Sudden Spoon

Collaborative Close Readings

“Vespers” by Louise Glück

Our first poem for close reading and discussion is “Vespers” by Louise Glück.

Here we have what seems to be not so much a prayer–Vespers is an evening prayer service– as a strongly stated affirmation of human responsibility, a criticism of the lack of beneficence from the forces of nature (or perhaps a deity figure), and the abnegation of divine responsibility that results in human failure. Gluck’s potent metaphors for growth, blight, rot, and death are tightly held in terse language that unfurls against her scene of a garden in the bleakness of approaching winter.

It is the end of the growing season, and the carefully nurtured tomato plants have been subjected to heavy rains and even an early frost.  There are blight spots on the fruits that have spread throughout  the entire crop.  The “I” of the poem reacts to this loss with an acerbic commentary on how the “extended absence” of this higher power has given permission for Gluck to make “use” of the earth, to plant the seeds in her garden, but the lack of any control over the extremes of the weather has caused this rot, even though there had been some sort of expectation of a successful harvest, her intended offering now blighted and ruined.  This is a poem of dark images and impersonal language, not the kind of talk one would think would constitute any kind of invocation or prayer to a  deity, but rather it is almost like a controlled imprecation, a railing in tightly-held language against the forces of nature that conspire against success.

I am very interested in the way Gluck uses this language to convey her sense of her own responsibility in the face of the unresponsiveness of nature, and also in the juxtaposition of images, both dark (the evocation of the end of the day–and on a higher level, life itself–by calling the poem “Vespers,”) and more hopeful: the vines for which she feels responsible.  There are colors in the poem as well that evoke the ending of the day and the dying of the garden: the red of the tomato echoed in the “red leaves of the maple falling/Even in August.”  There also seems to be a reversal of whose job it is to be the creator; she herself has planted the seeds, watching “the first shoots/like wings tearing the soil” while the sole job of nature is not to “discriminate/between the dead and the living”  thus causing the destruction of the garden. She writes of the “terror we bear” caused by the approach of winter, yet she ends the poem with the word, “vines,” an interconnected plant that grows by network, spreading across rather than falling down, and she renews her sense of responsibility for their continued existence.

Do you think that Gluck is angry at nature/God/the Other for falling down on the job? And why? Whose job is it to be in charge of creation and growth? She writes of her “heart/broken by the blight” and asserts that she doubts “you have a heart, in our understanding of/that term.” How do you think she uses language and lineation to convey her tone, and how does this poem rise above being just the angry musings of a gardener miffed that her tomato crop has been ruined?

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About Nadia Ghent

I am a work-at-home mother reluctantly giving up full-time, hands-on, no-holds-barred mothering as my children grow up and move on to taking care of their own lives.

22 comments on ““Vespers” by Louise Glück

  1. blazesboylanBrian Upsher
    November 26, 2012

    I am a little puzzled about which poem we are to discuss. In The Wild Iris there are actually ten poems titled Vespers. Can you give guidance please. Am i missing something?
    Brian Upsher

    • Elizabeth Evans
      November 26, 2012

      Brian, click the link for the poem. It is a little hard to see because links under this wordpress theme are just sort of tan instead of bright blue. I had no idea there were ten with the same title! It makes me wonder what the other are like.

  2. blazesboylan
    November 26, 2012

    Thanks, I have the link now. This is the second Vespers poem in Gluck’s book.
    Brian Upsher

    • Nadia Ghent
      November 26, 2012

      Yes, she wrote quite a number of Vespers poems. The image must have a lot of meaning for her. I am also very intrigued by the way this poem and many others of hers in the same vein do not fall into depressive moroseness but seem to have a strong life channel running through them.

    • Nadia Ghent
      November 26, 2012

      Thank you for the link to the excellent article on Louise Gluck in The Nation. Very well worth reading and helpful in placing a context for “Vespers.”

  3. Paige Polcene
    November 26, 2012

    Hi Nadia!
    Thanks for giving us our first poem to discuss. I’m going to spend some time thinking about this before I give a full response, but one thing that stood out for me on first reading is the sound of the last line…”for these vines”…which made me think …”for these lines”…
    Maybe there is a bit of meta-poetic thinking going on here.

