Waiting to be interrupted: an exploration of some of the work of Louise Glück

A Nobel prize winning poet, writing in English, that I had barely heard of. Shamed by my ignorance of the work o, I started to read her in bulk. I started with A Village Life, 2009, which is comparatively recent, and which I will return to. I followed up with The First Five Books (Carcanet, 1997) which includes all her work up to Ararat(1990). The prevailing impression from this collection was gloomy. In fact, when I read ‘The Undertaking’ , the opening poem in ‘The Apple Trees’ which is the second section of The House on Marshland (1975), I was surprised by how upbeat it was. 

            The dark lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.

            …

                                    the sun is shining,

            everywhere you turn is luck.

At the same time, I asked myself how long this sudden cheerfulness would last. 

Five pages later the poem ’12.6.71’ opened and closed thus:

            You having turned from me

            …

                                    the snow

            which has not ceased since

            began

Gluck repeatedly rejects the idea that she is a confessional poet, yet many of her poems are clearly based on the material and suffering in her personal life.  However, when we read her work, we are forced to agree that she is far from confessional in the manner, say, of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell. Somehow, even when poems include details which seem most intimate and personal, they seem strangely impersonal, detached or even cold. Some of the poems carry a tremendous punch, but although they shock, they don’t quite move. For example, poems on the death of a father:

            For once, your body doesn’t frighten me.

            From time to time, I run my hand over your face

            lightly, like a dustcloth.

            What can shock me now? I feel

            no coldness that can’t be explained.

            Against your cheek, my hand is warm

            and full of tenderness.

                                    ‘For my father’ in Metamorphosis in The Triumph of Achilles (1985)

Grief is undermined by self regard. The speaker is looking at herself, the one who is still living, the survivor, with a truthfulness that shocks and disturbs. The pieties surrounding grief, death and burial are further subverted in ‘A Fantasy’, where the widow is imagined after the funeral:

            In her heart, she wants them to go away.

            She wants to be back in the cemetery,

            back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows

            it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,

            the wish to move backward.  And just a little,

            not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

What seems at first to be grief, resolves into fear of the future, the wish to have things the way they were, rather than any kind of celebration of love or the marriage.

We know that one of the most significant factors in Glück’s life occurred before she was born, the death of her sister as an infant.  She writes about this in her short essay ‘Death and Absence’(1984, reprinted in Proofs and Theories, Carcanet,1999):

I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both.   The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born.  I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation towards my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress.

She says that she wrote about her sister’s death only after the birth of her own son. Although the lost sister appears in several poems, perhaps the most powerful is ‘Lost Love’ from Ararat (1990):

            Something did change: when my sister died,

            my mother’s heart became

            very cold, very rigid,

            like a tiny pendant of iron.

            Then it seemed to me my sister’s body

            was a magnet. I could feel it draw

            my mother’s heart into the earth,

            so it would grow.

What strikes me again in this poem is how clipped and reserved it is, how controlled. The language is simple with a metaphor that extends through two stanzas but becomes part of the massive understatement about the poet’s mother and the complex mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps the adherence to rhyme in her first book, Firstborn, which more or less disappears from the second book onwards, was an early manifestation of this need for control. There is also a frequent sense of holding back and distrust.  This is particularly evident in ‘Mock Orange’ and ‘Night Song’ both of which appear in The Triumph of Achilles (1985). I find ‘Mock Orange’ viscerally shocking:

            I hate them.

            I hate them as I hate sex,

            the man’s mouth

            sealing my mouth, the man’s

            paralyzing body – 

            and the cry that always escapes,

            the low, humiliating 

            premise of union – 

These stanzas have a truthfulness which is hard to acknowledge since they present a fear of losing control and a distrust of the body that may remind us of ‘the syndrome of anorexia that for years shaped [her] life’. [1]  The Triumph of Achilles contains many poems about love, but its poems are not exactly love poems as they wrestle with the conflict between individual autonomy and union with another; in this sense, ‘Mock Orange’, the opening poem, has an admonitory function. The sequence ‘Marathon’, in particular, reveals this ambivalence about love:

                                    And in each of us began

            a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,

            of the absence of regret.

            We were artists again, my husband.

            We could resume the journey.

                                                                        ‘Summer’

Ararat, the fifth book, is constructed on a family very similar to Glück’s own family, three generations: parents, daughters and the daughters’ children. Structures, emotions and relationships are dissected and analysed in a manner that would be raw if, again, it were less controlled.

            They always said

            I was like my father, the way he showed

            contempt for emotion. 

            They’re the emotional ones,

            my sister and my mother.

The justification for this laundering of family pain seems to be the poet’s conviction that her experience is general, that her familial structures are archetypal, a belief which becomes true through the enaction of the poems. However, not all of her poetry is as apparently transparent as Ararat and I will consider three later books where family or personal tropes persist but within the artifice of an overarching book-length concept. These are The Wild Iris, 1992, A Village Life, 2009 and Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.

The Wild Iris is an exploration of religion or at least of theology by a poet who has previously seemed profoundly agnostic. ‘Celestial Music’, the penultimate poem in Ararat, puts a clear space between her and a friend who is a believer.

