Contradictory Classicists: Frank Bidart and Louise Glück
American poetry in the early twenty-first century has an amiable heterogeneity, but a lack of vigor, focus, and scale. It is, of course, hard to see one's own time clearly; our vision tends to be that of the souls in Dante's Hell, able to see future and past, but not the present. Within these limitations, we can discern loose groupings of poets, the most visible of whom are, on the one hand, the Language Poets, with a self-announcing theory of abstraction and avant-garde pedigree, often of soft-Marxist derivation, and on the other a much less organized tribe of anecdotal poets. These latter stake their claim to our attention on the pledge of autobiographical authenticity, the presentation of experience—often the experience of private suffering—sanctified through public confession. For these poets, intensity of narrative subject matter tends to replace intensity of verbal construction, in diction, rhythm, or syntax. Frank Bidart and Louise Glück stand outside both of those arenas, and they seem to me among the liveliest of our contemporaries. Each rises authoritatively from the lyric tradition, projecting—and by that I mean, partly, distancing—private experience in poetic form. For each of them, the transfiguration of personal raw material occurs, not in traditional prosodic shapes, but in a shapeliness sought for in each new process of composition. And the personal material often finds its pattern in some analogue from Greek or Roman literature, or mythology. Glück's and Bidart's are both self-centered and self-uncentering poems, and it is in acting out that contradiction that they take shape.
In lyric classicism, poetic shape is precipitated as an act of mind and feeling, but also as a process of translation and adaptation of inherited forms: "We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed," Bidart has declared in his small ars poetica, "Borges and I," from Desire. The translation may be more or less explicit, and I should like to consider in Bidart and Glück several fairly explicit modes of translation as composition, by way of thinking about their poems as exertions that lift psychic weight and move the burden of understanding from one state to another. It is in this sense that we may think of poems as "moving," and one of the things they move is an ego-bound conception of self.
Ezra Pound presides over the modern notion of translation as composition, though he was by no means alone in his practice; Eliot recombined much foreign DNA in his work, and Bidart's "Borges and I" could be considered a private riff on "Tradition and the Individual Talent." But Pound so thoroughly identified translation and composition, he was so thoroughly the ventriloquist and found his own voice so persistently in the voices of others, that he dramatizes the mode at an extreme, and so helps define both its dangers and its opportunities.
"O strange face there in the glass!" Pound addresses himself in one of his earliest poems, "On His Own Face in a Glass":
O ribald company, O saintly host!
O sorrow-swept my fool.
What answer? ...
Pound's "The Seafarer" starts by demanding, in the free translation from the Anglo-Saxon, "May I for my own self song's truth reckon," requiring us to read the pronoun "I" as a multiple exposure of many fictive selves, and "my own self" similarly as a composite fiction that will make good the song's truth in the valor of the language presented. Thinking of lyric selfhood as a ribald company or as the song's truth (not the singer's) may help us to understand the practices and visions of poets as seemingly distant from Pound as Bidart and Glück, and may help us to gauge some of the ways in which they undo the crudely packaged lumpen-self of the poetry of personal anecdote.
Merely to invoke Pound is to have to acknowledge and bracket his vile political manias. I do bracket them, for the moment anyway, as they do not in their pathology affect the point that Pound renewed and intensified, for his time, the recognition of poetry as a polyvocal art expressed through the medium of the individual. He makes clear certain ratios of inheritance and invention, of personal and impersonal matter, and of originality and origins. He does this not only thematically in his reinvention in English of the Provençal of Bertran de Born, the Italian of Guido Cavalcanti, the Chinese of Li Po, or the Latin of Propertius, More molecularly, he does it in the structure and texture of verse. "Who hath taught you so subtle a measure?" his Propertius asks. Pound did not, all alone, "break the pentameter" of Victorian verse; much radical Victorian metrical experimentation, often from Greek models, by Patmore, Swinburne, Bridges, Hardy, Hopkins, and others had prepared the way. But Pound did, with his own practice, with his own fine listening to foreign metrics, as well as with his rowdy polemics, retune the ear of readers of English for the early twentieth century. And by attending to the vigor and directness of presentation in Sappho, Catullus, Cavalcanti, and Villon, he renewed modes of presentation in modern poems. His recombinant relation to poetry of the past is embedded in the pun with which he opens his Canto I: "And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and..." And what is he continuing, conjoining, in this epic of conscience in search of civilization, in this staggered series of inheritances (Homer passed through Andreas Divus, Greek through Latin) but the heroism of the tradition, the hero being the word itself, the first word of The Odyssey: "Andra moi ennepe, Mousa..." (The man to me sing, Muse). Andra is accusative of aner, heroic man; the hero of this vision of poetry is the English conjunction "and." Tradition, we may say, is conjunction.
