Painful Frustration in Poetry

X-Acto Knife

Not all moments of frustration in poetry create pleasure. Sometimes, they bring pleasure and pain together in a compelling moment of poignance. Take, for example, the start of “Purple Bathing Suit” from Louise Glück’s collection Meadowlands:

I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.

You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed …

This is the same kind of stroke as in “Snow” from Ararat, where she says of being a young girl on her father’s shoulders:

My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn’t see me.

The incisive mind invades the expectation of tenderness, cuts it off and makes it sinister–the same experience as feeling shocked by cruelty in a moment of vulnerability, the same thing–in essence–as heartbreak itself.

Because these moments go unresolved, just as in life, and the poem continues on to other observations, there is a kind of emotional destabilization that creates a hunger for resolution, information–more. And the poems, instead of giving some tidy end that would ultimately leave us satisfied-yet-unsatisfied, continue instead to frustrate us and break our hearts with a beautiful quiet intensity that comes from playing between these two worlds of love and bitterness, cutting short before any kind of neat resolution, propelling us deeper into questions of humanity.

Glück’s poetry is a fascinating study in frustration on many levels–both in terms of unresolved (and therefore somehow more satisfying) themes–and in the way she moves between ostensible realities (like persona and confession) to give new layers and shades of meanings to those realities. The same raw materials–unresolved themes and conflated realities–in a different poet’s hands might fail miserably. Yet at the essence of Glück’s work seems to be a deep meditation on personal experience, and extrapolation from there into universal experience–what it means to be sensitive in a heartbreaking world.