(Personal post, not focused on EA. Cross-posted from my website. Podcast version here, or search "Joe Carlsmith Audio" on your podcast app.)

Louise Glück, circa 1977. Image source .

Louise Glück, one of my favorite poets, died yesterday.

I took a writing workshop with her back in 2009. I remember the force and precision of her words as she spoke, slowly, in class. There was a feeling like stones falling, one by one, into place. Like something large was being built, steadily, in simple movements, and you could see it forming.

I remember, too, a meeting in her office. It was early in the semester, and she hadn’t liked my poem. She wanted me to write from some place closer to where dreams come from – something deeper and more inchoate, some raw edge. She wanted what she had called, in my memory, a “real poem.”

I read various of her poems in that class, but the book of hers that has most stayed with me, and mattered most to me, came out later, in 2014: “Faithful and Virtuous Night.” I associate this book, in particular, with the dream-like quality of many of the poems — the way they shift underneath you as you read, full of quiet mystery and surprise. Here’s one of my favorites:

A Foreshortened Journey

I found the stairs somewhat more difficult than I had expected and so I sat down, so to speak, in the middle of the journey. Because there was a large window opposite the railing, I was able to entertain myself with the little dramas and comedies of the street outside, though no one I knew passed by, no one, certainly, who could have assisted me. Nor were the stairs themselves in use, as far as I could see. You must get up, my lad, I told myself. Since this seemed suddenly impossible, I did the next best thing: I prepared to sleep, my head and arm on the stair above, my body crouched below. Sometime after this, a little girl appeared on the top of the staircase, holding the hand of an elderly woman. Grandmother, cried the little girl, there is a dead man on the staircase! We must let him sleep, said the grandmother. We must walk quietly by. He is at that point in life at which neither returning to the beginning nor advancing to the end seem bearable; therefore, he has decided to stop, here, in the midst of things, though this makes him an obstacle to others, such as ourselves. But we must not give up hope; in my own life, she continued, there was such a time, though that was long ago. And here, she let her granddaughter walk in front of her so they could pass me without disturbing me.

I would have liked to hear the whole of her story, since she seemed, as she passed by, a vigorous woman, ready to take pleasure in life, and at the same time forthright, without illusions. But soon their voices faded into whispers, or they were far away. Will we see him when we return, the child murmured. He will be long gone by then, said her grandmother, he will have finished climbing up or down, as the case may be. Then I will say goodbye now, said the little girl. And she knelt below me, chanting a prayer I recognized as the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Sir, she whispered, my grandmother tells me you are not dead, but I thought perhaps this would soothe you in your terrors, and I will not be here to sing it at the right time.

When you hear this again, she said, perhaps the words will be less intimidating, if you remember how you first heard them, in the voice of a little girl.

Why do I love this poem? I wish I could say more directly. It feels like its touching, in me, that raw edge. Something about the journey, the unexplained staircase, preparing to sleep, the grandmother’s understanding. “In my own life, she continued, there was such a time.” And the little girl’s simple depth. “Then I will say goodbye now.”

The little girl, especially, has stayed with me, as have a few other similarly dream-like figures – the conductor in “Aboriginal Landscape,” the old woman in “A Sharply Worded Silence,” the concierge in “The Denial of Death.” The backdrop of these poems is often ethereal and unstable. It seems one way, then smoothly un-seems. “Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller,” Glück writes in “Theory of Memory.” “All the rest is hypothesis and dream.”

See, in “Aboriginal Landscape,” the way the speaker’s relationship to the cemetery evolves.

The cemetery was silent. Wind blew through the trees;
I could hear, very faintly, sounds of  weeping several rows away,
and beyond that, a dog wailing.

At length these sounds abated. It crossed my mind
I had no memory of   being driven here,
to what now seemed a cemetery, though it could have been
a cemetery in my mind only; perhaps it was a park, or if not a park,
a garden or bower, perfumed, I now realized, with the scent of roses —
douceur de vivre filling the air, the sweetness of  living,
as the saying goes. At some point,

it occurred to me I was alone.
Where had the others gone,
my cousins and sister, Caitlin and Abigail?

