The New Yorker commissioned a profile on Billy Collins when he was appointed poet laureate. It was his time, a poet of populist panache—the first to serve under the Bush presidency, and the best seller to hold the post since its inception. Facts were researched, sources reviewed, interviews conducted. The thing of it was, this all happened in the late days of summer 2001. Then the moment grew dark—a bad time for a poet winning in his very lightness. It made a kind of poetic sense when the story was shelved; how could one have a profile, if one had no shadow?
Times have changed, but not much. War and rumors of war, as the saying goes—not apocalyptic (depending on who’s measuring) but certainly difficult, even without mentioning the less-than-great depression. It would be invidious to suggest that Louise Glück, who last week replaced Collins in the office down Library of Congress way, is the finer poet; better noted is how much more thoroughly she fits the moment. History gets the poets it deserves, and though Ms. Glück isn’t as grim as the newspapers of late, nor as rapaciously bellicose as the administration, she’s no good-time guy. Her poetry is no stranger to difficulty, and has shadows aplenty.
Glück has published 10 collections of poetry and a book of essays since 1968. Her arc is not remarkably easy to describe, which is good; she has a trajectory nonetheless, which is also good. Recent write-ups paint her as a quasi-confessional purveyor of eros-gone-awry. She is the first woman to hold the position since the years before the gig’s mid-’90s cultural ascent. These two facts are not unrelated, and quite a bit less informative about Glück’s poetry than about the writers-up and their habit of finding the conventions they require.
It would be a start to suggest that the zero point of Glück’s imagination has migrated from the deeply interior toward the public, her attention from the immediate to the abstract. “You having turned from me,” she wrote in a 1971 poem (“12.6.71”), “I dreamed we were/beside a pond between two mountains/It was night/The moon throbbed in its socket.” These are the things of which poetry is familiarly made—romantic pain in the first person, landscape, a dream, the moon—but held uncomfortably in an iron temper unyielding to polite revelations and redemptions.
By the time of her Pulitzer Prize winner, 1992’s The Wild Iris, the nouns have changed little; the scale, entirely. The lines still tend to three beats, with their bitten-off feel; natural landscape sets the scene, though now in semi-abstract strokes insinuating vast depth of field, like ukiyo-e pictures. The “I” also endures, but is far less eager to point at the poet; “Retreating Wind,” for example, seems to be narrated by God. “When I made you, I loved you,/Now I pity you./I gave you all you needed:/bed of earth, blanket of blue air—”
If such gestures lack of humility, there is in return some chutzpah. This might seem a poor trade in general; here and now, it’s a good deal, when official verse culture overrunneth with the former while almost entirely bereft of the latter. How much more engaging than the domestic realism we are told to expect, or the gentle ironies and sweatered melancholy to which we have grown accustomed! Even aside from that pleasure, the poem carries the charge of its unremitting anger: “Your souls should have been immense by now,/not what they are,/small talking things.” This too is a kind of relief; it is not the kind of poem Garrison Keillor would read on the air, and that is the minimum one asks of a serious poet.
Glück is not the only poet among the sanctioned elders and masters to bear chutzpah and scope; one might wonder that we have yet to see the laureateships of John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, differently deserving and similarly monumental. One doesn’t puzzle too hard, however. They might be too queer for government work, and moreover one or the other might decline the honor, embarrassing some pol. Glück has long held herself at least in part away from the fray; upon relenting to the request she edit Best American Poetry in 1993, she wrote, “I liked not participating in the tyranny of taste making; I liked using words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘taste making’ to describe enacted preference, while guarding for myself words like ‘purity.’ ”
If there is a polite revelation in that, it’s that one finally doesn’t publish a dozen books and retain sole proprietorship of one’s own cultural meaning. Even in the marginalized world of poetry, the dominant aesthetic still makes for a kind of tyranny, and Louise Glück will now perforce take a turn as the tyrant, albeit an enlightened and stylish one. Poets from newer traditions will suffer quiet aggravation that the versiverse is still ruled by liberal humanists astride the crumbling throne of Modernism, and that they have yet to be represented in the halls of power. All the better; the implicit demand on the poet laureate (rather than the poet) may be to figure the first poetic of the historical moment and no more, so that a bunch of other poets can push history forward till their moment arrives.