Louise Glück named new U.S. Poet Laureate

As the seasons change with the coming of fall, the position of U.S. poet laureate looks to experience a similar change in mood. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, has announced that Louise Glück, Preston S. Parish ’41 Third Century Senior Lecturer in English and Pulitzer Prize winner, will succeed Billy Collins as the poetry world’s appointed voice.

Where the energetic Collins thrived in a glow of publicity, winning over audiences with his storytelling ability, Glück (pronounced “glick”) is intensely private and shies away from public appearances and readings. Readings, however, are a required component of the job, and so Glück will give her first as laureate at the Library’s annual literary event on October 21. Two subsequent readings are currently scheduled.

“She is not in any obvious sense an ‘occasional’ poet, nor a public one,” Christopher Pye, chair of the English department, said in response to the Library’s selection. “Her work is inward-looking, rigorous in its relation to language, fine-tuned and often searing…She is writing now in an extraordinary register.”

The list of past poet laureates is a varied one, ranging from Mark Strand to Rita Dove to Robert Pinsky, Glück’s longtime friend. Building on the work of her colleagues, “Glück will bring to the Library of Congress a strong, vivid, deep poetic voice,” Billington said in a statement. “Her prize-winning poetry and her great interest in young poets will enliven the Poet Laureate’s office during the next year.”

The role of poet laureate – formally, the Library of Congress’s Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry – did not exist in an official capacity until 1986, with the appointment of Robert Penn Warren. But in practice, the Library has had designated poetry consultants since 1937; in fact, Warren also served from 1944-1945 during the position’s infancy. Laureates serve from October to May and receive a salary of $35,000.

The job includes only a handful of specific requisites, but laureates in the past have launched special projects intended to foster greater awareness of the form. During his tenure, Collins created Poetry 180, a website designed to facilitate high school students’ exposure to poetry. Collins’s scheme encouraged high schools across the country to read one poem after the daily announcements every morning, introducing students to 180 works by the end of the school year. According to Sheryl Cannady, the Library’s spokesperson, hundreds of high schools have since adopted the program.

Glück has yet to articulate her own plans, but she has expressed an attraction to programs and contests for younger poets. She will continue teaching at Williams this semester, leading two courses on the writing of poetry. Though she does not hold a college degree, Glück has been a member of the Williams faculty for 20 years. She has also won numerous prizes and grants, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim foundation. Her tenth volume of poetry, “October,” will be published in chapbook form by Sarabande Books next April.

In an age of high-tech classrooms and e-mail dependent students, Glück eschews the computer, preferring to work on an electric typewriter. She dislikes travel, determinedly avoids touring and makes the trip from her home in Cambridge, Mass. to Williamstown once a week. When on campus, she uses her office hours to conduct student conferences, which are a vital component of her workshop courses.

For poets of Glück’s distinction, poetry is a sixth sense, an innate understanding of language and voice that eludes definition. The challenge of teaching poetry is to awaken that understanding in would-be writers, stripping away poeticisms and posturing to find authentic voice. The purging process, ostensibly, is not everyone’s cup of tea.

As Factrak will attest, students over the years have left Glück’s classroom both “exceedingly discouraged” by her criticism and full of admiration for her gift. The emphasis on revision tends to turn workshop courses into poetry boot-camps; students must be willing to make major changes in order to see results.

“Louise Glück has been by far my most revered contemporary poet since the 11th grade,” MJ Prest ’04 said. “I didn’t even realize she taught here until after I’d been accepted and then jumped to sign up for it. So for me, at least, any criticism Louise had about my work was devastating, and she had quite a bit of it to say…. she had a tendency toward the harsh, perhaps to tear us down and strip us of what she considered bad poetic habits in order to develop a cleaner style.”

Others have had more positive memories. “Taking Professor Glück’s class was one of, if not the best, experience I have had at Williams thus far,” Ashley Kindergan ’04 said. “I found her teaching style to balance criticism and encouragement very well. She was tough on students’ poems – writing ‘corny’ next to lines she didn’t like and saying quite bluntly what she did and did not like about the work being discussed. That said, I at least never felt hurt [by] anything she said. She had a way of saying things that made it truly professional – about the poem, not the author’s skill or lack thereof. She told us about her own personal struggles with writing…and it was very reassuring to hear someone who can write like Louise Glück admit that she has written godawful poems too.”

Anastasia Moro ’04, an English major took a workshop course with Glück last year. “She’s a commanding presence in class and her praise is earned rather than expected,” Moro remarked.

After public readings, many poets reserve time to field questions from the audience. Inevitably, listeners are curious about poets’ sources of inspiration. Where do ideas for poems come from? Is writing a choice, or a need? Is it necessary to address an audience? Perhaps Glück’s answer lies in “The Red Poppy,” part of her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, The Wild Iris: “I speak because I am shattered.”

Other questions strike a lighter note. On the final day of the Writing of Poetry in the fall of 2002, after Glück gave students a chance to read their semester’s best work, she opened the floor to questions. One student asked what she read for pleasure. Glück paused , let out a brief chuckle and then responded. “Mystery novels.”

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