On 21 January 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. The Inauguration ceremony included the reading of the poem, “The Hill We Climb” by the American National Youth Poet Laureate, 22- year-old Amanda Gorman, who instantly grabbed the attention of netizens worldwide. Gorman, an African American poet born in California, read her poem with confidence and youthful fervour. Recently Michelle Obama interviewed Gorman and complimented her for succeeding in making poetry seem “cool”.
The following few lines from Gorman’s poem that has gone viral reveal not just her passionate commitment to a cause, but prove how poetry can resonate with clarity and lyricism and instantly touch the hearts and minds of the people Here is a brief excerpt from the poem she read at the inauguration:
“ … We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth in this faith we trust…”
However, I was a bit surprised that Louise Gluck, the first American woman poet, to have won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2020, was not invited to read a poem at the same inaugural event. Perhaps, Gluck’s nuanced interiorized poetic style, a style diametrically opposite to Gorman’s, would have been difficult for a diverse audience to respond to so readily. If Gorman’s poetry was “cool” Gluck’s poems could well be considered “uncool”. One can well wonder whether Gluck’s lines in her poem, “Snowdrops” included in The Wild Iris for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, would have created the same impact with the audience as Gorman’s had done. Gluck had written:
“… I did not expect to survive, earth suppressing me.
I didn’t expect to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light of earliest spring ~ afraid, yes, but among you again crying yes risk joy in the raw wind of the new world”
Born in 1943, Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by deep subjectivity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings are iterated often in her poetry. Gluck’s poems centre on relationships, they centre on responses to the non-human world; the empirical and the epistemic are fused seamlessly in her poems, so protagonists from the Greek classics blend in with the contemporary American landscape and soulscape, braided with a sense of universal humanism and deep empathy for sentient life-forms.
Stating that Gluck’s poetry resembles the poems of Emily Dickinson, the Swedish Academy evaluated her poetic contribution by stating, “But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice ~ the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed ~ are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.”
In the 1960s Gluck did not attend regular college due to ill health. Her first book of poems was published in 1968. Interestingly, mainstream politics and social changes were not overtly represented in her poetry written during this period.
She does not refer to the turbulence in contemporary politics and society such as the Vietnam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy, the explosive second women’s liberation movement, and thereafter the Gulf War, Iraq war and the confrontations with Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan, among others.
The only poem that debunks this observation is October, written in response to the 9/11 attack, though its content is not like say Auden’s Spain or Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”.
In The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction, literary critic Daniel Morris had observed, “Glück’s poetry is also notable for what it avoids.” Morris argued that “Glück’s writing most often evades ethnic identification, religious classification, or gendered affiliation. In fact, her poetry often negates critical assessments that affirm identity politics as criteria for literary evaluation. She resists canonization as a hyphenated poet (that is, as a “Jewish-American” poet, or a “feminist” poet, or a “nature” poet), preferring instead to retain an aura of iconoclasm, or in betweenness”. So Gluck’s poetry projects a personal and philosophic paradigm. She is not interested in intersectionality, principally race, class and colour, but interventions of gender concerns are present in some of her poems, but Gluck is not a feminist poet.
Elaborating on this rather insular essence that inspired her to write poetry, Gluck herself observed: “The poems to which I have, all my life, been most ardently drawn are poems of the kind I have described, poems of intimate selection or collusion, poems to which the listener or reader makes an essential contribution, as recipient of a confidence or an outcry, sometimes as co-conspirator. ‘I’m nobody!’ Dickinson says.’Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us ~ don’t tell!’ ”
This assertion of her exclusivity and exceptionalism, sometimes can be attributed to narcissistic elitism. Gluck’s concluding remarks in her short Nobel Prize acceptance speech on 10 December 2020 seem remarkable.
She stated with proud conviction, “In art of the kind to which I was drawn, the voice or judgment of the collective is dangerous. The precariousness of intimate speech adds to its power and the power of the reader, through whose agency the voice is encouraged in its urgent plea or confidence. What happens to a poet of this type when the collective, instead of apparently exiling or ignoring him or her, applauds and elevates? I would say such a poet would feel threatened, out maneuvered.”
Gluck added, “Those of us who write books presumably wish to reach many. But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. I believe that in awarding me this prize, the Swedish Academy is choosing to honour the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace.”
It is therefore small wonder that she would speak unreservedly when asked how she felt when she was informed that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature. So, Gluck’s response to the reporter of the New York Times highlights both race and colour as remarkable issues, but significantly, not gender, “Completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet. It doesn’t make sense.
Now my street is covered with journalists. People keep telling me how humble I am. I’m not humble.But I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.”
Distancing herself from stadium poets and perhaps indirectly pointing towards the committed lyric poems and songs of Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, among many others, Gluck stated: “I was drawn, then as now, to the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing. And the poets I returned to as I grew older were the poets in whose work I played, as the elected listener, a crucial role. Intimate, seductive, often furtive or clandestine. Not stadium poets…” So, in her intimate, deeply subjective and philosophic response to life and its experiences, Gluck, the thoughtful lyric poet writes in her so far last published volume of poems Faithful and Virtuous Night ~ “I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem there is no perfect ending. Indeed, there are infinite endings. Or perhaps, once one begins, there are only endings.”