• The Soul-Excavating Work of Louise Glück

    On the Poetry "More Intimate than Any Living Friend"

    The studio is larger than a studio; though you sleep on a fold-out futon that you do not fold out, there is a separate room with a kitchen and a small table, one you’ve bought for yourself by yourself not with or for him from whom you’ll soon be divorced. The book is on the table, its green cover is open, and you’re reading and there it is, the shock of an answering tone:

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    The great thing
    is not having
    a mind. Feelings:
    oh, I have those; they
    govern me. I have
    a lord in heaven
    called the sun, and open
    for him, showing him
    the fire of my own heart, fire
    like his presence.

    What could such glory be
    if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
    were you like me once, long ago,
    before you were human? Did you
    permit yourselves
    to open once, who would never
    open again? Because in truth
    I am speaking now
    the way you do. I speak
    because I am shattered.

    –”The Red Poppy”

    From The Wild Iris: a kind of lieder cycle, as Helen Vendler put it, a book of poems unembarrassed to activate the oldest, most basic lyric tropes and to sidle up to a god who might be addressed or spoken through as if he existed, as if he too were given to wonder over the tragicomic human venture, every paradise lost. Flowers, seasons, trees, the wind, longing, loss, an endlessly mythified garden: this is the stuff of the book.

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    The book should have failed; there are many other poets who traffic in this material and it is dreadful—forced engagement with nature, revolting rhetorical performances of the pathetic fallacy (I feel for you! You, Nature, Feel for and with Me!), the strenuousness of it all, an anti-intellectual officially celebratory or officially depressed lyricism, a bourgeois narcissism tricked out in the outworn creed of a discredited romanticism.

    You know a lot, too much perhaps, about discredited romanticism.
    Not to mention bourgeois narcissism.

    Glück writes in her essay “Education of the Poet”: “It seems to me that the idea of lawlessness is a romance, and romance is what I most struggle to be free of.”

    Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me.
    They governed me.
    But insufficiently.

    One should not move, should not act, in a state of crippling ambivalence. There is a lower and a higher ambivalence, the first the condition of unexpressed congealed emotional tension, the other the mature fruit of a long-considered looking at the case.

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    Wholehearted, wholehearted! That is all you longed to be. Everything would be sacrificed for that. Not least your marriage.

    And rightly so.
    You thought.
    And still think.

    I couldn’t do it again,
    I can hardly bear to look at it—

    in the garden, in light rain
    the young couple planting
    a row of peas, as though
    no one has ever done this before,
    the great difficulties have never as yet
    been faced and solved—

    They cannot see themselves,
    in fresh dirt, starting up
    without perspective . . .

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    –”The Garden”

    The philosopher Alain Badiou asserts, in his “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”: “I think the great question about contemporary art is how not to be Romantic.”

    Schiller famously distinguished between “the naive” and “the sentimental,” with moderns fated to be sentimental in their art and consciousness—precisely because they, unlike those who lived in naive epochs, were conscious, divided, reflective, capable of producing and thus required to produce an art of secondary process.

    Glück reanimates the naive—the speaking flower, the responsive wind—through the governing consciousness Schiller called “sentimental.” Schiller’s “sentimental” (sentamentalisch) does not quite align with our contemporary sense of “sentimental”—his is closer to an achieved irony regarding the human condition.

    The Wild Iris explores the great power of mind, its titanic as if: as if flowers could speak, gods respond, the wind give voice.

    Incredible the pathos of the sentimental submitting to the askesis of the naive: the asking of the elemental questions, the touching of the basic tones, without forgoing the rigors of thought:

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    Oh my brothers and sisters,
    were you like me once, long ago,
    before you were human?

    An anatomy of feeling, of mind, with voice the suture between them, all conducted through a colloquy of voices: an imagined poppy, a trillium, snowdrops, sometimes a woman, sometimes a god or “lord” or divine creator—this last figure often bemused, frustrated by ongoing human resistance and constriction, the inability to move beyond all-too-human limitation:

    And all this time
    I indulged your limitation, thinking

    you would cast it aside yourselves sooner or later,
    thinking matter could not absorb your gaze forever . . .

    I cannot go on
    restricting myself to images

    because you think it is your right
    to dispute my meaning:

    I am prepared now to force
    clarity upon you.

