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Last week, Louise Glück, one of America’s most celebrated poets, died at the age of 80. Glück was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama; she won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and, three years before her death, the Nobel Prize in Literature (she was the first American poet to receive it since T. S. Eliot in 1948). She published widely, especially in The New Yorker; The Atlantic also published two of her poems, “Early December in Croton-on-Hudson” and “The Edge.”
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:
When I heard about Glück’s death, what came to mind immediately were her famous lines “At the end of my suffering / there was a door”—the frank, breathtaking opening to “The Wild Iris,” the first poem in her collection of the same name. Then I read some of the lines my colleague Walt Hunter quoted in his reflection on her legacy. And later, another very different verse came to me, half-remembered: “Telemachus’ Detachment,” a seven-line poem with a wonderful, sparkling, slightly devastating kicker. (Look it up.)
The speaker in “Telemachus’ Detachment” is experiencing the particular pain and amusement that comes with reflecting on one’s childhood. The poem appears in Glück’s 1996 collection, Meadowlands, which riffs on The Odyssey to tell the story of a contemporary marriage. In the original epic, Telemachus is the son of Penelope and Odysseus; his father has been gone for a decade and still isn’t home, and his mother is boxed in on all sides by men who want to marry her.
Taken alone, this short poem may not be Glück’s most representative work, but it speaks to something fundamental that Hunter identified: her love of myth. “Glück casts the lives of Gretel—and of Moses, Jesus, Achilles, Joan of Arc—into language that bridges the world of myth or ancient history or fairy tale and the world of our present,” he writes. “Her preferred stories are ones in which the danger of abandonment and the repression of mourning threaten an intergenerational future.” This is certainly true of Telemachus, who searches for a father who many assume is dead while trying to protect his mother.
Glück uses these foundational tales to tell universal stories. She is not only writing about Odysseus’s son; she’s speaking to anyone with a family torn apart by intractable forces, who can’t properly mourn without closure. But myths like The Odyssey also imbue her language with a comfortable, straightforward authority. Over and over again, she approaches the task of portraying human experience as a “forensic investigation,” Hunter writes. There’s no need for “hyperbole, effusiveness, or evasion.” Instead, she trusts “the authority of stories and of language to examine the truth of despair and the recovery of hope.”
Why Children Are Everywhere in Louise Glück’s Poetry
What to Read
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
A “cream-puff-wrapped-in-a-cinder-block” is how Kirkus described A Suitable Boy in 1993. Negative impressions of a doorstop-size book (nearly 1,500 pages) can linger, making skeptical readers even less inclined to pick it up. Read not as a romance but as an account of social class and its discontents, A Suitable Boy transcends its size. It becomes a fiery (although always compassionate) indictment of how the upper class transmits its often-wrong-minded ideas about romantic compatibility. Lata Mehra’s mother, always called, in full, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, wants to marry her daughter to the best Hindu husband possible. Unfortunately, Lata herself has fallen for a Muslim man. As four families—the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans—go about their lives, Seth uses them to build a broad portrait of a modern nation struggling with its new independence. Don’t expect Rushdie. Think George Eliot crossed with Abraham Verghese, and sink into the controlled chaos. — Bethanne Patrick
From our list: Seven books the critics were wrong about
Out Next Week
Your Weekend Read
George Orwell: The Prevention of Literature
“The fact is that certain themes cannot be celebrated in words, and tyranny is one of them. No one ever wrote a good book in praise of the Inquisition. Poetry might survive in a totalitarian age, and certain arts or half-arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial, but the prose writer would have no choice between silence and death. Prose literature as we know it is the product of rationalism, of the Protestant centuries, of the autonomous individual. And the destruction of intellectual liberty cripples the journalist, the sociological writer, the historian, the novelist, the critic, and the poet, in that order.”
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