Generous, Delighted, and Unsparing: Nobel Prize Winner and Yale Professor Louise Glück Through A Student’s Eyes

Illustration by Robert Samec

On October 8th, Louise Glück was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. Glück is an Adjunct Professor of English and the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale. The Herald spoke with Lucy Silbaugh (TD ’21), a former student in Glück’s Introduction to Writing Poetry and Advanced Poetry Writing classes who is currently working on her senior thesis with Glück. Silbaugh filled us in on what it was like to work with Glück in the classroom and the lasting effect the experience had on her as a writer. 

Features Editor Edie Abraham-Macht (BR ’22), who took Glück’s Advanced Poetry Writing class in Fall 2019, conducted this interview.

EAM: What was your experience with writing poetry before taking a class with Louise?

Lucy Silbaugh: I actually hadn’t written poetry before I took Louise’s intro class my junior fall. I had written a lot of fiction in high school, and a little bit of fiction and nonfiction in college. But at the time I took that class, I was having some major writer’s block-slash-existential crises where my writing was concerned — worries about having peaked in high school, etc, blah blah blah. I signed up for the class because I’d never tried poetry and I had heard of her [Louise] in high school. In my school, we all had to do a project junior year on a contemporary American poet, and one of my friends did her. So yes, I was lured to her class by her fame, like the shallow person that I am! And it ended up being so refreshing because for some reason doing the poetry assignments and just being in her class [helped my existential crisis]. I think [this was] in large part because I hadn’t done poetry before, but also because I think she just has a very soothing and inspiring attitude about writing. I just didn’t feel that production pressure in her class. I felt like I could just sit down and write a poem in one afternoon without agonizing over the structure and all this other stuff. So anyway, I ended up realizing, slowly, that I really did like poetry. 

Early on, I remember saying to my friends sometimes, “Oh, I don’t even know if I really like poetry that much, I just really like Louise a lot.” Her teaching style really resonated with me, and also what she looked for in poems. Because I think she has a low tolerance for sappiness or corniness. [To EAM] I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten her marginalia where she’ll [write] “corny.” She definitely prefers things to be a little bit more prosey, she likes sentences to have verbs, et cetera. Her teaching style was really what drew me in, and then definitely as I read more stuff that she recommended, I realized I do also like poetry aside from her.

EAM: I agree, I love her no-nonsense style.

LS: Yeah! I love how mean she can be. Sometimes I give her a poem and she’ll give it back and be like, “Terrible.” There’s a line, and she’ll just write, like, “Bad.” I kind of get a kick out of it. On one poem she wrote, “This feels like an SNL parody of what poetry is.” I was like, this is so mean, I love it. I’m going to hang this on my wall. Yeah, she’s just so no-nonsense. But I also think it makes it feel better when she likes something because you know that it’s not just idle praise.

“This is so mean, I love it. I’m going to hang this on my wall.”

EAM: What did you think of the workshop process with Louise?

LS: So I guess there are sort of three parts of the process — there’s the workshop discussion with everyone [in the class], but she also does one-on-one conferences, and then there’s the [also] a third part, which is her written comments. Seeing her performance in the class discussion really brought home for me how brilliant she is: she would just say things off the cuff that sounded like— I mean, you could tell they were truly extemporaneous, she just thought of it on the spur of the moment or whatever, but her syntax! I was just like, “I could never speak like that.” I might reach this formulation after five rounds of edits. So I think that made me realize, “Oh, she’s so smart”—not that I wasn’t expecting that. But the workshops really emphasized that for me. And I think they also showed me that [she]’s also just a really generous reader. In class, [I] notic[ed] how she would find things to praise in so many different people’s styles of poetry. She could always find one line that made everyone else look at the rest of the poem differently, and in a more generous light, too. So for me, the in-class part was about that. I think if I had to pick one of the three parts to keep for myself, as a writer, it would probably be the line edits. Cause that’s sort of the nuts and bolts of the revision or editing. Those were always super helpful.

