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Opinion: The poet who found truth in death, seasons, teaching and even ‘Schitt’s Creek’

Opinion by Richie Hofmann

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Richie Hofmann is the author of two books of poems, “A Hundred Lovers” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022) and “Second Empire” (Alice James Books, 2015). His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poetry and The Yale Review, and he has been honored with the Ruth Lilly and Wallace Stegner fellowships. Read more opinion on CNN.

Louise Glück, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature and former US Poet Laureate, died in October. Her poetry abounds with images of that month, the season with its falling leaves and falling nights. Winter is around the corner, but it’s not here yet. Death and darkness — real possibilities made visible and palpable in the autumn — are held in mind and held at bay.

Everyone dies, but few people spend so much time and imagination thinking about it. Death was one of Glück’s great poetic subjects and personal obsessions, from her earliest published poems in the 1960s through to her acclaimed books.

Just three years ago this month, we were celebrating her poetry, the promise of an afterlife that the Nobel Prize might bring, but still in this lifetime. We could congratulate her and feel connected to other writers. We could hold the promise of more work, more friendship and more time.

Now those of us who loved her, and who loved her poems, can hardly believe that she’s gone. It seems unfathomable that there won’t be more poems to rely on. It all happened so quickly.

Glück achieved her literary fame and following in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of highly accomplished books — “Ararat,” “The Wild Iris,” “Meadowlands.” In each of them, she reinvented her style and persona. Through all these transformations, she maintained her commitment to clarity and precision of image and thought and her unwavering devotion to saying something true.

Death was often her subject, but not oblivion. Her poems are certain of that.

returns from oblivion returns

to find a voice

“The advantage of poetry over life,” Glück wrote in an essay in the early 1990s, “is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last.” Her poems speak to us from the same elsewhere, the same dark and sensuous beyond they always have.

When we met, I had just published my first book of poems; Louise was working on what became her last. Her mentorship was intense and emotional. The stakes, as usual, were high: life, death, redemption, transformation. Unlike most busy professors, she seemed to beg for new work, to beg to see it and to want to talk about it, challenge it, refine it.

Louise was the invisible author of so many of our poems; her rigor and care and love breathe in them.

She despised the notion that, for artists, teaching had so often been seen as a distraction from the real work. For her, working with other writers was at the heart of her writing process. She had developed an entire mythology about the way teaching saved her own poetry, reigniting her writing after periods of painful silence.

With her last books, she said, she didn’t need the energizing force of teaching she thought she needed. Even in her late 70s, even at the peak of her literary career, mythologies could be broken, transcended.

“Winter Recipes from the Collective,” the final collection of poems published in her lifetime, is a book in preparation for the titular winter — an autumnal book, a book of failing light and fewer crops. Night is falling. Snow is falling. Life and art in those poems must be forged from what is on hand.

Fall was approaching.
But I remember
it was always approaching
once school ended.

At a reading at Stanford University a couple years ago, she said that, now in old age, approaching death, she realized that death had not been the thing to fear, but aging: the betrayals of the body, the loss of people and worlds you clung to.

Long ago I was born.
There is no one alive anymore
who remembers me as a baby.

She lived, I think, with an abiding fear that her work and its reception would deprive her of a normal life. So when we spoke, we spoke mostly about normal things: food, kitchen renovations, designer clothes, astrology, anxieties about money, grievances with departmental colleagues.

She eschewed public ceremony but embraced private ritual. Routines, the same meals, the same restaurants. After the Covid-19 lockdown, we finally had an in-person reunion, eating spicy Hunanese takeout on her back deck in Berkeley, California. I was so overjoyed to see her, and grateful for having survived the pandemic, somehow — the isolation and the apartness.

She confessed she had survived by watching the entire series of “Schitt’s Creek” multiple times. “I had to stop when I had the entire thing memorized,” she said.

I must have made a face of judgmental surprise.

“It’s a show about survival,” Louise said, so seriously, without blinking. “That you can lose everything and still keep going.”

She always spoke in a voice that sounded to me so much like her poems. Witty and dark, always in perfect, complete sentences. Never meandering. She emailed like that, too, from her iPad. Dry, sardonic, endlessly wise.

In the café at Chez Panisse, where Louise dined nearly every night during her stays in California, she said to me this spring, our last dinner together, that she didn’t feel like writing poems. And for the first time didn’t feel upset about it. She had somehow made peace with the silence; it wasn’t painful anymore.

Of course, she had won the Nobel Prize in 2020. For a long time, her work had been immense, and her achievements nearly unmatched. With the international prize, she may well be the one American poet from the second half of the 20th century whose work is read and studied in 100 years.

She also became a grandmother. To twins. For those beautiful babies, the stern poet became soft. I had never seen her more energetic, prouder, than when sharing stories about her grandchildren, marveling at their language acquisition, playing Maria Callas records for them.

It is beautiful to me that her final published book (a prose fiction called “Marigold and Rose,” which came out last year) centered on grandchildren, on twins, imagining their minds and inhabiting their sophisticated worldviews.

These two events, public achievement and private love, twin versions of immortality, are consolations for the loss we can scarcely comprehend.

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