Yale English professor Louise Gluck read new poetry and candidly divulged anecdotes about life as a poet laureate, teacher and writer at a Calhoun Master’s Dessert Monday evening.
Over 90 students and faculty gathered to hear the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who has written 10 books of poetry and essays, introduce a five-part poem from her new book, “Averno.” Yale’s Rosencranz writer-in-residence, Gluck said her newest collection of poetry is the result of writing “nonstop for five to six weeks” after she accepted her Yale teaching position in February. Before arriving at Yale this semester, Gluck taught at Williams College for 20 years.
Known for dark themes, mythological literary devices and, at times, controversial poetry, Gluck said her writing process is often the result of contemplating a phrase’s meaning.
“I usually start with a piece of a sentence or pair of lines, and a poem arises out of an attempt to locate the context of why the phrase has resonance in my head,” Gluck said.
Gluck said “Averno” is the small crater lake in southern Italy which, according to Roman mythology, is the entrance to hell.
“It’s a book about one’s relation to earth,” Gluck said. “That combined sense of awe and the sense of self as hostage to Earth and time.”
Because of her erratic writing habits, Gluck said she teaches to support herself and because she “loves” the profession.
Gluck said her role as a professional writer does not conflict with her ability to teach.
“I never have felt a conflict between working in a classroom with other people’s work and working on my own work,” Gluck said. “You can’t teach a distinct voice but you can teach editorial skills, how to recognize what’s unique in a writer and how to provide an atmosphere of scrutiny.”
During her talk, Gluck also discussed her mixed thoughts on the selection process for awarding a poet with the title of poet laureate. Gluck was the 2003-2004 recipient of this award, bestowed by the Library of Congress.
“Anytime something is given to you by a group of poets, it’s exciting,” Gluck said.
But she said two representatives of the Library of Congress choose the poet laureate based on polls, eminence, skin color, geographical distribution and gender.
“There have been some extraordinary poet laureates and there have been unextraordinary ones,” Gluck said. “Of the things that have to do with public honor that I’ve received, that one was way low on the list.”
Her comments about the poet laureate honor surprised some of those in attendance.
“They were surprisingly honest, but refreshing,” Leland Milstein ’08 said.
Gluck said she dislikes public readings and preferred her poems to be read silently instead.
“There’s a limited range of meaning in poems when heard,” Gluck said. “I can’t, in my limited human instrument, convey what I feel.”
Despite Gluck’s personal opinion of poetry readings, students said they enjoyed the event.
“It’s really wonderful to hear a poet read her own work,” Cristina Vinado ’07 said.
Expounding on her interactions with Yale students, Gluck said she has had a “wonderful” semester.
Currently a Calhoun fellow, Gluck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for “The Wild Iris.”