Eye; or Thinking About Louise Glück essays and Art for Our Time

Louise Glück’s critical eye reminds me of the red-tailed hawks that patrol the highways, sharp of eye, beak, and talon. Even in my car I feel like prey.

In American Originality, a book of essays published previously, mostly in The Threepenny Review, and introductions to books she chose as award winners for Yale University Press, Glück examines the state of contemporary poetry with her baleful eye. Even her praise is fierce.

Here are some choice bits I’ve been thinking about:

“Contemporary literature is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses…The self, in this sense, was the nineteenth century’s discover, an object, for a time, of rich curiosity…And as long as it was watched in this spirit of curiosity and openness, it functions as an other: the art arising from such openness is an act of inquiry…dynamic rather than static. Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject, is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession.”

(She then goes on to consider the ways in which Whitman and Dickinson skirted narcissism in their own ways, but then pecks at poor Rilke, who rankled her with his guilt-ridden paean to Paula Becker.)

Then: “By the mid-seventies, poets looking inward have begun, simultaneously, to watch themselves looking inward…” and later she he warns: “Our too-eager welcoming of the facile experimental, the derivative experimental (if that is not an oxymoron), suggests that a gulf has been widening between the world as it has been perceived in poems (mysteriously ready to yield insight) and the world as we live it.”

Certainly the world as we live it these days often seems an ironic and edgy place, full of injustices, inhumanity. The poems I’m often encountering these days are perplexing in their codedness, their strings of non sequiturs, or strident in their purposefulness. Is this what she’s talking about?

Did poems once consider the world ready to yield insight and now they do not? Do poems set out to wring insight from the world?

She writes: “Our journals are full of…poems in which secrets are disclosed with athletic avidity, and now, more regularly, poems of ravishing perception, poems at once formulaic and incoherent: formulaic because all world event directly sponsors a net of associations and memories, in which the poet’s learning and humanity are offered up like prize essays in grade school; and incoherent because…the overall impression is that there is no plausible self generating them….The problem of this art is that it lacks meaning, vision, direction.”

This is often how I feel about our times, the chaos, the division, the absence of reasonable discourse. We seem to be struggling with meaning, vision, direction.

At the turn of the previous century, art shifted from representational to abstract, reflecting a time of darkness and fear, the end of one war and the ramping toward another. German thinker Wilhelm Worringer wrote a thesis at that time suggesting that art veered between empathy and abstraction: empathy arising from times of prosperity and abstraction from turmoil.

But look at our tumultuous times right now even as the stock market has been soaring, unemployment rates relatively low (but discounting the chronically, societally discounted). What kind of art arises from this, when we seem to be sorely lacking in empathy and awash in the angular abstractions of mistrust and hate?


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