In the Magnificent Region of Courage:
An Interview with Louise Glück
was the 12th US Poet Laureate (serving from 2003-2004 at the Library
of Congress). This interview was conducted by Grace Cavalieri
for the radio series "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of
Congress" during the Library's bicentennial celebration in 2000.
The program was distributed via NPR satellite to public radio stations.
Louise Glück holds the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Wild
Iris; She is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently
Averno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She is the recipient of
the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, several Guggenheim
Fellowships, the New Yorker Magazine Book Award in Poetry,
the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize for Poetry, The William Carlos Williams
Award, the Boston Globe Literary Press Award, The National
Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, and The Poetry Society
of America's Melville Kane Award. Her book of essays won the PEN/Martha
Albrand Award for nonfiction. She has taught at Williams College, Harvard,
Columbia, Brandeis, the University of California at Berkeley, and the
University of Iowa. In 2003 Louise Glück accepted a five-year appointment
as Judge for The Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She teaches at
Yale University and lives in Cambridge, MA.
GC: To begin our discussion, I want to refer to a poem in your new
book, the poem "Time." That poem is very interesting because
it has many of the elements that I know throughout your work. Even that
tiny thread of humor – 'The dog slept through it'– that
is very typical Louise. And, I will say, that poem raises some important
philosophical questions. I was wondering if your work is used in other
places besides literature classes, perhaps philosophy classes.
LG: Well, I have no idea. But it would indeed be wonderful, were that
GC: I could teach a course on philosophy using your work, a question
like: “Why love what you will lose? There is nothing else to love."
LG: That would delight me.
GC: When you wrote that poem, I'm sure there were fifty drafts behind
LG: No, well one of the things that’s very curious is that I seem
to have two methods of writing. One is the craftsperson method, which
now seems, because I haven’t done it a while, very dear to me,
in which the words are labored over; and a sense of agency is created
by that process. You actually have a sense of yourself as making the
poem. When you write very rapidly, when I write very rapidly, I lose
that sense that the poem is mine. I can’t think where it came
from. But it’s usually done quite quickly, and altered very little.
The poem "Stars," in that same book, is an example of the
last process. My last book, The Seven Ages, is like that. There
are poems here that were over and over and over revised; taken apart,
put together again, but in a very compressed period of time. And then
there are poems in which there are recalcitrant words, phrases, things
that I feel could be better.
GC: Well, the reason I asked about your process is because the vowels
are so musical. That is either from years of hard work, or something
that actually could not have been constructed. The vowels in that poem
are extraordinary, and it is the motion in the poem. Of course I’m
on the other side of the table; I have the opportunity to listen. And
I was just thinking how one gets into such a space of comfort, to use
vowels that way, and that’s a very musical poem. Also, it has,
one of your characteristics, the direct address in the middle, which
jettisons where you have been. And as I always say, you’re very
mischievous, you lull us along in the poem and then you do something
quite unusual. The last lines, with your adverbs, are unusual for you
too—"softly," "fiercely"—now that’s
interesting. I see they’re in parentheses. I heard them in parentheses.
LG: That interests me.
GC: I have often said you do something no other poet does as well,
and it’s not fair to leave you there. You can take the emotion,
the very fragile feeling, and you build a scenario around it. You build
a house around the feeling. Now that sounds like something everyone
does, but no one does it exactly as you do. It is misunderstood as autobiography
sometime, but it is fiction, except for the feelings. Where did you
get your confidence in story?
LG: Well, that’s a quite curious question.
GC: It’s like fairy tales for adults.
LG: It’s actually a rather profound question, and I fear I will
not do it justice. It’s immediately starting my thought. But,
I think that it’s—in saying to write, you’re going
to write that which most concerns you, which most quickens your mind,
and then to turn those subjects over with as resourceful and complex
a touch as possible. I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems
as autobiography. I draw on the materials my life has given me, but
what interests me isn’t that they happen to me, what interests
me is that they seem, as I look around, paradigmatic. We’re all
born mortal. We have to contend with the idea of mortality. We all,
at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved,
the disappointments and great thrills of passion. This is common human
experience, so what you use is the self as a laboratory, in which to
practice, master, what seem to you central human dilemmas.
