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Louise Glück
Louise Glück
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Louise Glück Interview

Former Poet Laureate of the United States

October 27, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Louise Glück

We've read that you were drawn to poetry at a fairly young age and that you felt almost a sense of companionship in the poetry of William Blake and others.

Louise Glück: I learned to read very early, very young, and my father was fond of writing doggerel verses. So the children, the two of us, we started writing books very early. He would print them out and we would illustrate them, and many times the text was in verse. But I started reading poems that I found. I remember my grandmother, who wasn't a bookish woman, had a tiny little anthology -- it was physically a small object, as I remember -- of "Beloved Poems," or some sort of comprehensive title of that kind. And I remember reading Blake's "Little Black Boy," and I remember reading the song from Cymbeline, "Fear No More the Heat of the Sun." And I must have been five years old -- four years old -- little. But I heard those poems. I often didn't know -- with Blake's poem I knew, obviously, nothing of the historical background of the poem -- but the cry from the heart to my ear, that I could hear. And I thought, "These are the people I am speaking to, and this is why my everyday life is such a catastrophe."

[ Key to Success ] Passion

I remember, a little later than that, having in my mind a sort of private crucial competition for the greatest poem ever written, of course based on the sample I had then read. And the finalists were Blake's "Little Black Boy" and "Swanee River." And if you think about it, they're tonally very like. The same solitary voice raised in lament, essentially, and grief. That tone reached me very quickly. The songs from the plays of Shakespeare were very different. Many times I didn't understand some of the words and had no idea what need they filled in the play. I don't even think I knew that they were parts of plays. But I read them hypnotically. Even after I had memorized them, I kept reading them.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

As I got older I read constantly. Much fiction, which I still read to divert myself, to be happy. When I want to be happy, I read a novel. But in my early teens and mid-teens, I would just read, deep into the night, all those poets who were commonly anthologized. I came from a family committed to education, but not particularly literary. My father's interest was much more in history and government. My mother liked the arts, but I wouldn't say she was informed or a tremendous judge. But they were very pleased with my early sense of vocation. There was a tremendous parental support for that.

How early did you feel that sense of vocation?

Louise Glück: Bizarrely early.

It was one of those sort of child dreams that oftentimes gets knocked out of the child and replaced by something else, sometimes something equally grand. Well, from the time I had that little poetry competition in my head between "Swanee River" and "Little Black Boy," I always knew that what I wanted was to write. And I digressed occasionally. There was a period in which I wanted to be an actress, which I later realized was simply that I wanted to be applauded. I had no gift for theater at all. I had a good memory. I could memorize lines, but I was a very wooden performer. I was cleaving so hard to an evolving self, the idea of subordinating that self to a role was completely impossible. My mother, with whom I was often at war in that period, kept saying, "Darling, darling, it's such a shame you want to be an actress, because you're such a fine writer and painter." And she left the rest unsaid and that made me more stubborn. But that was very brief. And then I went back to what I dreamed of. I didn't know what you did to become a writer with a book. But I wrote poems from the time I was in my early, early teens. I submitted my first book when I was 13 or 14. It was, of course, sent back. And poems to magazines. And I persisted.

Louise Glück Interview Photo
Louise Glück Interview Photo

A moment ago, you referred to your everyday life growing up as a catastrophe. In what sense?

Louise Glück: Probably a fairly ordinary sense in many ways.

I was not a successful adolescent. I seemed strange to the other children and they were nasty to me. I became quite withdrawn and then I became severely anorexic, which is why I was taken out of high school, even though my plans for myself were all intellectual. I thought, "I'm going to be an artist and I'm going to be naturally a professor." But the professor part happened in a sort of back-door way. It was a very, very, very important event for me, because it got me into psychoanalysis which became important to my thought. I feel as though I learned how to think in psychoanalysis. And I recovered a self that could be in the world.

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This page last revised on Sep 03, 2013 18:22 EDT
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