Last reviewed: June 2017
American poet and professor; twelfth US Poet Laureate
April 22, 1943
New York, New York
Louise Elisabeth Glück (glihk) is an American poet whose first book, published when she was only twenty-five, foreshadowed a career that has earned many of the most prestigious national grants and awards. Daughter of Beatrice and Daniel Glück, an executive, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in 1962 and Columbia University from 1963 to 1965. She has been married and divorced twice, first to Charles Hertz Jr., with whom she had a son, and then to John Dranow, a prose writer and teacher.
Before her first book came out, she had won Columbia University’s Academy of American Poets Prize. She has since been awarded many prizes and fellowships, including National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim grants and fellowships; among her many awards, The Triumph of Achilles won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and she was awarded the Böllingen Prize by Yale University in 2001. In 2003 she was named the twelfth US Poet Laureate. Her 2014 collection Faithful and Virtuous Night won the National Book Award. She has been much in demand as a teacher and poet-in-residence at universities such as Yale University, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Columbia; University of California at Davis, Los Angeles, and Berkeley; Harvard; Brandeis; Williams College; Goddard College; and many others. Louise Glück.
Firstborn, Glück’s initial collection of poetry, included lyrics that had appeared in national magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry. Critics praised her lyric gifts, particularly her infallible ear for language. Although the book contains one sonnet, most of her patterns are free and shifting. Scattered internal rhymes throughout a poem and poems ending with a rhymed couplet are hallmarks of her style. Yet for all her early technical brilliance, the world depicted in Firstborn is brutal and maimed, and the overall voice is angry and thwarted. Some critics associated the collection with the predominant mood of the United States in 1968, which was embroiled in a controversial war in Southeast Asia and attempting to recover from political assassinations at home. Yet the book is more personal than political, with overtones of the confessional style that gained popularity in the 1950s.
Glück did not publish another collection for seven years. The House on the Marshland again earned critical praise and was considered the work of a mature poet. The tone is less angry and more resigned than in her first book, although loss in all its variations is the overriding theme.
Following these publications, Glück taught in the University of Iowa’s prestigious creative writing program, served as Elliston Professor of Poetry at the University of Cincinnati, and taught in Columbia University’s program in the arts. She was awarded the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine and a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1975–76. The year 1980 saw the publication of another collection, Descending Figure, the title suggesting both the descent from life to death and the descent from Eden. Most of the poems deal with insubstantial figures caught in archetypal struggles of husband against wife or child against mother. In “Lamentations,” the final sequence of the book, Glück rewrites the biblical book of Genesis and identifies the Fall as the fall into creation, which includes splitting into two sexes. Although the mood of this volume is dark, it is mixed with a sense of awe that is a distinctive characteristic of Glück’s work.
The Triumph of Achilles marks a further refinement of Glück’s spare style, although her customary themes of pain, loss, and betrayal are still present. Yet they are tempered with a longing for eternal verities, transcendent bliss. The collection is saturated with allusions to gods and demigods and with metamorphoses from human to divine, or from divine to flora. Critics praised the book for its broader vision and more precise diction than previous collections, and some commented that it established Glück as one of the most important poets of her generation.
Ararat was published five years later. This new collection was a departure from her usual piercing drama of consciousness, dealing more with “real life” than with symbolic truths. The style is so severe that it seems written with a deliberate flatness, as if the author were trying on another voice. The book was not well received critically. Two years later The Wild Iris appeared, a stunning return to the world of mystery and myth which has provided a framework for so much of Glück’s work. As a whole, the book develops the conceit of a garden as it progresses from early spring flowering to the first frost of autumn. She uses each flower as a persona to express some facet of her own emotional experience, and the total effect is a meditation on mortality. The language is simple and supple, gaining original beauty and authority and inspiring more than one critic to compare it to the work of Emily Dickinson. Unified thematically, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Wild Iris is considered a landmark work from one of America’s most important poets.
Glück’s early work was republished in the appropriately titled First Four Books of Poems in 1995. Her next book, Meadowlands, achieved an almost novelistic structure, intertwining the story of the dissolution of a modern marriage with the story of Odysseus’s return to Penelope from The Odyssey. Critics praised her use of mythological material in modern setting and her deft union of lyric poetry with an epic scope. Vita Nova (1999), winner of the Böllingen Prize, continued the mythological theme by juxtaposing a divorce with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Seven Ages (2001) is less specifically focused, as Glück looks both backward to childhood, with its dreams and fears, and forward to death.
Glück has published several collections in the 2000s and 2010s. Averno (2006), considered by some critics to be her best work since The Wild Iris, draws on the myth of Persephone to explore modern fears and relationships. Critic William Logan compared Glück’s A Village Life (2009) to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology for the way it examines the lives of those living within a community and as well as the poet’s own memories of life outside of it. Glück’s Poems 1962–2012, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, covers the span of her career to that point and shows how her poetic forms and themes have changed over the decades. In the National Book Award–winning collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, Glück considers the circularity of the passage of time, aging, and death, with old age figuring as a second childhood.