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Media-shy poet laureate won't follow in predecessors' footsteps
( 2003-10-24 16:20) (Agencies)

Critics praise Louise Gluck for wringing powerful emotions from simple language, and for poetry that resonates equally with experts and common readers who recognize her evocations of grief and loss, and of falling in and out of love.

But despite the accessibility of her work, America's new poet laureate is an intensely private person.

Gluck (pronounced ``Glick'') has made it clear to the Library of Congress, which appointed her and pays her privately endowed $35,000 stipend, that she won't be following in the footsteps of predecessors, who transformed the position into a kind of traveling salesman to promote the art.

The man she succeeded, Billy Collins, went on cross-country tours, got behind a program pushing schools to choose a poem a day for pupils to read and has even recorded poetry selections for a Delta Airlines in-flight audio channel. Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Robert Haas all took part in high-profile initiatives to promote poetry appreciation.

But many of her fellow poets say that role would never suit Gluck, and she should follow her own course.

``The poet laureate is very free to lead a poetry circus or stick to one's own knitting,'' said Collins. Said Pinsky, a close friend: ``It's not a public relations job. It's not any kind of a job. It's an honor.''

The Library encourages laureates to craft the position in their own way, but limits its official duties. Gluck is scheduled to give her inaugural lecture at the Library on Tuesday, and has events planned in February and May 2004. Jill Brett, the Library's director of communications, said Gluck has expressed an interest in programs to encourage young poets, though she had no specifics.

``Obviously, the idea of the poet laureateship is to have a wide variety of poetic styles represented and personal styles that go with those styles,'' Brett said. ``She is a poet of unusual qualities and certainly is of a very high caliber. We're very delighted to have her.''

Gluck declined to sit for an interview, and during a brief telephone conversation, said she preferred not to act as an intermediary for readers' experience with her work.

``I have no concern with widening audience,'' said Gluck, who prefers her audience ``small, intense, passionate.''

Gluck was born on Long Island. Her father was the son of Hungarian immigrants who also wanted to be a writer. But he lacked the all-consuming passion that ``makes it possible to endure every form of failure'' and went into business, Gluck said in a 1989 lecture, ``The Education of a Poet,'' which was published in her 1994 book, ``Proofs and Theories.''

Gluck looked to her mother for approval but rarely found it, she wrote, and in her teens became severely anorexic, forcing her to drop out of school and undergo seven years of psychoanalysis. She worried the therapy would quelch her writing, but instead ``it taught me to think,'' she wrote.

She enrolled in Columbia University's School of General Studies, and flourished under the teaching of Stanley Kunitz, himself a laureate.

``She was already marked for the virtues that continue to be demonstrated by her in her work, not only a command of the medium but a sense of time and history that gives her work a dimension beyond the personal,'' Kunitz said.

Gluck's nine books of poetry, including the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning ``The Wild Iris,'' range across a variety of styles and settings _ from Ancient Greece and the Old Testament to gardens. In topics from marriage to death, her evocations are often melancholy but beautifully nuanced and lyrical _ with rhythm and punctuation often packing as much of the emotional punch as the words themselves.

``I don't find her work bleak,'' Pinsky said. ``It cheers me up, because it makes me think there are fresh things to be said in the world.''

From her earliest experience reading poetry as a child, ``I preferred the simplest vocabulary,'' Gluck wrote. ``What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word's setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word's full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise.''

Gluck, now 60, has taught at a number of colleges. She lives on a quite Cambridge side street and commutes to her current job at Williams College in Williamstown, clear across the state. She has been married twice, most recently to John Dranow, a founder of the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.

``She has a temperament that requires, as most poets have found, a certain degree of solitude in which to do her work,'' Kunitz said. But Pinsky described her as witty and amusing, and an excellent teacher.

``She has an excellent sense of humor, but I think the world for her is a very stark place,'' said Karl Kurchwey, director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr college, an acquaintance who has taught her work.

But Kurchwey and others welcomed the appointment.

``I think it's very good to have the next poet laureate be someone who's less focused on poetry as entertainment and@focused on poetry as a serious search for wisdom in language, on poetry as something that can have great difficulties and correspondingly great rewards,'' Stephen Burt, an assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, said.

Said Pinsky: ``It's very important that (the laureateship) be able to go to poets who aren't gregarious. Wouldn't it be horrible to think that a great poet wouldn't be selected to this post because she didn't want to go on television?''

What matters, said Collins, is that Gluck's body of work, which had already won nearly every other major poetry honor, deserved this one as well.

``There are so many kinds of poets,'' he said, noting the differences between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, two of America's greatest poets. ``Whitman was outgoing, gregarious and self-promoting, and Dickinson stayed in her room.

``But if you look back they are the two pillars of 19th-century American poetry, and they each did it their own way,'' he said.

In ``Education of the Poet,'' Gluck described the vocation of writing as a kind of helplessness, a calling that is extraordinarily challenging both to fulfill and ignore.

``It is a life dignified, I think, by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement,'' she wrote.

Sample of poems by new poet laureate

``Mirror Image''

Tonight I saw myself in the dark window as
the image of my father, whose life
was spent like this,
thinking of death, to the exclusion
of other sensual matters,
so in the end that life
was easy to give up, since
it contained nothing"my mother's voice couldn't make him
change or turn back
as he believed
that once you can't love another human being
you have no place in the world.

From ``Ararat,'' 1990


My great happiness
is the sound your voice makes
calling to me even in despair; my sorrow
that I cannot answer you
in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language.
So you invest
authority in signs
you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become
your own response.

From ``The Wild Iris,'' 1992.

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