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STYLE & CULTURE

A quiet path for new poet laureate

Her predecessors took part in high-profile initiatives to promote the art form, but expect the intensely private Louise Gluck to follow her own course.

October 20, 2003|Justin Pope | Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Critics praise Louise Gluck for wringing powerful emotions from simple language and for poetry that resonates equally with experts and common readers who recognize her evocations of grief and loss, of falling in and out of love.

But despite the accessibility of her work, America's new poet laureate is an intensely private person.

Gluck (pronounced "Glick") has made it clear to the Library of Congress, which appointed her and pays her privately endowed $35,000 stipend, that she won't be following in the footsteps of predecessors, who transformed the position into a kind of traveling salesman to promote the art.

The man she succeeded, Billy Collins, toured the country, got behind a program pushing schools to choose a poem a day for students to read and even recorded poetry selections for a Delta Air Lines in-flight audio channel. Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Robert Haas all took part in high-profile initiatives to promote poetry appreciation.

But many of her fellow poets said that that role would never suit Gluck and that she should follow her own course.

"The poet laureate is very free to lead a poetry circus or stick to one's own knitting," said Collins. Said Pinsky, a close friend: "It's not a public relations job. It's not any kind of a job. It's an honor."

Gluck is scheduled to give her inaugural lecture at the Library on Tuesday, and she has events planned in February and May.

Gluck declined to sit for an interview and, during a brief phone conversation, said she preferred not to act as an intermediary for readers' experience with her work. "I have no concern with widening audience," said Gluck, who prefers her audience "small, intense, passionate."

Gluck was born on Long Island. Her father was the son of Hungarian immigrants and also wanted to be a writer. But he lacked the all-consuming passion that "makes it possible to endure every form of failure" and went into business, Gluck said in a 1989 lecture, "The Education of a Poet," which was published in her 1994 book "Proofs and Theories."

Gluck looked to her mother for approval but rarely found it, she wrote, and in her teens became severely anorexic, which forced her to drop out of school and undergo seven years of psychoanalysis. She worried the therapy would squelch her writing, but instead, "it taught me to think," she wrote.

She enrolled in Columbia University's School of General Studies and flourished under the teaching of Stanley Kunitz, himself a laureate.

"She was already marked for the virtues that continue to be demonstrated by her in her work, not only a command of the medium but a sense of time and history that gives her work a dimension beyond the personal," Kunitz said.

Gluck's nine books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Wild Iris," range across a variety of styles and settings, from ancient Greece and the Old Testament to gardens. In topics from marriage to death, her evocations are often melancholy but beautifully nuanced and lyrical, with rhythm and punctuation often packing as much of the emotional punch as the words themselves.

"I don't find her work bleak," Pinsky said. "It cheers me up, because it makes me think there are fresh things to be said in the world."

From her earliest experience reading poetry as a child, "I preferred the simplest vocabulary," Gluck wrote. "What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word's setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word's full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise."

Gluck, 60, lives on a quiet Cambridge side street and commutes to her current job across the state at Williams College in Williamstown. She has been married twice, most recently to John Dranow, one of the founders of the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.

"She has a temperament that requires, as most poets have found, a certain degree of solitude in which to do her work," Kunitz said.

Said Pinsky: "It's very important that [the laureateship] be able to go to poets who aren't gregarious. Wouldn't it be horrible to think that a great poet wouldn't be selected to this post because she didn't want to go on television?"

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Sunset Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck

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My great happiness

is the sound your voice makes

calling to me even in despair; my sorrow

that I cannot answer you

in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language.

So you invest

authority in signs

you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.

And I answer constantly,

my anger passing

as winter passes. My tenderness

should be apparent to you

in the breeze of the summer evening

and in the words that become

your own response.

--From "The Wild Iris," 1992

Reprinted with permission of The Ecco Press

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