After several years of polarising the globe with its choice for the Literature Nobel, the Swedish Academy gave the 2020 Prize to contemporary American poet Louise Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. But such is the state of the world, divided over race, caste, creed, class, that Ms. Glück’s first thoughts on winning was that she was astonished. Then, which Nobel winner isn’t? Her surprise was directed elsewhere, “completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet,” she told The New York Times.
And yet the 77-year-old Ms. Glück (pronounced Glick) is a celebrated poet in America. She has written 12 collections of poetry and essay volumes. Her work is often compared to poets like Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. She has won all the top awards, from the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Wild Iris to the National Book Award in 2014 for Faithful and Virtuous Night, and was anointed Poet Laureate in 2003. Her poems are spare. She often looks at life’s euphoria and struggles — love, loss, relationships, betrayal, death — through the prism of the past, especially the Greek myths. Ms. Glück had a difficult adolescence, often “at war with my mom” as she has said in interviews; struggled with anorexia, but even through the darkness she wanted to write. In ‘Persephone the Wanderer’ (Averno), she examines the mother-daughter relationship — “In the first version, Persephone/is taken from her mother/and the goddess of the earth/punishes the earth — this is consistent with what we know of human behaviour,/that human beings take profound satisfaction/in doing harm, particularly unconscious harm:/we may call this/negative creation.” Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee, heard in her poetry, the voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed. They, he noted, were masks for a self in transformation, valid both personally and universally.
In her 2012 interview to the American Academy of Achievement, Ms. Glück said she began writing from an early age and was moved by William Blake (especially The Little Black Boy). Her first published collection was Firstborn (1968), which was acclaimed by critics. Talking about the process, Ms. Glück said she “feels alive” when she writes poetry. For her, writing is a kind of “revenge against circumstance – bad luck, loss, pain…”
Witness to intimacy
Ms. Glück has another vocation, explains Joanne Feit Diehl in her introduction to On Louise Glück: Change What you See. “She writes poems that bear witness to intimate occasions — subtle psychological moments captured by the austerity of her diction.” Like in ‘Parados’ (Poems 1962-2012): “I’ll tell you/ what I meant to be…/a device that listened…/Not inert: still./ A piece of wood. A stone….I was born to a vocation/To bear witness/To the great mysteries./Now that I have seen both/ birth and death, I know/to the dark nature these/ are proofs, not /mysteries…”
A teacher of English at Yale University, Ms. Glück has said that from poet Stanley Kunitz, she learnt to subordinate her ego to the needs of the poem. Collections like The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990), where three characteristics which recur in her writing unite, were mentioned in the Nobel statement. “The topic of family life; austere intelligence; and a refined sense of composition” find echo in the poems, understandably endearing her to both readers and critics. Her new book, Winter Recipes from the Collective, is due for release next year.
Erica McAlpine, associate professor of English at Britain’s Oxford University, told Reuters that the occasional “bleakness” of Ms. Glück’s voice speaks especially well to the “present moment”. For Ms. Glück, as she said in her interview to NYT, “the hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side”. There is an awakening after darkness, she appears to say in ‘Snowdrops’ (The Wild Iris): “I did not expect to survive,/earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect/to waken again, to feel/in damp earth my body/able to respond again, remembering/after so long how to open again/in the cold light/of earliest spring – /afraid, yes, but among you again/crying yes risk joy/in the raw wind of the new world.”
As the world battles a stubborn pandemic, the Swedish Academy’s pick is perhaps a reminder that amid mind-numbing uncertainties, there is art. And when there is art, there is hope.