Louise Gluck’s collected poems showcase half a century of stunning verse

02/24/2013 12:03 AM

08/08/2014 10:14 AM

“Poems 1962-2012” by Louise Gluck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Ecco, 634 pages, $40)

In his short story “First Sorrow,” Franz Kafka tells of a trapeze artist who wants only to stay on his trapeze – whether he is performing or not. He gets his wish, even as the circus keeps traveling.

Eventually, the trapeze artist grows anxious about his precarious position and asks his manager for a second trapeze: “Only one bar in my hand – how can I go on living?”

He gets his second wish, as well. But those first cries of anguish put his manager on edge; they signal what could be the artist’s ultimate fall from grace.

Louise Gluck can be considered American poetry’s trapeze artist, one of our finest makers of verse for the past 50 years, perched high on her award-winning bar of precise, clear-eyed, unsentimental “confessional” poems.

With her, no reader need worry that she will ask for a second trapeze. Her starting and ending points have always been the sorrows and epiphanies of a world well-loved – a virtually endless arena of what I would call lean abundance .

As “Poems 1962-2012” powerfully illustrates – collecting all 11 of her previous books – her most recent poems still celebrate this hard-earned love, even if her sadness sounds more muted and resigned, absorbed in a sense of place – Italy, appropriately – echoing what the Roman poet Horace called “O medicine of sorrows.”

Gluck made her mark in the early 1960s, stripping the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell of its cloying self-indulgence but still clinging to her trapeze bar of personal emotion packed into spare, pointed diction.

For years, she continued in this vein, exploring the domestic vicissitudes of her marriages – raised to the mythic heights of Penelope and Ulysses – until her spectacular, Pulitzer Prize-winning volume “The Wild Iris” (1992).

Arguably her most popular book, it intermingles the (conscious) lives of flowers, the voice of God and the folly of humankind. As such, it expands Gluck’s emotional range into a stunningly beautiful overture of meaning, into a sure, authorial voice.

I tell you I could speak again: whatever

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice:

from the center of my life came

a great fountain, deep blue

shadows on azure seawater.

When confronted with the scope of a poet’s life work, it is tempting to find some reductive key, to say, “ This is the core of her artistry.”

Even though I find that approach perilous, after my third reading of “The Wild Iris,” the book still strikes me as the hinge of Gluck’s oeuvre, showcasing her imaginative empathy, and some of the most direct, inspiring poetry of the past generation, “crying yes risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.”

Like the final vibrations of a tuning fork struck against iron in her soul, Gluck’s poetic line has continued to lengthen and expand, striding across the page in “Village Life” (2009), her most recent work.

There, narrative replaces self-scrutiny, and it may be tempting to consider this her second trapeze. But the later poems merely reveal the hidden virtues of the earlier ones: expressing the universal in the particular, tracing the tragic in the everyday, charting our reflexive rebellion against suffering and mirroring our willingness to spill our longings onto the “page” of our innermost self:


do you treasure your voice

when to be one thing

is to be next to nothing?

I find it difficult to imagine a better book of poetry being published this year.

“Poems 1962-2012” soars as a pinnacle in American letters, a trapeze act of dizzying precision and daring. The right response is simply to cherish it as a national treasure – to hold one’s breath, peer into the spotlights and applaud.

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