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Louise Glück's “I”

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  • Louise Glück’s “I” Nick Halpern North Carolina State University Abstract This article is one of three presented as a panel at the 2005 MLA Convention in Philadelphia (with poet Karl Kirchwey of Bryn Mawr College as panel chair and commentator): “Are You Talking to Me?”: Speaker and Audience in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris – Willard Spiegelman, Southern Methodist University “I’ll tell you something”: Reader-Address in Louise Glück’s Ararat Sequence – Jane Hedley, Bryn Mawr College Louise Glück’s “I” – Nick Halpern, North Carolina State University Jane Hedley here introduces the three papers for Literature Compass.The full text of Nick Halpern’s MLA paper itself follows this introduction: Lyric Utterance and the Reader: Overheard, Performed, or Addressed? In the first line of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” who is being addressed? “Let us go then, you and I ”: is Prufrock talking to himself, and has Eliot thereby put the poem’s readers in a position to “overhear” an inner monologue? Is “Let us go then” addressed directly to the poem’s hypocrite lecteur, who is presupposed to be the secret sharer of Prufrock’s emotional paralysis? Or has the reader been offered the opportunity to step into the “I”-position and become, for the duration of the poem, the sort of man who would have this conversation with himself ? All three ways of conceiving of lyric utterance, and of what Northrop Frye terms its “radical of presentation,” are concurrent among us, and the question of lyric address is one that is undergoing reconsideration in a number of critical and scholarly venues at the present time. William Waters chaired Special Sessions on poetry’s “you” for three years running at the MLA convention, beginning in 1999. Recently published books and articles from Charles Altieri, Sarah Zimmerman, and Virginia Jackson have revisited the rhetoric of Romanticism from the standpoint of how the reader is implicated and/or addressed. In “Lyric Possession,” Susan Stewart’s 1995 essay for Critical Inquiry, the problematic of lyric address is given a memorably postmodern formulation with her suggestion that “when speakers speak from the position of listeners, when though is unattributable and intention wayward, the situation of poetry is evoked.” The conception of lyric utterance that was “canonized” by both Northrop Frye, in the Anatomy of Criticism, and T. S. Eliot, in The Three Voices of Poetry, is that the lyric is pre-eminently and distinctively the genre of self-communion. Paul De Man, Jonathan Culler, and Barbara Johnson are furthering this conception when they cite “apostrophe” as the rhetorical device that is generically constitutive of the lyric: © Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 165, 1–5
  • by addressing himself to the west wind or to the sister who is also his soul mate, the lyric poet is turning away from the poem’s readers the better to bring a distinctively lyric “self ” into focus. W. R. Johnson has argued, contra Frye and Eliot, De Man and Culler, that the Romantic “meditative” lyric was a local aberration from the central tradition of the lyric; according to Johnson, and more recently William Waters, the lyric speaker and his hypothetical reader are always more or less explicitly in dialogue. Helen Vendler has meanwhile urged us toward yet a third conception of how the lyric engages its readers. Lyrics offer themselves to us, according to Vendler, as scripts for performance:“a lyric is meant to be spoken by the reader as if the reader were the one uttering the words.” In these three position-pieces Willard Spiegelman, Jane Hedley, and Nick Halpern have undertaken to stage the conflict between these three differing approaches to the lyric. Their underlying premise is that it does matter which approach we take, but that none of them is simply mistaken – each has its uses. Louise Glück is a poet who has gone on record as preferring to read and write poetry that “requests or craves a listener”; but is the listener she envisions an overhearer, an interlocutor, or an alter ego who listens in order to transform himself into the speaker of her poems? Nick Halpern’s essay on Glück’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Wild Iris (1992) takes its departure from the traditional conception of lyric utterance as an interpersonal drama whose “persons” are all internal to the poem. Jane Hedley uses Glück’s 1990 volume Ararat to argue that Glück is choosing to address the listener she craves directly, a choice that has rhetorical and characterological implications which will fail to emerge if we assume we are supposed to “overhear” her poems. Nick Halpern uses Glück’s 1996 volume Meadowlands to enact the claim that poems are neither overheard nor addressed to their readers, but challenge us to inhabit a process of thought and feeling the poem has scripted. According to Halpern we neither hear Glück out, as Hedley would have it, nor do we overhear her, as Spiegelman supposes: instead, we are called upon to become her. Jane Hedley, Bryn Mawr College I want to talk about the third possible thing that can happen to a reader of a lyric poem. It’s true that a reader might feel he is