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Poems Big and Small: Louise Glück at the Barker Center

Like most famous people, Louise Glück is shorter than I expected. At Glück’s reading on April 10th in the Barker center, the room was so packed I had to sit on the floor. From this vantage, I had a better view of the audience than of the stage, such that when Glück arrived, what I saw first was not the poet herself, but the awed looks that followed her into the room, signaling that this, this mild and unassuming figure, was the Poet Laureate, the Louise Glück.

Glück’s reading was a study in contrasts. The poems were packed with the first-person, existential intensity that characterizes her work. Yet in performance, she read her work in a slow, husky monotone that felt oddly quiet and small. Glück herself presented no fewer contradictions. Though plainly-dressed, soft-spoken, and diminutive, Glück moved through the room with unseen force, parting the crowd with ease.

We often treat works of art as self-contained aesthetic objects whose formal qualities give them meaning independent of the lives and intentions of their artists. Every time I attend a poetry reading, I find new reasons to doubt this critical approach and the lingering influence of New Criticism it represents. The strange contrasts of Louise Glück’s event reflect the uncanny way both poem and poet can transform at a reading—a space that puts the artist in intimate proximity to their art. Perhaps we can understand texts as self-contained aesthetic objects. But is that enough?

Take “October,” the first poem Glück read. On its own, the poem is an exploration of the natural world as muse and tormenter—inspiring in its beauty, yet mocking in how it will survive us. “October” unfolds over 62 strophes. At the reading, as Glück worked her way through the poem, its length gave the words time to absorb the closeness and intimacy of her delivery. Glück herself even seemed to become part of the poem, her small presence shadowed by the oracular voice of the poem’s speaker.

Something similar happened when Glück read “A Foreshortened Journey”—a prose poem she said she wrote during a two-week attempt to best Kafka's short short stories. In the poem, the imagery of a children’s story turns into an allegory for mortality, as a grandmother and a child meet a man collapsed halfway up the stairs of his life. On the page, this poem is unsettling. But in Glück’s reading, the eerie presence of death was palpable, as if it had slipped out of the poem and settled somewhere just behind the poet’s body.

I don’t think the idea that seeing poetry performed is a unique experience will shock many readers. But I do think this fact reveals something significant about how we draw the boundaries of a text. The New Critical approach may make sense when we limit a literary work to words on a page: After all, if at least some meaning does not live in the text alone, how could an uninformed reader still appreciate it? Yet a real and strikingly new version of the text seems to exist at the nexus of words, speech, and body that a live reading creates. And for interpreting this intense intrusion of the written word into reality, New Criticism offers no tools.

Thinking over this experience later that night, I was reminded of German critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aura” of a work of art. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argues that when technology made art reproducible, we lost a level of aesthetic experience—that is, the aura, the almost supernatural force that present and original art exerts on the viewer. But maybe this aura is not lost; maybe it exists in the alchemy that combines and transforms poem and poet into a new and larger work of art at readings. And maybe the reason we exclude this way of interacting with a text from our literary theory is because this aura is hard to come by in an age when Poetry Foundation makes the black-and-white letters of any poem available instantly and for free.

None of this is to say that the digitization and dissemination of poetry is a problem. I think it’s a solution—one that has made art more available to more people than ever before. But I will remember this experience the next time I’m tempted to skip a reading because I could read the poetry online. After the reading, I approached Glück to get a book signed and found myself dumbstruck by this small, quiet, and unimposing character. Glück asked me how to spell my name and, for a second, I didn’t know. No webpage has ever made me feel that kind of awe.