    • Nadia Ghent
      November 26, 2012

      Absolutely! I completely agree that there is quite a bit of meta-poetic stuff going on here!

  4. smhamon
    November 26, 2012

    I find any poem that attempts to create a fanciful conversation with the God of the universe amusing. The task is fraught with snares; and for that reason alone, I applaud Louise Gluck. It is a place “angels fear to tread”—and ambitious poets should also. The speaker expresses disgruntlement at having ill success in growing her tomato vines. Since she has chosen, we assume, to live in a climate with “heavy rains” and “cold nights,” there is some irony in her blaming the Creator of weather for her failure. This is a heartless god, one who does not “discriminate between the dead and the living.” Well, apparently he does discriminate between those who choose to grow tomatoes in cold climates and those who know better. But that is a thorny theological topic for another day. As to whether this Creator is “immune to foreshadowing,” I would suggest that the speaker consult the passage about the “lilies of the field.” (Matt 6:30: “And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.”) Yes, the “spotted leaf” and the falling maple leaves do foreshadow our own mortality. But in our “vespers” it would serve us well to know that the speaker may be responsible for the vines, but the Creator of the weather is responsible for every hair on our heads. All in all, a fun poem for reaching as far as it does.

    • Nadia Ghent
      November 28, 2012

      What is intriguing to me is that Gluck is the creator of the poem, and so has assumed the power she disparages is missing in the Creator.

    • Elizabeth Evans
      December 1, 2012

      I have to wonder, you amused by the Psalms as well? But it could be argued that many of the Psalmists were presumptuous as well.

      • smhamon
        December 1, 2012

        Hi, Elizabeth. Yes, I often am amused by the psalmists! I am filled with probably insufficient awe of the God of the universe, so those who attempt to complain about certain things (such as, a poor tomato crops
        ) do amuse me. That is not to say that this very same God doesn’t want us to converse. I love “Fiddler on the Roof” for that very reason among many: how Tevye chats and argues is delightful.

  5. laszlo semble
    November 27, 2012

    It’s hard to read this poem without thinking of the observation made by Daniel Quinn (Ishmael), Jared Diamond (The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race), Toby Hemenway (How Permaculture Can Save Humanity), and Charles Mann (State of the Species), among others, that farming may be the biggest folly we have ever undertaken. For most of homo sapiens’ history we foraged–we looked at the world around us, forests, wetlands, plains, and we saw food, just like every other species on this planet. The story of becoming agriculturists is a tragic tale of becoming disconnected from our knowledge of how to survive and thrive by taking what’s already there.

    The sky gods of monotheism were dreamed up by the agriculturalists. Gluck’s poem is filled with the language and mindset of the takers (Quinn’s term for the agriculturalist’s view that the natural world is theirs to exploit) and with the fear that her particular sky god may be uncaring or unreachable or simply non-existent.

    The foragers saw numinous powers everywhere.

    We see the taker mindset most clearly in these words: return on investment, report, failure, assignment, and I am responsible for these vines.

    There is tragic hubris in those last six words.

    • Nadia Ghent
      November 28, 2012

      Yes, of course, the hubris of the poet who has created this verbal landscape. But what is left is the language of her creation, so in a sense she is not really a taker at all, but a giver, since she is giving the poem to us for our consideration. What a folly to be a farmer, but at least you end up with tomatoes that you can complain about, not rocks like Frost in “Mending Wall”!

  6. abuonin
    November 30, 2012

    I just posted my brief essay on this poem (great choice, Nadia!), but I wanted to ask here if anyone has any insight into something that has been gnawing at me about this poem: why the colons? Both places that Gluck uses colons seem to be ideal for semi-colons, and I know they must be significant, but I could not piece together an acceptable explanation. Any thoughts?

    • Elizabeth Evans
      November 30, 2012

      I’ve been looking hard at form as I consider this poem, so I might try to tackle that question.

  7. dennisaguinaldo
    December 2, 2012

    I’d like to ask too if (and why) we believe this poem to be Dickinsonian. I remember Nadia’s introductory post to Gluck at FB, and the reviewer in the article (if I remember correctly) commented that a reader could find more Dickinson than Plath in Gluck.