    –”Clear Morning”

    And then the nonhuman sentient speakers of The Wild Iris, the flowers who speak to the human condition more precisely because outside it, and who are thus required compulsively to analogize, to wonder:

    Oh my brothers and sisters,
    were you like me once, long ago,
    before you were human? Did you
    permit yourselves
    to open once, who would never
    open again? Because in truth
    I am speaking now
    the way you do. I speak
    because I am shattered.

    I am speaking now / the way you do.

    The Wild Iris explores the great power of mind, its titanic as if: as if flowers could speak, gods respond, the wind give voice. As if everything sentient could find its way toward an articulate speech a human could understand. As if the shattering everywhere in the world might create its own communal lyric—not only, not merely, the shattering of romances, gardens, expectations, ideals, but the simple terrible tearing of a petal; the burning of a field of wheat.

    I am speaking now / the way you do.

    And the realizing that there is in fact no assured pathway through a merely human speech.

    you would never accept

    a voice like mine, indifferent
    to the objects you busily name . . .

    –”Clear Morning”

    The address rings in a void. She calls the addressee god. It might be a birch. It is unresponsive. It could be anyone:

    I see it is with you as with the birches:
    I am not to speak to you
    in the personal way. Much
    has passed between us.


    Tacking between the deliverance of the message and its going awry, between communicating and not communicating, beyond communication—

    I speak / because I am shattered.


    Riven, what would you divest, the body or the mind? The great thing / is not having / a mind. Not to have to think of it. Not to think of what I needs must feel (Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode”). The bitter exhilaration of negation. The blithe announcement of de-mentation: sentience, not thought. Feelings, oh, I have those, faux-casually invoked and put in their syntactical place even as the Poppy acknowledges “they govern me.”

    You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
    you can’t touch my body now.
    It has changed once, it has hardened,
    don’t ask it to respond again.


    This from a later book, Averno, a book of “negative creation” that reworks Glück’s ongoing inquiry into incarnation, discarnation.

    In those earlier days you were also reading Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: “to have a body is to be describable, creatable, alterable, and woundable.”
    I speak / because I am shattered. 

    When “but to think is to be full of sorrow” (Keats), when every thought became a laceration, when thought itself—your anchor, your bane—became a weapon, when to breathe was to gasp and to walk to stumble—

    there was this answering ferocity, authoritative, beyond its undergone great grief. Small exquisite songs in a minor key, the world taken within and pondered and exhaled, transformed by a sensitive sentience.

    Louise Glück’s Wild Iris was a companion more intimate than any living friend, a murmur and rasp and balm in the mind those months the structures of living you yourself had erected were now collapsing, the foundations battered by you yourself. Your depression was florid, ardent, a sick fever of desired annihilation when any flicker of energy served only to fuel and intensify despair. That you were fully aware of the cognitive gaps in your convictions, that you were in fact far more robust than you knew, that you suspected this, that understanding offered no cure for suffering, that from several all-too-obvious angles your maniacal self-involvement and endless therapy hours were further proof that consciousness as you pursued it was a luxury, and disgusting—

    The Wild Iris is an outrageous experiment in the pathetic fallacy, undertaken without renouncing critique.


    Love is an outrageous experiment in the pathetic fallacy, the machinery of projection—O let us call it hope, let us call it trust, let us call it desire—set in motion so the space between lovers might vibrate. The anxiety about and for the other: Do you feel as I do? Do I know how you feel? Do your words align with your feelings, your thoughts? Does your body respond in tune? Are we in tune? Do you know yourself? How shall I know you? How shall I know if I know you?

    How shall I know if I know myself if all I know is that I do not know?

    The great thing / is not having / a mind.

    . . . I didn’t know my voice
    if one were given me
    would be so full of grief, my sentences
    like cries strung together.
    I didn’t even know I felt grief
    until that word came, until I felt
    rain streaming from me.


    One moves to the things behind words, nominalism exploded, the feeling attendant upon the word that gives a hard knowing—


    Poetry: to help us feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know: Shelley.

    All those years vulnerable to the upsurge of a feeling hardened to a governing thought: I wish I were dead—

    which modulated into a definitive statement: I am dead.

    The Jungians call this the nigredo state; they borrow here as elsewhere from the alchemists, whom one can approach as giving us “metaphors for living,” as Yeats said in other context of his mystic inspirators. In the Vale of Soulmaking, in alchemical process, the soul passes through this blackened, fragmented, provisionally dead state, where all is stasis—

    what Keats so indelibly traced in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” when he inters himself, proleptically buries himself. “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— / To thy high requiem become a sod.”

