Simple, incisive voices bloom in Glück’s poems

Louise Glück, the 12th U.S. Poet Laureate (2003-2004) and author of 11 books of poetry, read selections from her upcoming publication, A Village Life, to an attentive audience last Monday. Her works, which range from the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Wild Iris (1992) to her most recent, Averno (2006), have won her numerous awards and recognitions. Currently a professor at Yale and the judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Glück spent 20 years in the College’s own English department. Yesterday, I sat down with her to discuss her life and work.

Critics have described your work as deceptively simple but abstractly complex. Can you elaborate on your use of language?

What interests me now is syntax and the way a sentence can be arranged to focus its intensities. Each sentence is a single dramatic unit, where the opportunities are infinite. Plain spokenness with syntactical maneuvers is my ideal, like in William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” where language is both simple and emotional and could not be realized in a form any more complicated. Milton also has an austere vocabulary – his sonnet on blindness, for example – and these were my models. Maybe the real adventures are in other realms – there are things to learn if only I could.

I’ve heard that you wrote The Wild Iris in the span of 10 weeks – what was your daily writing process, and how has that changed over time?

It was completely revolutionary. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. When I first moved to Vermont I knew a couple, some of my dearest friends. I went to see the local clairvoyant and I had questions about two things – my love life and my work. She made short work of my love life, but she said, “You will write five books.”

I then entered into a period – at this point I’d had several in which I didn’t write, only this one was really long, over two years. Not a word, nothing. That anxiety generated by the silence was exacerbated by my terror that confirmed even more my failure at my vocation. I had one line come to me sometime during that period: “At the end of my suffering, there was a door.” I thought it was a beautiful line, so I wrote it down immediately. It became a torment every morning when I woke up and every night before sleep. And then, I couldn’t write a poem.

It was summer during a visit to Williamstown with Meredith Hoppin [classics professor] and her husband David and their daughter Elizabeth, my goddaughter. I asked her to give me an assignment because I thought I might be so filled with a desire to accommodate her wish. She thought for a while, then asked me to write a poem called “Red Rose on a Lovely Vine.” I thought it was wonderful, so I wrote this little song-like poem. It was garbage, but at least it was something.

I had written one or two poems in that period, but they were lacking – they were elegant and false. They were familiar experiences cleverly deployed into a set of plausible figures of speech. In my personal life I was happy: I loved where I lived, I loved my marriage, I loved my household, my friends, my garden. All I did during those two years was listen to Don Giovanni and read plant catalogues. And one day in late spring – probably June – I went out into the garden and I saw a Jacob’s Ladder, and I thought I’d write a poem spoken by [it]. And I wrote a poem – it wasn’t very good, but I thought it had some kind of authenticity. It was like being in the presence of a curse, and I just wanted to break it. The next day I wrote another, and it was like the heavens opened. It was nirvana. I was flying and I felt that I had attained a kind of mastery that would never leave me. And then, it ended. But the curse was broken. From that point on, I started writing either nothing at all or very fast, and almost every subsequent book was written quickly in a few weeks.

Do you have a favorite poem among your work?

Yes, there are a cluster of a few in each. I really love the title work in my new book [A Village Life]. I like the young girl’s voice, which reminds me of Telemachus [from Meadowlands], whose voice I dearly loved.

Where do these voices come from?

I have no idea. I can’t track it. I think – I’m sure this new book has a source like the plant catalogues. I started calling this weather-line 10 times a day. There was this wonderful human voice, with nothing being asked of you. It gave me this inexplicable solace. But there was also this sense of community hardship, a collective challenge implied by this weather-voice.

Did you have a sense of yourself as a writer at a young age?

It wasn’t justified, but I had a sense. It was what I wanted to do – I wanted to speak to those dead people, keep company with them. It was an intense hunger. Now that I’ve taught for so long, I’ve seen astonishing levels of talent. And I finally realized that it wasn’t always a matter of the most talented who made careers of it, but a matter of hunger and intelligence.

Why did you become a professor?

Well, I didn’t go to college, and so I thought it was immoral to teach. But it was a phenomenal discovery. I feared that I might be evil, that as a teacher I’d be envious, giving false advice, making talent lesser. But instead I found that when you see a nascent poem, it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or someone else’s; you just want to see it grow.