    • Nadia Ghent
      December 2, 2012

      I think I’d need to start by finding “Vespers” not-Plathian and hope that this would put me on the path to finding it Dickinsonian (but it might not!). Certainly Gluck and Plath seem to share a number of similar themes: death on the horizon, anger, love, darkness, but to me Gluck has a counter-balancing vitality (even in her use of business-like, impersonal language here–this suggests the existence of a more emotionally free tone) especially in her assuming responsibility for the continuation of her verse, her tomatoes. Plath seems to spin away from the lifeline that responsibility throws out.

      I’m on shaky ground as far as Dickinson, but with my limited knowledge (resting mainly on ModPo), I would say that what seems to make Gluck more like Emily here is the small sense of surprise we get at the end; we might not necessarily expect Louise to claim responsibility after cataloging the way her efforts have been undercut by nature. We might have thought she’d give up. But in a more Dickinsonian turn, she faces the ruin and expected despair of her verbal landscape by claiming ownership of her fate.

      I am sure you will have much more enlightening thoughts on this!

      • dennisaguinaldo
        December 4, 2012

        Vitality! That’s a neat way toward the Plath/Dickinson binary set up by the reviewer. I will have to review Plath, but yes, whenever vitality makes its presence known in her poems, it belongs to (or on the side of) her oppressor: father, husband, even her baby at night, clutching at her. So life is ranged against Plath. There is great vitality in a small figure (dwarfed, shadowed by the You, but not diminished) of Gluck’s persona in “Vespers,” and yes the conceits here could be seen as Dickinsonian. Clutching the vines, staking her claims to the bounty before her. Thanks for addressing my Q, Nadia.

  8. Susan Scheid
    December 7, 2012

    Did anyone see this: In her Boston Review article, Poetry on the Brink, Marjorie Perloff mentions Glück: “Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as O’Hara.” I know I’m way behind the curve over here, but I couldn’t resist popping by to note this & am curious about what folks think. The whole article is here: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/marjorie_perloff_poetry_lyric_reinvention.php

    Bravos and bravas to all on the terrific discussions going on here. I hope to be able to join in more fully at some point.

    • Nadia Ghent
      December 7, 2012

      Yes, I did read Perloff’s article and was a bit dismayed at her evaluation of Gluck but not surprised. I do understand Perloff’s concern that poetry is becoming trite and predictable and has lost the excitement of innovativeness, the “make it new” replaced by make it approachable. I am wading through the response to her article, the one by Yankelevich which is quite a bit of tough sledding for me. But it is fun to have a ringside seat while these critics slug it out!

      • smhamon
        December 7, 2012

        Well, I just finished the Perloff essay and waded through the comments. It’s a fascinating debate. I’m late in coming to realize that Al is an avid disciple of Perloff and the ModPo syllabus was informed and influenced and nurtured by Perloff’s vision of “poetry” and what constitutes “creative” and “innovative” poetry. And the debate rages on. Perloff’s ideas about the “formulaic” quality of much modern poetry is accurate to a degree. But I wonder what she would say about the “formulaic” quality of 95% of the prose writing of the past thirty years. What informs my lukewarm reaction to the poets of ModPo in weeks 9.1,9.2 and 9.3 and the the poets that Perloff champions is that they do exemplify a kind of reductio ad absurdum to poetry: If to be fresh, creative and new…if to break the mold of the formulaic… necessitates a process of creation that is so innovative that it destroys all that has come before and all that was thought of as “artistic” and “beautiful” from the past, what kind of a “brave, new world” have we entered? One of the comments to Perloff’s essay was interesting:

        “Poetry is too uniform, therefore poets should copy existing material.
        Someone explain how this passes even the most elementary logical test.”

        The point being: Why use existing “formulaic” poetry to create a “written-through” or “conceptualist” poetry? Or, for that matter, why call “poetry” something a teacher of a by-gone era might have called awkward or garbled plagiarism? Have we evolved in our expectations and definitions of poetry to a point where anything new, anything innovative, anything that deconstructs the formulas is considered legitimate art?

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2012 by in Poem of the Week, Week 1.
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