Friday, October 11, 2019

THOUGHTS ON SOME POEMS BY LOUISE GLUCK


The length of In the Cafe, published in  Slate, would have you think that author Louise Gluck is a monologist. That's not the case, we find; a skilled monologist will have a a point or an effect they achieve , more often than not. Gluck's poem long lines are merely that, long, uninflected,without snap or spice. Instead, we have a droning account of a male friend who happens to be a serial romancer--a sensitive male who absorbs portions of women's lives and energy over a period of time and then leaves them for the next adventure. It's not that this isn't worth writing about, but this is more topic drift development, an exercise in killing time. Gluck doesn't even go through the pretense of trying to make this intriguing as poetry and offers up the stale device of disguising undistinguished prose in irregular line breaks.Gluck's long- form poetry is part of the disparaged School of Quietude, the conservative conglomeration of professional poets who's careerism controls the major book contracts, literary awards and plum teaching assignments who's market-pleasing style, a gush of self-infatuated musings that prefer to leave the reader hanging in murmuring waves of uncommitted relativism--the sort of work that doesn't move you to think beyond your conventional wisdom but leaves you anxiety -ridden in the decorated fringes of your misery. The attitude, among the worse offenders , seems to be gutless, indecisive, reflective rather than reflexive, passive rather than active in the world. One appreciates stillness and the sharply observed detail independent of an interfering ego, but that is not what Quietude, in the worst of it's world, is about; the poets seem to be bothered that they were cursed with compositional skills. You read them time and again and come away with the idea that a requirement among this coterie is to speak of themselves in their work as attempting to have an experience. You can feel the shrug , sense the poet dropping his pen, you can nearly hear the soft swearing under his or her breath about the perception being too hard to convey with wonder, awe, as a miracle in itself. That is to say, complacency wins again and the prospect of changing one's loathsome circumstance is too frightening. One would rather suffer with what they know rather than dare a single foot step in another direction. The worst of this kind of poetry, I've heard, is like a three hour forced tour of your own living room.


Hers is better described, perhaps, as the School of Drone, a kind of outlining of unexceptional incidents involving straw figures wherein a reader suffers what would have been a tolerable three minute on -air NPR essay about a diminutive epiphany stretched egregious lengths. that provoke involuntary teeth grinding. One doesn't really care about Gluck's portrait of a man-in-process; she attempts a neat inversion in maintaining, toward the end, that this man wasn't wasn't a bastard nor a feckless creep. By the time she grapples with her reasons for having sympathy for her comrade's quest for enlightenment, we are out of sympathy with her tale. This becomes the melodrama you switch the channel from.It's cut-rate of D.H.Lawrence, but without the erotic intensity.She does, retain Lawrence's rhetorical bulk.Like him, she sounds like she's trying to talk herself into believing her basic premise as well as the reader, a trait that makes "In the Cafe" a dry lecture that hinges on a vague and brittle point. This poem is the equivalent of the bore at the party who continues to prate although everyone else has gone home and the lights are turned off .



Adding to the despair over this poem's glacial pace is the promise of the first lines, which are bright, with a hint of witty resignation;



It's natural to be tired of earth.
When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven.




It's a perfect set up for a story of an every man's quest for the place where he might find contentment in love and spirit. But where there might have been a telling comedy that provides the moral that our expectations undercut what we assume are our virtuous yearnings instead turns into a drab recollection. No time is wasted in weighing down the promise of the first two lines with the leaden grouchiness of the second two:
.

You do what you can do in a place
but after awhile you exhaust that place,
so you long for rescue.




This gives the whole game away.I wonder if this would have worked far, far better if Gluck had written this as a short story. The prose -quality of these lines might have bloomed a little more, breathed a little more air, the scenario might have been more compelling.



The first lines are terrific and they could have been a poem by themselves, a condensing Gluck seemingly wants nothing to do with. Being succinct has amazing advantages.It provides an ending, a place to land. Gluck and other writers --myself at times--often mistake raw length for more substantial writing.Some writers have the gift to go long and reward the patient reader .Most do not, and few of us are Proust, few of us are Whitman, few of us are early Allan Ginsberg.


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There's a poignant moment somewhere in At The Dance, but Louis Gluck's drifting, shapeless, monotonic style effectively obscures it. She is an outstanding example of the sort of poet who has charmed the chronically introverted and other over-thinkers who love to think they have a rich interior life but who can't really make it of any use; rather than measure among the experiences she's had and decide what carries the most weight and value. We are handed , over and over, a series of lumpy reminiscences that resemble a long gaze into a an unkempt house; nothing gets thrown away , every item has equal value, and the narrative , such as it is, lacks any animation. Gluck loves to talk, but is hesitant, it seems, to create a hierarchy of signifiers that would create a momentum toward what she wanted us to assume was an inevitable irony. This is a droning piece, and what ought to have been a cleverly constructed series of parallels between the the protocols of dance, the rituals of attraction and the surrendering and reacquisition of power in interpersonal relationships is static instead, at best the the static-like rip of Velcro jacket being slowly pulled open.




By smell, by feel—a man would approach a woman,

ask her to dance, but what it meant was
will you let me touch you, and the woman could say
many things, ask me later, she could say, ask me again.
Or she could say no, and turn away,
as though if nothing but you happened that night
you still weren't enough, or she could say yes, I'd love to dance
which meant yes, I want to be touched.



Some readers may find the seemingly unruddered drift of Gluck's poem appealing and opine that the spread of daily speech is in itself fascinating, and others would prefer that the writer remember that poetry is writing , distinct from speech, and that the power of daily speech would lay in how well the elements are selected, presented, given voice and cadence. Gluck , to my ears, is attempting an imagined transcription of a spontaneous utterance ; the effectiveness of something so literal is best spoken, I suppose, but here, sans sound facial expression, hand gestures, the pauses, rises and diminutions of the voice actual heard , I find the poem to be dormant. It does not move toward some crystallized set of particulars that memorably frame the exposition.