between their confessionalism and their classicism"
Frank Bidart is an occult Poundian. He has said in an interview that when he was young, Eliot was probably his favorite twentieth-century poet, but that Pound was the more liberating. Bidart has published, so far, six books, the most recent being Watching the Spring Festival in 2008. From the appearance of his first collection, Golden State, in 1973, he has been known in some quarters for the scandal of his outré material: the monologue of the rapist, murderer, necrophiliac Herbert White, or the case study of the suicidal anorexic Ellen West, or the searingly autobiographical poems like "California Plush." He has also been known for his eccentric typography and lineation. I want to examine his classicism, and the figure that brings it into focus: contradiction.
At every level of Bidart's poems—syntactic, prosodic, prepositional—contradiction provides the emotional fuel. Broadly, we can discern contradiction in the conflicting modes he inherited from his early companionship with Lowell: on the one hand, a vision of the poem as a document of lived experience; on the other hand, the poem as an impersonal form recognizable in a kinship system of forms. Bidart's poems crucify themselves between their confessionalism and their classicism; upon that crux, they find their shapes, and their signifying pain.
In theme, Bidart springs contradiction on us at every turn. In "Elegy" (1977): "I feel too much. I can't stand what I feel." "The Book of the Body" (1977) continues that leitmotif:
Wanting to cease to feel—;
so much blood under the bridge,—
the deaths of both my parents,
(now that they have no
body, only when I have no body
can we meet—)
my romance with Orgasm,
exhilaration like Insight, but without
the NO which is YES, the YES which is NO—
In "Golden State" (1973), the speaker announces: "Your wishes were too simple: / or too complex." The long poem "Confessional" from The Sacrifice (1983) concludes, "Man needs a metaphysics; / he cannot have one?"
In each case, lineation and punctuation dramatize the impossibilities within which consciousness, and conscience, frame themselves. The figure is often asyndeton, the jamming of clause against clause with no conjunction: "I feel too much. I can't stand what I feel." "Man needs a metaphysics; / he cannot have one." Punctuation and lineation act as pivots—a period, a colon, or a semicolon will join these unjoinable statements. Chiasm, the abba structure, also focuses the equilibrium of contradiction: NO YES YES NO. If a conjunction does lend a hand ("Your wishes were too simple: / or too complex"), it is to underline the mutual incompatibility of the declarations. The dropped lines, white spaces, indentations further emphasize opposition. The page itself, for Bidart, is a magnetic field in which the reader learns to live in the shock of powerfully attractive and repellent forces.
Asyndeton and contradiction also shape the ordering of poems within the books. What appears contradictory, of course, resolves itself often as intimate collaboration, and that is the case with the juxtaposed personal and impersonal material. The table of contents of each of these carefully constructed books rewards study. For now, we can note, simply, that almost every one of his books opens and closes with an apparently impersonal poem—a persona clearly distanced from Bidart's educated, male, ruminative late twentieth-century lyric "I." Golden State, for instance, opens with "Herbert White," the rapist-murderer poem, and concludes with "Another Life," self-consciously framed in quotation marks to suggest that this dream of Kennedy and de Gaulle in Paris is recounted by someone "else," some imaginary person. Within each book, the logic of juxtaposition is subtle: Golden State does not plunge from the monologue of Herbert White with its crescendo of MYSELF in capital letters to the father poems of section II. That transition occurs through the small, Cavafyesque "Self-Portrait, 1969," in which the subject of self-scrutiny appears in the third person: "He's still young—; thirty, but looks younger— / or does he?" Both of these selves—the mad rapist, the "he" of "Self-Portrait, I969"—inform the ''I'' who becomes subject and object of attention in "California Plush":
The need for the past
is so much at the center of my life
I write this poem to record my discovery of it,
The poems of spelunking in the cave of autobiography in Golden State—the obsessively rehearsed scenes of paternal abandonment and alcoholism, of maternal ruin, mania, and smothering—give way, after section II, to a free translation of the opening lines of The Aeneid. Only in context does one read this translation, aloof in its archaizing diction and word order, impersonal in its epic objectivity, as a commentary on and extension of the lava flow of (presumed) privacy in section II. "Muse, make me mindful of the causes, load upon me / knowledge of her sorrows, she whom men call the queen of the gods," prays the speaker, and we seem to hear the prayer of the son of the blasted parents of the preceding poems. Bidart's wordplay here leads the weighty Virgilian verb condere (to found) to the English verb of finding ("found Italy, found Latium"), to city-founding, to foundering ("After foundering Troy"), and brings to the surface the elegy latent in Virgil's epic. By implication, he personalizes this elegy as lyric knowledge: "how heavy the burden, to found the Roman race," suggests how heavy the burden of Bidart's book, to know one human heart.
