An overwhelming reality

The newspaper attracts my attention with the headline: 'Quest for the universal’. The article is about the American poet Louise Glück.

An overwhelming reality

Last October 2020 she received the Nobel prize for Literature, the highest possible literary tribute. The Nobel Committee praises her work: ‘An unmistakably poetic voice, turning the individual existence universal, with an austere beauty’.

Louise, born on April 22nd, 1943, grew up in Long Island, New York. Her mother originated from Russian-Jewish family, her grandparents on her father’s side were Hungarian Jews who emigrated to the United States. As deputy professor and ‘Rosencrantz Writer in Residence’  she has been connected with the Yale-University.  The two poems mentioned in the newspaper article speak a language that triggers me to learn more.

Louise Glück is long since one of the most interesting authors of the United States, but in the Netherlands not a lot of her work has been printed, and only a handful of poems was ever translated for literary magazines, one of the translators being Erik Menkveld, former critic of the newpaper the ‘Volkskrant’.

For a moment I consider sending her an email. However, that turns out to be rather difficult. Even when she was granted the Nobel prize for Literature – something that she thought would never occur in her life – the poet remains modest and refuses to appear in the spotlights, photo sessions and interviews:

I have a strong aversion to doing interviews and have done very few in my now rather long life. So I must decline this, though I am grateful for the interest. [1]

At the time Erik Menkveld wrote her a fictional letter.[2]

I dare to surrender to her poems, what they are telling me and what they mean to say to me. May I call her a poet who determines herself by the core of life? She gives words to loneliness, decline, despair, death and loss, sometimes using an emotional tone, and then again using  a direct, clear and even aerial tone. She cherishes hope and finds strength to keep on going, despite everything, and to always get up again. Subtle, but accessible, she stops at the great questions of life.

I wonder who the ‘I” is in her poems, who the ‘mine’ and ‘your’ are.

This is how the poem “Sunset” begins:

My great happiness

is the sound of your voice makes

calling to me even in despair; my sorrow

And ending:

And I answer constantly


… My tenderness

should be apparent to you

in the breeze of the summer evening

and in the words that become

your own response.


In the poetry collection ‘The Wild Iris’ [4] she writes from the perspective and in the language of flowers.  For instance, she lets ‘The Red Poppy’ tell:

(…) I have

a lord in Heaven

called the sun and open

for him, showing him

the fire of my own heart, fire

like his presence.

What could such glory be

if not a heart? (…),

then suddenly at the very end she submits the question to the readers:

(…) Did you

permit yourselves

to open once, who would never

open again? (…)

Her poems seem to have a kind of inner conversation with each other. Very surprising is ‘The Wild Iris’, in which the iris states to have its own consciousness. The poems breathe the atmosphere of autumn, a time of farewell, of sorrow, but also of joy and Spring, of new life. She describes her ‘death’ in the dark soil, in winter; ending up under the ground to perish there in loneliness, full of fear, unable to speak. And how she again obtains hope after the despair, about the light that is returning, the end of the suffering. The resurrection in Spring, the opening of the earth as a door that opens, for a nascent flower in the light.

The iris returns from the other world and what was forgotten then finds a voice again. She discovers the light of the soul in the heart, that always returns from oblivion,

from the center of my life came a great fountain, deep blue,

in order to find the voice again to express itself.

I tell you I could speak again!

To me this seems to speak from being torn loose from oblivion, wanting to encourage us, the people

you who do not remember passage from the other world.

There is no death! Right through all seasons an eternal continuous life is flowing!

I read in the newspaper that family forms a large theme in the poetry collection of Louise Glück. It is then about the relations between parents and children, between children of the same parents, to which we attribute a natural warmth as a matter of course. But Louise reveals the sharp edges, the uncertain shadow side.

It seems as if she and the family members are speaking in turns. As a reproach we hear the human aspect ask in the poems  ‘Matins’:

What is my heart to you that you

must break it over and over 

Very honest is the statement:

(…) I cannot love

what I can’t conceive.

Halfway through the poem it seems to turn into an indictment on the higher:

(…) you disclose

virtually nothing: are you like the hawthorn tree,

always the same thing in the same place,

or are you more the foxglove inconsistent, (…)


(…) You must see

it is useless to us, this silence that promotes belief

you must be all things, the foxglove and the hawthorn tree,

the vulnerable rose and tough daisy–we are left to think

you couldn’t possibly exist. (…)

Grief echoes through the lines:

(…) under the light weight

of my mother’s heart, or if not then,

in dream, first

being that would never die.

