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Glück: The poet of stark truths

Rihan Najib | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

Present tense: As a pandemic keeps the world indoors, Glück’s poems about the universal experiences of being alive as imperfect beings seem apt   -  REUTERS/ KATHERINE TAYLOR

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s poetry is renowned for its surgical precision and restraint

* Louise Gluck is the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel for literature since Toni Morrison in 1993

* Gluck’s restrained and sparse verses offset the drama of the big questions she asks about life and love through her work

* A faculty member at Yale University, her first collection of poems, Firstborn, came out in 1968

Ten years ago, I was a student in a course on dramaturgy, studying the somewhat pompous word ‘Anagnorisis’ — the breakthrough moment of awareness about the true nature of a situation or a relationship. It refers to a sudden point of such painful clarity that the protagonist is altered forever by the knowledge. At the time, I had just turned 20, and was fond of such literary devices. Like most 20-somethings, I had no appetite for restraint, preferring the overheated theatrics of wounded men and women shaking a fist at the heavens.

While browsing through the readings for the course, I came across a reference to The Empty Glass, a poem by Louise Glück from her 2001 collection The Seven Ages. Eager for a break from the staid academic writing, I looked up the poem. The opening verses recalled the supplicant pose of a human at the mercy of fate, a recurring trope in ancient Greek literature: “I asked for much; I received much/ I asked for much; I received little, I received next to nothing.” The poem hurtled towards a revelation: “And I think in the end this was the question/ that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach [...] the future lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking/ it could be controlled. He should have said/ I have nothing, I am at your mercy.”

This unexpected encounter with Glück (77), who was recently awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, was much like the change of state implied by ‘Anagnorisis’. Glück gave me the sense that it wasn’t fate that Agamemnon and the rest were railing against, it was futility — the underlying horror of all of one’s grandiose gestures adding up to nothing in the end (“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?”).

I read a lot of Glück that semester, not just owing to how Greek myths and literature featured prominently in her poetry, but also because reading her could at times be a fundamentally transformative experience. The restrained and sparse verses offset the drama of the big questions Glück asked about life and love through her work. The poem Adult Grief, for instance, incisively observes the pain of watching parents age (“There has never been a parent/ kept alive by a child’s love.”), and how one forestalls the pain of their impending loss: “You kept going back, clinging/ to two people you hardly recognized/ after what they’d endured.”

Glück, born in 1943 in New York, has long been a fixture in the pantheon of contemporary literature in English. Currently a faculty member at Yale University, her first collection of poems, Firstborn, came out in 1968; forthcoming from her next year is the book Winter Recipes from the Collective. Over the span of five decades, she has won a slew of prestigious literary prizes — from the Pulitzer in 1993 to the National Humanities Medal, conferred on her in 2015 by US president Barack Obama. The Nobel — awarded for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal” — comes as yet another addition to a much-feathered cap.

Renowned for the precision of her verse, the near surgical forthrightness that seemed to go straight to the heart of things, Glück’s preoccupations included nature, myths, loss and the extraordinary business of living in the face of an ever-advancing oblivion. The first American woman to be awarded the Nobel for literature since Toni Morrison in 1993, Glück told an interviewer that she was “completely flabbergasted” that she — a white American poet — would be chosen, especially at a time when the US isn’t looked upon favourably because of the politics of its current administration. But the choice of Glück is certainly less controversial compared to last year’s winner, Austrian writer Peter Handke, who received widespread condemnation for his support of Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević as well as his denial of the Bosnian genocide.

At a time when most people in the world have spent the better part of the year indoors in a desperate bid to combat a pandemic, Glück’s poems about the universal experiences of being alive as imperfect beings seem an apt choice. In a recent interview, she noted, “I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever.”

Reading Glück today as a 30-year-old, less tolerant of literary hysterics than I once was, my eyes are drawn to unvarnished turns of phrase that reveal a weary wisdom, rather than any overweening epiphany. The poem October, in particular, is apt to be read at this point in a long, sad year: “This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us./ Surely it is a privilege to approach the end/ still believing in something.”

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on October 16, 2020
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