The juxtaposition of Virgil and the family poems opens up mirrors on both sides: if it invites us to read epic as lyric and translation as original composition, it equally invites us to project epic detachment back on the autobiographical poems, and to recognize the extent to which they, too, are a fiction. These reflections only gain in complexity when we move from the Aeneid passage to a harshly jocose scene of double rape in the voice of a lyric ''I'' that both does and does not belong to Catullus (from Carmen 56), and does and does not belong to the "I" of this book who announces, in "California Plush," "And so I made myself an Easterner," and "I look at my father," and "I want to change."
What we see, in Bidart, is an art of figurative contiguity, not (for the most part) metaphor; and an art of dramatic voice, not song. These energies, and his central, contradictory logic, are hard at work in his three translations of Catullus's elegiac couplet, "Odi et amo." The elegiac couplet is an inherently self-divided form, and Catullus divides it still further:
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
(I hate and love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?
I don't know, but I feel it done and am tortured.)
In an elegiac couplet, a dactylic hexameter is followed by a pentameter composed of two amputated hexameters—two hemiepe, to be technical. So we have one duality, the distich, divided into a subduality, the two hemiepe. Catullus keeps subdividing, and each subdivision points up a contradiction: "Odi et amo" (I hate and love) is balanced at the end by another verb-plus-verb unit: "sentio et excrucior" (I feel and am tortured). The central axis of the poem impales the active and passive forms of the verb facio, to do: faciam (I do, in the subjunctive), and fieri (to be done). In that crisis of active and passive doing lies the mystery of love as Catullus experiences it. The chiasm of alliteration reinforces the agonized equilibrium: q f f q—"quare ... faciam ... fortasse ... requiris." Verbs of ignorance and conscious feeling contradict and balance each other, poised at the head of each hemiepis: nescio (I don't know), sentio (I feel). In the final, passive verb of torment, exaurior, we find the image of the cross, the crux, the Roman instrument of torture. Hate crosses love, active crosses passive, ignorance crosses awareness: in all of these mutually exclusive but joined states, Catullus finds his poetic life and Bidart borrows his.
He published his first version of "Odi et amo" in The Sacrifice in 1983, placing it just before the long, self-crucifying poem "Confessional."
The italicized conjunction "and" emphasizes, and endows with a twinge of hysteria, Catullus's initial paradox. The address, in the Latin, to an interlocutor ("fortasse requiris"; perhaps you ask) has dropped out, replaced by the inward-turning metaphor of the fish, the figure of driven appetite; the couplet preserves something of Catullus's symmetrical contradictions in the alliteration of "wants" and "writhing."
The balance of power has shifted ambiguously between hate and love, now all italicized: hate occupies more of the sentence, but that dash sets off love with more prominence. This new version multiplies self-division, in the repetition of "nail" / "nails," in the enjambed reflexive verb "nails / itself," in the alliteration of "hammering" and "hanging," and in the double sense of body as object and subject. Most tellingly, Bidart highlights the physical image of torture latent in the verb excrucior, forcing us not just to read it generically as torment, but also to see the crux upon which love excruciates.