By now the light was fading. Where was the car
waiting to take us home?

And yet the figures the speaker encounters have some kind of elusive understanding, like the grandmother’s on the staircase. Here, for example, is the conductor:

Finally, in the distance, I made out a small train,
stopped, it seemed, behind some foliage, the conductor
lingering against a doorframe, smoking a cigarette.

Do not forget me, I cried, running now
over many plots, many mothers and fathers 

Do not forget me, I cried, when at last I reached him.
Madam, he said, pointing to the tracks,
surely you realize this is the end, the tracks do not go further.
His words were harsh, and yet his eyes were kind;
this encouraged me to press my case harder.
But they go back, I said, and I remarked
their sturdiness, as though they had many such returns ahead of them.

You know, he said, our work is difficult: we confront
much sorrow and disappointment.
He gazed at me with increasing frankness.
I was like you once, he added, in love with turbulence.

Now I spoke as to an old friend:
What of  you, I said, since he was free to leave,
have you no wish to go home,
to see the city again?

This is my home, he said.
The city — the city is where I disappear.

And here’s the old woman in “A Sharply Worded Silence”:

When I was young, she said, I liked walking the garden path at twilight
and if the path was long enough I would see the moon rise.
That was for me the great pleasure: not sex, not food, not worldly amusement.
I preferred the moon’s rising, and sometimes I would hear,
at the same moment, the sublime notes of the final ensemble
of The Marriage of Figaro. Where did the music come from?
I never knew.

Because it is the nature of garden paths
to be circular, each night, after my wanderings,
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.

It was, she said, a great discovery, albeit my real life.

“My real life.” How do you discover your real life? How do you write a real poem? Part of it, for Glück, is gazing, and speaking, with frankness. Forthright, and without illusions.

People call her poetry “austere” and “terse.” She has, one senses, no time for bullshit. From “October”:

It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

But what she strips away in pursuit of candor leaves something luminous. She is direct, but not dry. Indeed, in her hands, simple words take on strange power. “I want you.” “You are all that is wrong with my life and I need you and I claim you.” “It’s not the earth I’ll miss, it’s you I’ll miss.”

Here’s another of my favorites:

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

I’ve returned, especially, to that line in the last stanza: “from the center of my life came a great fountain.” And to that seawater. Is that the great discovery? The poem speaks of a door at the end of suffering. Was there, somewhere, a glittering knob?

The other Glück poem that has really stayed with me is this one, from a series where she sometimes speaks to God from her garden.

Vespers

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

It feels like there’s a building pain in this poem: the heavy rains, the cold night, and then that breaking blight, and the black spots spreading. And then that last line, that taking-it-on. “I am responsible for these vines.” She loves the earth, and it causes her such pain. See, also, her 2004 “October”:

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted…

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

And see, too, her warnings in “The Sensual World”:

I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth–

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive.

She knew well that she was going to die. “My body,” she writes in “Crossroads,” “now that we will not be traveling together much longer, I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young…” And loss is everywhere in her poetry: See, e.g., in “Primavera”: “Alas, very soon everything will disappear: the birdcalls, the delicate blossoms. In the end, even the earth itself will follow the artist’s name into oblivion.”

The artist, in that poem, leaves no signature – just a drawing of the sun in the dirt, and a “mood of celebration.” And in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize, recorded less than six months before her death from cancer, Glück seems attracted to a type of anonymity – or at least, to the intimacy of encountering her readers in private, rather than in the public sphere. (Perhaps: in a fortune-teller’s tent, holding hands, with all the rest as mere hypothesis.) She quotes Dickinson as an example of this intimacy: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell!” Glück admits to wanting readers. But she wants to reach them “singly, one by one.” “You hear this voice?” she writes in “October.” “This is my mind’s voice.”

Specifically, though, she wanted her readers to participate, somehow, in her poetry. When Eliot says “let us go then, you and I,” Glück thinks he is asking something of the reader. She is, too.

