Louise Glück: Solitude
Louise Glück is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), which won the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry. Her honors include the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and a National Book Critics Circle Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999, Glück was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In the fall of 2003, she was appointed as the Library of Congress’s twelfth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. She served as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets from 2003 to 2010. In 2008, Glück was selected to receive the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for mastery in the art of poetry. Her collection, Poems 1962–2012, was awarded the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2015, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I am curious to talk about something that I don’t talk about all the time; like the question of space. How houses are built, how corporate offices are built. How you build to discourage feelings of estrangement. I think the absence of restorative beauty in physical surroundings is hugely damaging to the spirit. In our country there are tremendous imbalances in wealth and perceived imbalances in power. Actually, I think pretty much everybody feels powerless. Since the election all the people with money, position, some measure of fame, some institutional acclaim feel powerless. But everybody else feels powerless too. And I think that that’s in part because the structures that affirm autonomy are getting fewer. There’s a taste for large, undivided space, as a statement of unity or incentive to conversation or insistence on the non-hierarchical. My feeling is that if you have no private space that corresponds to an enlarged version of your bed—where you go, only you and invited guests— I think that if you don’t have those little nests, and warrens, and places to crawl into to be rebuilt, you have nothing to give. So I see these office buildings with these huge, huge rooms. I suppose visually they are very lovely. Just one expanse. But where do you go to be alone? I think that solitude is less and less allowed for, because I think its function is misunderstood or deplored. I think that it prepares people for social interaction. But the feeling seems to be that it prioritizes solitude over community— I don’t think so. So that’s my disquisition on space. But I do think about it, and I go into these rooms and houses and they frighten me. I’m glad I don’t live there. Dr. William Sledge talks passionately about a program in Alabama—its intent is to make beautiful places that cost next to nothing, and are also functional. Two crucial needs: beauty, and also privacy. Is that something that gets talked about in architecture? Does it turn out to be a cliché, what I just said?
It does get talked about, but potentially in a more binary way: the individual versus the collective, and private space versus public space. But there isn’t always the necessary nuance: a space that at once allows for serendipitous interaction but also accommodates for solitude.
There are circumstances in which people are thrown together—that’s not the ideal term. You don’t always choose to live together. Let’s say a freshman dorm. People who make a success of it—some of that is temperamental, some of it is luck who you get placed with—find their places that they, little of clusters of them, go to gather. I don’t think it works out to dictate those places. Because to find them is almost an act of rebellion against existing space. You find within the anonymous existing space, you find your secret place. There you build your temple. Something has to be bold in how people devise their communal spaces, or surreptitious. They’re not allowing themselves to be herded into the spaces consecrated to this purpose. Still, there are not likely to be spaces that are not set up to be bedrooms, and not set up to be auditoriums.
Sometimes the most creative or fruitful work comes out of the act of reclaiming a space from its function that an architect would overly prescribe.
My own life doesn’t exactly work that way. If I’m writing well, I can write anywhere. I can write in elevators, airplanes, beaches, if I’m writing. If I’m not writing, it doesn’t matter where I am. What happens is there are these moments where you retreat into your own head. In general it doesn’t matter where you are, if you have been given the gift of reentering your head. Then you can be anywhere. Actually, bed is a famously good place for writers. There are a lot of writers who do a lot of work in bed. But then, I think that’s because the bed stands for the most private, private life. But if you are part of a couple, you’ve got to evict someone. There’s a battle over it first.
Let’s go back a word you said earlier, “estrangement,” which is interesting considering it being a word used within architectural discourse. The built world can be so obvious or ubiquitous, we don’t necessarily see it anymore. Perhaps then architecture can be used to reawaken and disturb a perceived sense of reality. I don’t think of estrangement as a good thing. It sounds as though in architecture it is a synonym for being shaken up, awakened, made to see again.
What I mean by the word is a sense of withdrawal, a sense of unspecified but pervasive danger. So that your world seems alien to you and frightening. And you detach. Some animals do this. They build around themselves enclosing shells: certain things are not going to happen to them. It’s a kind of insurance policy. But I think of it as extremely damaging to the person who feels it. That’s how I understand it. How broadly true it is, I have no idea. But I don’t think of estrangement as being energizing. To be abandoned in a place where everything recognizable or familiar, everything that gave some small security, is taken away—this seems to me very scary. My experiences of that have not been fruitful or productive or enlightening.
We understand this word as a reaction to a homogeneous, numbing landscapes. So it’s a word within our lexicon that we have appropriated. That’s why the word, “commons” is also tricky. We don’t think the role of the architect is to enforce commonality. There are dangerous and estranging results when this has happened. Given that as architects, we like clean resolutions and resolved proposals; what can you say to this, given that poetry is a medium that leaves more unsaid than said?
Good luck to you. [laughter] That would breed such anxiety in me, because I don’t think like that. The first year I taught here in California I had a room redesigned. I felt the space was not being used efficiently, nor was it beautiful. And the architect built this wonderful, three dimensional model with little cardboard walls that you can pick up and move to show me what the variables were. And it was very easy to have a point of view about the cardboard. But when it translated into space, it was traumatizing. That’s the word: estranging. It was horrible. It took me a long time to get used to it. But I never came to love it. Even though the quality of the work was beautiful, the design was shrewd—a really smart use of small space. But the things I was asking space to do, it no longer did as well as when it was a kind of mudroom. There was a period in which it was very exhilarating, because we were refining and refining and refining—the architect and I—this idea for space: what it would look like and what would be where and how it would work. And why it was going to be so infinitely better than what I had. But the reality was very different. This is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think these questions are answerable. Yours is a discipline in which strong, logically, carefully interrogated positions are arrived at. But, if even one thing is misjudged, then the whole thing is misjudged. It’s very hard because you are dealing with materials you can’t just erase, the timber and siding and marble and say, “Well, let’s start again.” You’re working with materials that are obdurate and fixed. So you have to have corresponding convictions. It’s very hard to do. And also, it doesn’t allow for ambivalence: human beings wanting contradictory things. Well, I think we’ve now demonstrated that I would not be good at building houses or large public buildings. I might be better at a large public building than a house.