Stanford has drawn great writers – they come as speakers, visiting faculty, permanent faculty, and writers in residence. Given how many speakers the creative writing department hosts each quarter, it seems like it would be difficult to continue to top expectations and make each reading extraordinary. But this past Tuesday, I was lucky enough to hear poet Louise Glück read to a large, absolutely silent Cemex auditorium. Expectations were met and exceeded.
Mohr Visiting Poet Louise Glück is a Pulitzer Prize winner and was the United States Poet Laureate from 2003-2004. A former professor at Williams College, she is now the Rosenkranz writer-in-residence at Yale University. Her distinctions, awards and titles are so numerous that it seems absurd to list them all here. She has written eleven books of poetry, as well as many essays on the art.
I learned two things about reporting while at this reading. The first is that it is really hard to pay attention to a poetry reading and take notes. While Glück’s poems were absolutely captivating, poetry is an art that demands concentrated attention, re-readings and contemplation of a single word. Listening to poems read aloud is hard enough (especially since I’m such a visual person). But add taking notes? The struggle was all too real.
The upshot of this is that I scribbled down the moments that most struck me in her reading. In retrospect, most of them involve death. Take this beauty for example:
“I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death, / though why this landscape was so conventional / I could not say.” (from “An Adventure”)
I did not walk away from the reading thinking that death was the main theme, but apparently, I picked up a lot of it – not sure if that says more about the poetry or about me. Loss does permeate her poetry though, which is at once intimate and soaring. I know that sounds paradoxical, but the expansive, dreamlike quality of her writing somehow fits perfectly with the personal, deceptively straightforward language.
Second, I became painfully aware of how much is lost between the actual poetry and my reporting/summation. I have included some stunning quotes, but part of their beauty (of course) comes from their situation in the poem. You really need the whole context. One only gets an eclipsed effect from lines such as this, in which the dead speaker is talking about (presumably) living family members: “Now I could hear them because my heart was still.” (“An Adventure”)
Everything Glück read, she explained, was from her unpublished book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, scheduled to be released in September. A poem about an artist will (from my understanding) structure the book, although the narrative will be interrupted by stories, other work, and prose poems. Surprisingly, Glück read not from the central narrative poem, but from the so-called “interruptions”.
Her poetry is utterly beautiful, with surprising images that arise seemingly organically from entirely relatable or familiar scenes, such as this one:
“You had been with me – / there was a dent in the second pillowcase. / We had escaped from death – / Or was this the view from the precipice?” (“An Adventure”)
Glück’s poetry has a captivating rhythm that almost mimics human speech, but with a slight cadence that is clearly poetic. It sounds particularly beautiful in Glück’s husky, gravelly voice. I thought that the listing manner in which she read and the thickness of her voice was her “poet’s voice”, by which I mean the affect that many poets assume when reading poetry. But when she began to speak during the question and answer session, I realized that that was just her natural voice. On top of that, she used beautiful metaphors in her normal speech. It was insane. She speaks likes her poetry.
And while her speech is poetic, often her poetry is prose-like:
The speaker standing on the graves of his or her parents: “You’re stepping on your father, she [my mother] repeated, / louder this time, which began to be strange to me, / since she was dead herself” (“Aboriginal Landscape”).
Maybe some people can make deep analyses while listening to a poetry reading, but I just enjoyed the beauty of the words wash over me. Sometimes, a line would strike me so much that I would just have to keep thinking about it, and lose track of what came directly after. Like this one:
“To abandon you would be to leave a part of me behind, but how can I do that when I don’t know what part of me you are.”
Or, this one:
“I was like you once, in love with turbulence” (“Aboriginal Landscape”).
There are many reoccurring images in her work, settings that seem to hold some draw or importance. But each time they are re-created in new and different ways. I noticed the city, the grave, the bed, movement (cars, trains, airplanes that paradoxically have trouble getting the speaker to where he or she wants to go), the garden or flowers, the family constantly in her work. Many of the poems she read on Tuesday had sections, allowing a multitude of images to blend naturally.
Two of favorite images, however, did not quite fall into these motifs. The first was a “glittering knob” (“A Sharply Worded Silence”) describing the door at a garden. The second was this image:
“The cigarette glowed like a light lit by a survivor…[lots of ellipses]…but now it is inside me like the stars can never be” (“A Work of Fiction”).
In a weird coincidence, Glück read this following line while I was trying unsuccessfully to eat some graham crackers quietly (who knew they could crunch so loudly in a silent auditorium?):
“How hushed it is, the stage / as well as the audience; it seems / breathing is an intrusion…like an afternoon in Pompeii” (“A Summer Garden”).
Spot on, Professor Glück.
During the Q&A period, she explained, with surprisingly dry humor, her tendency for “volcanic publishing”: releasing a lot of work and then going through dry periods. Those periods of non-publishing, she said, were often characterized by artistic anxiety. Her dedication and creative effort really hit home when she told us that the first poem that she read took her five years to compose.
One of the last poems she read had this heart-breaking moment that I want to leave you with. A little girl and her grandmother are descending a staircase when they see a man (the speaker) who the girl at first thinks is dead. Her grandmother explains that he is not, and that they must let him sleep. So, a few lines later, the little girl sings him a Hebrew prayer for the dead and says:
“Perhaps these words will be less intimidating if you remember how you first heard them, in the words of a little girl.”
Louise Glück is this year’s Mohr Visiting Poet. She is in residence at Stanford for the quarter.
photo credit: Katherine Wolkoff