In restoring Catullus's original question, "Quare id faciam?" (Why do I do this?), Bidart has moved from his first focus on the fact of contradiction (the italicized and in "I hate and love") through the longer exploration of self-torture in his second version ("The sleepless body hammering a nail nails / itself…") to interrogation of motives. We might almost say, he moves from the data of police work to psychoanalysis, except that good police work presumably involves induction about motives also. The contradiction of feelings is now presented as a given ("What I hate I love"), and the poem proceeds to ponder the why of the case. But Bidart has subtly shifted the focus of Catullus's question. In a worldly tone of social intercourse, Catullus creates an unnamed interlocutor and a situation of dialogue ("perhaps you ask") in which to present his fiercely interior state. Bidart's most recent version retains the presence of an interlocutor through the imperative mood of the verb ("Ask"), but the tone is harsh, not polite, and the poem now throws the weight of its attention on the question itself, isolated by a strong caesura at the end of the couplet: "why?" The projection of "I's" self-torture onto the image of the crucified and crucifying hand amplifies the self-division already present in Catullus's Latin: this new ''I'' as consciousness is somehow separated from its experience, the hand. Catullus's "Odi et amo" may turn out to be Bidart's "Well-Tempered Clavichord" in miniature, a theme and variation throwing into high relief the minutest poetic decisions.
Many of these forces are at work in the longer poem "In the Western Night," from the book of that title in 1990. Its irregular alternation of single lines and couplets acts as a figure for solitude and communion; its symmetrical repetitions and antitheses bear the familiar stamp of Bidart's imagination: harmonies/harmonies; I said/you said; my hands/your hands. Its epilogue, the last stanza detached from Horace's Ode IV.I, gives a laboratory example of Bidart's classicism in its crucified relation to his confessionalism.
The apparently autobiographical material of humiliating love has already been chastened into considerable objectivity by the first three sections: in the echo of Keats in "unheard/harmomes," in the lines of sight moving from "I" and "you" to clouds rushing, in passion objectified in cigarette butts, in "I" and "you" being generalized into exemplary "man": "The man who does not know himself," "The man who tries to feed his hunger." The Horatian epilogue distances personal passion still further, preserving it as a scene of perpetual motion-in-stasis and as a fragment of ancient literature, an impersonal classic.
Horace's own poem, Ode IV.I, a marvel of shifting tones and intensities, arrives by surprise at its visionary last stanza. The speaker, comically forswearing love early in the poem and requesting Venus to address herself elsewhere, has broken through—unwillingly, it seems—to this chamber of lively sorrow. Horace's light-footed Latin in the Second Asclepiadean meter perfectly paces this fugitive scene, keeping in balance the acts of holding and pursuing, teneo and sequor; associating fleeing boy and rushing water in the alliteration of volucrem (flying) and volubilis (rolling); moving swiftly through enjambment in the dream logic from flight across grass to flight in swirling water. Into this movement of dissolution, the adjective for the boy, dure (hard), stands fast:
Nocturnis ego sornniis
iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
te per gramina Martii
campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.
Bidart captures and makes his own this interplay of holding and losing:
At night in dreams I hold you
and now I pursue you
fleeing through the grass of the Campus Martius,
you, through the waters (you are cruel) fleeing.
Symmetrical structures lock the feeling in place, in all of its contradictoriness: I hold you, I pursue you. Bidart repeats "you," Horace's poignant te, and as poignantly enjambs "you / fleeing ... / you ... fleeing." The participle "fleeing" begins and ends Bidart's last two lines in a static structure of enclosure; at the same time, it fluently modifies both "you" and "waters," and flows away in Bidart's suave, assonantal pentameter. In such writing, translation is composition, and one can feel that Bidart is most himself when most apparently selfless.
not song. Like Bidart, she has taken the lyric self
as the theater for her conflicts"
Like Bidart, Louise Glück is primarily a poet of speech, not song. Like Bidart, she has taken the lyric self as the theater for her conflicts. Her poems seem to rise from an unstaunchable sense of private hurt. Even more than Bidart, she risks Shelleyan pathos, not falling upon the thorns of life and bleeding, but "I speak / because I am shattered," announces the Red Poppy in The Wild Iris. All the more crucial, then, is her power to distance the lyric "I" as subject and object of attention. This she does, and has done in the course of ten books now, in a variety of classicizing gestures, often as projections of Greek and Roman myth. Lacking—having deliberately refused—the resources of traditional prosody, the power of impersonal, formal song-shape, she has chosen a poetry of exploratory syntax. She must invent anew, in poem after poem, the free-verse form that will impose a discipline of detachment upon urgently subjective material. The achieved balance of tone, of passion and irony, of heat and cold, is key to the success of her poems, a success often to be measured as a ratio of emotional risk to a parrying critical intelligence. The risk is large; so is the corresponding triumph of formal feeling.
