“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”
— Allen Ginsberg
One of the most talented contemporary poets, Louise Glück wrote this poem for her 50th birthday. Insightful, real, and sensitive, she seems to pull back the curtain to unveil the dark parts we don’t want to see. She gets at an intimacy that is at times uncomfortable. But she does so in the purest way.
By Louise Glück
Amazingly, I can look back
fifty years. And there, at the end of the gaze,
a human being already entirely recognizable,
the hands clutched in the lap, the eyes
staring into the future with the combined
terror and hopelessness of a soul expecting annihilation.
Entirely familiar, though still, of course, very young.
Staring blindly ahead, the expression of someone staring into utter darkness.
And thinking—which meant, I remember, the attempts of the mind
to prevent change.
Familiar, recognizable, but much more deeply alone, more despondent.
She does not, in her view, meet the definition
of a child, a person with everything to look forward to.
This is how the others look; this is, therefore, what they are.
Constantly making friends
with the camera, many of them actually
smiling with real conviction—
I remember that age. Riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing,
and at the same time suffused
with contempt for the communal, the ordinary; forever
consigned to solitude, the bleak solace of perception, to a future
completely dominated by the tragic, with no use for the immense will
but to fend it off—
That is the problem of silence:
one cannot test one’s ideas.
Because they are not ideas, they are the truth.
All the defenses, the spiritual rigidity, the insistent
unmasking of the ordinary to reveal the tragic,
were actually innocence of the world.
Meaning the partial, the shifting, the mutable—
all that the absolute excludes. I sat in the dark, in the living room.
The birthday was over. I was thinking, naturally, about time.
I remember how, in almost the same instant,
my heart would leap up exultant and collapse
in desolate anguish. The leaping up—the half I didn’t count—
that was happiness; that was what the word meant.
(Photograph by Robert Metz found here.)