So Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature and can now join the ranks of such literary giants as Bob Dylan (who, I’m told, writes songs on the side); nominated by the same committee who, at their most tone deaf, nominated Peter Handke just last year, a man who is/was a supporter of the genocidal mass murderer Slobodan Milošević (having offered to testify in his defense) and who sprinkles his literary output with implicit defenses and denials of the Bosnian genocide. (When this was pointed out by Handke’s many critics, the Nobel Prize bristled with their own denialism.) This isn’t a group of people whose literary judgement, let alone political judgement, I hold in high regard, but the bauble that is the “Nobel Prize” is apparently irresistible. But I also confess that I don’t hold any literary awards or prizes in high regard, finding them to be popularity contests and (too often) politically-driven sideshows meant to burnish and aggrandize the agendas of the prize givers.
But what about Glück’s poetry? Apparently each Nobel Prize comes with a brief quote explaining why the award was given, in Glück’s case it is: “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” A quote which is about as anodyne and generic as you can get. It also reminds me of the great scene in Shaffer’s play Amadeus when Mozart is asked what he thinks of Salieri’s music: “One hear’s such sounds! What can one say but, Salieri?”
Salieri’s music is also unmistakable.
But what to make of “austere beauty”? I have some opinions about that; and it was this absurdly gushing post that pushed me over the edge. The writer calls Glück’s poem Crossroads a “subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.” And that was only after the equally gushing title: “Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to the Love of Life at the Horizon of Death”. As it turns out, Glück’s quote-unquote “serenade” is all of 13 lines. If there’s anything austere about Glück’s poetry, it’s in weeding out anything that might be called poetry.
My body, 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 —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.
Or another poem by Glück:
The memories of my family outings are still a source
of strength to me. I remember we'd all pile into the car — I forget
what kind it was —and drive and drive.
I'm not sure where we'd go, but I think there
were some trees there. The smell of something
was strong in the air as we played whatever sport we played.
I remember a bigger, old guy we called "Dad."
We'd eat some stuff,
or not, and then I think
We went home. I guess
some things never leave you.
Just kidding. The latter poem is not by Glück. But if you notice striking similarities that’s because there are striking similarities. The latter poem is a Deep Thought from Saturday Night Live’s “Jack Handy”. Let’s take a look at what these two “poems” have in common.
The first is that both poems are “austere”. Neither poem avails itself of the language that historically made poetry poetry. A ways back I wrote a post offering a definition of poetry drawn form Poetry.Org, a site that beautifully summed up what poetry has traditionally been in a single paragraph:
“Poetry… is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.
1.) Both poets, Glück and Handy, write verse purely for its notional and semantic content. Neither attempts to exploit the aesthetic qualities of the English Language.
2.) Both poets dwell in generic abstractions.
In Glück’s poem, she starts out by telling us that she remembers what love was when she was young, then follows that with (practically speaking) bullet point abstractions that strike me as a poet too lazy or too unimaginative to actually describe what love was like.
…so often foolish in its objective…
Love is “foolish in its objectives”, she writes. A commonplace that appears at least once in every Elizabethan play ever written and is the groundwork for many of Chaucer’s stories (who actually bothered to write stories based on the truism). Though Handy forgets what kind of car he piled into, he at least gives us something more concrete to imagine.
…its choices, its intensities...
Glück then reminisces about love’s “choices” and “intensities”, whatever those are. They were apparently demanded in advance—and vaguely. And then, further drawing us into her soft-focus haze, Glück states that “too much was demanded in advance” but apparently it was nevertheless not too much that could be promised. Did you catch that? I suppose there are readers who will make hay out of this seeming contradiction. It strikes me as a mistake or unearned pretentiousness. As with the rest of the verse, one can’t be certain. The more that one reads Handy’s poem, the more it reads like a satire of Glück’s poem, and in its way it is. He too can’t remember anything, but assures us, in his vague way, that it was all very important. He thinks there were some trees and remembers smelling something.
