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It Cannot Be Exhausted: Yale Younger Poets Remember Louise Glück

Jennifer Banks and Jessie Kindig—

We were heartbroken to learn of Louise Glück’s passing on Friday, October 13, 2023. From 2003 until 2010, Glück served as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, helping to launch the careers of many of the finest poets of the next generation. As a judge, she was known for her impeccable taste, unflagging commitment to poetry and poets, and her unusual generosity.

Alongside the extraordinary body of her own work, she also left behind eight volumes of the Younger Poets series, for which she wrote forewords of critical brilliance and great sympathy—forewords of intelligence and love. For example, the opening line of her foreword to Jay Hopler’s Green Squall (Volume 100),

Before poetry began pitching its tents in the library and museum, before, that is, mediated experience supplanted what came to seem the naïve fantasy of more direct encounter, a great many poems began in the garden.

How many book introductions begin with such an authoritative sweep into Arcadia?

It’s clear, in reading her forewords, that Glück saw her judgeship not as the process of choosing a winning poet but as cultivating each poet’s particular sensibility and voice, and of bringing each into conversation with the others. What she wrote of the beautiful lyricism of Fady Joudah’s poems of exile, displacement, occupation (The Earth in the Attic, Volume 102)—that “of displacement, in these poems, a kind of community is made,” is perhaps true also her commitment to making the Younger Poet prize: not just an award, but the beginning of a relationship.

In her forewords, Glück sometimes stages conversations between the Younger Poets—for example, seeing Peter Streckfus’s conception of “persistent strangeness” (The Cuckoo, Volume 99) in Jessica Fisher’s “haunting, elusive, luminous” writing (Frail-Craft, Volume 101). She often chose prize-winners who she thought, as she said of Ken Chen (Juvenilia, Volume 104), “makes with his voice a new category.”

To read through these forewords is a masterclass in close reading; it is also an education in what makes poetry work, and how, and perhaps why. Sometimes, it is the sustained, “electric excitement” of a poet working furiously “in a deliberately isolated space,” as Arda Collins did in It Is Daylight (Volume 103) that fuels the tense excitement of a book, or maybe the “psychological imperative” of obsession that she saw running through Richard Siken’s Crush (Volume 99). Like Plath’s Ariel, she wrote, “when they work,” books of such sustained, raw intensity “restore to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form.”

She will be dearly missed. But she is not gone. As Glück wrote herself in the foreword to Katherine Larsen’s Radial Symmetry (Volume 105),

Poetry survives because it haunts and it haunts because it is simultaneously utterly clear and deeply mysterious; because it cannot be entirely accounted for, it cannot be exhausted.

Below, several Younger poets offer remembrances of Glück’s mentorship, friendship, and approach to words, to poetry, to the world.

Arda Collins, author of It Is Daylight, (2008, Volume 102)

I would like to imagine that I’m not saying goodbye to Louise, that after a death the relationship changes but may continue. The intimate sense of transformation in her poems is part of how I came to feel this way. As she says in “Fugue,”

In the dark, my soul said
I am your soul.

No one can see me; only you—
only you can see me.

Her intuition for seeing into the invisible parts of a poem was a kind of gift, and she had endurance and patience as a reader. It was as though her energy came from the eternal wellspring of poetry that poets imagine or wish into existence. She brought all of this to her reading of the work of so many writers, including my own, which in mortal, practical terms required time and effort, and her presence as a poet and a person has been incredibly important to me. What will it be like to read her poems without her here? She has gone to the other side of the world that exists in them, through the door that an artist partially discovers and partially constructs herself. I, and the rest of us, will be here, reading.

Katherine Larsen, author of Radial Symmetry (2011, Volume 105)

It is difficult to write these words knowing that Louise—with her ferocious intellect, her luminous and unflinching poems, her handwritten scrawl across snail-mailed letters—is no longer with us. How can I explain what it was like to spend an afternoon with her? To see her mind at work was like bearing witness to some quietly relentless force of nature: inexorable, ravishing, engaging without pretense or formality. Her candor was both bracingly refreshing as well as an imperative to lean harder into the work of wrestling a poem onto the page. Who but Louise could pronounce the lines of a poem “a little gummy” and still easily inspire another dozen drafts? Her table carried a collection of glass bud vases filled with little shards of greenery and blossoms clipped from her garden. They’d glint in the window light as it skated across hours, and when I think of them now, I think of how they might represent the many young poets whose work she saw and decided, with enormous generosity, to carry into the light.

