Yesterday I read Louise Glück’s most recent book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, mentioned in my previous post. Today, the New York Times described it in a single sentence: “The poet’s latest collection responds with high art and startling presence to the vantage offered by mortality.” The “startling presence” is generally the persona of an aging painter, who, in the second poem of the book, “An Adventure,” describes thoughts and visions as he is falling asleep. These include the realization that various passions, including that for poetry, are falling away from him as he approaches death. Added to that are visions of his parents and sister who died in an accident when he was just a child. He notes, they had not, it seemed,/finished what they had to say, though now/I could hear them because my heart was still.
This is the story that recurs in various guises and at various moments thoughout this persona’s life. It is a familiar story to me, one which I know well. In “Visitors from Abroad,” he imagines his parents ringing a persistent doorbell on the other side of a door. His mother says, when he finally opens it, But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist,/And your sister—you have your sister’s soul.
No wonder Glück has always seemed a kindred spirit. But, aside from her subject matter, there is her language, as when she says of her narrator’s persona (this time female):
It was the world of her imagination;
true and false were of no importance.
Freshly polished and glittering—
that was the world. Dust
has not yet erupted on the surface of things.
(photo by Katherine Wolkoff)
It is reassuring to read that Louise Glück, like me, has gone through many “dry,” dusty spells in terms of her writing. She is reticent about revealing her personal life; yet there are rumors of early troubles–anorexia, college drop-out, failed marriages. Going back to night school, she was a student of Stanley Kunitz, who encouraged her as she now encourages her own students , all the while reaping inspiration from them. As she said in an interview with Dana Levin in 2010,
This is assumed to be an act of generosity on my part: teaching and editing. I cannot too strenuously make another case. I don’t think anybody does anything that takes this much time, outside the Catholic church, without a motive of intense self-interest. What I do with young writers I do because it’s fuel for me. And sometimes I tell the winners of these contests that I’m Dracula, I’m drinking their blood.
I feel quite passionately that the degree to which I have, if I have, stayed alive as a writer and changed as a writer, owes much to the intensity with which I’ve immersed myself in the work, sometimes very alien work, of people younger than I, people making sounds I haven’t heard. That’s what I need to know about.
Virtually every young writer about whose work I’ve been passionate has taught me something. From you, I’ve learned one way of keeping a poem going. Long lines. It’s not that I ever wrote anything that sounds like you, but I was certainly trying to. When I read Peter Streckfus’s work and fell completely under the spell of that work, I found myself writing a poem I thought I stole from him. And was alarmed and carefully read through the book that won the Yale that year, as well as the manuscript, and I could not find what I had written in his work, but I felt I had to call him and apologize.
DL: How did he take that?
LG: Peter’s attitude toward what I consider to be theft is very different. He said, ‘Oh, I think this is just wonderful. That’s what writers do. We’re in dialogue.’
Yes, writers do “steal” each other’s work. At one time, as I mentioned in a previous blog, that was considered homage, as when a jazz musician inserts a line from another composer’s work. After reading Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, I wrote my own poem (still in progress), inspired by both one of his images and the linear format of his work.
What came into dialogue for me today was, once again, an article in the New York Times Sunday Review section. “The Best Possible Day” by Atul Gawande describes the last six weeks of the life of a piano teacher, Peg Bachelder, dying from untreatable cancer. Home hospice care made it possible for her to live out her last days as she wished– to continue teaching. According to Gawande, “She still had some things she wanted them to know before she went.” Her students performed a last recital shortly before she died. After the recital, “She’d taken each student away from the crowd to give a personal gift and say a few words.” According to Gawande, whose son was one of Peg Bachelder’s piano students, she gave him a book of music and whispered, “You’re special.”
Yes, she was giving something but, like Glück, she was receiving something as well. Gawande, whose newest book is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, says, “Medicine has forgotten how vital such matters are to people as they approach life’s end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.”
I thought of how hospice home care made this possible for Bachelder, and am eager to make my small contribution to hospice patients soon. Putting aside the idea of a “perfect offering,” as Leonard Cohen advises, I plan to start, perhaps as early as this week, with about nine or ten of the easier Rachmaninoff variations which I am continuing to practice and learn for my recital. And later, I will bring in other pieces as I learn what works best. Having the prospect of an immediate audience does indeed “clean your clock,” as my piano teacher wryly noted.
We all have crises of confidence, dry spells, days of anxiety and even hopelessness. But sometimes during these times, when one asks oneself what is most important, an answer emerges.
Returning to her main persona, in “The White Series,” Glück writes:
And yet this was to me the new world:
there was nothing, and nothing was supposed to happen.
The snow fell. Certain afternoons,
I gave drawing lessons to my brother’s wife.
At some point, I began to paint again.
It was impossible to form
any judgment of the work’s value.
Suffice to say the paintings were
immense and entirely white.
As I approach my 70th birthday next year, these issues, and the dialogue among them, seem more and more important to engage, as I attempt to do in this blog.
Robert Peake, in his recent Huffington Post article, “The Paradox of Contemporary Poetry,” notes that, while more poetry is available to more people than ever before, “the sheer volume of poetry being written, and the speed at which it races around online and even in print, can be daunting for new readers. What poets who write much and read little really need are mentors — poets who can read what they are writing and say, ‘Here, try this established contemporary poet. You might learn something from them about the kind of poem you are trying to write.’
So I say, “Here is a new book by a wonderful contemporary poet, Louise Glück. If you have ever tried writing about loss or grief, read the title poem of Faithful and Virtuous Night, or even this small part:”
You have no idea how shocking it is
to a small child when
something continuous stops.
Darkness overswept the land
and on the sea the night floated
strapped to a slab of wood—
If I could speak, what would I have said?
I think I would have said