Nobel reminds us why Glück's poetry matters now

Louise Gluck's books are on display during the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on October 8, 2020.

Richie Hofmann is the author of the poetry collection "Second Empire" (2015) and winner of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. He is a lecturer at Stanford University. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In spring, as I was preparing to teach my poetry course, remotely and online, in the first months of the pandemic, I decided to scrap my syllabus and to teach books that had changed me utterly, as a person and as a writer -- books I have carried with me through the years, from apartment to apartment in tattered copies, books that have grown and changed with me.

Richie Hofmann
The first day of class was the first day of spring. We read Louise Glück's "The Wild Iris," a book of poems written in the language of flowers. On Zoom, unmuting ourselves, we read the first poem out loud:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.
    ("The Wild Iris")
    Though the book was published in 1992, well before my students were born, and when I was only a small boy; it was speaking to us from beyond, from that timeless "elsewhere" that so many of Glück's poems so crisply capture. Her poems are alert to human feelings, both ugly and exalted, and to our will to survival in the face of a world that would cut us down.
    Good poetry is not a place for easy consolations, for platitudes. Instead, poems can be a space where uncertainty and complexity commingle. When we needed her lessons -- each of us uncertain of the future, isolated, terrified -- Louise Glück has been a poet who could teach us that suffering, oblivion, even death would not be the end of us.
    One of her poems, "The Red Poppy," asks us:
    Oh my brothers and sisters,
    were you like me once, long ago,
    before you were human? Did you
    permit yourselves
    to open once, who would never
    open again? Because in truth
    I am speaking now
    the way you do. I speak
    because I am shattered.
    ("The Red Poppy")
    Readers and admirers of Louise Glück's poetry are celebrating her work this week with a collective sense of pride and pleasure to see her considerable contributions so deservedly recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature. The last American woman to win the honor was Toni Morrison in 1993.
    But, in spite of the outpouring of joy on social media at this monumental public recognition of her artistry, Glück's poems themselves are not bombastic or public facing. Rather, they preserve intimacy, privacy and interiority in an age of constant broadcast, rapid news cycles and shameless self-promotion.
    And in a time when we are so often reminded of ways language is used to manipulate and mislead, her work is a testament to the power of clarity and precision.
    I cannot go on
    restricting myself to images
    because you think it is your right
    to dispute my meaning:
    I am prepared now to force
    clarity upon you.
    ("Clear Morning")
    Glück has authored over a dozen collections of verse, and she has received nearly every major prize for American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. Additionally, she has served as United States Poet Laureate and has been awarded the National Humanities Medal. A dedicated teacher, she works with students at both Yale and Stanford.
    One gets the sense reading her books that Louise Glück is a restless artist, shifting her forms, tones, and even voices from book to book. Her early work showcased a radical compression, tight, orderly lines and what she described in an essay as an attraction to "the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence."
    Her poems often take on the voices of personae, from myth and from history. Though her more recent books record a shift to longer poems, as well as an interest in the languages of fable and parable, they maintain her distinctive and searching attention to the psychological and emotional drama of the poem.
    As she has aged, Louise Glück has sharpened her poetry's commitment to documenting the body's fragility, the anarchic pull of desire and the resilience of the voice -- individual, lyrical, human -- against the forces of annihilation, humiliation and diminishment.
    In "Crossroads," she imagines a life in peril, the soul and the body rent apart and speaking to one another:
    My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
    I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
    like what I remember of love when I was young—
    The poem concludes, frailly, gorgeously, with a statement:
    It is not the earth I will miss,
    it is you I will miss.
    ("Crossroads")
    I think of these lines of poetry often, as we are so frequently asked, day after day, to consider and reconsider our attachments to worldly things. To one another. To our sense, even, of an inhabitable earth.
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    In my own life, it has been a profound and challenging pleasure to be changed by Louise Glück's poems, by her mentorship and by her friendship. I share her poems with my students, new generations of artists and critics and readers. I love to see them as shaken and moved and transported by her poems as I was when I encountered them for the first time. The Nobel Prize -- an honor the immensity of which I cannot yet quite comprehend -- will ensure that still other readers will find their way to her books.
    Now it is October. The world hasn't recovered or returned to what we had known to be normal. As the seasons change but our lives remain uncertain, I think about Glück's remarkable poem, "October." In one section of the poem, Glück imagines a young self, maybe a writer, carrying her book as protection:
    I was young here. Riding
    the subway with my small book
    as though to defend myself...
      In times of sadness and isolation, I turn to Louise Glück's books of poetry to show me some way forward.
      you are not alone,
      the poem said,
      in the dark tunnel.
      ("October")