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.

Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,

she thinks someone listens in heaven.

The clear implication is that belief in God is stupid, yet in The Wild Iris God is a key player. The collection, set in the garden, a locus immediately resonant with religious and mythical archetypes, is shared between the voices of plants, the poet and God. However, the plants, God and the figure of the poet come across as dramatized arguments rather than as real, even when the detail is accurate and convincing. The collection reads like a series of thought experiments and indeed there is a heady excitement in taking on the voices of God, who is presented through a variety of different human perceptions.  In ‘Clear Morning’ God is transcendent, ‘thinking matter could not absorb [human] gaze forever’ but ‘prepared now to force / clarity upon you.’ In ‘Midsummer’ there is a stronger sense of incarnation, ‘You were/ my embodiment, all diversity’. Most of the time, God is the disappointed Creator familiar from Genesis:

            ‘I couldn’t do it again,

            I can hardly bear to look at it – 

                                                            ‘The Garden’

We have to remember that God is in dialogue with the Poet who is also the Gardener, an ambiguous figure, halfway between creator and curator. Moreover, the Poet is ventriloquising the voice of God just as she ventriloquises and anthropomorphises the plants to make up the tapestry of her debate. The plants follow the natural seasons from early spring through to late Autumn, rehearsing a cycle of death and resurrection the poet acknowledges as Romantic: ‘let them/ bury me with the Romantics’. (‘Matins’ p.13) Two pages later, in ‘Retreating Wind’ a disappearing God points out the fallacy of an over simple identification of the human with the seasonal:

            Whatever you hoped,

            you will not find yourselves in the garden,

            among the growing plants.

            Your lives are not circular like theirs:

            your lives are the bird’s flight 

            which begins and ends in stillness –   

Nevertheless, it is in the plants that Gluck finds images for living or for expressing human yearnings or dilemmas. ‘Trillium’ discovers grief, ‘Snowdrops’ faces the pain of re-engaging with the world, Scilla celebrates community over individualism, whilst Lamium seems close to a self-portrait:

                                    Some of us

            make our own light: a silver leaf

            like a path no one can use, a shallow

            lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.

            But you know this already.

            You and the others who think

            you live for truth and, by extension, love

            all that is cold.

The disingenuousness here is the failure to acknowledge the passion and emotion which is found throughout this collection although suppressed by the austerity of the diction and the control of the lines. The book shows the poet making ‘[her] own light’ and the two long lines ending the second and third stanzas attest to the quality of this light; it is derived from the sun but it pings ‘like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon’ and it is ‘silver’ not golden.  The poet aspires to the coldness of intellectual rigour which is metallic and inorganic but recognises implicitly that this is far from enough, that her ‘lake of silver’ is ‘shallow’, an idea emphasised by the placement of the word at the end of the line.

Despite the rejection of the parallel between humans and plants, the dialogue between plants and their human gardeners mirrors that between the human and God and the plants seem to move from birth through adolescence to eventual old age. Whereas the snowdrops at the beginning of the sequence dare to ‘risk joy’, the white rose near the end faces bleakly the uncertainties of death in unanswered cries to the human,’ you are not the light I called to/ but the blackness behind it.’  This is not the last word, however. The final two plant poems move through the despair of the crucifixion – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’:

                                    are you

            close enough to hear

            your child’s terror? Or

            are you not my father

            you who raised me.

                                                ‘The Golden Lily’

to the hope of resurrection:

            Hush beloved.  It doesn’t matter to me

            how many summers I live to return:

            this one summer we have entered eternity.

            I felt your two hands

            bury me to release its splendour.

                                                                        ‘The White Lilies’

We may note in this final image of the poem and the book that plant and gardener are at one. The relationship between the human and the god she has created is more problematic. In ‘Retreating Light’ God is leaving, job done, because the humans have finally learnt how to live ‘like independent beings’ and how to create, how to be their own god.

            Creation has brought you

            great excitement, as I knew it would,

            as it does in the beginning.

            And I am free to do as I please now,

            to attend to other things, in confidence

            you have no need of me anymore.

Yet the sequence does not end there. In ‘Lullaby’ the god who withdrawing from the world is also withdrawing the world as creation is reduced to flickering appearances:

            You must be taught to love me.  Humans must be taught to love

            silence and darkness. 

In ‘September Twilight’, the last God poem, the god has become a grumpy poet unhappy with his flawed creation, ‘a draft to be thrown away,/ an exercise// because I’ve finished you, vision/ of deepest mourning.’  The last two lines evade explanation but, at the very least, convey a sense of terminal dissatisfaction. The voices of God and human go past each other, each wanting more than the other can give.

The ‘human’ poems are usually titled either ‘Matins’ or ‘Vespers’, placing them within the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. Some have likened the collection to the medieval books of hours. Certainly, the voice of the human echoes the spiritual travails of figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as it struggles with a God which is at first  the ‘unreachable father’, unknowable and impersonal: ‘I am/ at fault, at fault, I asked you/to be human’. Then about halfway through, there is a change in perception as the view of god does again become human. 

