Tuesday, October 13, 2020

From an Interview with Louise Glück

From the Times:

What is the new collection about?

Falling apart. There’s a lot of mourning in the book. There’s also a lot of comedy in the book, and the poems are very surreal.

I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Yeah, well, I was a lively girl. Aging is more complicated. It isn’t simply the fact that you’re drawn closer to your death, it’s that faculties that you counted on — physical grace and strength and mental agility — these things are being compromised or threatened. It’s been very interesting to think about and write about.

A lot of your work draws on classical mythology and weaves together mythic archetypes with more intimate contemporary verses about family bonds and relationships. What draws you to those mythic figures, and how do those stories enhance what you are trying to explore and communicate through your poetry?

Everybody who writes draws sustenance and fuel from earliest memories, and the things that changed you or touched you or thrilled you in your childhood. I was read the Greek myths by my visionary parents, and when I could read on my own, I continued to read them. The figures of the gods and heroes were more vivid to me than the other little children on the block in Long Island. It wasn’t as though I was drawing on something acquired late in life to give my work some kind of varnish of learning. These were my bedtime stories. And certain stories particularly resonated with me, especially Persephone, and I’ve been writing about her on and off for 50 years. And I think I was as much caught up in a struggle with my mother, as ambitious girls often are. I think that particular myth gave a new aspect to those struggles. I don’t mean it was useful in my daily life. When I wrote, instead of complaining about my mother, I could complain about Demeter. . . .

You’ve experimented with different poetic forms in the course of your career, though your voice has remained distinct. Has that been a deliberate, conscious effort to push yourself by trying different forms?

Yes, all the time. You’re writing to be an adventurer. I want to be taken somewhere I know nothing about. I want to be a stranger to a territory. One of the few good things to say about old age is that you have a new experience. Diminishment is not everybody’s most anticipated joy, but there is news in this situation. And that, for a poet or writer, is invaluable. I think you have always to be surprised and to be, in a way, a beginner again, otherwise I would bore myself to tears. And there have been times when I have, when I’ve thought, you know, you wrote that poem. It’s a very nice poem, but you already wrote it.

In what ways do you feel aging has led you to explore new territory as a poet?

You find yourself losing a noun here and there, and your sentences develop these vast lacunae in the middle, and you either have to restructure the sentence or abandon it. But the point is, you see this, and it has never happened before. And though it’s grim and unpleasant and bodes ill, it’s still, from the point of view of the artist, exciting and new.

Over the weekend I read about thirty of Glück's poems, and honestly I enjoyed this interview as much as any of them. Well, perhaps not as much as the one I posted, "Averno," but that was by far the best I found. My readers know that I read poetry and am very attracted to the idea of poetry, and even sometimes write poetry. But I but only intermittently enjoy the poems I read. Reading Glück was for me like reading most contemporary poets, with occasional lines of real beauty or pathos separated by long passages of tedium or confusion. Among all the thousands of poems I have read I think there are fewer than fifty that I enjoy from end to end.

The vision Glück sets out in the interview bedazzles me: writing as exploration, as adventure, as a journey into the unknown, but of course an unknown that is rooted in your own experience in ways mysterious even to you.

What does art do? It takes the raw material of life, mixed ores of pain and joy, and refines it into crystals of beauty, sorrow, or terror. For Louise Glück, even aging and creeping dementia are raw material for the furnace of her artist's mind. I love the courage with which she takes on her work. The results, well, sometimes they reach up to the animating principle but usually not.

So for me reading poetry is like hunting for perfect, beautiful shells on a beach covered with shattered fragments. You have to keep your mind open, not going numb from the endless array of uneven pieces, keeping on despite boredom and frustration, or else you never find the lines that for a moment lift your soul to a higher plane.


G. Verloren said...

I don't quote have the knack for appreciating poetry.

Either it bores me, strikes me as excruciatingly pretentious, or once in a blue moon it puts something cleverly or eloquently AND happens to get lucky in resonating with some personal experience I've actually had, and I briefly admire a particular turn of phrase or well shared sentiment, but then I forget the poem forever after.

In particular, I can't stand poetry that revels in ambiguity and obtuseness, however clever it might seem to some. The point of language is to bring people closer together, and yet seemingly most poetry seeks to drive wedges between those who are already "in the know", and those whose experiences or worldviews differ.

All the poetry that actually manages to stay with me is far more akin to prose than verse, and is eminently approachable and universal in topic, even when talking about life experiences I've never lived. Relatability and sincerity are high priorities for me - I enjoy poetry using precision of language to enlighten me when I'm ignorant, not to confound me by speaking in florid code, a smug wink and a nod to the intended audience, signaling an exclusiveness or superiority.

Maybe I just don't read enough poetry, or maybe I've just had the bad luck to chiefly stumble upon bad poetry. Or maybe I just have a particularly crooked sort of personal preference and worldview that is somewhat incompatible.

...although I will note, I find my complaints don't crop up nearly as much with poems that weren't originally written in English. Perhaps, despite the usual sentiment, there can sometimes be something gained in translation. (Or perhaps the traditions of English poetry make it different in some way I can't quite put my finger on that doesn't agree with me.)

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

I completely agree with your last paragraphs, John. Few are those whose works of art are all of the masterpieces, frequently we have to look and listen and read a lot of median art until we find a real gem. That happens with Glück; I've translating poems of hers to publish in my blog, but I am rather disappointed, she is no Yeats, no Dickinson. I found in the end a small bunch of good poetry, I leave you my favourite:

The Past

Small light in the sky appearing
suddenly between
two pine boughs, their fine needles

now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—

Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—

The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them

because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

... "all of THEM masterpieces" ...