Louise Gluck on Vocation and Selecting a Teacher

I have been rereading Louiae Gluck recently.  What follows is my manual transcription of passages from Louise Gluck’s essay,  “On Stanley Kunitz” in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press). This collection of essays appeared in 1994. Some context. Having previously studied with Leonie Adams, the young poet Louise Gluck first met the poet Stanley Kunitz when she was 19.

About a year ago, in a classroom, I was asked to comment on my training as a writer … I was being drawn out to confirm a theory, a parable meant to connect the person presented, the fierce poet in the display case, with the obliging, malleable girl I once must have been, the diligent student who, after cautious apprenticeship, boldly casts off authority in order to write the true poems, the poems of experience, not meant to please…

I don’t know if, at nineteen, I seemed malleable. Like all people with a powerful sense of vocation, I was concerned with what I could use; by some absolute rule I recognized those minds I needed. I was less concerned, being self-absorbed, with the degree to which, by exposing myself to other wills, I might myself be changed. That is, I felt it necessary that I change; I wanted to be more than I was. At what point is the self, the voice, so wholly realized as to make its every project sacred? Obsession with authority as a principle of annihilation preserves the individual at the expense of growth. Even twenty-five years ago, it seemed clear to me that if my talent was so fragile, so precarious, as to require insulation from the world, it would never produce what I dreamed of anyway. So I made a sort of contract: I was prepared to be changed, but only by the instruments of my own choosing. In that choice, I was meticulous.

Kunitz was my teacher for five years. But teacher seems the wrong noun, or maybe teach is the wrong verb. it seems simultaneously limited and coercive, as though its ends product were to be a treaty of perpetual accord. For five years I overheard a splendid mind engaged with words, with what was the most crucial involvement in my life. I saw a kind of rigor in practice, and thought the sacrifice of contentment (which I didn’t have anyway) was well worth such serious joy.

As the myth contends, I wrote to please him. In this, he was one in a series of projections, beginning with my mother. But the advantage in trying to please Kunitz was immense: what he wanted was to be surprised. This meant that the lines he admired in January would not interest him in March. His voice became that part of my own mind that has been, since childhood, the tireless drill sergeant saying “more, more”, but in his voice concrete criticism substituted for mortification: where my own mind said “you are a fool to have hoped”, which produced anguish and justified laziness, Kunitz’s voice would comment on the weak line, the dull word, the specific opacity. Where I damned and abandoned, he exhorted and compelled in the way only an outside voice can, because it can be excused praise. I felt, much of the time, doomed and exhilarated, or, in practical terms, always very tired, like a salmon swimming against the current. I had in Kunitz, not only a persuasive argument for stamina, but a companion spirit, someone my poems could talk to. Because what was clear from the first was that nothing in them was lost on him. I owe a great deal to Leonie Adams, but in the most profound sense Kunitz was the first human being by whom I felt entirely heard and this fact was a source of endless happiness. It couldn’t have been, the sensation couldn’t have lasted, if it translated into blanket approval. I wanted approval, but more than that I wanted to be heard, which is, I think, a more convincing proof of existence…

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