Last week, Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I remember reading the news, my hands covered in dust as I packed up my abandoned office, and a warm glow of affection rushed through me. That surge of pride I get when artists I admire are recognised for their work. The home team done good. The Nobel Prize is the latest of well deserved accolades. She’s also won the Pulitzer Prize, and she became the US Poet Laureate in 2003.
Louise Glück is an astonishing poet. She weaves the personal and the mythic in ways that are vivid and revelatory. Reading her sometimes leaves me stunned, a bird flying into a window.
I first came across her a few years back. I was researching underworld stories, descent myths of women journeying, taken into the dark. I was reading Averno, a collection where she explores and retells the myth of Persephone, the Greek story that’s the foundation of the Eleusian Mysteries. It’s a popular subject for art and poetry, a myth that’s been retold and retold. One that I know well, that I keep coming back to again and again. And yet I was floored.
Averno looks at mothers and daughters, consent, complicity, power, winding between perspectives. She makes them real, with lines that are precise, sharp and stunning.
Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.
She is lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes
she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.
The last line that closes the poem is one of my favourites in poetry. You can read the full text here.
In A Myth Of Devotion, Hades is creating a world for the young woman he has captured, who has captured him, with all the echoes of death and the maiden, dread and desire. What life is there in the underworld? What love is there in the darkness?
He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.
Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—
Glück’s work is often unsettling and uncomfortable, because she turns towards uncertainty. To ambiguity. There’s no neat morality plays here. Her poems gleam with awe and wonder, with struggle and survival. They tend to be longer form. She asks your attention as a reader, and if you’re willing to give it, the images and emotion she paints pour into you and can leave you changed.
The Wild Iris, one of her best known poems comes with a story that’s comforting as a writer. Glück had been suffering from writer’s block. She hadn’t written a line for two years, but the image, “At the end of my suffering, there was a door” had been with her for years. There was an ending to that fallow period. She sat down and wrote the poems that made up the book in five weeks. It went on to win the Pulitzer prize.
I have her full works from 1962 – 2012 sat in front of me. I’ve been leafing through them this week, reminded of how much she is a poet for our times. A well deserving winner. I want to offer Witchgrass to close, which surges to a crescendo of defiance and affirmation. A reminder of claiming your place in the world.
comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—
If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything—
as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
I’m not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion—
It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.
I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.
I will constitute the field.
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