    The nigredo state enacts a descendental revelation: here you are, dismembered, buried:

    At the end of my suffering
    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
    Then nothing. The weak sun
    flickered over the dry surface.

    It is terrible to survive
    as consciousness
    buried in the dark earth.—

    –”The Wild Iris” 

    Buried consciousness. This was your body.
    To thy high requiem become a sod.

    This was your first encounter with a characteristic element of Glück’s work, at least in those books after The Wild Iris: her experiments in posthumous enunciation.

    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.

    –”The Wild Iris” 

    And from her book Averno:

    I think I can remember
    being dead.

    –”Persephone the Wanderer”

    Death here is the limit-case of sentience, and the strange negative space out of which a new kind of enunciation emerges:

    I heard a fly buzz—when I died—

    Perhaps the most brilliant and relentless explorer of this liminal zone, this posthumous condition that generates an uncanny aliveness in voice and mind, is Emily Dickinson—

    This is the Hour of Lead—
    Remembered, if outlived,
    As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
    First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—


    Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
    Were toward Eternity—


    I died for Beauty—but was scarce
    Adjusted in the Tomb
    When One who died for Truth, was lain
    In an adjoining Room—

    He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
    “For Beauty”, I replied—
    “And I—for Truth—Themself are One—
    We Brethren, are”, He said—

    And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—
    We talked between the Rooms—
    Until the Moss had reached our lips—
    And covered up—Our names—


    This homely colloquy among the dead—a parody of a genteel conversation that could happen in any Amherst parlor— points to Keats, self-laid in the tomb of his imagined death, addressing the nightingale: “still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— / To thy high requiem become a sod.”

    Her authority is undeniably, frighteningly female, but not only. This provokes the usual range of responses, defenses, adulations.

    Badiou: “I think the great question about contemporary art is how not to be Romantic.”

    At the end of my suffering
    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.

    Some complain, Adam Kirsch perhaps most trenchantly, that Glück’s work is programmatically morbid, the limited intonations of a rigid depressive. She is, according to Jordan Davis, a big neg. This seems to me tellingly wrong. It mistakes apparent content for emotional disposition, and indicts the work by an attitude about the latter. When Glück’s work fails, as it sometimes does for me, the hieratic manner so amazingly earned hardens, and feels willed. She has written strikingly on will, and she knows profoundly whereof she writes, anorexia a syndrome in which a person not yet in contact with herself struggles to produce herself via efforts of will. One who survived such a long youthful apprenticeship to what are clearly her own formidable powers of will is best prepared to limn its limitations: “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known but to illuminate what has been hidden, and the path to the hidden world is not inscribed by will” (“Education of the Poet”).


    Years ago you’d gone to Bennington for a week, listened to readings in a large fragrant barn, its steps and rafters filled with the ardent open-eared, all attending to a southern novelist, a woman who in her reading reminded you about what you too rarely thought about—the sheer tidal pleasures of fiction unfolding aloud in time: a sensuous story about a spirited teen girl with a low-down home life and a sexual initiation real or imagined or wanted with a charismatic preacher. Even to distill it thus is to falsen it, as we’ve all heard this kind of story from that kind of novelist, but she magicks us and all hold their breath at the end—

    a pause—

    a loud communal exhale—

    among those listening nearby a handsome poet a Vietnam vet who now turns and says commanding attention Now there’s a woman writer who really likes men.

    —A million hallucinated adversaries seemingly slain in his glaring peacock eyes—

    I never turned anyone into a pig.
    Some people are pigs; I make them
    look like pigs.

    –”Circe’s Power”

    This from her book Meadowlands. Her authority is undeniably, frighteningly female, but not only. This provokes the usual range of responses, defenses, adulations.


    After this reading another poet mused on Sharon Olds, her first books. Of Satan Says: “Well, when that came out we were impressed. We didn’t know she had that in her.”

    What stunned: the casual magisterial excluding we.

    He told a story of going to a reading featuring several poets, Glück among them—there she was, following another poet, a genial, jokey comic fellow who left that vibe behind him in the room. And she got up with her narrow shoulders and a severe expression and launched:

    It is not the moon, I tell you.
    It is these flowers
    lighting the yard.

