Tag Archives: Yeats

The Nobel Prize for Literature: Louise Glück

Archaic Fragment

I was trying to love matter.
I taped a sign over the mirror:
You cannot hate matter and love form.

It was a beautiful day, though cold.
This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.

…….your poem:
tried, but could not.

I taped a sign over the first sign:
Cry, weep, thrash yourself, rend your garments—

List of things to love:
dirt, food, shells, human hair.

……. said
tasteless excess. Then I

rent the signs.

AIAIAIAI cried
the naked mirror.

Source: Poetry (January 2006)

So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.

The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.

It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as

Now I have fed and eaten up the rose
Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand.
That I should ever feed upon a rose
I never had believed in liveman’s land.

It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.

Review: “The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry, 1915-1955”

Chatto Modern Poetry

1915 to 1955 provides quite a range of poetry! From Hardy, Housman, Kipling, Yeats, through two world wars, to Dylan Thomas and twenty poets younger than him. Editors C. Day Lewis and John Lehmann confined themselves to (loosely defined) British poets, and to those aged at least 30 by their final selection. Among the 260 poems are many standards–Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, Auden’s ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’–but the real joy is in discovering good work by less well known poets. I give a few excerpts as examples: pastoral, autobiographical, of mortality, a war poem, wistfulness:

Andrew Young, ‘Wiltshire Downs’

The cuckoo’s double note
Loosened like bubbles from a drowning throat
Floats through the air
In mockery of pipit, land and stare.

And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.

Laurie Lee, ‘First Love’

Then it was she put up her hair,
inscribed her eyes with a look of grief,
while her limbs grew as curious as coral branches,
her breast full of secrets.

But the boy, confused in his day’s desire,
was searching for herons, his fingers bathed
in the green of walnuts, or watching at night
the Great Bear spin from the maypole star.

Alun Lewis, ‘Water Music’

Cold is the lake water
And dark as history.
Hurry not and fear not
This oldest mystery.

This strange voice singing,
This slow deep drag of the lake,
The yearning, yearning, this ending
Of the heart and its ache.

Keith Douglas, ‘How to Kill’

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

Sidney Keyes, ‘The Gardener’

Do you resemble the silent pale-eyed angels
That follow children? Is your face a flower?
The lovers and the beggars leave the park–
And still you will not come. The gates are closing.
O it is terrible to dream of angels.

As a collection the poetry is overwhelmingly formal, rural and male. It is titled ‘The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry’, but it predates the formless chaos of what we now call “modern poetry”, the unstructured confessional outpourings of the past half century. The anthology isn’t perfect, but very rewarding for lovers of traditional poetry. (Not hard to find. Used hardcovers are available from $0.99 on Amazon.)