Jessica Fisher, author of Frail-Craft (2007, Volume 101)

This past Saturday, the day after Louise died, I spent hours looking through her notes on my most recent book of poems, a book she’d helped me to shape over the past several years. The final edits had been due the day before, but I hadn’t been able to focus. I spent Friday afternoon talking about her with one of her oldest friends at Williams College, where Louise taught for twenty years and where I now teach; and rereading her books, the poems familiar and yet still awe-inspiring. I dreamt of her that night, and in the morning came up to my office, where I keep my drafts. Reading through her notes one last time before sending off the manuscript felt like the best way to grieve her—it brought me back to my earliest memories of her, when we worked together on my first book at the round wooden table in her apartment on Ellsworth Park; and it brought me away from the overwhelming sadness, and into questions of cadence and line, where so many of our hours together were spent.

Like many who came to have the good fortune of knowing Louise, I encountered her first through her writing. I was obsessed with her work in college—not just the poems, but also the essays in Proofs and Theories—and I knew her work intimately. Indeed, when I first met her, I had recently written about her poem “Descending Figure” for a graduate class at UC Berkeley; she was quite clear with me then that I could know her or write about her, but not both, an injunction that makes this piece much harder to write. I chose, of course, to know her, and the details of our relationship are mostly lost to time, since her mentorship and, later, her friendship, was always so much in the present tense, in indelible moments recorded only in memory.

A couple of days after her death I ran into a colleague, who had been Louise’s friend for decades before I ever met her. He said that the problem with trying to imagine Louise having died is that she is still talking, that he can hear her. I feel the same way. We spent hours on the phone over the years, talking about everything—she was a great conversationalist. And though we were only occasionally in the same place, I treasure still those long afternoons working on poems together, those early dinners at whatever wonderful restaurant she loved best at the moment, in Cambridge, Boston, and Gloucester; San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. Those moments feel still like present time, their intensity lasting—whenever Louise was with you, she was fully there.

Of course, I wish for more time with her, and regret the years of Covid, and the years my kids were too sick for me to be away. And I always wished she liked to travel, since I wanted to see the places I loved though her eyes. What I did see—do see—through her eyes were her poems, and mine. Consolation was a word she frequently used—her garden’s beauty, a good meal, conversation: these were all consolation. Writing was the ultimate consolation, of course. And for me, it was a consolation this last week to see the unspooling of her loose script on the manuscript pages as I tried to imagine what she would think of all this memorializing, a fuss over her far greater than when she won the Nobel Prize. I remember the way light streaming through the window of her apartment would catch in the clusters of dried allium on her table, a vision of time preserved—and the bracelet of skulls she often wore, and her gold necklace of talismans, and the ring her sister Tereze had made. It is too painful right now to catalogue the grace of her body, knowing that it is gone.

Still, reading over her notes, I was filled once again with awe for the clarity of her vision and for her generosity to me. And reading over the many reflections since her death, it’s adamantly clear that so many loved her as deeply as I did, that she helped so many of us on our way. Knowing Louise is one of the luckiest parts of my life. Being asked to remember her as I first knew her, as the editor for my first book of poems, is such a gift, because it returns me to the giddiness of that lucky time, a time that seemed outside of time. On a Saturday morning in March, 2006, I was nursing my baby on the couch when the phone rang; on the other end of the line was Louise, calling to tell me that she had chosen Frail-Craft for the Yale Younger Poets prize. (That baby is off to college next year, and has been so sad this past week, reading over the poems in her copy of the Collected Works that Louise signed for her when she was twelve. Among Louise’s many wonderful qualities was her kindness to children—she saw them, even when they were very young, as distinct minds.)

I still have my notes from our first meeting. I remember that I wanted to cut a certain poem, knowing it would pain my parents, whose divorce is at its center. “Each person is given a number of amazements,” she said—she thought of great poems this way—and she really cared that I not throw it out. Many have written of Louise’s incisive revisions, of the fact that her father helped to invent the X-Acto knife; I too was impressed by her surgeries, but even more so by the way conversations with her would move me to write the clear and wild poems that she recognized as alive. She taught me, as I now teach my students, about the sequence—this focus of hers is, to my mind, among her great contributions to American poetry: that each collection should be a book, and that within books certain poems might arrange themselves into linked forms. The months between when she took Frail-Craft and when the final edits were due were the most generative of my life, thanks to her encouragement, and it was in that time that the sequences of my first book—“Nonsight,” “Novella,” “Stereography”—came into being, in large part due to her.

I will be forever buoyed by the fact that Louise believed in me as a writer, even when I struggled. Her patience, for herself and for others, was remarkable; what mattered was to wait for the real work to come. “I read your work constantly, I’m haunted by it. If you can do what you have done it won’t just end,” she wrote to me. Although she often described the long fallow periods between poems, the number of “amazements” given to Louise Glück was innumerable, it feels now, looking at the stack of books on my desk. Each time a student has entered my office in the past week, they take in that life, transformed into writing, its lasting heft. And I will come to know her again as I knew her first, in the intimacy and astonishment of the page. It won’t just end.

Jennifer Banks is Senior Executive Editor for Religion and the Humanities. Jessie Kindig is the Senior Editor for Humanities and editor for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

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