    I hate them.
    I hate them as I hate sex,
    the man’s mouth
    sealing my mouth, the man’s
    paralyzing body—

    and the cry that always escapes,
    the low, humiliating
    premise of union—

    –”Mock Orange”

    and all the air went out of the room.
    To empty a room of its air like that. To annihilate its complacence.

    These are perhaps low ambitions, to have that kind of command, that kind of authority, perhaps always reactive, always defensive. These may not be properly “aesthetic” responses: they are not disinterested, they are saturated with merely personal emotion, hope, grudge, resentment, joy in an unforeseen triumph. Yet out of this stew something more permanent and purged may come forth.

    Do we have souls anymore? The soul persists in Glück’s repertoire of nouns.

    In the mid-1990s you were sitting in 57th Street Books in Chicago, one of Hyde Park’s landmark bookstores, having leafed through several books and chosen one: Glück’s Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. The cool surgical gaze turned again and again on oneself; the exacting account of the poet’s education; the anorexia, the analysis, the maniacal protective ecstasies of refusal and then refusing refusal—

    Well I see you are reading Louise.

    He’d come in, the famous novelist following the bookstore employee encumbered by fifteen volumes of the novelist’s latest. Let us pass over his name in silence, he so presumptuously familiar with names. In your book group the women with ties to publishing and book fairs and signings had been cooing the previous week over his amazing blue eyes.

    Yes they are amazing.

    Yes I am reading Ms. Glück.

    And with no invitation he unspools how she married for this and divorced for that and how the long-ago affair with this one blew up—

    Slam the book.
    You didn’t.

    Incredulity rooted you to your seat. That, and curiosity. What would he not say?

    Dear Ms. Glück,

    This is just a note to say that if you consider R——— F——— a friend, he is not.

    An Admirer

    A note you never sent.

    Never to meet them, only to read them.


    Yeats wrote a dialogue of self and soul. Do we have souls anymore? The soul persists in Glück’s repertoire of nouns. Some would find in that the mark of an unpurged romanticism: still singing the songs of oneself! An incredibly narrow self! The soul! I was in therapy and paid to have a dream life I then had a dream life I was in the Vale of Soulmaking I paid to have a soul:

    Sometimes a man or woman forces his despair
    on another person, which is called
    baring the heart, alternatively, baring the soul
    meaning for this moment they acquired souls
    outside, a summer evening, a whole world
    thrown away on the moon . . .

    –”Love in Moonlight”

    Glück writes that after each book, she moves stringently toward something else in the next: “Each book I’ve written has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off” (“Education of the Poet”). After her second book: “I wanted to learn a longer breath. And to write without the nouns central to that second book; I had done everything I could do with moon and pond.”

    Is there anything still to be done with soul? See Averno:

    The assignment was to fall in love.
    The author was female.
    The ego had to be called the soul.


    O let us swear off these miserable plots, these determining nouns, this soul, and love, and woman, this revolting poetry I too dislike, this disgusting I

    Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we—waves
    of sky blue like
    a critique of heaven: why
    do you treasure your voice
    when to be one thing
    is to be next to nothing?


    Sunk in the earth become a sod could one not stay there forever beyond all sounding all voicing all caring —

    I can’t hear your voice
    for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

    I no longer care
    what sound it makes

    when I was silenced, when did it first seem
    pointless to describe that sound

    what it sounds like can’t change what it is . . .


    Sunk in the tomb of your stupid self you could not but agree that the great question about contemporary art is how not to be Romantic. The great question of a life.

    I stood
    at the doorway,
    ridiculous as it now seems.



    I walked through

    and on the other side
    I thought I’d look back

    through the door
    “that was another life”

    here I am
    on this side standing looking

    same life


    What for
    this failure

    the outline
    of the beloved

    body haunting sleep
    fleshing itself out of nothing

    what for this failure love

    Romance is what I most struggle to be free of.
    It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth.


    let them

    do their worst, let them
    bury me with the Romantics,
    their pointed yellow leaves
    falling and covering me.



    my poets

    Excerpted from My Poets by Maureen N. McLane. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Maureen N. McLane. All rights reserved.

    Maureen N. McLane
    Maureen N. McLane
    Maureen N. McLane is the author of six books of poetry as well as two books on British romantic poetics. Her My Poets (FSG, 2012)—an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism—was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Her More Anon: Selected Poems is forthcoming from FSG in 2021.

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