In a year that has pitched the world into disarray, it seems only befitting that the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to the bard of desolation — the American poet and essayist, Louise Glück — “for her unmistakable poetic voice, that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
The 77-year old is only the second woman poet to win the award after the Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Prize in 1996. Glück is also the second American to win the award since Bob Dylan in 2016.
One of America’s most well-known contemporary poets, Glück, professor of English at Yale University, began writing in her teens; her first collection of poetry, Firstborn (1968), was published when she was only 25. Firstborn gained favourable reviews for the poet’s unique style, marked by an economy of words and emotion. Her second collection, The House on Marshland, seven years later, would establish her as a poet of reckoning. Since then she has written 12 collections of poetry, including Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985), The Wild Iris (1992) and The Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014).
All of these focus almost exclusively not on the monumental chaos of historical events but on the inner lives of individuals — on separation, loss, death and loneliness and the impact of frayed childhoods and family lives on them. While critics have compared her work to that of Rainer Maria Rilke and Ezra Pound, Glück herself has acknowledged the influence of Puerto Rican-American poet, writer, and physician William Carlos Williams and American poet George Oppen on her work.
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Born in 1943 in New York City, Glück spent much of her childhood and adolescence in trying to win her mother’s approval, an experience that would prove a fulcrum in her poetic career. “Why do I suffer? Why am I ignorant?/ Cells in a great darkness. Some machine made us;/ it is your turn to address it, to go back asking/ what am I for? What am I for?” writes Glück in Mother and Child (2001, The Seven Ages).
In poem after poem, Glück returns to these questions of identity and purpose, in particular that of a woman, constricted by gender roles and societal conventions about body image. Glück herself suffered from anorexia as a teenager that would take her several years to overcome through psychoanalytic treatment. “It begins quietly/ in certain female children:/ the fear of death, taking as its form/ dedication to hunger,/ because a woman’s body/ is a grave; it will accept/anything,” she writes in Dedication to Hunger (1980, Descending Figure).
This preoccupation with form is also the hallmark of Glück’s poetry, characterising it with sparseness and an intensity that comes only from distilling that which cannot be spared. Or, as she puts it in Wild Iris, “whatever/ returns from oblivion returns/ to find a voice.”
Despite the bleakness at their core, Gluck’s poems are also imbued by a lyrical rhythm that lends symmetry to the austerity of her form. If Glück’s early poems are characterised by her examination of failure — in love, familial relationships and in life in general — her later poems return their focus more intensely to identity and its many crises, evolved now within a more elaborate framework of Greek and Roman mythologies.
Announcing the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy also paid tribute to the poet’s search for the universal in this classical world, noting how “she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works”. It hailed her 2006 collection Averno as “a masterly collection, a visionary interpretation of the myth of Persephone’s descent into Hell in the captivity of Hades, the god of death.”
Glück is no stranger to fame. Besides several Guggenheim fellowships, she has won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Wild Iris, the National Book Award in 2014 for The Triumph of Achilles, the Bollingen Prize in 2001, and a host of other awards.
At the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, with each winner’s citation, there is a personal item of belonging on show, intended to offer visitors a glimpse into the unique personality of each recipient. Oversized glasses and a chunky wristwatch show off 1982-Literature Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s larger-than-life persona; a dog-eared copy of The Portable Chekhov is Canadian writer Alice Munro’s gentle offering (2013); Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner’s favourite dictaphone that recorded the stories that went into her Voices from Chernobyl (1997), finds a pride of place here. It remains to be seen what Glück offers to the museum, but, in a reader’s imagination, it could well be a page of one of her lesser-known poems — The Undertaking (1971): “The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime./ There you are — cased in clean bark you drift/ through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton./ You are free./ The river films with lilies,/ shrubs appear, shoots thicken into palm. And now/ all fear gives way: the light/ looks after you, you feel the waves’ goodwill/ as arms widen over the water; Love/ the key is turned. Extend yourself — / it is the Nile, the sun is shining,/ everywhere you turn is luck.”
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