                        I am ashamed

            at what I thought you were

            distant from us, regarding us

            as an experiment: it is

            a bitter thing to be

            the disposal animal,

            a bitter thing. Dear friend,

            dear trembling partner, what 

            surprises you most in what you feel,

            earth’s radiance or your own delight?

            For me, always

            the delight is the surprise.

                                                            ‘Matins’ p.31

In this poem, the poet is on the same level as her God who she is constructing in her own image. It contrasts strangely with God’s final poem, ‘September Twilight’ quoted above. We move from Matins to Vespers, morning to evening where the poetic voice torments itself with its relationship to God. On page 43 she describes how God appears to her:

                        I climbed

            the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically

            descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough

            for you to pity me, as you have sometime pitied

            others who suffer, favoring those

            with theological gifts?

Here, the poet appears to be inviting a ‘dark night of the soul’ in order to achieve the ecstatic vision:

                                    your fiery self, a whole

            pasture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor rising – 

However, the ending of the poem reverts to rationalism:

            I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.

Glück allows herself to construct a faith to set against her nihilistic idealism, where the natural world and the garden she loves are always on the point of disappearing to leave noting but darkness behind them.  Towards the end of the book, in ‘Parousia’, she remembers childhood belief which she is trying to recover:

            I try to win you back,

            that is the point 

            of the writing.

But she adds, a few lines later: ‘What a nothing you were’ and then concludes ‘you are everywhere, source/ of wisdom and anguish.’ In the next poem, winter is approaching as is death and the poet’s sense of having been admitted to the divine presence has been cancelled: ‘you have drawn/ a line through my name.’ The poem ends with an ambivalent restatement of the relationship between God and human.

            When you go, you go absolutely,

            deducting visible life from all things

            but not all life,

            lest we turn from you.

                                                ‘Vespers’, p.55

I suggest that Gluck is an idealist because in this book, plants, garden, the world of nature, even the bit players, John and Noah, her husband and son, are all constructs, fictions dramatizing the struggle of a mind or soul to know or redeem itself through the possibility of a relationship with a god which is itself fictional. It is a metaphysical exploration of ideas which is the very opposite of materialism.

A Village Life is even more clearly a fictional setting where the writer can work through her ideas. The blurb suggests this village is Mediterranean, but it is not any place that ever actually existed. It made me think of my grandchildren’s favourite computer game, Minecraft, where it is possible to construct your own house, estate, town, world. The poet works out emotions and ideas through her avatars who are given a gapped narrative that the reader feels must exist but struggles to follow. The first poem gives some sense of the abstract quality of the entire collection. It begins in the third person, describing the meditations of, apparently, a mill worker as he looks out through his window to see ‘not the world but a squared-off landscape’. The poet is indicating already that this is a selective and constructed picture, and our perspective is further skewed when she moves to first person in what seems to be some kind of renunciation which may anticipate old age or death

                        I open my fingers – 

                        I let everything go.

                        I let it go, then I light the candle.

Is this the old man at his window coming into his own voice or the poet consciously substituting the light of her art for that of the real world?

There are a number of different characters, some still living in the village, some who have moved away, some old, some young, or possibly the same individuals presented at different times in their lives. The pervading perspective is of jaded, rather sour, rather plastic wisdom. The setting is stylised: the village has a central fountain to which all roads lead at the same time as they lead away towards the mountain:

            The roads don’t gather here anymore;

            the fountain sends them away, back into the hills they came from.

            Avenue of Broken Faith, Avenue of Disappointment,

            Avenue of the Acacia Tree, of Olive Trees,

            The wind filling with silver leaves,

            Avenue of Lost Time, Avenue of Liberty that ends in stone,

            not at the field’s edge but at the foot of the mountain.

                                                                                    ‘Tributaries’

The poems reflect the seasons and the weather which are made to echo the ages and stages of the characters in a conscious use of pathetic fallacy which the writer had exploded elsewhere. There are recurring events, two poems from the earthworm, two from bats, and four about burning leaves which seem to signal the cycles of life and death, destruction and phoenix-like resurrection. The image is so persistent that I wondered if it might originate from the poet’s experience of losing her own house to fire.

            So it’s finished for another year,

            death making room for life,

            as much as possible,

            but burning the house would be too much room.

                                                                                    ‘Burning Leaves’ p.26

Reflecting the sense of decline in the book, the balance of the burning leaves tips towards death in the later poems

                                    it is obvious they [sparks] are not defeated,

            merely dormant or resting, though no one knows

            whether they represent life or death.

                                                                        p.35

            Maybe this is how you’ll know when the earth is dead – 

            it will ignite.

                                                                        p.61

For me, the imaginary world of this book is mostly grey or sepia coloured, but there are momentary glimpses of real toads, as in the rather curious poems about adolescence which depict boys and girls on the cusp of sexual awareness.

            They know people who’ve done it, as a kind of game or trial – 

            Then you say, no, wrong time, I think I’ll just keep on being a child.

            But your body doesn’t listen. It knows everything now,

            it says you’re not a child, you haven’t been a child for a long time.

            Their thinking is, stay away from change. It’s an avalanche – 

            All the rocks sliding down the mountain, and the child standing underneath 

            just gets killed.

