From October by Louise Glück


It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception – At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

this same world.

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

I love Louise Glück’s work (and highly recommend you buy her books and read more of it). I love the interplay between between candor and silence, misery and playfulness, honesty and ambiguity, which are woven through her poetry. In the first lines of the poem, she names the job of a poet in terms of limitations: “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.” The use of the term “true” is, I think, both provocative and playful; this is, after all, a poem–a literary form which is the most vague and interpretive, the least “true” in this definitive way she seems to be talking about. To be able to declare “it is true that there is not enough beauty in the world” takes a sort of graceful chutzpah that few artists pull off the way she does.

The speaker of this peom seems to be saying one thing, but doing another (form and content grinding up against each other, or maybe they’re chasing each other–it’s like she’s saying “it is true that cake should not be eaten” through a mouthful of brownie). Now this poem is dark–don’t get me wrong. The assertion that hope is merely a “device to refute perception” (some objective, unattainable machination which is meant to un-convince us of our reaction to reality) is bleak; she interrupts it, however, with the image of her being at an intersection. (**Special note here: in all pieces of writing–especially a poem, which doesn’t have many words–each word is mega-important. She chose the word intersection here.) Here, she splits off into a memory of poetry being the thing that provides protection, comfort, and connectedness amidst the not-adequately-beautiful world:  “you are not alone,/the poem said,/in the dark tunnel.” Beauty may be a largely unattainable thing; I find the image of her as a young person using her small book as a shield against the lonely world rushing by on the subway immensely beautiful. Thus, she has made me consider, play with, and redefine the notion of beauty. All in one little scrap of a poem.

Since Adrienne Rich’s death, I’ve been struggling with the fact that I don’t really enjoy Rich’s poetry. I appreciate its formal qualities and admire what she is using poetry for. But: her poems have a specific vision and articulation that don’t speak to my soul. (Many poems don’t speak for me, or to me. Why then, you may ask, am I giving Rich such a hard time for this? I think that because I share many identities with her–girl, Jew, and ally–and because I believe in the activist-potential of art, I become especially frustrated that I am not moved by her words.) What I like about Glück is that the beauty and the ugliness live together; that her words are strong enough to arrest my mind’s attention, but there are enough spaces within the poetry for interpretation–for me to interpret her poems as I want and need, as I perceive. Ultimately, that is the feminist use of poetry which I think Audre Lorde speaks of in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury”–the ability to write my own words, my own history, onto what has already been written; the process of re-scripting and re-appropriating histories and roles which have been given to me, to reclaim a sense of agency. There’s room for that in Glück’s poems. Rich’s are more didactic, and therefore, less vital to me.

My favorite piece of writing by Rich is not a poem but a letter she wrote to the National Endowment for the Arts in which she refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts. A letter is supposed to be opinionated and direct, and here she uses a poet’s command of language to convey her meaning with power and beauty:

“…I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright…Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country…There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored…In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.”

All this talk about the purpose and potential of poetry is perfect, since…April is Nation Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo)! In honor of this month, I challenge you to complete the poem-a-day challenge: each day this month, spend time writing a poem.

Emily and I have outlined the guidelines for our poem-a-day bonanza:

1. editing a past poem (really spending time editing, no just tossing in some uppercases) can count
2. find someone to share your poems with (this can be every day, once a week, or your favorite from the whole month)
3. try to hit a bunch of different forms, if only experimentally (rhyme, limerick, sestina, villanelle, sonnet, haiku, etc.)
4. if you invent or find a great prompt, share it

If you want in on the prompt- or poem-sharing, e-mail me at yael[dot]kiken[at]gmail[dot]com. I would lovelovelove to read your poems.

Happy writing, y’all!

(Thanks to my awesome poetry professor for directing me back to Glück. Read “October” in its entirety here.) 

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