Monday, January 7, 2008

Firstborn, The House on Marshland, The Triumph of Achilles, Ararat, The Wild Iris, Vita Nova, The Seven Ages, Averno, by Louise Glück

Louise Glück AraratIn "Invitation and Exclusion," one of the essays collected in Proofs and Theories, Louise Glück compares T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens in terms of their relationships to their readers. Eliot, Glück demonstrates, "craves a listener, a single listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, Eliot's collaborator." Although one is often baffled by the complexity of Eliot's symbolic order, the reader is also invited to participate in its knowledge; that's why Eliot gives footnotes to "The Waste Land."

Stevens, on the other hand, is not offering any hints. The reader is not the resting place of a Stevens poem; it passes through virtually unchanged. As Glück puts it (more eloquently):

Stevens' meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard. That is the nature of meditation: the speaker and the listener are one. But to overhear is to experience exclusion; reading Stevens, I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng. This capacity to efface is not a function of high language; neither is there an assumption of broad audience which emphasizes the inadequacy of the solitary reader. The difficulty to the reader is a function of the poem's mode, its privacy: to be allowed to follow is not to be asked along.

Later she says she experiences his poetry thus: "The song is sung, and it is impossible not to stand in awe of a process so majestic, so exhilarating, so conspicuously private."

The phrase "conspicuously private" does not, in the Facebook era, arrest our notice. We understand it intuitively based on our experiences. We are used to thinking of privacy mainly in terms of our ability to limit, rather than suppress, access to our personal information. (It should be said, to speak of one's private life in a poem is, after all, a way of limiting its dissemination: not everyone reads poetry, clearly—certainly fewer than are checking their Facebook mini-feed at this moment.)

Yet Glück's phrase does not refer to a limitation or suppression of personal information; what it refers to is something that should strike us with some force of unfamiliarity. Stevens's poems, Glück is saying, consist of the impersonal internal memos of a consciousness to itself, and we happen to read them as they're being shuffled by Stevens on his desk. Suppression or limited access is beside the point; these poems are conspicuously private because they need be neither conspicuous nor private in the common sense (which is something like "personal").

Glück, it may be said, neither fully invites nor fully excludes her readers. While Glück rarely uses direct address or a rhetorical question (or other participation inducing devices), her selection of detail, metaphor and myth are consistently and demonstrably aware of their presentation in an overt, rather than an internal manner. Glück seems to anticipate the reader's reactions and experiences in a way Stevens rarely accounts for. This is not merely a question of opacity or abstraction; Glück can be both these things, but her choice of abstractions seems related to their presence in the poem, while Stevens's abstractions seem related to their presence in something else. That is, the world of a Glück poem is a subset of a larger world of myth and experience, and therefore the parts of that larger world are in the subset of the poem because they were placed there. The world of a Stevens poem is coterminous with this larger world, and therefore the things that are in the world of the poem are there not because they are in the poem, but because they are in the larger world.

This does not, it must be said, equate to a smaller or more constrained vision; on the contrary, Glück's poetry enjoys an enormous freedom of vision but it also possesses an extraordinary clarity—clarity not in the sense of an antonym for difficulty, but in the following sense, given by Helen Vendler in a review:
the aesthetic of Glück's verse—or part of it: the acquiring, by renunciation, of a self. Denying itself the possession of the sacred object, the soul finds identity. Acquiring an object means absorbing it into the soul and losing it from view; renouncing it, the soul keeps it in view forever, and is able to see it clearly, free of projection. The sacred object is exposed, its underlying body visible, its form known in the x-ray vision of desire, which by renunciation is enabled into perception.
Glück, describing the work of another poet (George Oppen), illuminates her own along similar lines in the essay "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence": "The poem refuses to project its informing intelligence... This is not insufficiency of feeling, but absence of vanity." Later she says something I believe to be similar: "When poems are difficult, it is often because their silences are complicated, hard to follow. For me, the answer to such moments is not more language."

Silence, absence of vanity and self-renunciation are not the same thing, to be sure, but all three involve a refusal to project oneself—project, remember, can imply both one's voice or one's image—onto the poem, to turn the poem into an echo chamber or a mirror for the poet. Glück's resistance to projection—the displacement of the self onto a foreign body—requires a steady distance between that object and herself, a distance which is not detachment, which would free the object to move at varying distances, but rather a stable level of intimacy. Vendler describes Glück's poetry in these terms exactly: "they have the intensity of a chain of emblematically significant moments, fixed in time." Intimacy cannot change if time is fixed; we grow or diminish in intimacy with someone only by the jostlings of time. Fixity of time is stability of intimacy.

A stable level of intimacy is also what is known as tact, which transcends time (and place), and we see Glück praising Oppen by saying, "It is rare, almost, in my experience... to find such tact in combination with such intensity."

Tact combined with intensity is a perfect characterization of Glück's poems, although it is possible to stress too strongly Glück's apparent coldness (a stress which is usually placed in order to set up a contrast to Plath's hysterical fire, a reading which Glück obliquely corrects in an excellent appreciation of Plath in the aforementioned essay "Invitation and Exclusion). Glück, at times, does not fight this characterization ("I feel / no coldness that can't be explained" is, well, chilling because of its simple eloquence). At other times, however, she warns us (in the critic-alerting poem titled "The Untrustworthy Speaker") "In my own mind I'm invisible: that's why I'm dangerous." Her tact, the stability of her intimacy with and to her poems (and consequently her readers) causes her to drop out of sight herself; the fixity of her distance allows, after a time, no fine calibration of her dimensions or position.

The way she does calibrate these things is through birth order. Like Hass's Field Guide, the choice of title for her first book is baldly revealing of her deepest concerns. It is called Firstborn, a reference (obviously) to its birth order, but also deeply wrapped up in Glück's family history. Glück, I believe, had an older sister who died before she was born or before she was able to know her. Glück also has a younger sister. Glück is therefore not the firstborn, but is the eldest child in her family, a position which is, as many poems show, a constant but unstable tension.

Indeed the logic of family, and of sisters perhaps as the highest or most intense example, is one of unstable and inconsistent levels of intimacy: the coldness of rivalry, the flash of burning jealousy, the warmth of a moment of comfort. There is no tact within a family, but there is intensity; Glück's family is the antithesis of her poetry. But because it is the antithesis, it is also its progenitor; out of its inconsistent intimacy, Glück establishes the rules of her balance of tact and intensity.

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