This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to Louise Glück (pronounced “glick”), a 77-year-old American poet who has steadily published since the late 1960s. The committee praised “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” For some — including Glück herself — this was a happy surprise. Others anticipated such a win. But then there is a much broader segment of society that had never heard of Louise Glück before, and, reading that she is a poet of “austere beauty,” will be content to go on ignoring her.
I wish they wouldn’t. Or, better yet, I wish that the idea of poetry weren’t a turnoff to so many who enjoy novels, memoirs, journalism and other printed matter. English teachers try their damndest, but American education overall tends to reinforce the idea that poems are fussy, archaic objects fit only for academics and depressed teenagers, instead of the strange, lively and illuminating presences they often are. Even the “austere” Glück can shock you with a hairpin turn of phrase. There are lines that hit like a bolt to the spine — or cold feet to the dick.
It so happens I’ve spent this year slowly absorbing Glück’s entire output; there’s a beautiful omnibus, Poems 1962-2012, that includes everything but her most recent collection, 2014’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. The volume was a faithful companion on my nightstand, as I usually drank in a few pages before going to bed. I use verbs like “absorb” and “drink” because poetry is, perhaps, more tactile than prose, or it enters you more directly. Its economy of words and intuitive leaps make it ideal counterprogramming to an hour of scrolling social media. And while I cannot say Glück is comforting — she has a famous icy edge — her journeys through trauma and loss gave me a foothold on the sheer cliff that is 2020. She unclutters your view of history.
It’s my belief that many who won’t pick up a book of poetry assume the medium doesn’t belong to them. It’s for someone else, a different kind of mind. I just don’t get it —this is a common refrain. But I dispute that there is anything to “get.” A poem isn’t a puzzle unless you approach it as one; the best poems resist synopsis because they preserve a feeling in its highest state, above ordinary language. It’s a thoughtform that can’t be put into words, so the words bend around it. Glück, for one, moves from Greek mythology to the specific flowers of a garden, and I can’t necessarily keep up with her allusions, yet I’m carried by the mood, the flow, the shape of her lyric. When you let go of the drive to understand, you’re free to drift in consciousness.
And while poetry allows you to process a given moment, it also plugs you into the whole tissue of human experience, back to a time before written text, the songs of Sappho and Homer. This imagination can be accessed from infinite windows. Also this year, I read formally adventurous but viscerally of-the-now poems by Khadijah Queen, wry and smart-alecky poems by the late musician David Berman, punchy poems about assimilation by Jaswinder Bolina and encyclopedic poems of uncertainty by Caroline Knox.
In any field of art, you have to take the leap of faith to find the stuff that hits you square, and that first step seems to be what scares people away from the poetry section of the bookstore (which is often slight enough to miss anyway). But there is no shame in disliking a certain style, or being overmatched by another. Nobody’s going to put a dunce cap on you. For some reason, it’s easy to toss aside an unengaging novel, while it is taken as a failure on the reader’s part if they struggle with a poem. Nonsense.
The clichés, too, play a role in limiting the audience: Poetry is parodied as overwrought, self-involved, embarrassingly confessional and, worst of all, corny. Of all poets, Glück is most adept at demolishing this stereotype, drawing from life though seeing it with a sober clarity, ruthless in her excavation of the flawed and holy alike. It might not be your cup of tea, but it’s far from the fuzzy idea you have about poetry if you left it behind in high school. Yes, there are poems of heartbreak, though not as you expect them. What is routinely lost in the minimal discourse around the form is how radical poetry becomes, how funny or provocative, erotic or irreverent. My favorite poet, Kay Ryan, writes miniature verses with spring-loaded, hidden rhymes; when you reach the end, it all snaps shut like a clever trap, and you want to reread it for the pleasure of noticing how the mechanism works. Where else are you gratified this way?
All that is to say: On the occasion of a great American poet claiming a Nobel Prize, I will again commit myself to having a book of poems at my bedside. A verbal space without rules unless adopted by the author, a text of the world but hovering outside it. For many years, I did not have that — I did not read poetry — and now I find that bizarre. The sanctuary was here all along.