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Louise Glück’s Monumental Narcissism

As Reviewed By: Brian Henry

The Seven Ages by Louise Glück. Ecco/HarperCollins, $23 cloth. 68 pgs.

Very few lives are interesting, and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry. Louise Glück’s life might be richer than most, but in her continued fetishization of her life and her self–not the self that eats and shits and sleeps and pays bills, but “Louise Glück The Poet” self–she demonstrates a disconcerting inability to find her way out of the cul-de-sac of subjectivity. She has forgotten how to imagine, or even re-imagine, her life. Instead, she looks upon her past in The Seven Ages (2001) and assumes it’s of interest solely because she is Louise Glück. Only poets accustomed to thinking of themselves as Poets would try to get away with this.

[private]Yet Glück seems to have gotten away with it. Consider the following: Ecco/HarperCollins has published the book in an attractive hardcover edition; the 68-page book costs $23; the book carries no blurbs or excerpts from previous reviews (all signs of eminence). The acknowledgments page carries the usual names for Glück’s books: The New YorkerThe Threepenny ReviewAmerican Poetry Review, and Salmagundi, with the more recent additions of The Kenyon ReviewTriQuarterly, and The New York Review of Books. The table of contents lists such enticing titles as “Summer Night,” “Summer at the Beach,” “Rain in Summer,” “Stars,” “Moonbeam,” “Birthday,” “Mother and Child,” “Youth,” “Time,” “Grace,” and “Eros.” But Glück has never been especially adept at titles, so it’s somewhat unfair to begin where the book does–i.e., at its table of contents–or with Ecco’s press release, which claims that Glück’s “work defies temporal boundaries” and that “ultimately Glück confronts not just what was or is, but what may be.” Clearly the book’s publicity team does not know where to begin either.

Glück evidently wants to compel a reader coming to The Seven Ages to think of Shakespeare, particularly Jacques’ speech in As You Like It, which begins:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

In The Seven Ages Glück views herself not as a person but as a protagonist, the world not as a place but as a stage. Whether or not this is the result of (seven?) years of psychoanalysis, the posturing becomes tedious. Increasingly at an imaginative loss, Glück mines her private life in a way both exhibitionist and narcissistic. This would announce a total dissolution of poetic power were it not for her awareness of this situation in general, and in her own recent poetry more specifically. In her essay “American Narcissism” (from the Winter 1998 issue of Threepenny Review), she writes, “Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject, is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession.” Though Glück is technically not narcissistic–she does not love herself enough (judging from her prose, she seems to be her own least favorite person)–the steadfastness with which she focuses on herself resembles that of many patently narcissistic poets. And the assumptions behind her poems fit her own description of literary narcissism: “When narcissistic reverie converts to public form (as in literature), something like exhibitionism results. Like, but not an exact copy of. Literary narcissism, in its exclusive ardor, often suggests obliviousness: it sees no particular difference between private reverie and public display, so devoid of independent reality is the world. The world, it is assumed, will duplicate the narcissist’s fascination with himself, since what else could possibly be of equal interest? … Whereas exhibitionism solicits interest, narcissism presumes it.”

Glück’s is a hyper-narcissism which is even less attractive than the more naïve brand of obsessive self-reflection or self-love. Her self-scrutiny has become ridiculous in its perseverance and cavalier in its assumptions. The Seven Agesoperates under the assumption that Glück’s life is compelling for no other reason than it’s Glück’s life, and this is ultimately what sinks the book. “Memoir” aptly sums up this stance, as it immediately assumes a point of view (i.e., “Louise Glück”) expected to be of automatic interest:

I was born cautious, under the sign of Taurus.
I grew up on an island, prosperous,
in the second half of the twentieth century;
the shadow of the Holocaust
hardly touched us.

Focusing as it does on the self, the poem’s mention of the Holocaust seems gratuitous, particularly considering the poet’s assertion that it “hardly touched” her family. Granted, the word “hardly” could be (mis)read as the adverb of “hard,” in which case the Holocaust would acquire a significance not borne out in the poem; common sense, then, requires “hardly” to be read as “barely,” which is a puzzling, if not willingly offensive, statement. The first stanza of the poem, with its string of “us” sounds–”cautious,” “Taurus,” “prosperous,” “Holocaust,” “touched us”–offers a respite from the prose language that governs the rest of the book, but this does not salvage the poem.