In the area of prose poems detailing an author's bringing a past event into an at least temporary relief, I prefer Dorianne Laux's poem How It Will Happen, When. Her tone is more engaged with the specific images that arise from her rummaging through her recent history--she shows an intimacy in the descriptions only the long view can provide, and yet holds back revealing the final mood as she constructs this poem neatly between the mess her mate left her to deal with, the ritual cleaning the house and the burning of all traces of what would remind her of a memory that would other wise shackle her, and the fast, unexpected revelation that what was an intellectualized acceptance of loss now hits her hard and without relief; triggered by a random occurrence, she knows her mate is gone and not coming back, and this creates empathy within the reader. It's a poem of felt experience, and what I appreciate in Laux is her craft, which we do not see on the page. This has the power Gluck doubtlessly attempted in her poem.



One might call this a poem of awakening, when young women discover what they are attracted to and that they , in turn, are attracting the attention of young men, and it's here where I think Gluck missed her opportunity to present us with something effective and delicately presented, which is the potentially metaphorical structure of dance It's not just that young women come to understand that they have attractions and are attractive in turn, but also a sense of empowerment; one finds themselves in a mysterious position of both drawing attention to themselves by simply being , and there is a gathering feeling that one might also control the elements about them with various, nascent rituals of beckoning and denial. She draws away, but does not flee the situation, she looks down, but does not leave his side, she watches where his hands touch her body and flinches at a sudden brush or attempted caress, but does not reprimand, lecture, become angry or afraid. This seems a dance no less than the location the title suggests, and what really dilutes the power these burgeoning emotions and impulses might have contained is the way Gluck , or her narrator -stand-in, goes on with a what comes to a dead pan recounting of the facts; her poetry, perhaps, was supposed to emerge from the tone, but I would have been interested in something more closely observed, with something more about the interactions between the young women and young men, the camps coming into the hall in various clusters and cliques, where they chose to stand, some snippets of overheard dialogue, the eventual pairing off and awkward exchange of exploratory small talk. This sounds more plotted than the monologue Gluck offers us, but it is a way this poem might have come alive with a sense of place rather than become what it remains, a routine , uninflected regret.



Gluck sums up of the scenario in a quick application of the story's moral, a conspicuous working of the old saw that when a women means no, she really means yes. Something wonderfully twisted here might have emerged if she had hacked away at the talky qualifications around the poem's main points and pushed harder toward the edge, talking about how women and men cause hurt and are hurt in turn by misreadings of intent and gesture. But what Gluck had here was a small poem, a minor sigh of regret in later life, the impression that strikes you when you're preparing for the day in front of you , or when you stop to catch your day. It is a slight insight into what had done in the awkwardness of maturing, but the scale of this thing, not epic length, not Ashberyesque in density , is, all the same, too much for this slight conceit. What might have been intriguing would be a juxtaposition of the narrator's current situation and the anecdote she's chosen, with a judicious use of the telling detail, the image that can stand alone, unadorned , which could contrast with an equally effective image . This is how one produces resonance that carry on beyond the page, and this is among the things that distinguishes poetry from the linear inclinations of typical prose. This is typical prose that requires an editor's blue pencil.


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Louise Gluck's poem,"Crater Lake",is cold as crypt marble. This is the second Louise Gluck poem that we've been presented within two months, and I'm more convinced than ever that she has even less useful things to say to the land of the living."Crater Lake" has all the symptoms of a writer who regards their thoughts, their thinking as so bracingly brilliant that they are not obliged to aid the reader in the slightest in figuring which end of this poem is up and which is down. Not that it really matters, though, since the effect here, as with her last poem published in Slate "A Myth of Innocence" [www.slate.com], is walking into a room in a large house thinking that it was empty and coming upon some there, alone, back turned as they gazed out the window, muttering phrases and broken references to themselves.

There was a war between good and evil.
We decided to call the body good.


That made death evil.
It turned the soul
against death completely.


You do get the feeling that there is a submerged attempt to marry myth archetypes with the sweltering and restless subconscious tensions that
confront us as we, a race, reconcile the glory and agony of love and death, but Gluck boils her worries to a rhythmless, unmusical sparseness. Think of that strident piano banging in Kubrick's most pretentious film Eyes Wide Shut; terse, strident cadences applied to a scenario of ritualized, debauched despair, pushed forth with a hardly an interesting nuance, phrase, image to part with and make us consider the further complications.



The pretentiousness comes in large measure from Gluck's glib and unconsidered use of Big Terms in an effort to make a reader pause and inspect a line for a profundity that isn't there. "Good and evil", "love", "death" , "love" are all dished out like portions of food you don't want to eat--eeeewwww, cooked carrots, liver, creamed corn, grossssssssss--and yet we have to read and digest on the sorry promise that it's good for us. Gluck, though, recedes into a vagueness here that commits the worse sin one can manage for an oblique poem; it provides you with no reward for reading it. There is a complete absence of euphony whatever and underscores the notion that the poem fails because it cannot sustain itself without knowledge of the myths Gluck is ostensibly deconstructing.  It does, perhaps, fulfil a structural function with the single narrative which this poem is reported to be a part of, but the effect is lost here; we assume, the punch of this writing exists only its context with the other works that go with the storyline it obliquely refers to.



"A Myth of Innocence" [www.slate.com], which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine-year-old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when one's loss becomes the sadness of the world.


She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance


cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.



This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of palatable food. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities zig-zag in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unassigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, not particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader in the ribs.This may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.



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