In this poem, where the Edenic companionship of boy and girl is under threat from their growing consciousness of their sexuality and there is a powerful sense of loss, one of the oddest things is the fluidity of the pronouns. The first stanza is all ‘they’ before moving to direct address in the second ‘you can spend the whole day’. Later, even the body gets a voice ‘it says you’re not a child’, and towards the end of the poem the unity of the two children separates into ‘he’ and ‘she’.

            Today she’s folding the blanket alone, to be safe.

            And he looks away – he pretends to be too lost in thought to help out.

                                                                                                            ‘Noon’

This confusion of voices, where the writer seems to intrude upon her creation, once again undermines the autonomy of the imaginary world. In a companion piece, ‘At The River’, a young girl describes, or mocks, how her mother has told her about sex:

            she went on holding my hand as she made her speech

            which was more like a speech about mechanical engineering

            than a conversation about pleasure.

She and her friends gather by the river where they laugh about this and the book, Ideal Marriage, which her mother has given her. They are preoccupied with sex which they discuss endlessly without, most of them, having any actual experience. Running in parallel with this, is the story of her parents’ marriage, the father who pours himself two glasses of wine every night, one, suggests his daughter, for the Holy Ghost who never shows up. At the end of the poem, she asks him:

                                                Did your friend go away?

            And he looked at me intently for a while,

            then he said, Your mother and I used to drink a glass of wine together

            after dinner.

The particularity of this detail and the sadness it reveals contrasts with the preceding stanza where the protagonist, returning from the river, comments on the reflections of the stars in the water:

            But the ones in the river – 

            they were like having some idea that explodes suddenly into a thousand ideas,

            not real, maybe, but somehow more lifelike.

The ‘like’ in the second line is unexpected and ambiguous; it could reflect the idiom of an American teenager (not a Mediterranean one) or it could signal the introduction of an elaborate simile. Either way, the reality of both the actual world and the imaginary world are undermined by the primacy of ideas.

The final poem is also the title poem and it features an older man, perhaps the same one as in the first poem and probably the same one as in ‘A Warm Day’. He may even be looking out the same window as in the opening poem. However, in this poem he speaks in first person as he ruminates over his daily routines, the different stages of life and approaching death. It is hard not to see him as a stand-in for the aging poet.  His instruments are locked up but he still hears ‘music coming from them sometimes’. He thinks back to the tension of the pre-adolescent. ‘Soon it will be decided for certain what you are, / one thing, a boy or a girl.’ Although written before trans issues became so prominent, this foreshadows, perhaps accidentally, the angst of binary sexuality. The light in the poem fades and reduces to firelight, then moonlight and the moon becomes a symbol of the soul:

            It’s dead, it’s always been dead,

            but it pretends to be something else,

            burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes

            it could actually make something grow on earth.

            If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.

This concluding notion seems both religious and Platonic, although earlier in the poem he has decried his neighbour’s religious faith: ‘She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain, / though in one case the fog never lifts.’ The soul is seen as a deception, ‘pretend[ing] to be something else’, but nevertheless deriving its truth or being from a remoter power. 

The village of A Village Life, with its stylised setting and characters, is a device which allows the poet to clothe and develop her ideas. Faithful and Virtuous Night exploits a different convention partly through a deconstructed quest narrative where there appear to be at least two protagonists: one is an aging male artist who remembers his life going back to his childhood as an orphan, living with his aunt and his brother. There are accounts of episodes in boyhood, living in Cornwall and undergoing psychoanalysis. However, another voice belongs, apparently, to the poet herself, notably in ‘Visitors from Abroad’ and ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ in which the recurrent themes of her relationship with her mother and the sister who died in infancy reappear. It is quite difficult to work out what is going on and whether we should see the male figure as detached from, complementary to, or an alter ego for, the poet. The quest imagery and indeed the title of the book derive from the old man’s childhood memories of his brother reading Arthurian romance: ’my brother was reading a book he called/ the faithful and virtuous night’. This misunderstanding is the foundation for the image of night as death or at least the harbinger of death: “I became/a glorious knight riding into the setting sun, and my heart/became the steed underneath me.’ In this book, Glück is much possessed by death, but not particularly gloomily; in fact, this poem even includes a pun:

            Neigh, neigh, said my heart,

            or perhaps nay, nay – it was hard to know.

                                                                                    ‘An Adventure’[2]

If the old man’s adventures all seem to be episodes on the journey towards death which becomes itself the object of the quest as suggested in the opening poem ‘Parable’, the utterances which come from the poet appear in one way or another to be a reaction to the death of her parents, or particularly, of her mother.

            We read your books when they reach heaven.

            Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.

            And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,

            tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

            But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.

            And your sister – you have your sister’s soul.

            After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

                                                                                    ‘Visitors from Abroad’

Along with the characteristic austerity and control, manifest here in the clipped, end-stopped lines often backed up by full stops which are used for emphasis rather than to demarcate sentences, Glück exhibits again an almost gleeful, if macabre, dark humour.

