“Abundance” and “Crossroads”: Two Poems by Nobel Prize Winner Louise Glück

Pretty much all students read and study and are even required to write some poetry through their school years; it’s one of those universal planks of education considered essential to turning out well-rounded human beings. Alas, this profound aesthetic pleasure of language and its subtle, sometimes rapturous meanings, symbols and rhythms sticks with all too few students once they clutch their diplomas. They tend to avoid it for the rest of their lives as they might the memorized geometry theorems or chemistry symbols that they never see fit to use again in their daily lives.

Which leads to the old joke: Why are poets so poor?”

“Because rhyme doesn’t pay.”

All too true, for the most part. Which is but one reason why it is always a fine thing when poets win awards—especially ones that come with whopping cash stipends like the $1.1 million that 77-year-old American poet Louise Glück (pronounced “Glick”) won this past Thursday to complement the career-capping status of winning the world’s most prestigious writing award: the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Only two poets had won the award since 1996 (three if you count 2016 winner Bob Dylan’s songwriting as poetry, a dubious assertion, I think; we can argue about it in the Comments section if you’d like). Before Dylan, the last American to win the literature award was novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

***

***

Glück’s body of work stretches over more than half a century in 14 volumes and two essay collections. Her poems are always plain-spoken and mostly transparent, balanced skillfully between rarely leaving the reader mystified about the meaning but always rewarding additional, chewier reads. As the two selections below reveal, she employs everyday vocabulary and imagery, while at the same time plunging the depths of human existence, in all its unresolved questions.

“Very few writers share her talent for turning water into blood,” one critic wrote of her collection, “Poems 1962-2012.”

Said Glück herself in an interview with the “New York Times” the morning of the award announcement: “I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Yeah, well, I was a lively girl.” 

That bit of dark humor isn’t foreign to Glück’s work or personality, some of it no doubt informed by a difficult childhood during which she early on became enraptured by language. She started sending poems off to publications at 13 years old. Almost predictably, she found herself a loner, mostly shunned and considered odd by schoolmates.

“I was not a successful adolescent,” is her again darkly humored summation of that time, which gave rise to an eating disorder that threatened her life before she went into psychoanalysis while still in high school. She credits it with propelling her to come out the other end alive, with new understanding and enduring purpose to explore her gifts.

Lest that be misunderstood as some kind of power of positive thinking, she called her writing “a torment, a place of suffering, harrowing” in a lovely and revealing 2012 interview available as a podcast here via achievement.org.

Then this acute description that almost anyone who has ever toyed (and suffered) with an unformed, barely-on-the-edge-of-consciousness idea, whether in literature, science or business, can surely relate to:

“All of a sudden there’s a phrase in your head. Where does that come from? I don’t know. And because I don’t know, I don’t know how to have more of them. Sometimes I get a couple of lines in my head for two years before I know how to use them, and I don’t know in what context what I hear can be liberated. And so initially they seem a great gift because you have these two beautiful lines, and then they become a torment, because you have these two beautiful lines that aren’t themselves a poem, and you have no idea what kind of house to build for them.”

Leave it to a poet to be visited by that metaphor of a “house to build” for an inchoate notion that has bedeviled her for years.

On the plus side of all that torment, her writing serves her as “a kind of revenge upon circumstance,” she told the same interviewer. (We should all be so talented…)

***

All right, so let us get to the poems, with a bit of commentary to follow each. These selections are not so heavy on pain and suffering—though death certainly makes an appearance. The first poem dwells on the elemental life and propagation force in all living things growing blindly, unabashedly, toward “Abundance.”

In the second poem, we behold the conscious cherishing of that life force and acceptance of its inevitable diminishment, as the writer faces a “Crossroads.”

***

***

                                 ABUNDANCE

A cool wind blows on summer evenings, stirring the wheat.
The wheat bends, the leaves of the peach trees
rustle in the night ahead.

In the dark, a boy’s crossing the field:
for the first time, he’s touched a girl
so he walks home a man, with a man’s hungers.

Slowly the fruit ripens—
baskets and baskets from a single tree
so some rots every year
and for a few weeks there’s too much:
before and after, nothing.

Between the rows of wheat
you can see the mice, flashing and scurrying
across the earth, though the wheat towers above them,
churning as the summer wind blows.

The moon is full. A strange sound
comes from the field—maybe the wind.

But for the mice it’s a night like any summer night.
Fruit and grain: a time of abundance.
Nobody dies, nobody goes hungry.

No sound except the roar of the wheat.

***

Wind, summer, wheat, trees, night, field, a boy-become-man. Fruit ripening and rotting, mice, moon, a strange sound.

