United States President Barack Obama presents the 2015 National Humanities Medal to Louise Glück
For two years, Louise Glück wrote nothing except a single sentence: "At the end of my suffering / there was a door."
Then, Glück wrote her poetry book "The Wild Iris" in mere weeks.
That story—of death that becomes rebirth, of unfathomable pain that generates a sense of the eternal—is one of the many defining themes of Glück's poems. Her poetry is exceptional because it explores the depths of human emotion and suffering in a way that most of us feel, but rarely see reflected back at us in its true forms. There are no walls in Glück's poetry, no holographs: you're seeing the darkness of pure truth.
Glück's poems offer catharsis but no clear answers. They do not propose that spirituality or even language will save us. Most of them seem to have surpassed the point where their narrators might have been saved; instead, they are picking through broken memories, looking at the world from far above. They are poems for a fractured time, and explorations of the way life continues on even after unfathomable suffering. They are also testaments to the natural world, and to our strange relationships with our bodies and the way they reflect and disobey the earth and sometimes detach from themselves.
This week, Glück's poems earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is far from her first prize; she has been highly lettered throughout her lifetime, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The former U.S. Poet Laureate, 77, has also taught at Yale and has been long admired by students of modern poetry.
According to the Swedish Academy, in Glück's poems, "The self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting illusions of the self." They also describe her as "engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life" and "also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss."
Barack Obama, who honored Glück with the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, said that her "probing poems capture the quiet drama of nature and the quiet emotions of everyday people." That so many people resonate with experiences like Glück's—with such quiet shame and deep, profound sadness—is moving to consider, if a bit startling to think about too hard.
Glück will release her next collection of poems, "Winter Recipes From the Collective," next year. "The hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side," she said to The New York Times—"it" being the pandemic, but also possibly the general experience of life.
Read some of Glück's poems below.
1. All Hallows
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
Is that an attitude for a flower, to stand
like a club at the walk; poor slain boy,
is that a way to show
gratitude to the gods? White
with colored hearts, the tall flowers
sway around you, all the other boys,
in the cold spring, as the violets open.
There were no flowers in antiquity
but boys' bodies, pale, perfectly imagined.
So the gods sank to human shape with longing.
In the field, in the willow grove,
Apollo sent the courtiers away.
And from the blood of the wound
a flower sprang, lilylike, more brilliant
than the purples of Tyre.
Then the god wept: his vital grief
flooded the earth.
Beauty dies: that is the source
of creation. Outside the ring of trees
the courtiers could hear
the dove's call transmit
its uniform, its inborn sorrow—
They stood listening, among the rustling willows.
Was this the god's lament?
They listened carefully. And for a short time
all sound was sad.
There is no other immortality:
in the cold spring, the purple violets open.
And yet, the heart is black,
there is its violence frankly exposed.
Or is it not the heart at the center
but some other word?
And now someone is bending over them,
meaning to gather them—
They could not wait
in exile forever.
Through the glittering grove
the courtiers ran
calling the name
of their companion
over the birds' noise,
over the willows' aimless sadness.
Well into the night they wept,
their clear tears
altering no earthly color.
3. The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
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.
4. The Myth of Innocence
One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
if she detects any changes. She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.
The sun seems, in the water, very close.
That's my uncle spying again, she thinks—
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone, she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.
No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her, right there,
with her uncle watching. She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.
This is the last moment she remembers clearly.
Then the dark god bore her away.
She also remembers, less clearly,
the chilling insight that from this moment
she couldn't live without him again.
The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return. A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.
She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance
cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.
All the different nouns—
she says them in rotation.
Death, husband, god, stranger.
Everything sounds so simple, so conventional.
I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl.
She can't remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.
Remember the days of our first happiness,
how strong we were, how dazed by passion,
lying all day, then all night in the narrow bed,
sleeping there, eating there too: it was summer,
it seemed everything had ripened
at once. And so hot we lay completely uncovered.
Sometimes the wind rose; a willow brushed the window.
But we were lost in a way, didn't you feel that?
The bed was like a raft; I felt us drifting
far from our natures, toward a place where we'd discover nothing.
First the sun, then the moon, in fragments,
stone through the willow.
Things anyone could see.
Then the circles closed. Slowly the nights grew cool;
the pendant leaves of the willow
yellowed and fell. And in each of us began
a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,
of the absence of regret.
We were artists again, my husband.
We could resume the journey.
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 the night end,
didn't the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters
wasn't my body
rescued, wasn't it safe
didn't the scar form, invisible
above the injury
terror and cold,
didn't they just end, wasn't the back garden
harrowed and planted–
I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren't the seeds planted,
didn't vines climb the south wall
I can't hear your voice
for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground
I no longer care
what sound it makes
when I was silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound
what it sounds like can't change what it is–
didn't the night end, wasn't the earth
safe when it was planted
didn't we plant the seeds,
weren't we necessary to the earth,
the vines, were they harvested?
Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away —
You hear this voice? This is my mind's voice;
you can't touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don't ask it to respond again.
A day like a day in summer.
Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples
nearly mauve on the gravel paths.
And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer.
It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.
Once more, the sun rises as it rose in summer;
bounty, balm after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed, after the fields
have been harvested and turned.
Tell me this is the future,
I won't believe you.
Tell me I'm living,
I won't believe you.
Snow had fallen. I remember
music from an open window.
Come to me, said the world.
This is not to say
it spoke in exact sentences
but that I perceived beauty in this manner.
Sunrise. A film of moisture
on each living thing. Pools of cold light
formed in the gutters.
at the doorway,
ridiculous as it now seems.
What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.
Very simple. But there was no voice there.
Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,
bits of green were showing.
Come to me, said the world. I was standing
in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal —
I can finally say
long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure. Beauty
the healer, the teacher —
death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.
The light has changed;
middle C is tuned darker now.
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed. —
This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: you will not be spared.
The songs have changed; the unspeakable
has entered them.
This is the light of autumn, not the light that says
I am reborn.
Not the spring dawn: I strained, I suffered, I was delivered.
This is the present, an allegory of waste.
So much has changed. And still, you are fortunate:
the ideal burns in you like a fever.
Or not like a fever, like a second heart.
The songs have changed, but really they are still quite beautiful.
They have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind.
They are dark, now, with desolation and anguish.
And yet the notes recur. They hover oddly
in anticipation of silence.
The ear gets used to them.
The eye gets used to disappearances.
You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.
A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind;
it has left in its wake a strange lucidity.
How priviledged you are, to be passionately
clinging to what you love;
the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you.
This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.
Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.
It is true that 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.
at work, though I am silent.
misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley
lined with trees; we are
companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;
behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms
somehow deserted, abandoned,
as though it were the artist's
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?
the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception — At the intersection,
ornamental lights of the season.
I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against
the same world:
you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.
The brightness of the day becomes
the brightness of the night;
the fire becomes the mirror.
My friend the earth is bitter; I think
sunlight has failed her.
Bitter or weary, it is hard to say.
Between herself and the sun,
something has ended.
She wants, now, to be left alone;
I think we must give up
turning to her for affirmation.
Above the fields,
above the roofs of the village houses,
the brilliance that made all life possible
becomes the cold stars.
Lie still and watch:
they give nothing but ask nothing.
From within the earth's
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness
my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?