However, most of the book is devoted to the novelistic development of the central character, who is reminiscent of other hyper-refined male sensibilities, a sort of cross between Henry James and Philip Roth.  He is embarked on the quest for, or journey towards, death which is neither a real quest nor a real journey, as to paraphrase Beckett, he would have died in any case. This is the message of ‘The Parable’:

                                                            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.

I don’t know quite how to regard this, admittedly very readable, narrative thread. I have to see the old man as a pretext rather than an autonomous character, partly because at times he seems to merge with the other speaker, partly because, like her, he is preoccupied with the relationship between art and life. In ‘The Past’ and ‘A Summer Garden’ there is reference to a mother who has died, apparently recently, although the old man’s mother was killed when he was a small child. This might suggest that the poems are in the voice of the poet except that their preoccupations seem to echo that of the male character. In fact, ‘A Summer Garden’ is primarily an elegy for the poet’s mother, Beatrice Glück, who died in 2011, aged 101: ‘Mother died last night, / Mother who never dies.’ The poem goes from the day of her death when the bereaved daughter reflects on her loss, echoed in the songs of, presumably, an au pair:

            We could hear

            Maria singing songs from Czechoslovakia – 

            How alone I am – 

            songs of that kind.

            How alone I am,

            no mother, no father – 

            my brain seems so empty without them.

These songs may remind us of the Jacques Brel song which haunts the old man:[3]

            The little cat is dead, meaning, I suppose,

            one’s last hope.

            The cat is dead, Harry sings,

            he will be pointless without his body.

            In Harry’s voice it is deeply soothing.

            Sometimes his voice shakes, as with great emotion,

            and then for a while the hills are alive overwhelms

            the cat is dead.[4]

The tug between life and death carries on throughout the collection and comes back to a celebration of a moment of life earlier in the life of the poet’s mother, when she took her grandchildren to the park:

            The children held hands, leaning

            To smell the roses.

            They were five and seven.

            Infinite, infinite – that 

            was her perception of time.

            She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.

            Far away, fear approached and departed;

            from the train station came the sound it made.

            The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

            There was no wind. The summer day

            cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

This not the last poem in the book. The final piece is a short prose text which picks up some of the threads in the whole collection, including, I believe, an underlying interest in the delimitations of gender. This brings together, or perhaps it doesn’t, a man and woman, who might perhaps or perhaps not be the two voices in the poem. Figures from a photograph, they are imagined meeting:

She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood.  I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees.

                                                ‘The Couple in the Park’

The ‘puzzling music’ refers to an earlier poem, where the male artist meets a woman who tells him about walking in a garden where she would hear final notes of The Marriage of Figaro. She tells the artist that all her walks are circular, and she always ends up where she started, at her own front door. The artist attempts to interpret this experience but concludes

                                                that whatever message there might have been

            was not contained in speech – so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me

            her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastising me – 

                                                                        ‘A Sharply Worded Silence’

The ‘sharply worded silence’ which is something we may all recognise becomes even more resonant when we remember that the artist’s mother is dead. The overlap between the man and the woman reappears as we question our first assumption that it is the male who is speaking.

It may be the limitations of a prosaic mind which drives the reader of poetry to seek for logical interpretations and explanations. There is an instinctive quest for meaning which may be one of the pursuits this book is challenging, but only if you plump for the most negative reading.  The poem travels beyond logical prose in expression and, if we trust the poet, we may see that what she is saying now in verse we may be able later, in our enlarged experience, to translate into prose. Death is on the horizon, and the horizon may always be coming closer, but it is the process of the quest which matters.  Louise Glück beguiles us with the language of childhood, with stories and images, which are cut loose to drift across each other in a way that is productive in challenging assumptions, but which does not offer any definitive alternatives.


[1] ‘Death and Absence’ in Proofs and Theories

[2] Perhaps this is an allusion to the words of Peter Pan: ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’

[3] You can hear Jacques Brel singing this song, Les Vieux, on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMxvAY54_Vg

[4] Presumably from The Sound of Music.

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

Elizabeth Jennings and the poetic vocation

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of poetry about. Online magazines and small presses proliferate; even the small print magazines seem to be keeping their heads above water.  Some of this may be due to corona virus; people have time to write and even read poetry.  However, as I pick my way through Zoom poetry events, I find myself wondering how it is possible to read with discrimination, or even enjoyment, under this onslaught of words.  I am not complaining about an excess of bad poetry; on the contrary, much of what is available is, thanks to poetry workshops and courses, pretty good.  What is difficult is to discover and recognise the very good, the authentically new, the lastingly valuable.  With an ever-growing pile of magazines, pamphlets and first collections on my desk, I have been tempted to flee, to look backwards and to reconsider some of the older names in the poetry world.

Thus it was that I started reading, or rereading Elizabeth Jennings.  Why? For a start, she once lived at the bottom of my road. Secondly, she is a woman poet who has dropped out of fashion but who had known considerable success, was moderately famous, but never, sadly, rich.  In my mind, she was the sort of poet whose work turned up in GCSE and A-level anthologies. I remembered her poems as thematically unthreatening but with plenty of technical features to be identified in the pursuit of good marks.