GC: In your essays Proofs and Theories,
you do have one discussion which I thought was going to answer that,
and you call writing “a search for context,” and so that
seems in keeping with what you’re saying. So you come with the
content, but the whole trick is to find, to build the house, the story,
the context for it, and I thought that was a very simple statement,
but a very important one.
LG: Well, it’s true. I mean I remember once, a poem I wrote when
I was very, very, very young, in my teens that I thought was, at the
time, sublime. It was a poem about a dying deer, and indeed it did have
some quite beautiful language. The problem was that the beautiful language
was harnessed to this deer, about which I knew nothing, so that the
poem was sentimental and grandiose. Well it was foolish, it was a, you
know, young person’s ardent effort. But, it was clear that the
lines had about them an authority, and a sense of what the nature of
loss was, and the problem was to give them a home, to put those lines
in the mouth of the person who should be saying them, at the moment
when they should be said, and it took me many years to figure out the
proper setting for the lines. And then it was a persona poem, but it
worked much better.
GC: What was the general response of readers to The Wild Iris?
LG: After The Wild Iris, I got a great deal of mail from people
who were in the religious life, asking me to write little columns on
GC: And flowers.
LG: And flowers. I got a lot of horticultural inquiries, and I’m
not a horticulturist.
GC: Although we have to admire your knowledge of the natural world.
There is knowledge in Wild Iris, which is admirable.
LG: It all comes from the White Flower Farms Catalog. And it
also comes from growing flowers.
GC: How do you describe that book?
LG: The Wild Iris was a book suffused with awe, and is deeply
lyrical. It was very clear to me afterward I could not do anything more
of that kind. I don’t think that that’s how you grow as
an artist. I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to write
something comic in the largest sense, with the spacious comedy of Mozart’s
Marriage of Figaro. That was my model in which the shrug that
forgives human foibles somehow was the informing impulse. The book in
which I undertook to do this was a book that was written at a time when
a very long marriage was beginning to seem not likely to continue, and
one of the problems of the book was that my life was giving me materials
that were desolating, and what I felt as an artist was an imperative
to do comedy. One of the horrors of the divorce was that I kept thinking
it was going to take me decades to write my book, and it did take a
while, because it was very clear to me that I had no wish to write a
lacerating book about divorce. I had no wish to embody it in verse.
I wanted to write my genial, forgiving, tolerant book of adult love.
And I had a very elaborate sense of what its structure was supposed
to be, which was subsequently set aside, though it delighted me endlessly.
What the book ended up by being was a double narrative, in which the
dissolution of a contemporary marriage, which is elaborated in a series
of petulant, comic conversations and private bickerings, alternates
with, is threaded through, with the story of Odysseus and Penelope.
And the last thing that was added to the manuscript was a group of poems.
Let me backtrack and say that it was clear to me for a very long time
that though I thought I had done everything I knew how to do, the book
was not finished. It was clear that it was not done. And when something
is a single undertaking, as was this book, if it isn’t done, it’s
a failure. It’s like a novel that hasn’t worked out. It
isn’t that you have ten poems instead of twenty, you have nothing.
And I kept thinking, well what’s missing is a sort of somberness,
maybe, or a deep sorrow that should be running through this. I had shown
the manuscript, in part, to a friend of mine who’s a classicist,
and I asked her if she noticed something that she would like to see
embodied, or if she noticed an absence, and she said, “Well, you
have no Telemachus,” and I said, “Oh, there's no room for
Telemachus” (the child of Penelope and Odysseus). And all of a
sudden I thought, well, why don’t I try Telemachus. And this was
after I had had some good luck with executing an assignment that my
friend Robert Pinsky had given me. We do that for each other.
GC: And Telemachus ends up being the major figure in this book.