If a poem depends on the identity of its author to be interesting, how can it be a successful poem? It becomes a matter of marketing, not of art. I am not arguing against self-exploration or self-validation, or against the validity of Glück’s personal life as a subject for poetry, but against the assumptions behind these poems. She seems to be trying to confirm Hayden Carruth’s comment that too many contemporary poets’s “poetic sensibilities have been formed from a misappreciation of the autobiographical fashion of recent writing in America … their poems are formed in the habit of egotism.” Thus, Glück spends most of her time in The Seven Agesreciting her “monologue / of childhood, of adolescence” (“Saint Joan”). Glück wants to accept the value of the quotidian in a life–its potential as a source for art–but her political and aesthetic strategies in The Seven Ages seem outdated and half-hearted, as if she only recently realized that mythological/religious allegory–the strategy she used most frequently from Firstborn to Meadowlands–is insufficient to explain her life and explore her experiences.

One is tempted to weep at lines like “I was / hard-hearted, remote. I was / selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny” in “The Empty Glass,” not because of any emotional content, but because the poet thinks anyone might be interested in such drivel. The intellectual and emotional intelligence of such writing couldn’t power a freshman comp paper.

I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted…

There are no real ideas here, no philosophy, no pleasure. This crippling self-importance plays itself out in the dreariest of ways, as if Glück were content writing “the generic contemporary poem” that Alice Fulton describes (in her 1997 essay “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge”) as such: “The poet’s experience does not embrace spheres beyond the self; neither is it transformed into a rich imaginative realm.”
Glück’s poetry, though, is at its worst when it pontificates:

It came to us very late:
perception of beauty, desire for knowledge.
And in the great minds, the two of them often configured as one.

To perceive, to speak, even on subjects inherently cruel–
to speak boldly even when the facts were, in themselves, painful or dire–
seemed to introduce among us some new action,
having to do with human obsession, human passion.
(“Civilization”)

In this mode, Glück is reminiscent of Eavan Boland. Both have in common a predilection for portentous repetition–repetition intended to add music to otherwise lusterless language. (Consider the following lines from Boland’s recent poems: “I hear / what I am safe from. What I have lost” ["Colony"]; “Tell me that you feel the warmth still. / Tell me you will never speak about the ashes” ["Embers"]; “Long enough / to know about power and nature. / Long enough / to know which is which” ["The Pinhole Camera"]. Yet Boland has a political agenda that Glück lacks, and an empty rhetoric with which to advance it: “We said we would not talk about the past: / About what had happened. (Which is history.) / About what could happen. (Which is fear.)” ["The Burdens of a History"]; “In the morning they were both found dead. / Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history” ["Quarantine"].) Both Glück and Boland write prose that is often more elegant and persuasive than their poems. Both simultaneously embrace and reject myth in their poetry, though Glück’s treatments of myth are more solipsistic than Boland’s since she seeks to bring everything mythical back to the self–nothing can exist in Glück’s poems without somehow illuminating the emotional or psychological position of the poet. Like Glück’s, Boland’s iconoclasm is no real iconoclasm, since her primary motive is and always has been the construction of a new monument: Eavan Boland.

As in Boland’s work, the prose logic of Glück’s language is sometimes complicated through repetition, but the technique is so overused as to become exhausted (Glück herself might be aware of this, because she uses repetition less frequently in The Seven Ages than in her previous book, Vita Nova). Chiasmus and similar rhetorical devices, which Glück has used well in the past, here emerge as if to compensate for the lack of linguistic intensity: “Things became dreams; dreams became things” (“Time”). Similarly, Glück seems unaware that adverbs in poetry are often a sign that an adjective is not doing its work (or that the author does not trust the adjective enough to let it carry its own weight). Consider the following, all taken fromThe Seven Ages: “utterly silent,” “utterly lost,” “utterly sated,” “profoundly different,” “deeply alone,” “deeply fortunate,” “deeply attached,” “fully alive,” “strangely alive.”

Even when Glück touches on a potentially fruitful idea, she ruins it with prolixity and over-explanation, as in “Time”: “Sickness, gray rain. The dogs slept through it. They slept on the bed, / at the end of it, and it seemed to me they understood / about childhood: best to remain unconscious.” There is some decent writing here: the beginning fragment, with its conjunction of physical illness and climate, is evocative; the antecedents of the three “it’s” are different each time the pronoun appears, with the repetition of “it” establishing a quiet music; and the repetition of “slept,” with the prepositions following the word varying, reinforces the understated lyricism that marks Glück’s strongest poems in recent years. But these strengths are insufficient to save the phrase “best to remain unconscious,” which destroys the delicate relationship between the dogs and the speaker building in the reader’s mind. Glück will not allow the reader to create that link alone.

