On Monday evening, approximately 50 Yale students, professors and New Haven residents wrapped around the long oval table of LC 319 in anticipation of a conversation with Yale professor and renowned poet Louise Glück. Overflow chairs were placed behind Glück’s seat, and when those were filled, attendees sat crosslegged on tables and positioned themselves awkwardly on window ledges. Still others clustered by the narrow doorway. A member of the Literature, the Arts and the Environment Colloquium — the academic organization sponsoring the event — gave a brief introduction, and then the podium was Glück’s. She commenced by first making clear that, “This is not a poetry reading.” Instead, a one-hour question and answer session ensued that focused mainly on Glück’s new book, “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”
Two characteristics of Glück’s collection become apparent upon a first reading. One is the placement of prose poems among a larger number of verse poems. During Monday’s conversation, Glück revealed that it was not until she tried her hand at prose poems (which look like prose but retain the imagery and delivery of poems) that the manuscript started coming together. “[The prose poems are] what the manuscript needed to be aerated,” she said.
The book’s second striking feature is the shared settings, themes and syntax among the poems: parks, trains, night, wooden toys, music, nature, the moon, silence and more. When discovering one of these recurrences, the reader can’t help but flip back to find its kin. The connections between poems mean that each complements the others; they become a chorus, rather than a series of individual voices.
One such interwoven theme surfaced during Monday’s conversation, when Glück described her attempts to write about the inability to write. “Cornwall” and “A Sharply Worded Silence,” two of her new poems, seem to have been influenced by this theme. Both make mention of silence, but on a deeper level, both poems may describe periods where Glück was unable to write.
“Cornwall” begins: “A word drops into the mist / like a child’s ball into high grass/ where it remains seductively / flashing and glinting until / the gold bursts are revealed to be / simply field buttercups.” Later, when the mist has cleared, the word has become “flattened by the elements / so it was now both recovered and useless.” It seems here that “mist” stands for consciousness or the landscapes of the creative mind. The poem’s opening lines depict the frustrating experience of a writer trying to retrieve a thought. Equally depressing are the times when Glück does fish out the thought and realizes it is much less appealing and stimulating than she had first imagined. Later in the poem, Glück describes both trying to keep a journal and moving her chair to the balcony in order to coax herself into writing. In Monday’s conversation, she mentioned that, for a time, she used to keep a typewriter close to her for the same purpose. When asked what to do during these periods of internal resistance, Glück replied, to laughter, “Despair.”
In “Cornwall,” she feels that perhaps her best days have come and gone: “It was all behind me, all in the past. / Ahead, as I said, was silence.” She writes that there were wooden eggs in her studio, suggesting her current creative state: inert and infertile.
In “A Sharply Worded Silence,” in which the narrator searches for meaning in a conversation she once had with an old woman, Glück writes, “so I assumed there would be, at some point, / a door with a glittering knob / but when this would happen and where I had no idea.” The door does not appear; once more, the poet finds herself at the whim of some uncontrollable power which hampers, but ultimately inspires, her creativity. Glück suggests that for her, writing about a period of creative infertility is the best cure for emerging from it.
Other poems in “Faithful and Virtuous Night” dwell on related themes: doubt, fear, disorientation. The manuscript is further strengthened by a “voice” that Glück found ten years ago and hadn’t been able to put to use. And the author’s own comments futher illuminate her work’s hidden undercurrents. To know what one wants while being unable to get near it is a well-documented struggle, but in Glück’s beautiful web of images that echo and inform each other, this struggle takes on an ethereal dignity.
This article has been updated from the version that appeared in print on November 7, 2014