Glück is aware of the dangers of formulaic mythologizing, of dipping into what Philip Larkin called the "myth kitty." In her essay "The Forbidden" she has remarked on "that most depressing of strategies, the obligatory elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy." She is also aware of the risk of stasis: the poem as a representation of congealed hurt. And she has meditated with scrupulous clarity on the subject of narcissism in the essays "American Narcissism" and "Against Sincerity," perhaps in a spirit of exorcism, since her own poems arise from fiercely inward experience. But the poetic selfhood Glück praises in "American Narcissism" is protected from self-infatuation by modesty, detachment, and humor, and is seen in vital interaction with an external and populated world beyond the self. It is also, on the evidence of her own poems, a self projected into impersonal realms and into chill and elemental dramas, scenes drawn sometimes from Greek and Roman mythology, sometimes from the Bible, and sometimes from the natural world. Whatever the terrain, it provides a structural matrix so that private experience is no longer experienced as private. As she formulated it in "Against Sincerity," "The artist's task, then, involves the transformation of the actual to the true." From her earliest work in Firstborn in 1968 and The House on Marshland in 1975, Glück has established a severe mode whose restriction and dry wit press anecdote to a poetry of essences.
She has pursued this conversion of anecdote to essence with remarkable consistency over the years in spite of the transformations and expansions in her work from book to book. "Pomegranate," from the The House on Marshland, explores the tensions between mother and daughter in the story of Demeter and Persephone. The style is minimalist in theme and lineation:
First he gave me
his heart. It was
red fruit containing
many seeds, the skin
to starve, bearing
out my training....
This early poem draws, with Glück's characteristic wit, on the American vernacular to relieve the portentousness of the classical subject: "Now there / is a woman who loves / with a vengeance…" says Hades of the enraged Demeter. In a move we will come to recognize in later poems, "Pomegranate" passes from carefully managed, almost comic dialogue ("…My dear / you are your own / woman, finally…") to a conclusion of grim spiritual discovery and indictment, the fruit of knowledge earned. Hades says of Demeter's extravagant, narcissistic grief,
... but examine
this grief your mother
parades over our heads
that she is one to whom
these depths were not offered.
Glück has taken up and expanded the struggle between Persephone and Demeter as a leitmotif throughout her masterful new book Averno, thirty years after "Pomegranate." Among the dimensions she has added to her earlier contemplation of the tale is the introduction of an analytical voice we can take less as that of a narrator than as an outside, orchestrating, probing intelligence, a metanarrator. This voice interferes with the story, involving the reader in its creation. In "Persephone the Wanderer" we are told:
I am not certain I will
keep this word: is earth
"home" to Persephone?…
The voice turns imperative, leaving little leeway for interpretation:
You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.
But having imposed this degree of abstraction, the voice plunges us back into the conflict between mother and daughter in crude and startling terms ("as an argument between the mother and the lover— / the daughter is just meat"), and rises to a lyric crescendo that unites a general vision of natural life, to the individual voice crying out in pain, to a personal challenge to a "you" who is suddenly drawn into the poem's field of action and releases the poem from solipsism:
Song of the earth,
song of the mythic vision of eternal life—
shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth—
What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?
