Earlier this month, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Louise Glück, making her the first American to receive the prize since poet/musician Bob Dylan in 2016.
Despite her modest reception of the honor, Glück, a former U.S. poet laureate and current English professor at Yale University, is no stranger to recognition. Throughout her fifty years in literature, Glück recently garnered the National Book Award for “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” her 2014 collection of poems, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for “Snowdrops,” part of her collection “The Wild Iris” (1992), among other awards.
Glück admitted to The New York Times that she was “unprepared” to receive the prize, noting, “I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes.” Even so, the critical consensus is that Glück’s poetry is more than deserving of the honor, with particular poignancy during this time of collective loss and disillusionment.
While sometimes described as bleak, the beauty of Glück’s work lies in the personal narrative about the universal human struggles with childhood, family, isolation, and death. As Glück explained, rather than parading “opulent language,” she uses syntactic precision to convey her point.
The clarity of Glück’s voice is evident in this sample from “Snowdrops,” which describes her reawakening after winter:
“I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body.”
Glück also incorporates Greek and biblical allusions throughout her work, stories familiar to her since childhood and not merely outside texts incorporated as afterthoughts. In her interview with The New York Times, Glück described childhood as the natural starting point for all writers, which is why she seeks out her own “archetypal experience” rather than striving to differentiate her story as distinct or unique. “I’m not interested,” she explained, “in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit.” This confrontation of mortality has pervaded Glück’s writing since she was ten and has continued to do so as she has grown older.
Glück has experienced the isolation and despair many have come to know all-too-well during the pandemic. Yet, the sorrow and joy of Glück’s work reminds readers that, as Glück herself stated, “The hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side.”
For more glimpses of Glück’s work, check out The New York Times’ brief compilation of quotes here, or read more online at the Poetry Foundation.