The Meaning of Despair in Louise Glück’s Poetry

In a time when the world is reeling from the toxicity and noise of aggressive populism, Glück’s earnest and critical voice that urges us to abandon war and listen to ourselves and others is urgent and timely.

Speaking on behalf of the Nobel Committee that awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature to the 1943-born, American poet Louise Glück, the chairman, Andrew Olsson, drew attention to the poet’s work echoing what she described in one of her essays, as “the art of inward listening” in Keats. It adds something more to the purely abstract idea of Rilke’s “in-seeing”.  In contrast to seeing, listening is sensuous. It involves reaching out to something beyond oneself. In the poem, “Field Flowers”, written in the voice of flowers, Glück’s asks, “Is it enough / only to look inward?” No – someone is talking to you. Prick your ears and listen.

“In her poems,” Olsson said, “the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions.” To get nearer to understanding this claim, let us read lines from the poem that found special mention in Olsson’s citation, “Snowdrops” (from her Pulitzer-winning collection, The Wild Iris, 1992). Glück writes,

“Do you know what I was, how I lived?  You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.”

Winter is associated with a state of physical hardship and, often, emotional suspension. To remember Rilke again, the German poet compared the desolate state of parting with “wintering” in one of the poems from The Sonnets to Orpheus, (“For among those winters there is one so endlessly winter / that only by wintering through it will your heart survive”).

There is nothing warm about pain. Pain is a cold breathing of the heart. Glück’s poem takes a turn:

“I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–…”

The frozen snow of being is slowly opening into the flower of spring, from despair to promise. The key word here is perhaps “respond”. Despair sucks us into a vortex of the self. Life is a photosynthetic movement, where the soul and the body respond to light. This awareness itself makes us feel we have survived the darkness.

Winter, in the West, is also about wars. In “Parable of the Hostages”, on the Trojan War, Glück writes:

“what if war
is just a male version of dressing up,
a game devised to avoid
profound spiritual questions?”

We may ask: What are the spiritual questions ignored by war? I would think that one of the profoundest spiritual questions that war ignores is precisely what wars are about: death. The idea of war is to distort the meaning of death, by severing it from the idea of life. War is a way by which men avoid questions of life. War is the failure to listen to oneself and others. Listening is not merely something that connects us to a daily account of life, but to a deeper act of responsibility.

Books of American poet Louise Gluck during the announcement of 2020 Nobel Prize in literature at Borshuset in Stockholm, October 8, 2020. Gluck won the prize. Photo: TT News Agency/Henrik Montgomery/via Reuters

With gentle sarcasm, Glück writes earlier in the poem,

are men of action, ready to leave
insight to the women and children”

War is blind, and hence, the end of insight. Men in war leave the burden of insight to women and children. What is this burden of insight? Going further backwards in the poem, we read:

“war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one’s capacity for diversion
is not”

War, then, is a mode of diversion from the urgent question of presence. War reduces presence to absence. Wars are waged by men who want to disappear from the meaningful activity of life. War has no responsibility towards life, and it abandons that responsibility even before it begins. War, in Glück’s poetic judgement, is the despair of history, the history of despair.

Also read: An Irish Poet Sends the Fragrance of Invisible Flowers to Varavara Rao

There is no escape from despair in love, even. In a series of poems titled “Matins”, from The Wild Iris (described as “a cross between the Book of Job and the Davidic Psalms” by David Biespiel), Glück explores the tangible idea of love as something conditioned by what it doesn’t receive:

“Forgive me if I say I love you…
I cannot love
what I can’t conceive, and you disclose
virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,
always the same thing in the same place,
or are you more the foxglove, inconsistent”

For Glück, love involves the constancy of mutual revelation. Glück offers metaphors to suggest that (human) nature trick us with a false sense of both consistency and changeability. Love is conceived in response to a steadiness of expression. Love that pretends to be too natural, gives the impression of being too unreal to exist.

In another version of “Matins”, the poet writes her strained relationship,

“But the absence
of all feeling, of the least
concern for me–I might as well go on
addressing the birches”

Glück’s use of nature and natural metaphors displays what I would call, ironic romanticism, where feelings are evaluated through responses that are closer to the efforts of human expression rather than in the indifference of the purely natural being.

In a time when the world is reeling from the toxicity and noise of aggressive populism, Glück’s earnest and critical voice that urges us to abandon war and listen to ourselves and others is urgent and timely.

The Academy compared Glück to Emily Dickinson. It deserves a moment of attention. One hears echoes of Glück in “I cannot live with You”, where Dickinson writes,

“And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –”
Through aching pauses, the poet reaches the lonely place of parting where she meets: “Despair”.

The Swedish Academy has chosen this year, a poet who comes from an ancestry of Hungarian Jews who emigrated to America. It is possible to locate a certain Judeo-Christian ethic of hearing in Glück’s poetic sensibility. Equally close would be her alert ear on war and human desolation. The despair that pursues Glück’s poetry is both historical and a failure of history and culture to address the real question: what are we looking for. If we are looking for love, we must listen, and listen more quietly than before.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).