On December 14, the Academy of American Poets hosted a tribute reading to former poet laureate Louise Glück, celebrating the November 2012 publication of Poems 1962–2012 (Farrar. ISBN 9780374126087. $40). Poets Frank Bidart, Dana Levin, Robert Pinsky, Peter Streckfus, and Ellen Bryant Voigt read poems by Glück, capturing the aura of the woman with a sleek voice and soft slouch sitting with a look of mild impatience in the front row of a filled auditorium at the New School’s Theresa Lang Center in New York.
The hour began with a resurfacing of the classical archetypes, most dramatically in the retelling of Persephone’s legendary abduction by Hades which appeared in multiple verses and gained momentum as the evening’s theme—the myth uprooted from within the academic tradition and reimagined as a tale of devotion in which experiences of love and pain exist in stages of memory.
I recalled Glück’s version of the tale, which she did not read that evening, but is included in Poems 1962-2012. In her poem, she crowns Persephone as a wanderer, an existential causality—“pawed over by scholars who dispute/ the sensations of the virgin:/ did she cooperate in her rape,/ or was she drugged, violated against her will,/ as happens so often now to modern girls”—before a welcome and slightly surprising comedic shift—“They say/ there is a rift in the human soul/ which was not constructed to belong/ entirely to life. Earth—” Persephone grapples with the gods and the responsibility of her fate, then fades. The poem closes with Glück’s “soul/ shattered with the strain/ of trying to belong to earth.” Glück’s influence on her contemporaries was apparent, her work was at one point described as the “dialectic of belief.” Voigt particularly reflected a Glück-likeness as she read lines describing two women at ease with death, followed by a reminder that the world of hope is also the world of action. Glück’s work is remarkably adaptable, and one may have to be told in order to know that the poems read that night were indeed hers.
When New School Writing Program director Robert Polito introduced the evening’s guest speaker, he aptly described Glück as a poet “reinventing herself over and over from book to book.” She proved it by opening her own part of the program with a charged reading of “October” ( Averno, 2006), followed by three shorter poems from A Village Life (2009).
At the core of Glück’s poems is a belief in the living, though it is clear the poet has suffered. Yet belief in the living, despite what the poet has clearly suffered, is at the core of an oeuvre acknowledged here as the apotheosis of contemporary American award-winning poetry. A recipient of numerable and distinguished honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Award Circle, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Glück attracts a massive following—ranging from star-struck pupils to published poets to tenured professors—collectively drawn to her lean view. These followers were out in force, over 350 strong, on an evening honoring over four decades of verse.