And then [with] the conferences, I was just really impressed with her personability. I just think that she is an extremely generous and humble person. Sometimes I feel like she doesn’t even really realize that she’s Louise Glück. One thing that I really appreciate about her is [that], in the two classes that I took with her and in the conferences I’ve had with her, she’s never mentioned her own achievements at all, which I think is quite impressive. And I also really like the fact that she doesn’t let us review her own stuff for the weekly book reports [in the class]. Even though sometimes I’m like “But I like your poetry and I would like to write about one of your books,” I just think that’s more proof to me that she’s not trying to cultivate any myth around herself or anything like that. And I feel like it’s not just a corny line when she says that she loves teaching and wants to learn from us. She always wants to see the best in people’s poems, she genuinely wants to be thrilled and delighted by what we’re writing. Although at the same time, as you mentioned, she’s also really unsparing.

EAM: Was there any specific quality to the work you produced in her classes that you can pinpoint? Also, in the aftermath of working with her, do you feel like your writing has changed in any lasting ways?

LS: Yeah, definitely. [Be]cause I took two classes with her, the intro and then the advanced one, I do think that my poetry changed over the course of those two classes. It got weirder and looser, and less pretty. I remember one assignment we had, where we had to structure our poems around the seven days of the week, and I just felt like I was writing so badly. I couldn’t get anything good to come out. I wrote maybe two or three of the days of the week, and turned it in with like an apology on a post-it. And she emailed me and said, “I thought this was going really well, actually. You should have kept going. Why did you stop?” That was just an interesting moment of realizing [that] what I had thought was really bad was actually, in her mind, better than the other stuff I’d been doing. That felt like a concrete moment [where] I never would have known to keep pursuing that uncomfortable direction if she hadn’t encouraged me to. And now I do agree with her — I actually do prefer, too, that more fresh or almost estranged style. So I also think that my own taste in other people’s poetry, what I like and what moves me, has changed by taking her classes because she really prioritizes freshness and immediacy. I don’t think beautiful images really count for that much in her bank, you know? I had thought that that was a lot of what poetry was when I started writing it.

She could always find one line that made everyone else look at the rest of the poem differently.

EAM: Since you said you were working with Louise now on your thesis, I was wondering what it’s like to work with her over technology. Because she was so anti-technology in our class! 

LS: I actually find it very charming, but yeah, she basically doesn’t do technology. So no joke, I send her poems every two weeks by the U.S. Postal System in an envelope with stamps, and then she calls me on the telephone.

EAM: That’s so amazing. 

LS: Yeah. I feel like she might not even have Zoom, which is honestly kind of a mark of status in these times. 

EAM: So is she not teaching right now?

I send her poems every two weeks by the U.S. Postal System in an envelope with stamps, and then she calls me on the telephone.

LS: Yeah. She’s not teaching. She’s just advising two projects. [It’s funny], where the technology stuff is concerned, I sort of agree with her. Her thing is that she really doesn’t like to read stuff on screens, she prefers to read on paper, and weirdly, I kind of have started agreeing with that more. Like, I definitely still edit on Word documents. I don’t have that much paper. But I find her handwritten comments very helpful, and I do think that there’s some pedagogical basis to her technology aversion. 

EAM: What was the most standout moment you remember from working with [Glück]? 

LS: I remember her saying one time that she really loves music, classical music [and] music generally. She told me one time she had a student who was in the Whiffenpoofs and they brought the group to sing for her. And the way she told the story, that was like, the crowning moment of her life. She said she loves to hear her students perform musically. It was charming to me that she loved that so much; I just thought that was a cool, reciprocal relationship.

And I also do remember that time I mentioned, when I had turned in the week-poems and she sent me an email a few days after we had submitted them, but before she was giving [the work] back, saying like, “I think you should keep going with this.” She didn’t have to reach out like that—[she] could have just written that comment on the poems when she gave them back to us the next week. But she specifically wanted to encourage me to try it again, to give her a full draft before the next class. It was a good mixture of super encouraging, but also gently reprimanding, like “I know you can do this better.” So those are probably my moments.

Leave a Reply