Louise Glück, 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner: Poems Where Contradictory Elements Are Simultaneously True

by Jacquelyn Malone | March 2017

Photo credit: Katherine Wolkoff

Photo credit: Katherine Wolkoff

As our former poet laureate, Louise Glück is one of America’s most distinguished poets, winning, among other awards, both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Mass Poetry is happy to have her as one of this year’s featured poets at its annual festival in May.

I have friends who buy a poetry book and open it at random to read a poem. In that way they test their liking of the poet and the poems. But if you have never read Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, please, please, don’t be a dipper, reading initially the poem the book first opens to. With most books, “dipping” isn’t the savviest approach, but with this book you’ll miss the cumulative pleasure that comes with orderly discovery.

Most poetry books are given a thoughtful order by their poets, but this particular volume moves, if not exactly like a novel, then with a stunning effect that accrues over the pages: the discovery of a motif that builds and often presents one thing with contradictory meanings; the discovery of words that grow in emotional depth and become more important as you meet them again and again; and the discovery of  the quests of two narrators, a male artist and a female (perhaps the poet?), and how they change, or don’t, as their quests mutate.

I use the word “quest” deliberately because the book begins with “Parable,” which, in our recent interview, Glück said was probably the first poem she wrote for this book. The poem’s narrator represents a group of pilgrims who grow older as they keep debating what their quest should be. The poem ends with these lines:

                           We had changed nevertheless:
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth felt it had been revealed.

When I asked Glück how her latest book varied from her earlier work, she could have been talking specifically about this poem. “I think Faithful and Virtuous Night is tonally very distinct from its predecessor (A Village Life). It’s airier certainly. But both books are, I think, more ruminative than dramatic.” “Ruminative” is a perfect word for this parable where the atmosphere, which extends throughout the volume, is dream-like. And it won’t be the last time in these poems when contradictory elements are simultaneously true.

In a discussion of what she likes best in poetry, Glück says, “I prize a feeling of spontaneity and impetuousness.” You can certainly see those elements throughout these poems. In the title poem, we meet a young child that many readers will assume is female simply because the “I” in the two preceding poems seems to be the poet. But only near the end of the ten-page poem does the narrator say, “And so time passed; I became/ a boy like my brother, later/ a man.” This is our introduction to the narrator who is the artist.

Another example of surprise comes in “An Adventure” when, after saying goodbye to love and poetry, the narrator says:

But these farewells, I said, are the way of things.
And once more I alluded to the vast territory
opening to us with each valediction. And with that phrase I became
a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart
became the steed underneath me.

These lines end the second section of the poem, and the third begins with these surprising words: “I was, you will understand, entering the kingdom of death,” a tour the speaker takes in a dream.

Glück is sly about naming the narrator directly, and we often know who is speaking only by images that reappear from a previous poem. For example, we may know it’s the artist speaking when images from his childhood poem reappear: the sheets have sailboats on them; or he hears the sound of a sewing machine, or the crayons of childhood reoccur in the adult’s memory – all things so ordinary but they amass such power over the span of the book.  

It is the repetition of words or images in the different poems that give the book its dream-like intensity. Mist, for example, is one of those words.

A word drops into the mist
like a child’s ball into high grass
where it remains seductively
flashing and glinting . . . .

Or mist can be sprayed on a stage set by the stage designers as one scene from the speaker’s life dissolves into another. Or it forms an aura around words and stars. In each setting “mist” can seem a positive or a negative, but it is like the dichotomy we see as the pilgrims in the initial poem claim that being unable to start the pilgrimage is a positive, but the two groups make that claim based on entirely different points of view.

Because the poems move with a narrative logic, even though the logic is that of dreams, I asked Glück if she’d ever thought of writing a novel. And she said, “I love reading novels. If I wrote them I might find that pleasure spoiled. In fact I have no gift for the form and have never tried it. I don’t think in scenes.” She also suggests that she has great trouble “even getting my poems to move.”  That may be the experience of the poet, but the experience of the reader is entirely different. Though the poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night are not exactly the movement of a typical plot, they, nevertheless, move – accumulating strength and power as the reader eagerly turns the pages.

Jacquelyn Malone worked as Senior Web Writer/ Editor at IBM and Lotus Development Corp., taught both technical and scientific writing and editing at Northeastern, and writes poetry. She has won a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship Grant in Poetry, is the author of a chapbook titled All Waters Run to Lethe, and has been published in numerous journals, including Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, and Cortland Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart and have appeared on the website Poetry Daily.  She is the mother of two children and has six grandchildren.