Two poems from Vita Nova (1999) may serve as keys to Glück's classicism; instruments of self-knowledge, they turn static sorrow into dynamic awareness, and classical emblems (Dido, Aeneas, Orpheus) into argument. But before entering Vita Nova, it will help to glance back at a few earlier pieces. The Wild Iris, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, vastly widened Glück's tonal range, and in expanding her dramatis personae, expanded her notion of lyric. Now the whole book became, in essence, a single poem and the lyric voice fractured and multiplied itself. The speakers tell into three categories. We hear human sufferers, Adam and Eve figures who address an absent God in poems with titles of prayer names, "Matins" or "Vespers": "What is my heart to you / that you must break it over and over?" We also hear the voices of flowers and flowering trees, nonhuman consciousnesses that both reflect and criticize the human; and we hear an irritable creator deity who speaks as weather conditions ("Clear Morning," "Retreating Wind"): "I gathered you together; / I can erase you / as though you were a draft to be thrown away." Here Glück depends on the Hebrew Bible, not Greek and Roman classics, for the great acoustic chamber giving resonance to her voice; and she depends on the multiplicity of voices to correct potential self-pity. In this powerful book, "Field Flowers" seems to me an especially fine achievement in the American demotic: its power arises from its querulous, insulting, completely recognizable speech rhythms. Yet behind the American "sentence sounds," George Herbert may be felt as well:
What are you saying? That you want
eternal life? Are your thoughts really
as compelling as all that?…
Glück's is a deliberately self-limiting art. Its diction does not, on the whole, sound etymological depths. It has few complex rhetorical let alone prosodic structures. Its force is an effect of concentration, of self-restriction, of focused images, of pacing syntax—and therefore recognition—through lineation. At its most refined, it crystallizes an almost Zen-like fullness of feeling and perception into a medium of extreme simplicity, as in these lines from "October" in Averno, which could be taken as a miniature ars poetica: "I am / at work, though I am silent." The canny line break keeps the mystery of being all to itself ("I am"), but associates it in the next line with the paradox of an expressive work through silence. In Glück's poems, Pound's dictum holds true: the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Such a natural object is the card-playing in "Widows," from Ararat (1990); nothing is explained, nothing feels forced, yet this modern suburban family could be the players of The Oresteia, so fated and desolate are their games of Spite and Malice, so simple and devastating is Glück's level tone: "the one who has nothing wins." In the poems with classical sources, like the Odyssean poems of Meadowlands (1996), she does not translate and incorporate passages in the manner of Bidart; she absorbs and refashions narrative situations, usually with a view to exposing an ideal as an illusion. So, in the poem "Telemachus' Guilt," the son speaks with analytic coldness, the expression (we surmise) of injured love:
Patience of the sort my mother
practised on my father
(which in his self-
absorption he mistook
for tribute though it was in fact
a species of rage—didn't he
ever wonder why he was
so blocked in expressing
his native abandon?): it infected
One notices here the self-correcting intelligence of the line breaks, even down to the placement of the hyphen in "self- / absorption," so that each stage of awareness gives way to a new, more bitter and disillusioned view in the following line. The self-absorption of the father observed by the son is, in fact, broken apart and examined as the compound word is both joined and broken by the hyphen and enjambment, and the poem acts as the rhythmical instrument for that process of examination. The same process corrects the potential self-absorption of the poet-speaker-ventriloquist behind all the characters in Meadowlands. Vita Nova continues this method of critical refashioning in its kaleidoscopic views of The Aeneid, Dante's Inferno, and the Orpheus myth. The book has a considered architecture and implicit overall narrative; into the story of a modern woman's mourning a divorce and her return to life after a shattering, it splices poems in the consciousness of Dido, of Aeneas, of a critical outside observer, of Orpheus, of Eurydice. To elude the self-absorption of sorrow, it multiplies selves. I would like to consider a Dido poem, "The Queen of Carthage," and an Aeneas poem, "Roman Study," as an implicit duet and antidote to solipsism.
As always in Glück, tone is key. In "The Queen of Carthage," in relation to Books I and IV of The Aeneid, we note all sorts of strategic diminishment. Not only has epic shrunk to a single page; the free-verse lines contract and expand, but the main thrust is toward contraction; the tone of both narrator and queen is coldly dignified, nothing like Dido's arias in Virgil's poem. Glück's modern, wounded female psyche cannot afford such arias: she needs clarity, judgment, stoical acceptance. Glück's Dido seems already to have read The Aeneid before embarking on her affair; with terrible lucidity, she prays for love returned "even for a short time." Why write this poem? one might ask. Does it improve on or illuminate The Aeneid; Or Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, for that matter? Part of the answer, I think, is to see it in the context of the smashed life of the Vita Nova narrative. Where could any poem go, we might wonder, after the triple repetition of "brutal" in the first stanza, which seems to foreclose any other movement?
