Do you pick a destination in order to have a reason to take a walk, or do you take a walk in order to get to a place you have in mind? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Are the words a poet uses essentially a means to convey a thought or feeling he or she has in mind, or is the poem’s subject chosen mainly as a way of helping generate the poem’s language? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But I confess to being more attracted to the second kind of poetry — or maybe it’s fairer to say I prefer reading poetry as if it were written that way. That doesn’t mean the walk’s endpoint (the poem’s subject) is finally irrelevant to the pleasures of the stroll (the poem). You might not want to end up in some alley where you’re going to get mugged. But the destination is only a small part of the journey you’ve embarked on.
I started thinking again of the poem’s relation to its subject after reading a review of Louise Glück’s Poems 1962–2012 in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, accessible online to subscribers. Glück is one of the best-known American poets, a native New Yorker who has won just about every prize and honor available — Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle, U.S. Poet Laureate — and taught at all the famous places to be taught poetry; better still, as I’ve just learned from Wikipedia, her father helped create the X-Acto knife, a tool I’d recommend to every poet who hopes to carve more precise verses out of the thick and messy matter of our speech. But I’ve never been able to get interested in Glück’s work, and that’s too bad, because I’m always willing to go out of my way in search of a new pleasure. So I started reading the review with real curiosity, hoping that it would show me how to begin liking this poetry.
But no such luck. Why? Because the essay’s author, Gillian White, an English professor at the University of Michigan, writes about Glück’s poetry as if the most important thing about it is its subject matter. So I know pretty early on in the piece that Glück writes quite a lot about death, and that more broadly she consistently seeks out melancholy subjects. A bit further along, I gather that the stakes of this melancholy are often raised to the pitch of melodrama — that Glück’s is a “gothic” imagination. Well, that sounds entertaining. There’s so much poetry of understatement around (I might even be guilty of it myself) that a bit of blood and guts could be refreshing. But then it seems a rather mundane, even understated, daytime drama kind of gothic: “Marriages fail, tragedy hides beneath pastoral innocence; in a photo taken by one speaker’s mother, ‘not one of us does not avert his eyes.’” In any case, to speak of the gothic is to invoke a set of conventions, but an authenticating detail grounds convention in the poet’s biography: In her youth she suffered from anorexia.
So we seem to know what Glück is about, but still, what is the form of her poetry? About a third of the way into the piece, the critic finally begins to say something about the sort of language through which Glück adumbrates her fraught themes. It is implied that her early writing was kind of fancy — in what way we are not told — but that the consistent development of her work as she’s matured has been toward “a more authentic vernacular; ‘a longer breath’; an enlarged vocabulary; a poem ‘less perfect, less stately.’” Ok, but what makes one vernacular more authentic than another? And doesn’t the expanded lexicon slightly gainsay the idea that poems are turning toward the vernacular, assuming that the Wordworthian “real language of men” (and women) is relatively poor in relation to the studied artifices of poets? The seeming contradiction can surely be argued away, but one would like to see what particular form this critic’s argument would take. But she’s not interested. Rather than expanding on these points, White quickly turns back to thematic matters without pausing to consider what these “technical and stylistic” aspects have to do with the poet’s subject matter: Why is it that Glück has found a more disheveled, expansive, and down-to-earth style better suited to her themes of suffering and loss than the richer, more elegant manner of her early work? The answer: This “plainspoken quality suggests, at one extreme, an oracular, even demonic frankness that exceeds the merely personal.” This is very suggestive, but also puzzling. “Frankness” is a personal trait, so how does it get transfigured into something impersonal? Since “Glück’s poems are written in the first person and cycle through a limited repertoire of places, nouns and themes, including the real names of her ex-husband and son,” it’s hard to credit White’s claim that the poet’s work is in something other than a confessional mode. Glück writes, “When I speak passionately,/that’s when I’m least to be trusted,” but to confess to being an unreliable narrator is still a confession. And her use of mythical figures might work less to universalize these personal issues than to aggrandize them; the difference would all be in the details of the poems’ language, which we still haven’t heard too much about.
Reading on in the review, as White traces the shifts in subject matter from each of Glück’s collections of poems to the next, I find occasional mentions of linguistic matters — of the poet’s “lexical wit, her skill with tone, her knowledge of the Anglo-American poetic canon” — but only by the by, without any analysis of specific passages given to illustrate how these virtues manifest themselves. At one point White backtracks to reiterate how the “thick, stacked diction and taut, chewy syntax” of Glück’s early writing “is unlike the plain style that follows” and notes that her lines as well as the poems themselves have grown longer with time. We learn, too, in the next-to-last paragraph of the review, that (despite the enlarged vocabulary mentioned earlier) Glück’s mythicized personal dramas are presented with minimal props and highly abstract settings: “There are no classrooms, bars, supermarkets, highways, restaurants, cars, governments (local or national), hospitals, televisions, radios or gum wrappers.” What are all those different words being used for then, I wonder? Are there really that many words for middle-class discontent?
Those are real questions I have, not what are commonly called rhetorical ones. And if I seem to be picking on White or on Glück, that’s not my intention. White’s review struck me as typical of the way poetry is discussed in the mainstream press, not unusual, and I just want to tell reviewers of poetry that there’s at least one reader out there who’s mostly less interested in what someone’s poems are about than in what kind of linguistic experiences the poems make out of what they are about. That’s what it would take to get me to start reading a poet whose works are mostly unfamiliar to me. It’s true that Edgar Allan Poe considered the death of a beautiful woman to be “the most poetical topic in the world” but really, it’s not the subject that makes for poetry, it’s the work on language that the subject enables the poet to do. Until a critic can explain how Glück is reworking our language, I’m not ready to start tackling the 634 pages of her oeuvre. But I’m still ready to be enticed. Is there a critic out there who’s willing to try?