Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Louise Glück / Colm Tóibín on a brave and truthful Nobel winner

Louise Glück

Louise Glück: Colm Tóibín on a brave and truthful Nobel winner

Her brilliantly controlled poems offer a picture of the world as a struggle between ordeal and wonder

Colm Tóibín
Fri 9 Oct 2020 06.00 BST


n Stanford in 2008, the Irish poet Eavan Boland told me how much she admired the work of Louise Glück. She took down some volumes of her poetry from the shelf in her office and gave them to me.

That night I read the opening lines of a poem:

I sleep so you will be alive,
it is that simple.
The dreams themselves are nothing.
They are the sickness you control,
nothing more.

It was called A Dream of Mourning. I was amazed by its chiselled, hurt tone, the mixture of what was deeply private and oddly heightened and mythical.

In an essay about Emily Dickinson, Glück wrote: “It is hard to think of a body of work that so manages, without renouncing personal authority, to so invest in the single reader.” Of TS Eliot’s poetry, Glück has observed: “And I suppose that, among sensitive readers, there must be many who do not share my taste for outcry.” And writing about the poet George Oppen, Glück called him “a master of white space; of restraint, juxtaposition, nuance”.

All of which could be said about her own work. Her poems are controlled and highly charged, restrained but also exposed, unafraid of and perhaps also terrified by outcry. Glück has described “harnessing the power of the unfinished”, to create a whole that does not lose the dynamic presence of what remains incomplete: “I dislike poems that feel too complete, the seal too tight; I dislike being herded into certainty.”

They open up a stark space. The sounds in her poems emerge tentatively and then bravely, and sometimes fiercely, from within their rhythms. Glück knows what a tone needs when it seeks to be truthful. She has a knowledge, both baleful and enabling, of how little can be said that is true, and how much dark energy that is then released in the effort to speak. In her poems, tone itself is both held in and released. Her work is filled with voice, often hushed and whispering, as though she is exploring a difficult aftermath or the shape of the soul.

If there is one poem by her that gives us a sense of her great talent and the bravery of her voice, it is the opening poem in her collection The Wild Iris, which begins:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

I have heard her say that this image was with her for years before she found a place for it. In the sequence of poems in the book, Glück follows nature with a distilled diction, the tone filled with pity and wonder, but also a sense of effort and striving. In all her poetry, we get a picture of the world as a struggle between ordeal and wonder. There is always a sense that the poems themselves are the result, too, of a struggle within Glück’s own imagination for words that are precise but also suggestive, for phrases that are sonorous but hard-edged, too.

It is difficult to think of another living poet whose voice contains so much electrifying undercurrent, whose rhythms are under such control, but whose work is also so exposed and urgent.


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