Asking what? Well: many things, presumably. And the individual poems are the best place to look. In general, though, I think she asks for candor – and more, for some sort of intensity and directness of spirit. Perhaps it is a stretch to say that Glück’s is “spiritual” poetry. But she appears, on the page, as fiercely alive and attuned, in a world simultaneously dreamlike and raw, mythical and mundane.

How do you honor someone who has lived the way Glück, in her poetry, appears to live? By meeting them where they seek to stand. By searching out the same real life they sought – that greatest discovery. Here’s to the fountain she found.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:12 PM

Hi Joe

I was pleasantly surprised to see this post on the EA Forum. This has never seemed like a space to talk much about the humanities. Quite reasonably: how do we justify something so indulgent as poetry when we are in triage? Can there be art after cost-effectiveness analysis, but before utopia?

I'm much less surprised to learn you've studied poetry. Something literary has always suffused your writing, bringing the clarity of words carefully chosen and the ambiguity of language at its limit. I don't want to reduce poetry to something purely instrumental, but one part of its value to me has always been to draw up imperfect words for pre-concepts that still resist clear articulation and for pre-sentiments too primordial or too novel to be yet cleanly felt. That's what I mean by language at its limit. It's a gift to the philosopher, or to anybody trying to make sense of the world. I think that this skill in voicing things beyond words, like suffering and death, is what Glück offers the effective altruists, and offers humanity.

I only discovered Glück after she won the Nobel Prize, and I still have much left to read. I have a feeling I'll learn a lot from her poetry. Soon enough, I'll be feeling jealous that you got to learn from her in person. But for now, I'm feeling sympathy for those who knew her and will be especially keenly stung by her loss. My thoughts are with you.

Since her passing, I've been reading two of her short poems about death, 'The Gold Lily' and 'Mother and Child'. In my reading, these pieces both teeter on a panpsychism or a oneness of being. Before gestation, 'Mother and Child' tells us, we were:

[...] earth and water.

Moss between rocks, pieces of leaves and grass.

 

And before, cells in a great darkness.

And before that, the veiled world.

Glück finds herself at the edge of something unknowable. She's reaching out for those imperfect words for pre-concepts and pre-sentiments, and all she can do is gesture out at the expanse of the unsayable, into the darkness, beyond the veil. The raw edge, as you say, Joe.

How does Glück orient herself towards death, knowing that there is more than is dreamt of in her philosophy, yet knowing nothing concrete of a metaphysics beyond the veil? 'The Gold Lily' is bleakly physicalist: the speaker is "not / a flower yet, a spine only, raw dirt". Only her "yet" offers hope of reintegration into what Glück calls, with a touch of Whitman, the "leaves and grass", by which I think she means, like Emerson and his transparent eyeball, a selfless unity with nature. But 'Mother and Child' says something more interesting. Glück didn't find answers for suffering and ignorance and purpose, but she thought that life was an intergenerational project and that we could keep on asking. The poem continues:

This is why you were born: to silence me.

Cells of my mother and father, it is your turn

to be pivotal, to be the masterpiece.

 

I improvised; I never remembered.

Now it’s your turn to be driven;

you’re the one who demands to know:
 

Why do I suffer? Why am I ignorant?

Cells in a great darkness. Some machine made us;

it is your turn to address it, to go back asking

what am I for? What am I for?

Here we find motivation for the next generation, and perhaps motivation that resonates with the effective altruist: we should reckon with suffering, reckon with ignorance, and be agentic: "be pivotal, [...] be the masterpiece. [...] be driven". Let's demand to know. Address the machine. Keep asking: what am I for?

And so goes Glück's wisdom on how to survive her. Thanks for your thoughts, Joe. Thanks to anybody who has read mine.

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Ben. And also, for putting the "The Gold Lily" and "Mother and Child" on my radar -- they hadn't been before. I agree that "Mother and Child" evokes a sort some kind of sort of intergenerational project in the way you describe -- "it is your turn to address it." It seems related to the thing I was trying to talk about at the end of the post -- e.g., Gluck asking for some kind of directness and intensity of engagement with life.