After reading Louise Glück

The writer’s most precious resource is the belief that he or she is the solitary witness to a profusion of images from which might be read all the wisdom of the world, Gerald Murnane.

For there are truly things that must not be shown to us. And when I see that I have spent my whole life trying to see these things, I think that is perhaps the hidden secret of life, Marcel Proust.

Separate the shallow from the deep, and choose the deep
In the opening poem, Parodos, to her book Ararat, Louise Glück writes: I was born to a vocation:/ to bear witness/ to the great mysteries. These mysteries might contain the wisdom of the world, yet may not be shown to us.

I first encountered Louise Glück by reading her essays in Proofs and Theories, discovering that I particularly identified with her views on reading and writing. Glück categorizes the artist self as “attempting to acquire a state of grace.” Central to acquiring this state of grace is looking inward – “Separate the shallow from the deep, and choose the deep.” This valorization of introspection allows the writer to strive towards what, in her words, is the goal of art, “To illuminate what has been hidden and make the invisible visible.” This might explain why reading her poems leaves you with the unsettling, yet exhilarating sense of, to use her own metaphor about writing, “Swimming towards a lighthouse which keeps moving further away.”

The inner book of unknown signs
Fortuitously, as I was beginning to try to understand her work, I was rereading what is perhaps my favorite passage in all of literature, the scene from Finding Time Again where Proust’s narrator, while waiting in the library at the Guermantes mansion, discusses the conditions necessary for artistic creation as he realizes that “The only life of consequence, lived to the full, is literature.”

For Proust, the great mysteries alluded to above are contained in “the inner book of unknown signs,” which are “the most painful of all to decipher,” requiring emotional courage on the part of the writer. Glück’s oeuvre is characterized by her life-long attempt to traverse this fractured landscape of the spirit. Glück’s ferocious sense of conviction and avowed refusal of self-deception condemn her to search for those things that do not wish to be revealed.

The music beneath the words
Proust speaks of listening to the music beneath the words of a text, and suddenly something will come to us, “like tunes in music which come back, so to speak, to us without our ever having heard them.” The grandness of vision and complexity of emotion in Glück’s poems, especially from her later volumes such as The Seven Ages and her final book, Winter Recipes from the Collective, illuminate things readers have known but been unable to express. With a gimlet-eyed lucidity and lack of sentimentality she addresses aging and mortality, and offers the possibility of consolation as we view the world and our life upon entering our vesperal days. The concierge, near the end of The Denial of Death, one of her finest poems from Winter Recipes, remarks wistfully on the narrator’s writing, reflecting some of my own thoughts upon reading certain poems.

          And yet hearing them I had a sense I was listening
          to my own experience but more beautifully related
          than I could ever have done.

The word concierge traces back to the Latin conservus, which means “fellow slave,” echoing a persistent theme in her work that we are all slaves to the unpredictable and implacable weave and weft of the world’s design, subject to its aleatory winds of fate. As she postulates in The Empty Glass from The Seven Ages: Whirling in the dark universe/ alone, afraid, unable to influence fate –

          What do we have really?
          Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
          tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
          attempts to build character.
          What do we have to appease the great forces?

A private, accurate gesture
Anne Carson has tellingly said that writing should be “a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.” I am beginning to understand that Louise Glück was not writing her life, she was writing herself. Her work, while indisputably private and accurate, is also oracular, unveiling what seem to be striking universal observations on the fragility of life. Her work has been variously called austere, unsentimental, and spare, yet it is intensely alive. The overall tone is undoubtedly that of melancholy and she has at times been harshly judged because of its dark nature.

In The Setting Sun, where the narrator is asked to analyze her own work, the response is: “Not enough night, I answered. In the night I can see my own soul.”

Besides being spare and unsentimental, her work is invariably lauded for its concision and precision. There is the economy of her language, which belies the abstraction and existential depth. One critic described her work as “knife skills,” an initially startling description, yet perhaps less so since Glück herself describes the author as “performing an autopsy. Intriguingly, at various times she discusses her writing in the very poems she is in the process of writing, as she obsessively searches for the right words.

For example, in Ancient Texts from The Seven Ages she writes:
Night and day, I revised my appeals,
making each sentence better and clearer, as though one might
elude forever all misconstruction. How flawless they became –
impeccable, beautiful, continuously misread.

Only after long life is one prepared to read the equation
As a mathematician, now seventy, this line from her poem The New Life strikes a resonant chord. The term equation implies the careful consideration of two sides, which may initially appear quite different. This brings to mind the notion of a weighing or balancing, especially in reading The Seven Ages and Winter Recipes from the Collective. What exactly is being balanced on this Proustian “celestial pair of scales”? Is it the life lived contrasted with the sacrifices of being an artist? Is it darkness versus light? Is it the perspectives of aging, facing mortality, and looking back with regret at the past, counterpoised with an acknowledgment of all of the uplifting and beautiful things in the world, both in the past and still all around us?

From Summer Night, we have, So many passionate letters never sent!/ So many journeys conceived of on a summer night./ And the life in a sense, never completely lived. This ruefulness of these lines recalls a favorite line from Walter Benjamin, which appositely describes feelings reflected in many of her later works; “None of us have time to live the true dramas of the life we are destined for.”

And yet, consolation comes from her recognition that the scales must be balanced by the other side of the equation, if there is to be any hope of reading the wisdom of the world. Thus, we have later in Summer Night:
Balm of the summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived –
What could be dearer then this given the closeness of death?

The flickering torch
The overarching mood in her final volume Winter Recipes from the Collective is one of searching for consolation in remnants of a past that continues to exert its inexorable pull, hoping to bring back and understand all the feelings they had ever held. In one of her last poems, Autumn, life in old age is evocatively described as a torch passing from the body to the mind. For this torch of life, “Our only hope is that it is still flickering.”

With the unappeasable realization of living in a slowly annihilating, counterfactual time, thinking of what might have happened or what might still happen yet never will, comes the realization that the simple pleasures that are left can still be sustaining and meaningful, as in the exquisitely lyrical passage above from Summer Night.

The music beneath the words in this last volume is now a “twilight of cellos” accompanied by Glück’s final declaration that, although what was once an incandescent blaze now smolders, her flickering torch still continues to give off light. The final two published lines of her poetry are the following: And I say then I’m glad I dream/ The fire is still alive.

And now, after her passing, even though the fire from which the rays of her light emanated has been extinguished, it is the case that – as Proust proclaims to be the hallmark of great artists – these rays still continue and will forever send out their special light.

Kimmo Rosenthal, after a long career in mathematics and teaching, has turned to writing with over thirty literary publications and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Recent work has appeared in Tiny Molecules, The Fib Review, The Decadent Review, After the Art, Tears in the Fence, and BigCityLit.