The Staying Power of Poetry

08 April 2022

I was delighted when Louise Glück, one of the great poets of our age, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. We featured some of her poems on "The Examined Year: 2020" and I wrote about one of my all-time favorite Glück poems, "Ithaca," for that show.

I share my thoughts about that poem again for this week's episode, "Why Poetry Matters," with none other thanLouise Glück做客!


The beloved doesn’t

need to live. The beloved

lives in the head. The loom

is for the suitors, strung up

like a harp with white shroud-thread.

He was two people.

He was the body and the voice, the easy

magnetism of a living man, and then

the unfolding dream or image

shaped by the woman working the loom,

sitting there in a hall filled

with literal-minded men.

As you pity

the deceived sea that tried

to take him away forever

and took only the first,

the actual husband, you must

pity these men: they don’t know

what they’re looking at;

they don’t know that when one loves this way

the shroud becomes a wedding dress.

The background story, of course, is drawn from the Odyssey. Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, is awaiting the return of her husband Odysseus, who’s been at war and at sea for two decades. Since most people assume he is dead, a bunch of suitors hang around in the palace, waiting for Penelope to choose one of them as her new royal husband; she says she’ll choose when she’s finished weaving a shroud for Laertes, father of Odysseus, but she secretly unweaves part of it every night. In Homer it’s a tale of steadfast fidelity and of ingenuity (Penelope is very much the equal of her famously wily husband). In Glück it’s also a meditation on love—and on poetry.


Well, if “the beloved lives in the head,” then even if he’s away for twenty years, in another sense he’s still with you. That's uplifting… right?

Not necessarily: it also means you’re in love with someone who doesn’t exist. A dead man. You’re married to a corpse.(Just listen to that beautiful hidden rhyme that seals the connection: "lives in the head" / "with white shroud-thread.”)

At a reading of her poetry, Glück had this to say about her writing: “My thinking is characterized by oppositions—I argue with myself, like a courtroom drama.” In “Ithaca” perhaps Glück is arguing with herself about love. Is love better when it attaches to a real person (in which case we suffer when they’re away from us) or when it attaches to our vision of them (in which case we may just be deluded)?


So is image-making bad? The final line seems to suggest as much: “the shroud becomes a wedding dress.” Pretty soon you’re married to something dead, trapped in a world that doesn’t exist, yoked together with no way out.


So maybe images are good after all; maybe the "literal-minded men,” who "don’t know what they’re looking at,” are the fools. The ability to understand metaphor—to see beyond surfaces, to see things for what they also stand for—is what lifts smart, wily, thoughtful, creative Penelope above these dullard men. Those pictures in your mind are life-enhancing, not life-destroying.

We’re invited to stand in judgment over those dumb, literal-minded suitors, and maybe even to wish them harm. (Lured by that brilliant line-break in the first stanza, did you think for a moment that “strung up” referred to them? Did you hope it?) But somehow we’re also asked to pity them, as the poem suddenly becomes about us, the reader (where did this “you” come from?): “As you pity / the deceived sea... you must / pity these men.”



Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, April 10, 2022 -- 4:01 AM


Heathcliff, it's me, I'm Cathy
I've come home, I'm so cold
Let me in your window
... Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush


A recent novel that points to the pus of that boil of pith is On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Poetry can rendevous with a reader, and a novel can lead you astray. The first hundred pages of Ocean's book are poetry; then, the final pages left me stranded. Poetry is a shot in the dark that hits or misses but seldom leads one on. But Wuthering Heights is another story, so to speak.


Song and poetry are also genres apart and related. Bob Dylan's 2016 Nobel prize now seems silly to this listener. Poetry, novels, songs… fiction made actual. I would double down on my show post to say poetry is the mentalese of experience and the chunks of art that make literature and song are Poetry in pieces.

Somehow this show has me thinking about Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, which I remember as being sung by Pat Benatar. Sometimes sticking is haunting like Catherine did Heathcliff or Odysseus did Penelope.


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