POEM / Nobel Prize winner Louise Glück's poems are surreal, where the imagination can prevail. Beneath the surface – like a frozen lake – is a world of disappointment, sadness, but not resignation.


Louise Glück has a voice that is unlike any other; it comes from the underground. If this was a tree, it would be a pine by the sea, a white pine (Pinus strobus), which Glück often mentions in his poems – old, large, with large cones, indeterminate shape on the crown, which grows on the marshes of North America.

Her poems have surprising shapes and are quite long. We rarely end up where we started. Mostly they are written in free verse, but some are structured and some are written in prose. Before moving to Vermont, she had published one book – Firstborn (1968) – already this dark, and angry in tone, at the same time written in a controlled way. There, in the north, however, she made a breakthrough. Her idea of ​​a life as a poet was to sit at home or work as a secretary. In Vermont, she began teaching and discovered that this actually helped her, she invited the real world into her poems.

Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry,

But this is not just about reality. In the essay "Towards sincerity" (Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, 1995) she declares that a poet needs to aim for truth, but this does not mean sincerity, she believes. One can compare her work with works by Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop or Mary Oliver – all women who at times wrote subjectively or even so-called confessional, confessional, poetry. But they never cross the border and stay for sincere – like Robert Lowell, for example, as he did in a collection of poems in which he used many quotes from the letters of his ex-wife (and was insulted for this by Elizabeth Bishop). Glück touches on similar topics, she has been divorced twice and writes about it in the book Maadowlands.

But she uses herself as an example. Her story is part of a larger story, one of many stories. She often wears masks, that is, she steps into other figures and speaks on their behalf – such as Penelope and Odysseus. These are poems that resemble dialogues between a man and a woman, almost in the style of Robert Frost. These are poems that talk about the death of held people. Yet none of these poems are sentimental. There is something that makes them clear.

The surreal

Glück takes us elsewhere, somewhere out of reality. Her poems are surreal, the imagination takes over. Yet it is not the unreal or the improbable she treats, but the surreal, somewhat unexpected, strange juxtaposition of events, images we would never put together. As in this simple description Glück makes of one of her own days, "The Story of a Day" (a poem she is not very fond of herself, she has stated, but she admits that this fragment was worth writing down):

Long into the night I sat brooding at my table

until my head was so heavy and empty

I was forced to lie down.

But I didn't lie down. Instead, I rested my head on my arms

which I had crossed in front of me on the bare wood.

Like a fledgling in a nest, my head

lay on my arms.

There is a reference to nature here, but she surprises us with a slight irony – her head like a small bird, without feathers, which has not yet learned to fly. Subtle humor makes her poetry breathe, despite the fact that it touches on heavy topics – for example, the rape of Persephone, written in a modern language, so that we can imagine the young girl who is divorced from her mother, led down to the underground, to a sad place without sun or nature, to please the god of darkness.

(From the book Averno, the only translation available in Norwegian [by Per Petterson, Forlaget Oktober]).

Glück distills his ideas, the passage of time and emotional ambiguities into one pure, strong narrative.

Distilled ideas

Glück admits that she does not like to read her poems aloud, she "hears them" with her eyes, the vision (about the poem) speaks to her. She dedicated the book Faithful and virtuous night to the silence. It is the night that brings the silence, or, surprisingly, some words: "And yet, my silence was never total -" she writes in the poem "Cornwall". Or when she is asked by her aunt: "How quiet you are […]", she answers:

«It was true -

sounds weren't coming out of my mouth. And yet

they were in my head, expressed, possibly,

as something less exact, thought perhaps,

though at the time they still seemed like sounds to me. »

According to Glück, this relationship, or others – as in a poem that tells of a visit to a psychoanalyst – should not be treated as an autobiography. "Materials are subjective, methods are not," Glück writes in his manifesto Against Sincerity: The material is dark, it is the dark side of life the poems relate to, with its drama, loneliness and silence. But the method is extraordinary, eloquent, surreal. It is as if Glück distills his ideas, the passage of time and emotional ambiguities into one pure, strong narrative – but with a twist, with an unexpected metaphor or a strange image.

She can step into other people's shoes

All her books are neatly arranged and well thought out, connected with one main motif. Wild Iris contains poems with titles from different flower names. It reminds me of Inger Christensen's The Butterfly Valley, which is a collection of crown sonnets referring to butterflies the poet could see in the legendary valley of Croatia during the summer holidays of his childhood. Yet the poems speak of time, death, nostalgia. The same goes for this Glück collection of floral poems, almost songs, which are about time and mortality. The book won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

There are several ingredients in her poetry that make it clearly "glücksk" – the poems are intellectual, deeply reflective and touch the mind. As mentioned, Glück often uses "mask", she incarnates other people, lets others become main characters in her poems. It is definitely a part of herself, her own experience in the voice of the person she is speaking through, but it is also something from the outside – her empathy and reflection allows her to step into other people's place and speak for them. As in the superb poem about Achilles from the book Triumph of achilles:

In the story of Patroclus

no one survives, not even Achilles

who was almost a God.

Patroclus resembles him; they wore

the same armor.

Always in these friendships

one serves the other, one is less than the other:

the hierarchy

is always apparent, though the legends

cannot be trusted -

their source is the survivor,

the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire

compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles

grieved with his whole being

and the gods saw

he was a man already dead, a victim

of the part that loved,

the part that was mortal.

What a wonderful irony, one lithotes, when she says that not even Achilles could escape death – even if he nesten was a god. "Almost" is a word that is a gap between two worlds, we are there, but not yet, it changes nesten everything. No matter how brave Achilles was, still, let's not forget that he was just a human being, one of us… But still he triumphs. Glück's voice seems as simple and clear as the surface of a frozen lake – smooth and even. Yet, if we look beneath the surface, we will find another world, a world of disappointment, sorrow – but not resignation – love is always worth living for, even if it may be lost. It is always worthwhile to enter into friendship, even if friendship is subject to a hierarchy, because sometimes "an intimacy" can grow between two people, "like a forest around a castle" ("The Sword in the Stone", from Faithful and virtuous night).

Subscription NOK 195 quarter