The critical prose of a poet has its own revealing characteristics. Susan Sontag says so, at least, describing it as particularly dense, passionately fibrous, motivated by autobiographical concerns, looking outward in order to verify, with ardor, the poet’s interests and, ultimately, poems. It would seem that we might be able to argue, too, that the strongest poets have a consistency of voice in whatever medium of writing—their voices move along a continuum, morphing according to intent and occasion, breaking into lines or not, but tonally distinct and continually resonant. In the case of Louise Glück, author of 15 collections of poems and winner of almost every major poetry award in the United States, the poems and the critical prose are powered by a talent for sharp reproach and sensitivity to truth in the contours of paradigm.
Glück does not write criticism regularly; as she notes in American Originality, a new collection of critical prose, and only her second book of this kind, writing criticism has become for her a means to be productive and engaged when not writing her own poems. Glück’s first book of essays, Proofs and Theories, appeared in 1994 to much acclaim. Several of its essays (“Against Sincerity” and “The Education of the Poet” in particular) have become well-known among contemporary poets for their emphatic elucidations and unequivocal arguments about truth, beauty, and other large magnetic categories. Glück’s essays in American Originality show her to be one of the staunchest paradigmatic thinkers of our time. Her collection contains many occasional pieces, such as the introductions to collections she picked for first book prizes, but the strongest pieces move outward and inward at the same time, drawing on autobiographical material to better identify and evaluate the characteristics of our milieu.
Take the second essay of the book, “American Narcissism,” which positions the static self-infatuation of Ovid’s beautiful boy as a peculiarly American inheritance. Pointing to the work of Henry James as among the first “to note, and dramatize, the relationship between American independence and American narrowness,” she observes:
“It is a great inheritance, that independence: the presumption, the energy, the stubborn self-sufficiency—these are all tools any artist will need over time. But the vanity that attends these gifts, the sense that no one else is necessary, that the self is of limitless interest, makes American writers particularly prone to any version of the narcissistic.”
It would be misleading to say that her insights with regard to poetry apply neatly and completely to the larger public or historical moment, but clearly part of Glück’s interest here is to uncover patterns of perception between the two. A constant through line, then, is an historicizing impulse, where she maps the emergence of ideas and fashions in time. “Contemporary literature,” she writes, “is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses.” The refreshing feature of this essay is that she
does not merely rebuke but writes in an instructive, reparative way: “We can recognize the grip of unproductive influence as we recognize dangerous seductions.” For models, she turns to different poets, like Mark Strand and Jane Kenyon, isolating the qualities of humor and modesty and detachment as the available deflectors of literary narcissism. Each of these qualities works “because each implicitly posits alternative, or conflicting, views.” The alternative to these alternatives is “the lifeless mirror” that “somehow survive[s] the famished boy.”
A constant through line is an historicizing impulse, where Glück maps the emergence of ideas and fashions in time. “Contemporary literature,” she writes, “is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses.” The refreshing feature of this essay is that she does not merely rebuke but writes in an instructive, reparative way …
Part of the pleasure in reading Glück is encountering the severity of her judgments. Glück demands, in art, significance. She demands that poems do more than reiterate what the public is already prepared to consume, i.e. mere autobiographical disclosure (as in tell-all memoirs, reality TV):
“Our [literary] journals are full of these poems, poems in which secrets are disclosed with athletic avidity, and now, more regularly, poems of ravishing perception … Though the poems [may] go on at great length, the overall impression is that there is no plausible self generating them. … The effect of such poems is that they disappear or evaporate, like the famous effect (benefit, in some sense) of a Japanese dinner. Except it is no benefit for the poem to disappear.”
This is hardly a new criterion for art—it even recalls her famous “Against Sincerity” essay, where she illustrates how carefully manipulated artifice, rather than transcriptive honesty, is crucial to an artwork’s truth-telling power. But the reproach is still useful as a remark that identifies soft spots in contemporary artistic practice. Especially telling is her damnation of the merely ravishing, the merely “fastidious aesthetic response” being a prize of contemporary art. Whether or not these essays persuade the writers of these ravishing athletic disappearing poems, Glück has recorded, as she did in her first collection of essays, her line of thinking—and of literary history. For instance, this essay emphasizes the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke who, in Glück’s view, extended the range and pacing of “helpless receptivity”: “He made an art that placed the self, actually or emblematically, at the center of lost time (the moment, the instant, just past); once the self is convincingly lost …. it becomes the beloved. Airbrushed, a creation of the poet’s will.” The range of her nimble responses—insightful and critical—is also a part of Glück’s performance in these essays: careful examiner, arbiter, and wonderer. The book is especially marvelous when Glück varies her aphoristic acumen with the sharp relief of sustained technical analysis. One of the denser, and more rewarding essays, in the book, “Ersatz Thought” aims to intervene in how we evaluate intellectual daring in poetry. She analyzes the ellipsis, the dash, the fragment—strategies that indicate incompleteness:
“If the sentence is to be forfeited [in contemporary poetic practice], incompleteness must be able to match, or augment, its resources, must infuse the poem (or fiction) with equivalent depth and variety. And the same demand must be answered by related tactics, for example. …The paradox is that the named generates far more complex and powerful associations than does the unnamed.”
