“This Is What Poetry’s For.” On Returning to the Work of Louise Glück
A Close Reading of “Mock Orange,” on the Lit Century Podcast
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, guest K. Austin Collins joins Elisa Gabbert and Catherine Nichols to talk about Louise Glück’s 1985 poem “Mock Orange” and through it, her work in general. Some topics are the unfashionable somberness and simplicity of Glück’s work, Glück’s extraordinary personal letter to her friend Brenda Hillman, and Glück’s near-fatal anorexia. Also discussed is Gabbert’s review of Glück’s most recent collection in the New York Times.
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From the episode:
Elisa Gabbert: It was not for me at the time and now I’m like, god, what a fool. Now I truly think of her as one of my favorite poets. Like you, Kameron, I have the big Collected, and during the pandemic, that was when I was super into her, for the first time I guess. Over the years I’ve certainly softened to her, and now I really love her—just that Rilkean spiritual wrestling that she’s always doing. It’s so intense. Now I’m like, this is what poetry’s for. I don’t know what I was thinking.
K. Austin Collins: Can I just say, the back and forth you’re describing though, is so—even as someone who loves her work—it actually is descriptive of my experience as well. It really took the Nobel to remind me to get back into her work. Because of her seeming simplicity, her simple language, at some point I just became suspicious of my affection for her poetry. I thought, is this too easy? I’d just skim over her poems and I’d be like, there’s nothing going on beneath the beauty of this language for me. Then I would come back to something like “Mock Orange” and I’d think, this is a deeply strange work.
K. Austin Collins is a film critic for Rolling Stone, and formerly film critic for Vanity Fair and The Ringer. He was also the host of the film podcast Flashback for Slate.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism: The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, out now from FSG Originals and Atlantic UK; The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018); L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016); The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013); and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). The Unreality of Memory and The Word Pretty were both named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and The Self Unstable was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2013. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Long Read, the London Review of Books, A Public Space, the Paris Review Daily, American Poetry Review, and many other venues.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brooklyn.