventions of this art, are, if one reads closely, slightly tainted by an overriding impression of the autocratic or controlling.”
American Originality features astute readings of accomplished poets such as Stephen Dobyns, Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart – and the craggy shadows behind them, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Glück’s court of inquiry also turns towards her younger self, cataloguing her climb out of revenge impulses and the safety of despair.
Originality is not found in experimental poetics: “no showy contempt for grammar, no murky lacunae, no cult of logic”. Rather, it reveals the “instinct, guesswork, nerve” of an idiosyncratic mind. But rather than sail away on theories of original poetry, Glück grounds her claims in 10 essays introducing the Yale Younger Poets series that she chose and edited extensively – her commitment to the art and to emerging artists, which she calls “one of the great experiences of my life”.
In all, Glück’s prose answers her poems’ crystalline hardness in a quieter tone: compassion. “By giving form to devastation, the poem rescues the reader from a darkness without shape or gravity…an island in a free fall.”
David Gewanter is a professor of English at Georgetown University. His latest book of poems is Fort Necessity (2018).
American Originality: Essays on Poetry
By Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
208pp, £18.80 and £12.15
ISBN 9780374299552 and 9780374537463
Published 4 March 2018