LG: I love Telemachus. I love this little boy. He saved my book, and
the poems in his voice were written very, very, very quickly, over a
period of about ten days or two weeks, in busses, and in guest room
beds, and elevators. Once I had the sound of his voice, which is to
say the sound of his mind, I knew how to finish my book, and I did the
poems in an exultant rush, and then got bronchitis for about three weeks,
but it was worth it. Anyway, one of Telemachus’ poem, regards
his parents' sufferings and ordeals, and offers his point of view. His
GC: Bronchitis was enough of a price to pay, but I was going to
ask you what price you paid for the kind of writing you do, because
I think you are the bravest poet I know, and you stop at nothing; you
strip veils off, and you let the chips fall where they may. But because
you believe in story, you have a safety net. And it is probably what
entitles you to go on.
LG: Bronchitis seems like a small thing. It seemed horrible at the time,
but even then I thought, well, alright, if this is payback, fine, fine;
if this is what I get for not sleeping for ten days, fine.
GC: Your book of essays is a spare, eloquent book; it certainly
has less verbiage per page than any other book of essays. You talk about
the courage in writing. Well, that sounds like a very obvious thing
to say for a writer. I mean we teach courage, we don’t teach language
in the classroom. And it seems an obvious thought, but you seem to live
it. I imagine that you don’t think about this much when you’re
writing, how much courage it summons to get to where you go, to your
source. But it is a fact, isn’t it?
LG: It seems to me that there’s no other way to live. I mean,
it doesn’t seem courageous. It seems what drives me is interest.
I want to be interested. I want to feel my thoughts alive. That doesn’t
seem to take courage. It seems fortunate, when that’s permitted.
When for some reason or other, I have, I’m in the grip of an idea.
That just seems the most blessed and remarkable state I don’t
enter all that often.
GC: You’ve been treated very well by the critics, I think.
LG: I agree.
GC: And I must say, better than I gave them credit for. Because
sometimes I want to say, “oh, you’ve got that all wrong,”
you know, to some critics. But I think that you have been received as
a flawless writer; as a writer with very great care given to each word
placement. I think that they’ve noticed your diction. I think
that every bit of work that you’ve put into it has been surprisingly
noticed. And so you must feel okay about that.
LG: I try to stay apart from it, because you’re always appalled,
and it’s astonishing to me the degree to which the human ego can
feel slighted, even when it’s being praised, if somebody gets
something a little bit wrong, and I don’t want to be distracted
by my response. My power ends when I get the poem on the page, and after
that it belongs not to me, but to someone else, and I can’t control
what’s made of it, and I do not want to travel around America
telling people how to read my poems. I hope that they will find readers
who will read them with perception. I hope that they will be worthy
of perception, which is even more crucial.
GC: Well, the thing which you give us is reason to go on, because
it is a transcendence, and you can take the ugliest things that we have
to endure to be mortal--betrayal, loss, greed even—every human
attribute you change, so that you make it work for us, and say: aren’t
we lucky that we can go here after we’ve been there. And you make
a song, a high lyric song, of all of these really very crude and rude
qualities we were born to. And I think that’s enough to do in
LG: Well, I hope.
GC: I want to go back to The Wild Iris. It’s been
called one long poem by some people, but I’m not sure I go along
LG: Well, I think I meant it to read as a single entity.
GC: At a single sitting, right?
GC: Didn’t you even say that once?
LG: I say that repeatedly. This is giving the lie to my idea that I
don’t want to tell people how to read my books, but in fact I
do. The books since Ararat—The Wild Iris, Meadowlands,
Vita Nuova, and the new one—all of them, I think, in
different ways, are wholes. I always work very hard on organizing groups
of disparate lyrics into a shape that would give some indication of
a larger ambition than might otherwise be apparent, and then after Ararat,
I started writing these book length sequences. Well, at least that’s
how they appeared to me. The Wild Iris takes its form from
the arc of a summer in a garden. There are three types of speakers.
The natural world speaks, and the poems spoken by the earth have the
names of flowers: "The Silver Lily," "The Wild Iris,"
"Field Flowers." Then there are poems in which a human speaker
addresses, occasionally the earth, I think, but mostly, whatever—I
have no word to describe this divinity, or celestial presence, has animated
GC: Some people call it God.