Engaging now with the full range of her poetry, I find her more interesting but strange, in the sense of alien. She suffers by being out of tune with her time and even more so with ours. What concerned her has been pushed to the very margin of our concerns today. On a line drawn between Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath, she would come much closer to Rossetti, not simply because she was a single woman and deeply religious, but also because she clings to some outmoded nineteenth century poeticisms. She is a little too fond of the exclamatory ‘O’. In ‘In This Time’[1], lamenting the loss of myth and legend which she seems to attribute to excessive introspection and self-absorption, she includes a somewhat startling and metrically unnecessary inversion: ‘Hardly we hear the children shout outside’ as well as an equally unnecessary undirected apostrophe three lines further down, ‘O let the wind outside blow in again’. She is confident with form and her earlier poems were mostly written in carefully organised and rhymed stanzas, made more subtle by half and near rhymes. Even so, sometimes the form pushes her towards conclusions which are too pat, or a rhyme can seem forced, or a line is padded. In ‘Poem in Winter’, the pronoun ‘it’ is awkward in the first stanza as it buckles under the demands of end rhyme:

Today the children begin to hope for snow

And look in the sky for auguries of it.

In the first three lines of the second stanza, there is another awkward ‘it’ forced into prominence by the iambic pattern, while ‘And’ and ‘still’ seem to be there to preserve the metre and ‘indeed’ does more for the rhyme scheme than the meaning.

            And even if the snow comes down indeed

            We still shall stand behind a pane of glass

            Untouched by it,

The last stanza, as rather often in Jennings’ poems, takes on a didactic function, which more contemporary poets would perhaps avoid. Nevertheless, her work is underpinned and strengthened by her vision and sense of vocation, by her ideas of what it was to be a poet. In her case, the poetic vocation was bound in with her Catholic faith although the relationship between her religion and her poetry was not as smooth as she would sometimes have had it appear. Like T.S. Eliot, whom she much admired, she yearned for the mystic’s union with God, and she explored the relationship between mysticism and poetry in Every Changing Shape[2] which, although written relatively early in her career, provides a key to understanding her own poetic vision. She seeks to show, through a study of writers from St Augustine to Wallace Stevens:

Not only …the usefulness of poetry as a vehicle for mystical experience but also …some kind of demonstration, however, tentative, that both mysticism (contemplation) and poetry (making) spring from the same creative source.[3]

She goes on to argue, and here she is close to David Jones, also a poet whose Catholicism is central to his art, that poetry:

…is itself a kind of contact with God. And it can be a contact with God because all art is a participation in the eternal act of creation.[4]

Jennings is careful to maintain the distinction between poetry and mysticism, but values poetry for its power to use the imagination (and imagery) to convey experiences otherwise beyond language.  However, although she holds this exalted view of what poetry can do, only a minority of her own poems are directly concerned with religion. Her themes are childhood, relationships with parents, friends, lovers, nature, loneliness and death. Her poetry is always written out of her own experience and although she abhorred ‘confessional’ poetry, it is difficult to read her work as anything other than autobiographical.  Indeed, because she disapproved so strongly of letting it all hang out and washing the family dirty laundry in public, it is often quite difficult to know what she is talking about in her poems, if, for instance, she is addressing Christ, a friend or a lover in “Transformation’:

            Always I trip myself up when I try

            To plan exactly what I’ll say to you.

            …

            Who could not guess such misery would start

            And stop so quickly, change the afternoon

            And, far more than that, transfigure me.

            Trusting myself, I enter night, stars, moon.[5]

I am inclined to think that this poem is actually addressed to a friend or one of her quasi lovers, as so much of her work seems prompted by actual incidents, even though, as here, it borrows the language of religious or transcendental experience.  The only poem I have found where Jennings does seem to be writing about a personal mystical experience is ‘A World of Light’. The title acknowledges the mystic poetry of Henry Vaughan and in it she describes the sort of encounter which she explores in the work of many of the mystics and poets she considers:

            Then senses ceased and thoughts were driven quite

            Away (no act of mine). I could relax

            And feel a fire no earnest prayer can kindle;

            Old parts of peace dissolved into a whole

            And like a bright thing proud in its new plumage

            My mind was keen as an attentive bird.[6]

However, unlike Vaughan she becomes self-conscious and the final stanza suggests that she feels that her language and her imagery are second-hand and inadequate:

            Yes, fire, light, air birds, wax, the sun’s own height

            I draw from now, but every image breaks.

            Only a child’s simplicity can handle

            Such moments when the hottest fire feels cool.

            And every breath is like a sudden homage

            To peace that penetrates and is not feared.

Incidentally, Jennings skill is demonstrated by the way she has used the same end sounds in all five stanzas of this poem. Despite this virtuosity with form, the imagery is less convincing.  The ‘hottest fire’ that ‘feels cool’ recall simultaneously the cleansing fires of purgatory and the oxymoronic language of courtly love. We might wonder why in the last line ‘peace’ should be ‘feared’ and question whether she is talking not about a peace but a penetration that need not be feared.  Jennings was known to have a fear of sex and it is doubtful if any of her various love relationships were ever physically consummated. Rather conveniently, she transfers the responsibility to one of her loves, apparently a Catholic priest:

            Only in our imaginations

            The act is done, for you have spoken

            Vows that can never now be broken. 

