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12 October 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 9:15am

Why Louise Glück is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Over five decades, the American poet has built a body of work that “makes individual existence universal”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, the committee referred to her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”, and I wondered which of her many such lines they had in mind.

Perhaps it was this, from “Archaic Fragment”, a poem collected in Averno (2006): “It was a beautiful day, though cold./This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.” Or this, from “Monologue at Nine A.M.”, which featured in the April 1966 edition of Poetry magazine: “For sixteen years I’ve sat/and waited for things to get better. I have to laugh.” Or this, from “Trillium”, in The Wild Iris (1992): “I didn’t even know I felt grief/until that word came, until I felt/rain streaming from me”. I could go on, and on.

Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island, where she began to write poetry as a child. After developing anorexia as a teenager, she spent seven years in psychoanalytic treatment, and after she left high school, chose to focus on therapy rather than enrolling at university full-time. Instead, she took poetry workshops, first at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, and then at Columbia University. She worked first as a secretary and then, after the publication of Firstborn (1968), the first of a dozen collections, in 1971 she began to teach poetry at Goddard College in Vermont. It was the act of teaching, she has said, which cured a prolonged case of writer’s block.

Now a writer in residence at Yale University, she is only the 16th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the first American woman since Toni Morrison in 1993. Throughout her long career Glück has generally avoided the spotlight, giving few interviews, though she has been critically lauded. The Wild Iris won a Pulitzer Prize; her latest collection Faithful and Virtuous Night won the 2014 National Book Award. She was, from 2003 to 2004, Poet Laureate of the United States.

Glück’s win came as a surprise to many. She was not among those – including Jamaica Kincaid, Yan Lianke, Haruki Murakami and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – who had been named as possible winners. Nor is Glück’s work especially political, which, in 2020, seems the defining feature of the most celebrated artists and works, as seen in the titles selected for this year’s Booker shortlist. (Glück herself pointed this out in an interview with the New York Times. “I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life,” she said.) 

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But the Nobel is rarely predictable. Few foresaw Bob Dylan’s 2016 win for Literature; while the sexual harassment scandal which rocked the Swedish Academy in 2017 saw the 2018 announcement postponed to the following year. The Nobel commends a lifetime’s body of work, rather than one single publication: Glück’s poems may not be polemical, but over five decades they have spoken to the most universal experiences of any life: love, loss, grief, ageing. Her commitment to the intimate portrayal of day-to-day emotion deserves recognition.

In a phone interview with the Nobel Prize conducted in the early hours of last Thursday morning, Glück made clear she wouldn’t be able to answer any “big” questions before she had had her coffee. When asked what the award means to her, she said: “It’s too new, you know? I don’t know really what it means. It’s a great honour. There are of course recipients I don’t admire. But then I think of the ones I do.”

“There are recipients I don’t admire”: this seems a typical response from Glück, whose poems are to the point, even when that makes them bitter or cutting. She is not a person who would claim great awe and enthusiasm if she did not mean it. “But then I think of the ones I do”: but this apparent honesty does not make her cold-hearted – she holds close those who are dear to her and cherishes them for their rarity. This joy, when it does appear in her poems, is stirring for its sparseness.

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The themes of Glück’s work are universal and straightforwardly presented. Hers is a language which is immediate – it so closely resembles the plainness of speech that you feel she is talking directly to you. This frankness does not make her work unpoetic or unimaginative; rather, it crystallises her most vivid images into striking scenes of passion, or of heartache, or of discontent. In the title poem of her latest collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, she captured this distinctive ability:

memories of a large memory.
Points of clarity in a mist, intermittently visible,
like a lighthouse whose one task
is to emit a signal.

Glück is not a poet to read for comfort or solace: her words are too bleak for that. She is a poet read for clarity, to have a magnifying glass held up to daily life, your greatest fears and daydreams lived, and understood.