The source of consternation driving this essay is the works of recent literature that overestimate the power of non sequitur. Glück is not arguing that poets should not use fragmentation or disjunction or any other device of incompleteness: “The gesture, the protest, aren’t in themselves dangerous. Merely: their fertility has been miscalculated.” Non sequitur as a strategy in U.S. poetry has been in use for a long time, and her examples—Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery—reinforce her point that non sequitur comes from “delight in mobility and profound intellectual contempt for easy emotion.” She does not name specific poets who use non sequitur poorly, but states instead that “most contemporary practice seems to me to depart from this sort of pleasure … ; these alternatives are not in themselves necessarily problematic, but their inherent opacities and elusiveness accommodate intellectual fraud.” Readers, Glück seems to insinuate, can supply for themselves the names of poets potentially guilty of the crime. Alarmism becomes an effective launch point for her meditation on calling for a renewed interest in psychological acuity as a real (and endlessly formal) problem. Her suspicion comes down to the questions that a poetry workshop might ask: “How much looseness, or omission, or non-relation, is exciting? And when do these devices become problematic, or worse, mannered?” She continues:
“My preference for the not-perfectly-coherent makes it particularly troubling to observe the degree to which lacunae and the improbable transitions of non sequitur have come to seem less thrilling than they used to seem. And I am somewhat more alert to the fact that, in practice, we tend to infuse these gaps with a vast range of feelings not actually suggested but rather not ruled out. Such diffuseness of response is at odds with what I want of art: helplessness, the sense of the poem as inescapable trajectory.”
If it seems Glück’s preferred aesthetic experience points toward great seriousness, note her wry humor: “a vast range of feelings not actually suggested but rather not ruled out.” This kind of funny rebuke appears throughout the book. Glück stages a reproach toward slack poetic practice, where poets too easily rely on non sequitur to suggest movements of consciousness rather than the way that consciousness can be made to move in a shape that confers legible, or at least palpable, significance.
The analytical approach in these essays takes the bird’s eye view. For instance, although her intuiting of O’Hara’s work is especially beautiful (“This is, rather, an art in which the eternal has ceased to exist except as an analogue for human memory”), it seems a missed opportunity that Glück does not apply her close reading skills on an individual poem by Ashbery. Instead, she adopts the shorthand method of paraphrase, gloss, and allusion: “If Ashbery seems to be for so many readers the poet of our time, it may be … because (unlike Eliot, who aspired to be annexed by the sublime), he is willing to disappear … to exist in particles, piecemeal,” to make a voice of “consciousness woven through the densely incomprehensible.” It seems fair to say that the audience for these essays will probably know Ashbery’s work well enough to follow the argument, but a close reading would perhaps have helped readers understand in which ways thought can be seen as fraudulent. It remains true, however, that her insights into gestures of incompleteness and her experience as a long-time reader make the essay worth dwelling on: “Too often the gesture [of non sequitur] becomes, like swimmers underwater, a breathing trick: the idea behind it never develops.” The essays brim with such surprising comparisons that reanimate core tactics of literature.
The feeling of an outsider looking toward a center persists in these essays—one sees better from the margins, after all.
Although the book does reiterate some of her ideas from her first collection of essays, it does contain points of development in her thinking about literature and the world. Specifically, it offers an explicit political intervention about race, opening with an essay about whiteness and myth-making and American-ness—it is her way of speaking directly to the tenor of this particular historical moment. Noting the “vigor” and “self-creation” of American mythos, Glück points the way these values depend on “a society or audience coherent enough to recognize and reward the new,” which creates in turn “a fantasy or projection of common values. How this occurs, and with what restrictions, accounts for the peculiar attributes of what Americans call originality, their terms of highest praise.” This projection of common values, as she puts it, is a striking insight into the mechanism by which a public understands itself to be continuous or fragmented. The feeling of an outsider looking toward a center persists in these essays—one sees better from the margins, after all.
The book also has some powerful and poignant essays that reveal even more of this outsider feeling. In “On Revenge,” Glück’s sense of humor is inseparable from her sharpness: “When I was a child,” the essay opens, “I was enormously sensitive to slights; my definition of slights was as broad as my sensitivity was deep. I trust my memory on this point because the child I describe corresponds so exactly to the evolved adult.” The essay—which will be amusing and revealing for all fans of the author—describes how Glück depended, for a long time until recently, it would seem, on visions of revenge to create the energy and vision of artistic triumph. “[M]y fantasies required that my adversaries remain immutable, stable, frozen in my infinite future; the person soon to be devastated by my virtuosity and spiritual depth must be identical to the person who held an object about to be thrown at me.” Now that she’s older, she says, “my rivals and judges, like my friends and colleagues, have all been chastened and battered by time. Pity and fellow feeling have weakened vengefulness.” The essay ends sadly—with the poet unsure of how to fuel her art now that the revenge-driven visions of achievement and self-worth have leveled off. In a bold collection of intellectual interventions, it sounds a genuine note. It brings the blood back to the ink.