Creative Paralysis

The poetry of Louise Glück


The publication last year of Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012 was a literary event. The collection was magisterial in execution and, at 627 pages, monumental in scale. Perversely perhaps, just as this volume proving her 50 years of fierce poetic productivity appeared, Glück was writing a series of linked dramatic monologues spoken by an artist struggling with silence and the inability to invent.

Two of those six new poems, “Midnight” and “The White Series,” appear here. The unnamed speaker—an older man, gay (it seems), English, and a painter—looks back over the course of his life. We glean that he and his brother were brought up by a sympathetic aunt; one poem in the series, not included here, suggests that his parents died in a car accident.

The painter’s life story is conspicuously different from Glück’s. Yet there is an aspect of autobiography, or more precisely self-investigation, in the sequence. The speaker’s feelings of blockage, passivity, and helplessness are part of Glück’s own experience of the rhythm of creativity over a career marked by alternating phases of inspiration and incapacity.

Glück has written about creative paralysis before. But typically, as in a poem like “The Wild Iris,” one of her best-known lyrics, her subject is the triumphant return to expression. In the new sequence of poems, she writes about the frightening condition of lying fallow, one day after another, without the prospect of renewal.

Yet incapacity itself becomes a creative source, Glück’s speaker discovers. In “Midnight,” the darkness is like despair to him; he thinks the stars, “if one could see as do the astronomers,” “are unending fires, like the fires of hell.” He is abject, powerless and immobile in the face of time, which he compares to a boat passing back and forth on a river: “The boat traveled up the river and then back again. / It moved through time and then / through a reversal of time.” Nothing can be done, he feels. But when action becomes impossible, thought becomes “not only possible but limitless,” a void filled with mind.

In “The White Series,” the last poem in Glück’s sequence, the painter returns to work by creating a group of large canvases: “I cannot say exactly / how these paintings came into into being, though in the end / there were many of them,”  and “Suffice to say the paintings were /  immense and entirely white.” The narrator is like a poet who succeeds not in overcoming silence, but in making the experience of it visible.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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