Louise Glück on Emily Dickinson, the Ego, and “Autumnal”

Louise Glück visited Pearl London's class in February of 1979, while at work on Descending Figure, her fourth collection. She was already recognized as a strong voice in contemporary poetry and would ultimately go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and be appointed the US Poet Laureate from 2003 to 2004.

As in her conversation with James Merrill, London's discussion with Louise Glück turns towards the issue of personal pronouns. And Glück, like Merrill, says that she tries to avoid them, or at least to avoid the "swagger" and the egotism that comes with emphasizing "I" and "me." Glück complains that contemporary poetry is "horrifically disfigured" by the "territoriality...that goes out to claim 'my pain,' 'my father,' 'my mother,' 'my past.'" Here is the audio of this conversation:

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She brings up, as a counter example, Emily Dickinson's use (or rather, non-use) of personal pronouns, quoting from "After great pain, / a formal feeling comes--"

After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead -
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--

Dickinson drains the ego out of her poem by emphasizing the parts of a person rather than the whole--"the Nerves," "the stiff Heart," "the Feet." The definite article lends a feeling of specificity, but there is no "I," "you" or "ours" to define this subject further. Although Glück's poem "Autumnal" can be read as similarly ego-less, it achieves this by different means. Glück brought in her typescript of this poem, and also read it for the class:

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Public sorrow, the acquired
gold of the leaf, the falling off,
the prefigured burning of the yield:
which is accomplished. At the lake's edge,
the metal pails are full vats of fire.
So waste is elevated
into beauty. And the scattered dead
unite in one consuming vision of order.
In the end, everything is bare.
Above the cold, receptive earth
the trees bend. Beyond,
the lake shines, placid, giving back
the established blue of heaven.

                           The word
is bear: you give and give, you empty yourself
into a child. And you survive
the automatic loss. Against inhuman landscape,
the tree remains a figure for grief; its form
is forced accommodation. At the grave,
it is the woman, isn't it, who bends,
the spear useless beside her.

The very first words, "public sorrow," indicate a shared grief, but by the end it is the ambiguously plural, and certainly female, "you" that is suffering. It is clear that Glück is speaking about her own pain, even if it is not hers exclusively. In this way, she accomplishes what she tells London is her aim: to "write poetry that was intensely personal and seemed absolutely devoid of egotism."