Poet Louise Glück embraces genuinely simple speech

John Timpane / The Philadelphia Inquirer /

Published Mar 17, 2013 at 05:00AM

“Poems 1962-2012” by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 656 pgs., $40)

My mixed feelings about Louise Glück’s poetry may, in some eyes, make me unsuited to write a useful review of this book.

It’s a very important book to have, if you like the U.S. poetry of the last half-century. Glück, no doubt about it, occupies a singular and influential place — for the good — in poetry since 1962, inspiring countless poets and teaching countless more. She’s one of the most anthologized, recognized and cited poets alive.

There’s not a bad poem here; Glück is incapable of making bad poems. It’s scrupulously made, agonizingly wrought (maybe a better word would be won), time and again finished with flat bites of the unavoidable truth.

If you think, “OK, now, he’s going to bring down the hammer,” not really.

I find Glück’s work, for the most part, impressive rather than moving. That could be just me, just my sensibilities. She writes about herself, her life, the life of poet, sibling, daughter, wife. As a young poet, she went in for flashier language, but as she matured, her preferred opening became the deceptively plain statement, as in “Vespers” (“I don’t wonder where you are anymore”) or “Widows” (“My mother’s playing cards with my aunt”).

But dark explosions are coming. Such plainness always gives way to ironies, underminings, reversals. Although she has sometimes shown humor, as in the self-satire of the 2001 collection “The Seven Ages,” irony is her tone, her cherished timbre. She has become famous for having mythological figures such as Telemachus or Persephone speak as though they came from Long Island.

Her most influential poems are maybe those in which the title is the name of a mythological figure, who goes on to tell his/her story — a story always retold, wrung for the wince.

But don’t the poems know too well where they are going? What of all this self-dramatization? Maybe there’s no way around this: Life is a drama, and many women’s lives are tragic.

So it gives me joy to say how wonderful Glück’s two best books — “The Wild Iris” of 1992 and “A Village Life” of 2009 — really are. They both are and are not “unlike her.”