No ten-dollar words there, nothing much doing except for what’s always doing out there where living things go about their appointed tasks, propelled by deep, unbidden urges.

Coming from where, though? Can we call the sum total of all the movement toward abundance—only to finish in rot—God herself, the very source and process and story of creation?

The answer?

No sound except the roar of the wheat.

***

                                          CROSSROADS

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:

it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

***

Glück is clear-eyed here about the tempests that roil human lives, her own soul and her body’s “intensities” too often fearful, violent, even brutal. But at this crossroads stage, knowing her body and sense of self will soon be parting, she recognizes the need for forgiveness and a reconciliation with all that is—including the body over which her hand moves, “eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance.”

Is the poet here acknowledging that for all the longings of her heart, for which she has labored mightily in the vast dictionary of words and their expression through her entire life, they still lack the very substance represented by the body she will miss more than the earth itself, and all the words ever said about that earth?

Maybe.

Or maybe she has finally come to the point where she feels her poetic expression is substance itself, has become as real as the body whose demise she is contemplating in such tender regard.

For all her plain-spokenness, Glück leaves plenty on the table for dissection. I may just have to think about this poem for a couple of years before I can grasp “in what context what I (read) can be liberated.”

***

Glück says she doesn’t really like reading her poetry live. She distrusts celebrity and the marketing one often has to do to achieve it, and feels like the images rush by too fast orally for listeners, rather than the more measured pace readers enjoy, being able to pause, return, think, contemplate and read again. Nevertheless…
***

***

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Both poems from the volume “A Village Life,” copyright 2009 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Lake at sunrise by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

Boy in wheat field by Chermiti Mohamed, Tunis, Tunisia  https://unsplash.com/@chermitovee

9 comments to “Abundance” and “Crossroads”: Two Poems by Nobel Prize Winner Louise Glück

  • Mary  says:

    I don’t know how the Nobel process really works and why it is so many years between the prize being given for poetry. In any event, in this strange and trying year I find it enormously gratifying that the prize has been awarded to a poet. Balm for the brain and soul, to ponder other images and questions for a while. Thank you for widening the circle of appreciation for that, and for Louise Glück.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Mary, I don’t think I made the point about the prize clearly enough. The Literature prize includes fiction, poetry, songwriting, drama, history, philosophy—the entire world of the written word, pretty much. Poets win only once in a while—Glück as a pure poet recently and Dylan in 2016, though his songwriting was mentioned in the award citation as well. The Toni Morrison reference was only to point out she was the last American to win the award before Dylan. A list of all the award winners going back to the beginning in 1901 can be found here—makes for an interesting mix of the highly prominent and the obscure! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_in_Literature

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Thank you for this; in a world filled with Covid-19 and flies on Pence’s head, I heard about this award but knew nothing about Glück (which is *not* pronounced ‘Glick’ but ‘Glueck’ hehe). I am so glad you chose to write about her.
    I dispute your reference to Dylan as not-really-a-poet. Go read the words to “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and tell me it is not poetry.
    Anyway, I agree with Glück, I preferred reading the poem to listening to it.
    And I agree with Mary, poetry is somehow perfect for this disembodied and disorienting time, pulling threads together in beautiful ways.
    As always, I feel enriched by your writing and your subjects.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks so very much, Jeanette, I’m glad this is a place you can come for some solace, inspiration and whatever else might be bandied about in any given post!. And I’m also tickled that you brought up the pronunciation of her name, which I was going to do but left out in the interests of brevity. The name is Hungarian, from her paternal grandfather, and knowing Hungarian myself I know that the umlaut ü is pronounced like the “u” in “urge.” Ya gotta purse your lips together into a little circle—it is the farthest thing from the short “i” sound in “Glick.” So I have no idea why she tells people to pronounce it that way but that’s what it’s been her whole life, I think. I may try to contact her to inquire, thanks for this prompt!

      As for the Dylan-poet/songwriter issue, man, this would make a fun bar argument! (If we ever get to go to a bar again…) Here’s my basic position on the matter, stolen from my Facebook response, slightly edited, to a person who took me to task on the same matter:

      “Don’t get me wrong…I was delighted to see him win the Nobel, too; it was just the mixing of genres that was a bit unsettling. I think all the best poetry is intensely musical (as all the best language is, for that matter), and all the best musical lyrics are intensely poetic, but they’re still different genres, with different conventions, so I’d prefer a “Nobel Prize for Music,” which doesn’t exist, but should. All the Nobel prizes reflect the last will of Alfred Nobel, and he must not have been a big music fan!”

