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Why Children Are Everywhere in Louise Glück’s Poetry

Louise Glück, the American poet and Nobel laureate who died last week, was repeatedly drawn to stories about families. Her last published book was a short novel about twins in their first year, Marigold and Rose. And children appear throughout her 1975 book, The House on Marshland, in which she developed her instantly recognizable intimate voice. By placing children and mothers, in particular, at the center of her poems, Glück explored a world made of equal parts myth and reality, sketched out by her precise, timeless language.

When I learned that Glück had died, I found myself drawn first to “The School Children,” which begins with a trip to school:

The children go forward with their little satchels

And then switches to the home:

And all morning the mothers have labored To gather the late apples, red and gold, Like words of another language.

Glück places us in a familiar setting—almost like a picture book—but the somewhat formal language of the poem (“set forth,” “have labored/to gather”) introduces a degree of unease, as if we’re reading a translation. The poem next introduces the teachers, and through them acquires mythical dimensions, and the teachers become almost like gods: They’re waiting “on the other shore” “behind great desks” “to receive these offerings.” The reader cannot help but worry a little about the trip the children are taking and whether they’ll be able to cross over. Suddenly, it seems like a long way to get there.

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