overhearing the poem, or that the speaker of the poem – or the poet herself – is talking to him. But he might feel (or want to feel, or sometimes feel) that he is himself speaking. Roland Barthes says that when we read aloud we feel not a sense of self, exactly, but a feeling of “self-presence.” What some readers want from a poem is that feeling of self-presence and a way to maintain and intensify it. We’re constantly hearing and overhearing: there’s plenty of that in everyday life. Some readers sense that there’s a more intense relation to other people’s speech and instinctively they want it. Poetry offers it. For some theorists, it’s acceptable to imagine that you produced the poetry if the poetry is sublime. At certain moments, Longinus tells us,“we are filled with a proud exaltation and a vaunting joy, just as though we ourselves had produced what we heard.” This is a kind of self-defense, and we can’t be blamed for it. But most lyric poetry doesn’t require us to defend ourselves against it. And there’s another obstacle. Contemporary poets don’t always 2 . Louise Glück’s “I” © Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 165, 1–5
  • want you to think you produced what you heard. Ted Berrigan begins his book, How To Live In The Jungle, with the words: “People of the future / while you are reading these poems / remember / you didn’t write them. / I did.” When I read that aloud just now, I did sort of feel like I wrote it. Of course it’s impossible that I did – which is part of what makes the idea attractive. Listening or overhearing, besides being not intense enough, frustrates us by keeping us in the same space we were in before, a space always draining of intensity. Poetry ought to do more than that. Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry suggests that a lyric poem creates a new environment for the reader. He writes, “There appears something impossible about this . . . notion of a . . . poem that simply is an environment. For the claim to be literally true, the reader would have to be actually living inside a verbal construct. That can happen in science fiction, but can such living occur in ordinary life?” Fletcher continues, This view would assert that there are two external real worlds, the one we daily walk around in (or drive cars through) and the one the environment-poet has invented. Both would have equal shares of the real – equal shares of Being. This view blurs the sharp distinction between fictions of fact and fact itself. Supposing then that such poems are intended to surround us in exactly the way an actual environment surrounds us, there will occur a breakdown of the old distinction between the world within the poem and the world out there outside the poem. Impossible, then, but something that happens. I enter the environment of the environment-poem, according to Fletcher and I take possession of it. The poet invented it, but I’m keeping it going, with these words, which are like operating instructions. I may not feel vaunting joy, but I do feel pleasure. Louise Glück knows that some of her readers will hear, and others will overhear, but I think she’s interested – because she is drawn towards intensity – in the third kind of readers. That is, after all, how she reads. In her essay, “Invitation and Exclusion,” she tells us,“To read Eliot for me is to feel the presence of the abyss; to read Rilke is to sense the mattress under the window.” She doesn’t want to feel she’s overhearing. “To overhear is to experience exclusion. Reading Stevens I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng. The thrill of reading contains the thrill of making; as a child I felt myself the author of those songs I read.” Is hearing or overhearing reading like an adult? Reading like an adult doesn’t sound intense enough. Some readers like it for that reason. They choose against intensity, or would rather live in the kind they already know. Mark Strand remembers reading some poems by Wallace Stevens aloud to his mother and discovering she didn’t like them. She would agree to listen to her son read them to her, but she didn’t want to read them herself. Strand remembers:“My mother felt that she was safer within the confines of her own darkness than within the one supplied by Wallace Stevens.” This raises the question: why would you want to enter the confines of someone else’s darkness? Glück has thought about this © Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 165, 1–5 Louise Glück’s “I” . 3
  • question, and knows that (unless we read poems as if we were social workers) our reasons for reading certain poems aren’t likely to be very respectable. Vicariousness. Voyeurism. We like to think of readers of poetry as virtuous people, and not as talented Mr. Ripleys. Some theorists suggest that I like to think I wrote the poem because I almost wrote it, I meant to write it. Emerson said, “In genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I can, if I am a certain kind of reader, pick up a certain poem, say my rejected thoughts, and feel the majesty without the alienation. Or – and this returns us to Glück, I might want the majesty and the alienation. What was the reason we rejected those thoughts in the first place? I might want to feel: this is a thought I would never have had. I would have rejected it before thinking it. And yet I am going