Louise Glück

3 posts

The Poet as “Perpetual Amateur”

tony

In his book Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland ends a chapter about Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Louise Glück (the “Three Tenors,” as he dubs them) with these words about poetry as a “profession”:

“‘Profession’ has always seemed like a misleading, even laughable word for poetry—not just because it suggests that the economy has a Poetry Sector, but also because it suggests that poetry is masterable, that poetry itself is stable, that some persons possess poetry, and that others don’t. Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be ‘professional.’ The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet—one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem.

“Nonetheless, some poets, like those discussed here, make you want to use the word professional because their careers are testaments to their stamina of craft and spirit. Having found an initial place for themselves to stand and a way to speak, they have lost and found it again and again: they have reconceived themselves, gone past their old answers into the new questions. This combination of restlessness and intensity seems fundamental to the path of poetry. And because they have impressed us many times in the past, we follow along, knowing that on a given occasion in the future, unpredictably, they will knock the hats off our heads all over again—as if to remind us what we are in the presence of.”

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Speaking of professionals, today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is an Emily poem, one to mull over as you watch the sun rise and the sun set. Yes, there are some stop-you-in-your-tracks lines here!

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose…
Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —

 

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Don’t look now, but there are only 10 more school writing days until the Christmas-New Year’s break. Looking for holiday-themed writing prompts? We shared some quirky ones (half seriously) that you can revisit or visit for the first time.

Celebrating something other than Christmas? Add to the prompt list! It’s more fun for students to come up with questions and prompts than come up with poems alone, after all. Make them the teachers and put their expertise to work!

“Forgive Me, Mother, for You Have Sinned”

louise

Confessional mode. Like the first-person point of view in general, it is often welcomed by readers because they like to feel like confidantes. They also like to know that they are not the only ones.

The only ones what, you ask? It doesn’t much matter, I answer. The only ones with family trouble, marriage trouble, parenting trouble, love trouble, self-confidence trouble. There’s trouble in River City, all right, and the river flows under the good ship Readership.

For fraught poetry, you need go no further than Louise Glück, who takes a scientist’s eye (and even makes it part of this poem!) to her own life, then shares hard results with the poetry-reading world. Here, with “Brown Circle,” she overlays her own upbringing with the upbringing of her son.

 

Brown Circle
Louise Glück

My mother wants to know
why, if I hate
family so much,
I went ahead and
had one. I don’t
answer my mother.
What I hated
was being a child,
having no choice about
what people I loved.

I don’t love my son
the way I meant to love him.
I thought I’d be
the lover of orchids who finds
red trillium growing
in the pine shade, and doesn’t
touch it, doesn’t need
to possess it. What I am
is the scientist,
who comes to that flower
with a magnifying glass
and doesn’t leave, though
the sun burns a brown
circle of grass around
the flower. Which is
more or less the way
my mother loved me.

I must learn
to forgive my mother,
now that I am helpless
to spare my son.

 

It takes no small amount of bravery to write “I don’t love my son / the way I meant to love him.” People think those things but don’t say them.

Of course, we must realize that narrator and poet are not always the same voice. Thus, it is easier to express thoughts as a writer, knowing that you are impersonating a character of your own construction.

The other wonder is this: Is Mom alive reading poems like this? Some writers don’t worry so much about family reactions (see Karl Ove Knausgaard of My Struggle fame). Others would do well to.

Either way, though, there’s no denying the slight sensationalism offered by writing in the confessional mode, whether it’s a case of “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” or “Forgive me, Father, for they have sinned….”

Readers like reading about sin. It distracts them from their own. It keeps their own company.

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.