The inner conversation continues. In the poems  ‘Retreating Wind’ and ‘Clear Morning’ a divine voice resounds:


When I made you, I loved you

Now I pity you


I gave you all you needed:

bed of earth, blanket of blue air–


your souls should have been immense by now,

not what they are,

small talking things-–


I have watched you long enough

I can speak to you any way I like

you would never accept a voice like mine.


It indeed says to reveal itself ‘in details of earth’, in tendrils of blue clematis, light of early evening, yes in evening light and the balmy summer wind. The tender presence and connection would still be evident. But

my sorrow (is) that I cannot answer you in speech

as you all would like. You do not accept my voice. And for a moment I think: yes, those ‘small, talking things’, that are we, who are kept entangled in the merely human aspect, in the merely earthly details, in the discrepancies, the circle of cause and consequence.

The three voices in the poems remind me of the beginning of the movie “Disobedience”. An old rabbi staggeringly opens with the words from the Thora:

In the beginning

Hasjem created three kinds of beings:

The angels, the animals and humans.

The angels Hasjem created from his pure word. They have no tendencies, no will for evil. They will not deviate from His creation.

The animals are guided by their instincts, thus also following the will of their Creator.

In the Thora it is said that Hasjem had six days to create those beings.

Just before sunset Hasjem took a handful of earth and created humans: man and woman. Humans, merely side issues? Or should they become the crown on his Work? So, what kind is it then?

A human being, a creature with the power to be disobedient.

We are the only beings with a free will, man and woman.

We are in close position to the clarity of the angels and the desires of the animals.

Hasjem gave us the choice. A right and a burden.

We choose what kind of complicated life we wish to lead.


Three kinds of creations: the angel, the animal and mankind. Are we indeed positioned close to the clarity of the spiritual? Or are we close to the desires of the earthly? A human being has received the power and freedom of choice: whether or not to ‘heed’ the divine or not. A burden, as Sartre, the French philosopher says:

Mankind is doomed to freedom.

But also a right bearing importance. Would you have the courage to  claim that right, that blistering frightening freedom, then you too understand why she writes in ‘Retreating Wind’:

Whatever you hoped

you will not find yourselves in the garden

among the growing plants.

Your lives are not circular like theirs:

your lives are the bird’s flight.

A human being, mighty, all-mighty, in his ascent unto divine life.

I am prepared now to force clarity upon you. 



The Wild Iris


At the end of my suffering

there was a door.


Hear me out: that which you call death

I remember.


Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.

Then nothing. The weak sun

flickered over the dry surface.


It is terrible to survive

as consciousness

buried in the dark earth.


Then it was over: that which you fear, being

a soul and unable

to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth

bending a little. And what I took to be

birds darting in low shrubs.


You who do not remember

passage from the other world

I tell you I could speak again:  whatever

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice:


from the center of my life came

a great fountain, deep blue

shadows on azure seawater.



Clear Morning


I’ve watched you long enough,

I can speak to you any way I like –


I’ve submitted to your preferences, observing patiently

the things you love, speaking


through vehicles only, in

details of earth, as you prefer,



of blue clematis, light


of early evening –

you would never accept


a voice like mine, indifferent

to the objects you busily name,


your mouths,

small circles of awe–


And all this time

I indulged your limitation, thinking


you would cast it aside yourselves sooner or later,

thinking matter could not absorb your gaze forever—


obstacle of the clematis painting

blue flowers on the porch window—


I cannot go on

restricting myself to images


because you think it is your right

to dispute my meaning:


I am prepared now to force

clarity upon you.



[1] Colette Demil, Groots in bescheidenheid [Grand in modesty], Magazine of the Orde van de Prince

[2] Hoogachtend [Yours truly], Erik Menkveld, letter to Louise Glück. NRC Handelsblad October 9, 2020

[3] ‘Sunset’, ‘The Red Poppy’, ‘Matins’, ‘Retreating Wind’, ‘The Wild Iris’ and ‘Clear Morning’ are published in [4]

[4] Louise Glück, The Wild Iris. The Ecco Press, 1992.




Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Article info

Date: September 8, 2021
Author: Ankie Hettema-Pieterse (Netherlands)
Photo: Olga Boiarkina

Featured image: