One of the things to love about Glück’s poetry is that, while her work contains many emotional registers, she is not afraid to be cruel — she confronts the monsters in herself, and in others, not with resignation and therapeutic digression but with artery-nicking knives.
The 2020 Nobel Prizes
Updated Oct. 8, 2020
The poet Kay Ryan, in her terrific new book of essays, “Synthesizing Gravity,” writes: “I think it’s good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.” Glück’s work is replete with not-niceness. You would not, you sense, want her as an enemy.
As I write this, I have my copy of “Poems: 1962-2012” splayed out beside me on my writing table. It’s pretty well marked up. You can flip it open almost anywhere and find flying shards of dark intellect and beasty wit.
“You should take one of those chemicals, / maybe you’d write more” is a characteristic put-down. So is: “Your back is my favorite part of you, / the part furthest away from your mouth.” So is: “I expected better of two creatures / who were given minds.” Perhaps explaining such lines, she has also written: “You show respect by fighting. / To let up insults the opponent.”
Glück’s free verse is exacting and taut and rhetorically organized. Thematically, the mirepoix is composed of family, childhood, love, sex, death, nature, animals. Her classical allusions are deft. She is a serious poet of the appetites. Even when she ostensibly writes about food, she is writing about 11 other things at the same moment. A poem called “Baskets” includes these lines:
I take my basket to the brazen market,
to the gathering place,
I ask you, how much beauty
can a person bear? It is
heavier than ugliness, even the burden
of emptiness is nothing beside it.
Crates of eggs, papaya, sacks of yellow lemons —
I am not a strong woman. It isn’t easy
to want so much, to walk
with such a heavy basket,
either bent reed, or willow.
Glück was born in New York City in 1943, and grew up on Long Island. Her father helped invent the X-Acto knife. That’s a cosmically sublime detail; no other poet slices with such accuracy and deadly intent.