to think it now – for the sheer intensity of it. This is not healthy but it’s a kind of relief, maybe. Some contemporary theorists of the lyric make poetry seem so healthy and mature, so adult: Allen Grossman tells us,“Poetry is one means by which human beings engage as they can, in the maintenance of a human world in which they can meet one another, affirm one another, remember, see, and foresee each other.” Too much meeting, too much affirming. I might prefer the Grossman who says, “The voice that I utter as a reader of poetry frightens me, because it reminds me that I do not know what the appropriateness of these tonalities might be to this particular audience or any audience.”We do not want, I think, to be that particular audience or any audience, we want, or some of us want, to be that voice that frightens itself, particularly if our own voice doesn’t. When Grossman writes,“I am not entirely human,” it is something we want to know what it feels like to say. We want to know what it feels like to be not entirely human or not human at all or human, but not appealingly so. Keats doesn’t say that one of the things we might want to be is not just the bird on the windowsill but also the person irritably reaching after fact and reason. The people in Glück poems are often irritably reaching. More about that shortly. The way of reading I’m describing may seem irresponsible. How can I say, “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” if I didn’t suffer and wasn’t there? It seems somehow weightless. Some theorists suggest that when we experience literature it is always with a kind of lightness. Blanchot writes, “For the reader of Kafka, the anguish becomes ease and contentment, the torment of guilt is transformed into innocence . . . Such is the essence of reading, of the weightless yes.” We start to read, and (if we’re that kind of reader) the impossible happens, though it feels easy. Ashbery called one of his recent books,Your Name Here. Glück, as I said, anticipates such readers, and she wants to interfere with their ease and contentment, their innocence, their weightless yes. She wants there to be a cost, a charge (the word Plath uses in “Lady Lazarus”). She knows that we read poetry because we want something and she wants us to see that as figures who desire we are not different from the desiring figures in her poems. Sometimes Glück dignifies 4 . Louise Glück’s “I” © Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 165, 1–5
  • our desire, gives it majesty. We “call out over the open water,” say. We get to be “passionate, / like Maria Callas.” But not often. Mostly she shows us that the desire we bring to poetry is just desire, not very noble. We discover that we are in a world of people trying to do exactly the same things with their desire that we are. Penelope, Odysseus, Telemachus in ancient Greece, the bickering couple in America are all trying to live vicariously, experimenting with tonalities, being passionate like Maria Callas, which in the domestic sphere means frightening people with inappropriate tonalities . . . and all the while hoping at the same time for a feeling of intense self-presence and a feeling of innocence and weightlessness. There are certain novelists who turn their readers into one more character. Glück does that. Who but a character in a Glück book – Ararat or Meadowlands – would think he could simply become any speaker? One imagines a Glück poem beginning, in italics. You think you’re all the speakers in the book. Or: You’re an adult who likes to think he reads like a child. Like Odysseus in Meadowlands, then, we want intensity and self-presence along with innocence and lightness. Somebody should point out the hopelessness of this, and Glück does. Angus Fletcher writes about environment poems (by Clare, by Whitman, by Ashbery) that are tremendously benign and friendly. In Glück’s environment-poems there is no part of the poem that does not see you. Even if she told you, like Rilke, to change your life, you couldn’t, because you’re the sort of person she writes about, at once isolated and entangled. Telemachus, near the end of the book, comes to a kind of truth.“After a while I realized I was actually a person, I had my own voice.” So that’s the way out? Having my own voice and sticking to it? Would it have been smarter to have been the kind of reader who simply listens to the speaker of the poem? Would it have been better to have imagined I simply overheard and aren’t implicated? “Invitation and Exclusion.” Should I have chosen exclusion? Because now I am just one more person – hungry for self-presence and intensity – bringing desires that nobody, least of all the poet, can requite. Meadowlands is full of poems Glück calls parables, and it’s as if the poet is saying: here’s one about you. Notes This essay should be read in conjunction with W. Spiegelman,“‘Are You Talking to Me?’: Speaker and Audience in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris” (doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2005.00163.x) and J. Hedley, “‘I’ll tell you something’: Reader-Address in Louise Glück’s Ararat Sequence” (doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2005.00164.x). © Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 165, 1–5 Louise Glück’s “I” . 5
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