Louise Gluck's words still resonate at Williams

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A man lies awake — gets up to walk. He remembers sharing a room with his brother when they were boys, his brother reading by nightlight and the sound of his breathing. He remembers excursions with their aunt, taking a boat upriver, watching a city float by in the dark.

The small hours come in many shades in "Faithful and Virtuous Night," the collection of poetry Louise Gluck published in 2014 to win the National Book Award. Elements of a medieval quest superimpose on a modern city, and she writes in the voice of an aging artist and a man.

In a dozen collections of poems and two books of essays, she has earned many of this country's highest honors. She is a former National Poet Laureate. She won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Wild Iris" in 1992 — and she wrote it on Southworth Street.

Before she became writer in residence at Yale University, Gluck taught at Williams College for 20 years, working with poets who have spread from coast to coast, including Claudia Rankine, whose work crossed paths with hers not long ago: "Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric" was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year.

This spring, Gluck is returning for a rare evening. She will read from her work at the '62 Center on Tuesday.

She comes at the invitation of Jessica Fisher, her friend and an assistant professor of English at Williams, and author of two collections of poems. Fisher has lived with Gluck's work for more than 25 years and has known her for a dozen.

She remembers her excitement each time Gluck had a new book on the horizon: "When's the last time you went running into the bookstore the day a book came out? — And the thrill of not knowing what will come next."

Each one is unique: spoken from or framed by wildflowers and the bells of the monastic hours; Greek heroes; a couple in a dissolving marriage; the people of a village. Each book has a narrative, though the poems are not clear small stories.

"Her work changed something about how one thinks of a book in American poetry," Fisher said. " this quality that you open a world."

Writers she has worked with at Williams and beyond feel the same generosity and clear-sightedness in her, as a writer and a teacher.

Chris Nealon ('89) now professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and author of three volumes of poetry, took a writing workshop with her in his junior year and then an independent study.

But his clearest memories of conversations in those years came in driving her to the Bennington bus station, as she lived then in northern Vermont.

"One time she said in a pause, `Do you think you want to take poetry seriously?'"

He smiled, remembering himself then, frozen and hauling up the courage to say "Yes."

And she said, "I think you should."

"Her workshop was electrifying," he said.

She brought a quality of attention he found terrifying and exhilarating.

"She took student writing seriously," he said. "She was unsparing, but never unkind."

She taught him a kind of poetic intelligence, not just beautiful words like beads on a string, but pacing, mobility — the form and movement of a poem.

"That has always stayed with me," he said.

He remembers a summer in Berlin, in his grad school years, when he carried her books and read them often, and now, immersed in his own work and other inspirations, he feels her influence.

"After all these years, I still hear her voice when I write," he said, "her poetic voice, not because I'm trying to imitate it, but because I feel I may be talking to it. Going back to read her work, I'm stirred by how a poem I haven't heard in 20 or 30 years has language I still hear before it comes. I feel how deeply her language is in me."

Fisher feels that voice, "a tonal quality that lets you know you're still in that mind." She read aloud the opening lines of Averno —

"This is the moment you see again

the red berries of the mountain ash

and in the dark sky

the birds' night migrations "

Gluck creates a sensual, natural and concrete place, and yet with "not so much an attention on what is present as on what will be lost."

Sally Ball ('90) feels that originality, that voice speaking almost aloud, and that sense of crisis and distance.

Now an associate professor of English at Arizona State University and author of two collections of poetry, she wrote a senior thesis with Gluck and found her a keen observer who gave deep, close and respectful attention.

In Gluck's work, she loves an elegant precision about difficult things. An elemental lesson in writing workshops is to show, not tell, Ball said, but often what she loves most in a poem is a moment of telling.

In Gluck, she finds a potent energy between large ideas and strong emotions — and a debater's agility.

"She's articulate and wry and so funny," she said. "She has zingers."

Lines come back to her still. Recently, recognizing a new optimism in herself, she remembered "Snowdrops" in "The Wild Iris" —

"afraid, yes, but among you again

crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world."

And she has walked around for weeks with those words repeating in her mind.

If you go

What: Louise Gl ck reads from her work

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 1

Where: '62 Center, 1000 Main St., Williamstown

Admission: Free

Information: williams.edu


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