            I keep them too – with reservations;

            Yet acts not done can still be taken

            Away, like all completed passions.[7]

I don’t really know what the last lines of this stanza mean and the final stanza of the poem also strikes me as a fudge:

            A touching, then a glancing off.

            It is your vows that stretch between 

            Us like an instrument of love

            Where only echoes intervene.

            Yet these exchanges are enough

            Since strings touched only are most keen.

There is a feeling that she has successfully worked through the metaphoric vehicle, but that the actual experience, the underlying tenor remains stubbornly unchanged.

 Of course, she was completely aware that sexual imagery is often used as a way of conveying mystical experience, something that she acknowledges in her discussion of St John of the Cross.[8] I am wary of tipping over into prurience when discussing Jennings but the tone and content of her love poetry, which often seems to have an adolescent intensity, would be easier to understand if more was known about her life.  The only biography, The Inward War by Dana Greene, while it supplies possible names and dates, does very little, despite its title, to illuminate the poet’s inner conflicts. Perhaps biography shouldn’t matter, and the best poems can be appreciated without it. Nevertheless, so much of her work clearly springs from the day to day events in her life that a better knowledge of what was actually going on would be beneficial, partly because the less successful work does not detach itself fully from the context.  Jennings’ poetry invariably strikes us as searingly emotionally honest, but she keeps a great deal from us. Some of her most compelling poems draw on her experience of mental illness in hospital. In ‘The Visitors’, Section V of ‘Sequence in Hospital[9] she describes the difficulties of dealing with visitors, whose ‘kindness makes [her] want/ To cry’ but whose visit leaves her feeling ‘limp and faint’. However, the poem ends with an address to an unnamed you:

            Your absence has been stronger than all pain

            And I am glad to find that when most weak

            Always my mind returned to you again.

            Through all the noisy nights when, harsh awake,

                        I longed for day and light to break – 

            In that sick desert, you were life, were rain.

In this case, the imagery of light, life and rain incline me to think she means Christ, but there is an almost coy awareness of the traditional overlap of language in the treatment of sacred and profane love.

The themes which emerge most strongly from Jennings’ work are a yearning for the innocence of early childhood which is linked to a prelapsarian view of Nature and a pervasive fear which is never made specific but overshadows her entire oeuvre. These ideas come together in an early poem, ‘Reminiscence’,[10] where she speaks of childhood as ‘cloudless and gentle’, as life experienced through the senses before the life of the mind introduced ‘something’ which ‘made [her]numb with fear’. This disabling fear may be related to the growth of consciousness, it may be related to her difficult relationship with her father, it may be a fear of sex or of God derived from her early and unhappy perception of the Catholicism she was born into, or it may be simply an existential dread.

On the other hand, ‘The Fear’ hints at something more specific:

            When still within I carry an old fear

            A child could never speak about, disgrace

            That no confession could assuage or clear.[11]

It is known that as a young person she found her religion oppressive, and this was something she only overcame when she went to Rome and discovered a joyful way of living with her faith. Nevertheless, the memories of childhood unhappiness were enduring as shown in ‘First Confession’, a poem from the 1990’s.

                                    My spirit had been light

            And happy for six years.  I lost my trust

            And learnt a little of the spirit’s night.[12]

Despite her apparently unquestioning acceptance of her religion – she protests, she struggles, but never denies it – it does not seem to have brought her happiness even though she used it to underpin her poetic vision. It seems to me that her first loyalty is to poetry even though she longs for the mystical experience which would reward her faith.  Her vocation is poetic, not religious. In ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’[13]she considers the differences:

            Your vows enfold you.  I must make my own;

            Now this, now that, each one empirical.

            My poems move from feelings not yet known,

            And when the poem is written I can feel

                        A flash, a moment’s peace.

She makes comparisons elsewhere between the experience of vision of transcendence which the mystic may seek language for and the momentary achievement of vision which the poet feels, having written successful poem.  The poem’s final stanza suggests that the darkness which for the religious is the absence of God is for her the silence when the words for the poems do not come.

            Yet with the same convictions that you have

            (It is but your vocation that I lack),

            I must, like you, believe in perfect love.

            It is the dark, the dark that draws me back

                        Into a chaos where

            Vocations, visions fail, the will grows slack

            And I am stunned by silence everywhere.

Silence is identified with chaos, whereas the poem is a device for creating order. I think this is why Jennings was so prolific, writing compulsively, up to three poems a day, even when most ill or unhappy : ‘Coins, counters, Towers of Babel/ Mad words spoken in sickness too – / All are considered, refined, transformed / …And stored and given back – and true.’[14] In another poem she says ‘poetry must change and make/ The world seem new in each design’. The stress is on design, form, number and imagery, the power of the imagination to create pattern and order, however fleeting. This ‘flash’ is the poet’s participation in divine creativity. Rebecca Watts argues that Jennings did not write in order to heal her wounded psyche, but because ‘she felt that writing poetry was “ the one thing I can do”’.  I think this was a way of overcoming the fear, the darkness and the silence, or at least holding it at bay.