…so fearful, so violent…
Glück continues on her vague way, and perhaps now we get a sense for what the Nobel Prize Committee unwittingly meant when they said that she makes the “individual existence universal”. Glück’s landscape is so bland, vague and generalized that she all but wipes out “individual existence” in a Gaussian blur. She writes that her soul has been ‘fearful and violent’; and we as readers, I suppose, are meant to decide what Glück means. To paraphrase William Logan, she passes the burden of making meaning from the poet to the reader. At any rate, she doesn’t tell us. She assures us that she’s forgiven it’s “brutality” (don’t ask) and then descends into such a haze of imprecision that the reader has no idea who the “you” is in: “my hand moves over you cautiously”. It’s anyone’s guess and everyone’s guess is surely valid. She could be referring to her body, to her soul, or to a lover’s body or soul—or to the reader themselves. The lines that follow in no way clear up who she is universally referring to as “you”.
…expression as substance…
By the final stanza abstraction all but abstracts abstraction. Glück doesn’t want to give offense (for what?) and leaves it to the reader to construct whatever reasons the soul or body would have for taking offense. She is only “eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance”, though we have no idea, at this point, who is speaking or what is meant by “expression as substance”. Could it be the soul who touches the body or the body who touches the soul? Who is speaking? And who will miss who and why? Will the soul miss the body, rather than the earth, or is it the body that will miss the soul, once that conduit to earthly sensation departs the body? I suppose there are some who will laud this confusion as intentional and part of the poem’s genius, but that strikes me as the Fallacy of Imitative Form (in which a poet defends the confusion of the poetry by claiming it enacts the confusion of the narrator). As William Logan succinctly wrote of her, one gets the impression that she’s “a poet used to meaning more than she can say,” and Crossroads is certainly a pristine example of this kind of imaginative deficit. Apparently, Glück is so moved by her experience of the earth that she can’t muster a single concrete example. But I guess some things never leave you, right? Rather, the earth is little more than a hazy abstraction that her soul has, “I guess” (as Jack Handy might put it), been brutal with. In her poem The Traveler, and in a self-revelatory moment, Glück even acknowledges as much, writing that “I treated all experience as a spiritual or intellectual trial.”
3.) Both poets are “poets” of sentiment, sentiment being defined as “a thought prompted by passion or feeling; a state of mind in view of some subject; feeling toward or respecting some person or thing…” Whereas Glück takes sentiment as the endpoint of profundity, Handy sees it as the starting point of satire, calling his poetry “Deep Thoughts“. The line between the two is very, very, very thin, so much so that whereas others gush over Glück’s profundity, I see Deep Thoughts.
Beyond Crossroads, reading Glück’s other poems is a field trip into a mediocre world of generic abstractions., redundancies, clichés, platitudes and dull similes. In her poem “In the Café” one finds such redundancies as “new discoveries” (because “discoveries” aren’t already, by definition, “new”). You will find fields that are flushed with “dawn light” because you might otherwise think that dawn and light are two separate events. In Reunion you will find prosaic and well-worn adjectives like “deliciously wry”, “eager openness”, “broad tolerance”, “profoundly different”, “hovering terror” — the stuff of run-of-the-mill writing. Or the platitudiness, deep thought, closing her poem The Past:
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?
A variation on the question: Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? — a transparently pretentious reach for profundity that, at least to this reader, crosses into Jack Handy territory.
All in all, Louise Glück’s literary reputation will no doubt go the way of so many honored and esteemed poets of that long ago Victorian Era—whose names are no doubt at the tip of your tongue. She has and will have her defenders and close readers who are and will be deeply moved by her poems, poems like practiced flower arrangements whose”poetic insights” appear in all the proper and expected places. She’s light reading. Her profundity is that of rhetorical and narrative gestures rather than real profundity. She expects little to nothing from her readers and, like so many of her generation, treats poetry as nothing more than conduits of sentiment—precisely the kind of pretense so beautifully skewered by Saturday Night Live.