‘So unabashedly herself’: Louise Glück’s influence on writers at Stanford

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Jim Whiteside first encountered Louise Glück’s poetry in an undergraduate seminar senior year. The work that stood out to him then was “Mock Orange,” a poem full of anger, frustration and a complicated relationship with sexuality. That time he mispronounced her last name in front of one of his poetry professors, and was quickly corrected. 

“If you ever get the chance to meet her, make sure you say her name correctly,” the professor said. 

Several years later Whiteside found himself in Glück’s poetry workshop as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

The 2020 Literature Nobel Laureate, Louise Glück, is a visiting professor for creative writing at the University. This partnership, according to the interim director of Creative Writing Patrick Phillips, is the product of friendship between Glück and Eavan Boland, who served as a director of the creative writing program for 21 years before she passed away earlier this year. 

“Thanks to Eavan’s efforts, Louise has served as our Mohr Visiting Poet five times, starting with her first quarter in 2011,” Phillips said. “The position brings Glück to Stanford to teach an advanced undergraduate course called ‘The Occasions of Poetry,’ which one student described to me as ‘the chance of a lifetime.'”

Sun Paik ’20 M.A. ’21 who took the class during her sophomore winter fell in love with Glück’s “uniquely candid” work in high school, also starting with “Mock Orange.”

“When applying [for the class] I still had this very ambiguous notion of who she was and how to approach her as an entity because she was just so up in this realm of being untouchable.”

Paik said she had no reason to believe she would get into the class or that Glück would ever read her writing. When she got accepted, Glück showcased her characteristic candor in one of the first workshops. The professor picked Paik’s “horrible 4th of July poem” for an in-class editing lesson. Glück praised the first line of the work but spent an hour and a half  “allowing the rest of the 15 lines to evaporate.”

Paik cried after class. Then she read the feedback again. Now, she admits that because of the questions Glück asked and emotions she challenged, Paik continues to write. 

“She is incredibly honest with herself and with the world and I did not know that was allowed,” Paik said. “Louise taught me what was allowed in poetry was so much more than I expected.” 

Whiteside echoed Paik, describing the professor’s critiques as harsh but “in the spirit of making greater art.” In a graduate student workshop for Stenger Fellows, Glück challenged the students by assigning them to write a poem per week. 

“That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a hefty rate of creative output!” Whiteside wrote. “Louise likes to see a larger volume of work from each poet to get a sense of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies, opportunities for growth.”

When giving feedback, Whiteside wrote that Glück encouraged writers to find a new voice and take the opportunity to “reappear” after the previous book. 

“This was especially helpful, because I’d found myself in a bit of a rut, writing what felt like the same poem over and over,” he wrote. “Louise made suggestions like ‘try longer lines,’ ‘write a prose poem,’ ‘read something else, like a cheap mystery novel,’ anything to break me out of my routine and find new possibilities.”

Glück did not tolerate routine in her teaching, particularly when assigning and evaluating students’ work. 

Paik remembers receiving assignments on paper in “size 12 Courier New font, like a typewriter” telling her to read the works of the following 40 poets. 3-minute long silences in the beginning of class merged into intense lessons about lyric poetry. Paik’s final assignment was also not to be submitted on Canvas, but instead sent by mail or presented to Glück at her house in Berkeley. 

Stegner Fellow Taneum Bambrick wrote that Glück challenged the class, presenting them with “complicated, seemingly nonsensical prompts.”

“For example: ‘write about a time when you were at a performance as a child and something happened that you didn’t expect; the title of this poem must be the name of an emotion,’—which forced us out of our habits and comforts on the page,” Bambrick wrote.

Glück did not like planned poems, comparing them to “paint by numbers paintings,” forcing writers in her classes to be less cautious and more candid.  

“She helped me recognize that my own strategies were actually not allowing me to write,” Bambrick wrote.

News about Glück’s most recent achievement did not come as a surprise to her former students. Whiteside saw the award as a recognition of both her talent and the impact she had on American poetry through mentorship.

“One of her students, former Stegner Fellow Noah Warren, said that if books of poems were attributed like scientific articles, she’d be a secondary author on over a hundred books, and I think that’s true,” Whiteside wrote. 

When Paik saw Glück’s comments in an interview, immediately after the announcement of her award, about needing a cup of coffee because it was an early morning in Cambridge, Mass., she recognized the brutal honesty from the class.

“She is so unintentionally hilarious and so unabashedly herself,” Paik said. 

A part of that interview that captured Bambrick’s attention for days was Glück’s worries about not having any friends after receiving the award. 

“My first thought was ‘I won’t have any friends’ because most of my friends are writers. But then I thought ‘no, that won’t happen.’ It’s too new, you know … I don’t know really what it means,” Glück said in the interview.

“What does it mean that our success, as poets, can actually make us less popular among our peers?” Bambrick wrote. She also highlighted the significance of the award to the broader community of poets. 

“When Louise won the Nobel Prize, I think a lot of poets felt seen, or like they had also won.”

Contact Anastasia Malenko at malenk0 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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