We can see that Jennings had an elevated view of the poet’s calling and that her ‘vision’ was coherent throughout her career.  Childhood is Edenic and associated with the joy in the natural world; it is destroyed by fear and guilt and Jennings accuses adults of creating this sense of fear in children much too early. She values friendship, love as agape, but suffers from unfulfilled desire, fear, guilt and loneliness. She yearns for the solace of her religion but only rarely can she reconcile the demands of her ‘hard creed’ and her impulse to poetry:

            Always that dark cross throws its shadow on me

            And I am often in the garden where

            Christ came so often to the brink of despair.

            It is, I think, in my own poetry

            I meet my God.  He’s a familiar there.[15]

Alice Oswald argued, in her inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, that great poets had a unified vision, whereas minor poets did not.  This is a debatable distinction and I would suggest that while Elizabeth Jennings did have a unified vision, she is only occasionally great. Often her language and her form do not hold up under the strain she puts on them; sometimes she drops back into banality.  Nevertheless, she had a lifelong commitment to poetry and there are many ‘flashes’, whether whole poems, stanzas or memorable lines or images.

This brings me back to my feelings of uneasiness when contemplating the current poetry scene. What is required to be a poet? What is poetry for? These are silly questions, because they are so wide-ranging. Poetry has been used for everything from trying to seduce a lover (though it is unlikely that many seduction poems were written primarily for this purpose) to entertainment, to recording and celebrating a shared history to praising God. The training to be a Bard in ancient Ireland was long and rigorous and involved a huge amount of memorising as well as learning complicated traditional rhyme schemes, metaphors and similes.  A sixteenth century Elizabethan gentleman would have been expected to be able to compose verses as well as wield a sword.  John Donne, whose verses were circulated among friends, could be described as an amateur poet: Shakespeare was obviously a professional. No matter what the background, any decent poet will have learned from their predecessors.  Even John Clare, isolated in rural Helpston, was desperate for books and found his early inspiration in The Seasons by James Thomson.  Whether the poet starts young or comes to poetry later in life, they will develop as they assimilate the work of the past and of their contemporaries.  Some writers will become central to them, touchstones they regularly return to, as, for example, Alice Oswald does to the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Poets also learn by sharing their work with their contemporaries and accepting constructive criticism. This is a process which has become almost industrialised through Creative Writing Degrees, poetry workshops and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation and The Poetry School. The fact that these organisations seem to flourish reflects the level of demand.  There is also a multitude of small presses, print and online little magazines and local poetry nexuses, many of them surviving on minimum funds through the energy and hard work of dedicated enthusiasts. The Alchemy Spoon[16] is a new print magazine, a courageous venture at a time when our entire lives seem to be going online.  Its inaugural edition includes some impressive poems from writers well-known and not so familiar.  The introductory editorial by Vanessa Lampert is also interesting.  She explains the magazine’s commitment to ‘welcoming older unpublished and new phase writers to our pages’. The phrase ‘new phase’ apparently refers primarily to those who have come to poetry later in life, although Lampert also suggests that the ‘new’ of ‘new phase’ refers to poets who have ‘remained alert to the athleticism of poetics and the potential of poetry to branch out and articulate the ethereal and changeable feeling states of our lives.’  This seems admirable, but I am more concerned by her earlier suggestion:

The art of poetry offers writers the opportunity to abandon the conformity embedded in the way we learn to use language, to reach out and seek invention.  Additionally, poems can free us from the tiresome constraint of always being required to tell the truth.

In the world of Trump and Johnson, where the tiresome constraint of telling the truth seems to have been rendered null and void, it would seem preferable to suggest that poetry is indeed a way of telling the truth, albeit through such lying devices as metaphor and imagery. The emphasis on playfulness also worried me, although I recognise that poetry and all art does have a ludic function. The quality of the poetry in this magazine, the level of engagement of the interviews and essays belie these suggestions of hobby writing, or poetry as something to do when you have retired.  I doubt if Elizabeth Jennings would have welcomed a description of her work as either untruthful or playful and, as someone who had devoted her entire life to her art, she might have been lukewarm about the notion of ‘new phase.


[1] New Selected Poems, ed. Rebecca Watts, Carcanet, 2019, p.17

[2] First published by Andre Deutsch, 1961; paperback edition, Carcanet, 1996

[3] p.18, paperback edition

[4] p.30 ibid.

[5] Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1986, p.107

[6] New Selected Poems, p.60

[7] ‘The Instrument’, New Selected Poems, p.74

[8] ‘The Innocent Audacity -An Approach to St John of the Cross’ in Every Changing Shape

[9] From Recoveries, New Selected Poems, p.78

[10] New Selected Poems, p.3

[11] New Selected Poems, p.42

[12] New Selected Poems, p.166

[13] Ibid. p.68

[14] “Any Poet’s Epitaph’, ibid.p.107

[15] ‘A way to a creed’, ibid.p.147

[16] The Alchemy Spoon, Issue 1, Summer 2020. Edited by Roger Bloor, Vanessa Lampert, Mary Mulholland.