The opening lines, I said, seem to preclude development. Yet precisely in this blockage Glück's originality lies. She takes a closed case, presented in a triple repetition ("brutal") and in banal conventions of neoclassical diction ("the harsh destiny inscribed for her by the Fates"), and she allows her Dido to make several small but crucial discoveries for psychic survival. The first concerns passion and time: the longest line of the poem stretches out in its discovery that a moment of intensity has the expansiveness of eternity: "…What difference / between that and a lifetime: in truth, in such moments, / they are the same, they are both eternity." This remarkable line ("between that and a lifetime: in truth, in such moments"), poised on the fulcrum of the colon at its center, places "a lifetime" in balance with "moments," and both in balance with that large noun "truth." The truth of lyric time is not clock time, as each poem determines in its own way; "The Queen of Carthage" works out its equation of passion as a discovered equality: a lifetime and a moment "are both eternity."
The second discovery, the acceptance of Fate, allows Glück's speaker to accept her own abandonment and to find in it a cold distinction, even an identity, instead of annihilation. In fact, she finds in it the power to grow beyond the first-person singular pronoun, and to see herself as a character: the Queen of Carthage, as she refers to herself. In that self-detachment and theatrical self-projection, the persona within the poem becomes a poet herself, and thereby masters her suffering. The third and most original—most characteristically Glückian—discovery occurs in the final couplet:
Or should one say, to have honored hunger,
since the Fates go by that name also.
It is the modernist diminishing move, to see in the Fates merely the lowercase appetite, hunger. Yet one doesn't have to be sensitive to the powerful role of hunger as a metaphysical state in other poems by Glück to feel that this last couplet is not reductive: it endows a classical personified abstraction, the Fates, with physiological and ethical urgency and realism. It breaks beyond the classroom decorum of pious Aeneas and suffering Dido, and the poem's own earlier, purposefully stilted diction; it sees passion as an eternal, ferocious, and ever-lively force; it insists on some nobility in that degree of openness to experience. The poem would have achieved nothing without those last two lines: merely to have claimed "distinction" would not have been worth the candle. Its final swerve of recognition ("Or should one say") presses into a dangerous realm of candor, the admission of hunger, and in so doing sees the ancient story as present, even timeless, elemental conflict and drive. Its reductive poetic method turns out to be justified as the form for disciplined lucidity in the wake of grief. The reduction intensifies. It becomes, even, a form of amplification.
A few pages later, in "Roman Study," Glück projects herself into the other partner in this misery, Aeneas. This poem's deadpan manner may almost mask the subtlety with which the pronoun "he" slides from referring to Aeneas, to suggesting Virgil himself. The dilemma of a fugitive Trojan-turning-Roman-warrior imitating a Homeric warrior (Aeneas Imitating Achilles) embodies the dilemma of a Roman poet imitating Homer (and of an American poet imitating Virgil):
He felt at first
he should have been born
to Aphrodite, not Venus,
that too little was left to do,
to accomplish, after the Greeks.…
And both Roman warrior and Roman poet provide the occasion for Glück's own discreet ars poetica. As she meditates how to funnel epic into lyric, ancient into modern, myth into analysis, she turns story into examination. The prosaic, the downbeat, even deadbeat, antisublime discovers, en route, from clause to clause, the cadences of a poetry of mind:
And the longer he thought
the more plain to him how much
still remained to be experienced,
and written down, a material world heretofore
And he recognized in exactly this reasoning
the scope and trajectory of his own
This may sound like an antipoem. It is an anti poem, of a particularly bold sort. That is to say that it is a true classic, renewing as classic art renews, a fully dignified work, cleansing in its rigor of insight and method, and in its refusal to indulge in emotional bombast or to cash in on old or new sublimities. In any period, but especially in a time like ours when the public appetite for the exposure of private horror seems insatiable, this poem's detachment is a triumph. In her own way, Louise Glück has made good the promise of Pound's conjunction, "and." Classic art always works with that conjunction between the art of past and present. Following the dictates of her own watchful nature, she has fashioned an art that is both personal and impersonal, both continuation and invention, worthy of the vernacular and classical traditions from which she springs.
From Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry by Rosanna Warren. Copyright © 2008 by Rosanna Warren. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.