LG: Yeah, they do, don’t they? Well, I don’t. It’s
shorthand. It’s shorthand for whatever is not included in the
human, and the natural. Something is left out. And then there is the
voice in which that presence responds, usually with impatient disappointment,
to the human being. Occasionally with tenderness – exhausted tenderness
– it became clear to me at a certain point that the sound of that
voice became very like the sound of my mother. Not in its elevations,
but in its substance. I should also say that my mother was a great partisan,
even very early, of my work, and gave me great encouragement. But she
also set a very high standard. And the book is shaped by the failure
of these voices always to meet the natural, which addresses the human;
the human that addresses the natural, and the Divine, and the Divine
that looks at it all and says, “I had better hopes for you than
GC: Life with conditions.
LG: For instance the poem "The Silver Lily" is toward the
end of the book. If you are gardeners, you know that this comes, the
lily usually— not the daylily, but the Asiatics and so on—bloom
toward the end of summer, and in Vermont, where this garden was, at
the very end of summer. And oftentimes they don’t even get to
bloom because the snow falls first.
GC: You have a title, which says—it’s
either a remark or title, “Art in Service of Spirit.” Whether
you like to think it or not, you are one of our leading forces in poetry,
and I don’t know if that makes you uncomfortable. First of all,
you ask the question, or the poems ask the question, do we need a creator?
The poems needed a creator. So, is that the answer?
LG: I don’t know the answer!
GC: OK, you just ask the questions. But it is spiritual work, and
everything you say about decay and growth—and I have a quote from
another source. Well, actually it’s from Wild Iris—“Then
white light no longer disguised as matter,” which sums up quite
a bit of what you write about. The moving through, the moving through
the temporal to the eternal. And I’m sure it’s another one
of those things you wouldn’t want to stop and think about as you
did. But the spiritual lessons there are very interesting and difficult
questions that are raised. In Wild Iris, would it bother you
if somebody read it and didn’t know that there were three different
personas there, that God was not an element? If they just read them
as poems without those three faces?
LG:I think they would be very confused. I don’t know how they
would manage to negotiate the book but...
GC: I tried it both ways, as a matter of fact. And the poems work
both ways. Much richer as designed. But as poems, single poems, without
the subtext, they live. Which I thought was very interesting; it was
just an experiment I did. And I did read where you were compared with
George Herbert and Emily Dickinson
for their attachment to flowers, which I thought was just something
to say. You know, critics will say anything. I’ve written reviews,
and you can say anything you want. You can twist anything to work.
LG: Yes, I’m aware of that.
GC; We’ll just let that one stay right where it is, okay?
Wild Iris is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. And it’s
a milestone in American letters. Yes. “When you read something
that’s worth remembering, you liberate a human voice. You release
into the world again a companion spirit.” That’s from "Death
and Absence," which you wrote. Very nice idea, that the reader’s
LG: Well, I think that that was my experience early on as a reader.
I was a lonely child. My interactions with the world as a social being
were unnatural, forced, performances, and I was happiest reading. Well,
it wasn’t all that sublime, I watched a lot of television and
ate a lot of food, too. But, when I read, I felt that—especially
when I read poems—I felt that the voices on the page, William
Blake and T. S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats,
were my companions. I felt that they were my—not just my teachers—I
felt, these are the people I would be able to talk to. They’re
talking to me. My early writing was an attempt at communication with
them, a response to them.
GC: That’s nice.
LG: And I think that most writers feel some sense that dialogue with
the dead. And when people ask, what do you want, what kind of response
do you want to your work, what I want is for Blake to come down from
heaven and say, “Louise, you did a very good job.” That’s
what I want. And fortunately, I have Blake surrogates who are alive,
and their fastidious attention helps me—proves that effort is
not wasted, that there are ears that receive. And you want to be such
an ear yourself. I think it’s not possible to be a writer without
being that kind of instrument for other people.
GC: Consciousness attracts like-consciousness, and you want to be
the company of those people who you understand, and who understand you;
that is just logical.
LG: And who hold you to a high standard.
GC: Which apparently your friends do. They give you assignments.
LG: They do.
GC: Talk a little about your past publications.
