oni Morrison tells a story about a wise old woman who was blind. Her reputation flowers and extends even as far as the city, where, as Morrison puts it, “the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.”
TONI MORRISON TELLS A STORY
Here’s the rest of the story:
“One day the blind, wise woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’
“She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’
“Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
“The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
“Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’
“Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”
Toni Morrison won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993 as a novelist. Winners include novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists, historians, philosophers, journalists, and even one songwriter, Bob Dylan.
Last week, I asked you, dear reader, how many American women poets have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your google results returned, I imagine, that which I found: “American Poet Louise Glück Awarded 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, First U.S. Woman To Win Since Toni Morrison.” Or “First American Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 27 years (which is when Toni Morrison won).
Now those of you who delved into the actual data from the link I shared, have, no doubt, found some interesting data. (A special thank you to my Irish friend for confirming these numbers.) Here is that link again:
Total number of women who have received the award since 1901: sixteen
Total number of women poets awarded the prize since 1901: four
Total number of female American poets awarded the prize since 1901: one. Louise Glück.
While the number of years since Toni Morrison’s award is interesting, it pales beside the fact that Louise Glück is the first female American poet ever to win. And where did this news break? The NYTimes? Fox News? No, in writing4godot. And while I take great pleasure in ferreting this out, with my research team of one, I submit that women’s accomplishments are still not lauded the way they should be. I recently read that it will take six generations instead of five for parity in wages for women. And this will have a bearing on my response to Professor Matt Sandler’s criticism of Louise Glück.
Here’s the Sandler’s critique:
ERASURE OF WOMEN
Let’s talk about the erasure of women. Sandler, for all his data, does not credit Louise Glück with being the only female American poet to win this prize. And, unfortunately, as we have seen, he is not alone in that omission. Here’s what he does say: “She is undoubtedly a great poet, and has been recognized as such many times over; such people’s politics are often repellent. But the lecture betrays an unconsciously racist hostility that must not pass without more detailed comment, especially at this moment in which so much hangs in the balance.”
There goes Louise Glück! Lost under the cover of “undoubtedly.” Since Sandler is a creative writing professor, certainly he can do better than that. He takes aim at her acceptance speech, at her politics. And while he admires Blake to a degree, he doesn’t like Glück’s choice of Blake. Her choice, he says “of nineteenth-century white authors represents Black voices in clumsy or malicious ways.” Fair enough, although what is interesting is that Sandler then has much good, rightly, to say about Blake.
WILLIAM BLAKE IS A GENIUS
Let’s admire Blake for a minute. Sandler does not, I admit, say that Blake is a genius. We will save that for another day. According to Sandler, though, Blake is a poet who “also manages some complex and frankly gorgeous interracial and anti-racist premises, for instance, imagining raced bodies (both white and black) as ‘cloud[s]’ which will blow away in a kind of post-racial eternity. Despite its limitations, Blake’s work inspired Black poets through twentieth century, starting with Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen in the 1920s.” Wow! That is quite an extended compliment. You would think that Blake had won the prize.
Why doesn’t Sandler respond to Glück’s poetry with a similar nuance? In fact, the opposite occurs. He goes after her work, saying, “The notoriously petty business of poetry [prizes] aside, what’s most galling is still Glück’s implicit claims for the whiteness of the interior, the intimate, and the private.” And by the end of her speech, Sandler identifies this: “Glück closes by assuring us that, with the Nobel Academy’s support, she will continue ‘to honor the intimate private voice.’ The lecture ends on this rather deflated and resigned note.”
There goes Louise Glück again! Lost this time under “implicit.”
People tend to go too far. Now what this proverb lacks in metaphorical weight it makes up for by being a truism. Sandler makes what I would consider some wild claims here, missing the point of the intimate, private voice entirely. It is exactly this voice that Glück is trying to shore up. Here is what she said:
“Those of us who write books presumably wish to reach many. But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.
“I believe that in awarding me this prize, the Swedish Academy is choosing to honor the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace.”
SINGLY, ONE BY ONE
I myself respond to this idea of singly, one by one. And against this, we have the public utterance of Sandler, which can augment or extend, and indeed sharpen our critical awareness of a writer speaking within / speaking to/ speaking against a particular context. But it cannot and must not replace the private voice. As a practioner of literature, as a critic, as a teacher and as a writer, I have come to be persuaded that it is the careful preservation of the individual voice, within its context to be sure, but that the preservation of that single voice, repeated and repeated again, that is our guard against public mania, and even fascism. (My sister hates this last idea.) “This is supposed to be about poetry,” she tells me. But like the visionary Blake before her, politics and poetry can radically inform each other.
What if the young Louise Glück’s reading of the abolitionist Blake (and our own abolitionist history) gave her an abiding awareness of the need for social justice, and her approach, unlike Sandler’s, was not public utterance but a meditative voice for one person at a time? For Estragon, for Vladimir, for Godot, for that matter. And, of course, for the litany of black people murdered in our day and in our personal and collective past.
I think Sandler’s ideas would carry far more weight by leaving Louise Glück out of the discussion entirely. And I submit to you that he actually did leave the specifics of her work out of the picture anyway. The colonial taint of the “I” of lyric poetry is an interesting subject (one which we will take up on another day.) But where is Louise Glück’s poetry in this article of his? What do you know about her poetry from his article except that she prefers a personal intimate voice, which she told you in her speech! My sister made me laugh when she pointed out that when she was five or six, she was watching cartoons, not memorizing a poem published in the 18th century and contemplating the poet’s methods. Isn’t it odd how little we know about the poetry? This is what I mean about the erasure of women.
It’s important to consult with people of color on their reaction, and so I asked my Haitian American friend, who is a teacher, poet and novelist, what she thought. Here is her response: “I think it’s all dumb—one extreme end to the other…I grow weary of it. We can’t take away the past nor can we keep pretending it was not at the expense of others….”
My friend was also not moved by the idea of boycotting Louise Glück, as one writer was going to do. An Indian woman of color wrote that while she liked Louise Glück’s poetry, she was no longer going to buy any after reading her acceptance speech. That seemed silly to me, so I went out and bought Glück’s poetry book that won the National Book Award called, Faithful and Virtuous Night, which is quite captivating. My friend suggested we each buy ten books of Glück’s poetry in response!
I’d like to return to Toni Morrison’s story, how we have that bird in our hands, and in this case, the poetry of Louise Glück is in our hands. What we do with it is up to us.
But more than that, we have the work of Sandler in our hands as well.
And if I may return to the tools of argument in the study of rhetoric, in which we first agree with an opponent. I would like to say this: It is quite true that Glück opens herself up to intense scrutiny by not commenting upon her particular choices of white authors addressing black lives, an omission which could and did lead to the charge of racism being leveled against her. This omission was even more surprising, given the outrage in the country this summer, with the protests and looting, with the aim of getting the country to listen in and to do something about systemic racial injustice. And Sandler reminds us of the urgency of righting those wrongs. But, unfortunately, his assumptions about Louise Glück remain hypothetical, reducing her to a straw (wo)man, so that Sandler can express his concerns and solidarity with that endeavor. His own omission was, oddly, her poetry, which had just garnered the most significant literary award around.
READ A POEM
Here’s a short poem by Louise Glück, riding on the cusp between discouragement and renewal, between winter and spring.