A man lies awake — gets up to walk. He remembers sharing a room with his bother when they were boys, his brother reading by nightlight and the sound of his breathing. He remembers excursions with their aunt, taking a boat upriver, watching a city float by in the dark.
The small hours come in many shades in Faithful and Virtuous Night, the collection of poetry Louise Glück published in 2014 to win the National Book Award. Elements of a medieval quest superimpose on a modern city, and she writes in the voice of an aging artist and a man.
In a dozen collections of poems and two books of essays, she has earned many of this country’s highest honors. She is a former National Poet Laureate. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris in 1992 — and she wrote it on Southworth Street.
Before she became writer in residence at Yale University, Glück taught at Williams for 20 years, working with poets who have spread from coast to coast, including Claudia Rankine, whose work crossed paths with hers not long ago: Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year.
This spring, Glück is returning for a rare evening. She will read from her work at the ’62 Center on May 1.
She comes at the invitation of Jessica Fisher, her friend and an assistant professor of English at Williams, and author of two collections of poems. Fisher has lived with Glück’s work for more than 25 years and has known her for a dozen.
She remembers her excitement each time Glück has a new book on the horizon: “When’s the last time you went running into the bookstore the day a book came out? — And the thrill of not knowing what will come next.”
Each one is unique: spoken from or framed by wildflowers and the bells of the monastic hours; Greek heros; a couple in a dissolving marriage; the people of a village. Each book has a narrative, though the poems are not clear small stories.
“Her work changed something about how one thinks of a book in American poetry,” Fisher said. “… this quality that you open a world.”
Writers she has worked with at Williams and beyond feel the same generosity and clear-sightedness in her, as a writer and a teacher.
Chris Nealon (’89) now professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and author of three volumes of poetry, took a writing workshop with her in his junior year and then an independent study.
But his clearest memories of conversations in those years came in driving her to the Bennington bus station, as she lived then in northern Vermont
“One time she said in a pause, ‘do you think you want to take poetry seriously?’”
He smiled, remembering himself then, frozen and hauling up the courage to say “yes.”
And she said “I think you should.”
“Her workshop was electrifying,” he said.
She brought a quality of attention he found terrifying and exhilarating.
“She took student writing seriously,” he said. “She was unsparing but never unkind.”
She taught him a kind of poetic intelligence, not just beautiful words like beads on a string, but pacing, mobility — the form and movement of a poem.
“That has always stayed with me,” he said.
He remembers a summer in Berlin in his grad school years when he carried her books and read them often, and now, immersed in his own work and other inspirations, he feels her influence.
“After all these years I still hear her voice when I write,” he said, “her poetic voice, not because I’m trying to imitate it, but because I feel I may be talking to it. Going back to read her work, I’m stirred by how a poem I haven’t heard in 20 or 30 years has language I still hear before it comes. … I feel how deeply her language is in me.”
Fisher feels that voice, “a tonal quality that lets you know you’re still in that mind.” She read aloud the opening lines of Averno —
“This is the moment you see again
the red berries of the mountain ash
and in the dark sky
the birds’ night migrations …”
Glück creates a sensual, natural and concrete place, and yet with “not so much an attention on what is present as on what … will be lost.”
Sally Ball (’90) feels that originality, that voice speaking almost aloud, and that sense of crisis and distance.
Now an associate professor of English at Arizona State University and author of two collections of poetry, she wrote a senior thesis with Glück and found her a keen observer who gave deep, close and respectful attention.
In Glück’s work she loves an elegant precision about difficult things. An elemental lesson in writing workshops is to show, not tell, Ball said, but often what she loves most in a poem is a moment of telling.
In Glück she finds a potent energy between large ideas and strong emotions — and a debater’s agility.
“She’s articulate and wry and so funny,” she said. “She has zingers.”
Lines come back to her still. Recently, recognizing a new optimism in herself, she remembered Snowdrops in The Wild Iris —
“afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.”
And she has walked around for weeks with those words repeating in her mind.
This story originally ran in the Landscapes section of the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. Image above courtesy of Williams College