      Dylan’s an amazing talent, and may well be the purest poet of any songwriter in history, but that doesn’t make him a poet in the specific technical sense of the term. The issue gets even more interesting when we note Dylan’s own reflections on the matter in his Nobel acceptance speech:

      “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.”

      I’m with Bob! I’d only reiterate that we should have a separate Nobel music award, and let the poets and novelists, et al, win for literature!

      Wanna buy another round and discuss this some more? :-)

  • Mimi Wheatwind  says:

    Thank you for honoring Louise Glück and featuring two of her poems. My knowledge of the Nobel Prize is that it is given in literature for a writer’s body of work, not for their more current publications or previous accolades. It’s true that poets are not often honored, but when they are it’s noteworthy.

    I want to also chime in with Jeanette about Bob Dylan’s poetic justice, and to Mary’s call for the need of “balm for the brain and soul.” Dylan was an extraordinary poet and songwriter–one of many minstrels and troubadours of his time. I remember reading a description of the Rolling Thunder Review tour by poet Allen Ginsberg, in which he praised Dylan as a poet, marveling at his metaphoric genius. Listen to “Idiot Wind,” timely for today, and note his apt comparison of “skull” with “Capitol.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Was my pleasure to take this dive into Ms. Gluck, Mimi, thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it. And yes, unlike the Pulitzer, the Booker Prize, et al, the Nobel is for a body of work.

      On the musician/poet issue, it was just interesting that in the list of prize recipients I referenced above for Mary, they list the various genres that each writer is known for, presumably, from what I can tell about may of the writers I know on the list, in the order of prominence of each genre in their work. Dylan’s notation lists poetry first, followed by songwriting. That alone strikes me as odd—I’m pretty certain if you asked 1,000 people on the street what talent Bob Dylan is known for, all 1,000 would say some variant of music/musician/songwriter, as would he. As for the rest of my argument on this matter, please see my response to Jeanette. And just to reiterate: I have utmost respect for Dylan, have celebrated him in this space more than once, and even called one of his songs a “poem” in this post nearly four years ago! (“I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself!” Whitman said that many years ago; I wish I had written it first…) :-)
      http://andrewhidas.com/call-and-heartrending-response-bob-dylans-boots-of-spanish-leather/

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I agree with your reference that Dylan is more musician than poet. His influence upon a generation of composers and musicians is undeniable. He took the acoustical social/protest commentary of traditional American folk music (Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land is Your Land”) and moved it into raw and more controversial songs (“The Times They Are a-Changin” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”) before breaking away into electrified rock with its heavy dose of lyrical free-associating imagery (“Mr Tambourine Man”). However, to compare it to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and the like is a stretch to say the least. By the way, the Nobel prize, unlike a Pulitzer prize, is awarded for lifetime achievement and not a single work. Incidentally, to be honored with any Nobel one should be breathing. Drink took F. Scott Fitzgerald out early. Gas did the same to Sylvia Plath.

    I hadn’t read any of Louise Gluck’s poetry until now. I really liked “Abundance”. Its imagery is simple and sensual; it’s centered on touch (a boy holding hands with a girl), sight (bending wheat and scurrying mice), smell-taste (fruit ripens and rots) and sound (leaves rustling and a moon’s strange sound). The final line (“No sound except the roar of the wheat.”) acts like an exclamation point on the six preceding stanzas.

    For those who enjoy hearing poets read their works check out “Poetry Speaks”, a three CD audio collection. Of course, some read much better than others. Though Tennyson’s “Bugle Song” and “Charge of the Light Brigade” excepts are difficult to hear, they’re literary importance is clear. Once again, thanks for bringing another writer to my attention.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    They’re should be “their” in last paragraph. But, more importantly, I would like to apologize for my insensitive remarks about both Fitzgerald & Plath. Alcoholism & suicide are not to be made light of. Sorry.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Robert, I suppose your reference to Plath and Fitzgerald sounded a bit flip, but there’s absolution for you in the fact that it was amidst a mention of them regarding Nobel Prizes that might have been, which is a fine compliment to their memory!

      As for your Dylan discussion above that: saw the first big chunk of “No Direction Home” last nite, and I must say I came away staggered anew by his immense talent and influence, not to mention various powerful songs I wasn’t even familiar with, him being as prolific as he has been over a now long career. (Not being familiar with some Dylan songs is rather like not knowing a sheaf of Philip Roth or John Updike novels—the guys’ writing output far exceeds my available reading inputting, apparently…)

      Glad you liked the Glück!

Leave a Reply