Another poem with unrealized potential, “Summer Night” begins

Orderly, and out of long habit, my heart continues to beat.
I hear it, nights when I wake, over the mild sound of the air conditioner.
As I used to hear it over the beloved’s heart, or
variety of hearts, owing to there having been several.
And as it beats, it continues to drum up ridiculous emotion.

What begins promisingly–a close listening to the heart over the noise of the air conditioner and the noise of the past, of absent lovers’ heartbeats–ends with “ridiculous emotion” (not the emotion itself, but mention of it), therefore ridiculously. The poem starts with an emphasis on order and habit, attaining a mild sonority not unlike that of the air conditioner. But when Glück hits a snag–the awkward phrase “owing to there having been several” and the weak transition from “the beloved’s heart” to “variety of hearts”–the poem quickly deteriorates. The heart is already linked to emotion–this is lyric poetry, after all–and Glück has repeatedly treated emotion as ridiculous–worthy of ridicule–so making explicit what is already present in the poem undermines it. What saves the poem from failing totally is the twisted pleasure afforded by Glück’s self-absorption:

And the art always in some danger of growing repetitious.

Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie.

By acknowledging the repetitiveness of her poetry–or at least the risk of it becoming repetitive–Glück earns some credit for her candor. And the two lines after those three bathetically urgent questions slide the poem briefly away from the obvious, toward the kind of thinking that marks Glück’s best poems.
The ending of Glück’s books tend to be heavy-handed, and the conclusion of The Seven Ages is no exception. The book’s final poem, “Fable,” reads in its entirety:

Then I looked down and saw
the world I was entering, that would be my home.
And I turned to my companion, and I said Where are we?
And he replied Nirvana.
And I said again But the light will give us no peace.

The mystery here arises from the unknown identities of the speakers–”I” and “he.” The “I” could be the poet, imagining her entrance into the afterlife, presumably heaven, and bemoaning the ubiquity of the light. Or imagining her birth into the world, out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of the world. The “I” could be Persephone and the “he” could be Hades–a myth Glück has adapted before. The “I” could be Dante and the “he” Virgil, or the “I” Beatrice and the “he” Dante, which would connect the end of this book with Vita Nova. Or, considering the dreamlike yet banal ending of Vita Nova, the “I” could be the poet in a dream before moving somewhere sunny (California? Orlando?). Though ludicrous on the surface, such an interpretation nevertheless can find a home in Glück’s recent work, which strives to balance self-hatred and vanity, trivial self-narrative and meaningful self-reflectiveness and does not avoid the ridiculous in the process; a reader might be excused for following suit. That, perhaps, is this book’s primary achievement: implicating and involving the reader in the poet’s own flawed project. But not everyone who buys the book will buy into “Louise Glück”; not everyone who reads the book will read it without resistance.

[Editor's Note: Brian Henry's review of Gluck's Vita Nova appeared in the Winter 2001 issue ofThe Kenyon Review, and his review of Meadowlands appeared in the Summer 1998 issue ofVirginia Quarterly Review.][/private]

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Brian Henry has published poetry and criticism in numerous magazines around the world, including the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Harvard Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Stand, Overland, and Threepenny Review. His first book of poetry, Astronaut appeared recently in the UK and in Slovenia in translation. Astronaut was published in the US by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His second book, Graft, is forthcoming from New Issue Press and from Arc in England. He has edited the international magazine Verse since 1995, and was a Fulbright scholar in Australia in 1997-98, where he was Poetry Editor of Meanjin. He teaches at the University of Georgia.

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One Response to “Louise Glück’s Monumental Narcissism”

  1. Peter says:

    Thanks Brian. I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of buying the recently published megatome of her work put out by FSG. After reading your review of just one of the volumes contained therein I think I’ll give it a pass. Nothing against the confessional poet I’m just not particularly interested in the voice of tortured subjectivity. Sometimes such a voice strikes me as a persona, and not a particularly in-site-full one at that. It seems to be a rut many post WWII U.S. poets got/get stuck in. A large swath of the reading public unfortunatetly thinks of precisely this when they hear the word poetry…it’s a real shame.

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