LG: Ararat was the first book that I saw as a whole, and when
I began writing it, it was clear to me that either it was going to be
a book-length mosaic, or it was a failure. The first poems were little
poems about my father’s death, and suburban Long Island. I had
struggled for a long time to discover a tone of voice that was colloquial;
I seem to have no gift for it. My earlier work is filled with Delphic
distances, and it’s not to say that these are not worth something,
but it was very plain to me after four books that the way in which I
spoke was never present in the way in which I wrote, and it troubled
me that I had no access to that other voice. I could imitate other people’s
vernacular, I could do an imitation of William
Carlos Williams, but that’s what it was, it was a
literary act. And finally in Ararat, I learned how to do it.
The book was, overall, deeply disliked, though I’m still very
attached to it – it’s one of my favorite of my books. But
the poems are almost without figure, without beauty, without metaphor.
GC: That is a good book. Ararat.
LG: I like Ararat too.
GC: In your book of essays, the chapter "On
impoverishment," you talk about the terror of hopelessness, and
how—I know I’m paraphrasing this—you plug into a deeper
source, where your recurring themes, eternal themes can renew, and you
find your force in that. So the yearning is the hydraulic system under
your work. The yearning to write even. In one poem you say, what do
I wish for? I wish for another poem. And that’s it, isn’t
LG: It sure is.
GC: And when that goes away -- We are cold and naked when that goes
away. But having accomplished this pile of books, you know that it will
GC: Most writers say when they sit down to write, “I do not
know how to do this thing.”
LG: Well, in fact, you don’t. Because you don’t want to
do anything you’ve already done, and you are not any longer the
person who wrote those books. I look at those poems, or read them, and
think, “how odd, that I wrote them.” I have no sense of
having done so.
GC: Alice Walker said, when she finished The
Color Purple, she did not recognize it. The characters just walked
through her and walked away, she’d never realized she did it.
LG: This is true.
GC: When you look at something you wrote a long time ago, is there
ever a sense of embarrassment, because you’re not in that same
LG: Yes. There are poems I don’t like anymore. That’s different.
My first book, I feel—Firstborn— embarrassed by,
though I was enormously proud of it at the time. I thought it was just
perfectly great. Now I look at it and I think it’s thin and unformed,
and filled with the wish—animated by the wish to write. It took
me about six years to write the following book, The House on Marshland,
and I think from that point on, I’m willing to sign my name.
GC: Would you be surprised if some people liked that book better
than any other?
LG: No, because they’ve told me so. I wish they wouldn’t,
but they do!
GC: What does that mean? It means that it reverberates differently
LG: Oh, I think it means that this book is—it’s
impeccably pretty—everything in it is artful, compact, delicate.
There’s none of the assonance that Ararat is made of.
It’s not my favorite, but it’s one of my most likeable,
GC: People like the truth to be pretty. But I think there’s
some strong stuff in there.
LG: Oh, I think it’s a good book. I think it’s a good book.
I’m glad it’s not the book I had...
GC:.. The last book you had written?
LG: Yes, I’m glad of that.
GC: We are at the Library’s bicentennial. This is a repository
for the world’s treasures, What was your role as consultant to
the Poet Laureate? Were there official duties, or are you just a wonderful
LG: I think Robert Pinsky would not want to think of
me as a wonderful spirit guide. It’s not clear what the duties
are. Well, let me put it this way. The duties were outlined, and they
seemed so appealingly few, that one could hardly credit it. I’m
supposed to appear in Washington twice in November and April, and that
seems to be the list. And that seemed to be something I was willing
to take on.
GC: May I say that we are very happy about
Grace Cavalieri is an author of several
books of poetry, the latest What I Would Do for Love: Poems in the
Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft (Jacaranda Press, 2004.) She holds
the Allen Ginsberg Award for Poetry, a Paterson Prize for Poetry, the
Bordighera Poetry Award for 2005, plus others. She is producer/host
of "The Poet and the Poem," now in its 29th year on public
radio. Her play "Quilting the Sun" receives its world premiere
at Centre Stage in South Carolina in 2007.
Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006.
To read more by this author:
Grace Cavalieri's Intro to Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring
Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue
Evolving City Issue
Split This Rock Issue
Cavalieri on Ann
Darr: Forebears Issue
Tenth Anniversary Issue