Louise Gluck, an American poet long revered for the power, inventiveness and concision of her work and for her generosity to younger writers, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The Nobel Committee on Thursday praised her as “candid and uncompromising” in granting a rare honour for a U.S. poet, with Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Frost among her predecessors who were bypassed. Ms. Gluck spoke briefly to reporters waiting outside her home in Cambridge, Mass., saying she felt “agitation, joy, gratitude.”
Ms. Gluck is a former U.S. poet laureate who had already received virtually every honour possible for a poet, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Wild Iris, the National Book Award in 2014 for Faithful and Virtuous Night and a National Humanities Medal in 2015. She is just the 16th woman to get the Nobel for literature since it was started in 1901.
“As one of our most celebrated American poets, we are thrilled that Louise Gluck has received this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature,” Michael Jacobs, chairman of the Academy of American Poets, said in a statement. “Her poems, her overall body of work, and her utterly distinctive voice, present the human condition in memorable, breathtaking language.”
A native of New York City, descended in part from Hungarian Jews, Ms. Gluck began reading poetry obsessively as a child, and by her early teens, she was already trying to have her work published. She struggled with anorexia as an adolescent, later saying that her eating disorder was less an expression of despair than of her desire to free the soul from the confines of her body, a theme that later arose in her work. The 77-year-old Ms. Gluck has drawn from both personal experience and common history and mythology, whether revisiting the final section of The Iliad in Penelope’s Song or the abduction of Persephone in Persephone’s Song, in which she imagines Persephone “lying in the bed of Hades”:
“What is in her mind? / Is she afraid? Has something / blotted out the idea / of mind?”
Anders Olson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, said that “Gluck seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.”
Ms. Gluck’s poetry collections also include Descending Figure, Ararat and The Triumph of Achilles, winner of the National Book Critics Circle prize in 1985. It contains one of her most anthologized poems, the spare and despairing Mock Orange, in which a flowering shrub becomes the focus of a wider wail of anguish about sex and life: “How can I rest? / How can I be content / when there is still / that odor in the world?”
Ms. Gluck’s legacy extends beyond her own work. Currently dividing her time between Yale University and Stanford University, she has called teaching one of the few pure joys of her life and has mentored many younger poets, including Claudia Rankine, author of the acclaimed Citizen and a current work, Just Us. Ms. Rankine, who studied under Ms. Gluck at Williams College and is now a colleague at Yale, praised her as an “incredible” teacher who valued the work above all.
“I remember the rigour, the wit and the patience that she showed me as a 19-year-old student trying to learn what there was to learn about getting inside the craft of writing poetry,” Ms. Rankine told Associated Press on Thursday. You would hand in something and Louise would find the one line that worked. There was no place for the niceties of mediocrity, no false praise. When Louise speaks you believe her because she doesn’t hide inside of civility."
Nobel laureates receive a 10-million kronor (more than US$1.1-million) prize and are usually feted at a banquet in December, but the event was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, her long-time publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced that a new collection, Winter Recipes from the Collective, will come out next year. A previous work, the career retrospective Poems 1962-2012, jumped into the top 100 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list soon after her Nobel was reported.
Ms. Gluck has enough experience winning awards to be skeptical of their importance. In a 2012 interview with the Academy of Achievement, she said that how she feels about a prize often depends on what she is working on at the time and whether she feels it’s worthy of praise. Ms. Gluck also found that the rewards were temporary.
“Worldly honour makes existence in the world easier. It puts you in a position to have a good job. It means you can charge large fees to get on an airplane and perform,” she said. “But as an emblem of what I want – it is not capable of being had in my lifetime. I want to live after I die, in that ancient way. And there’s no way of knowing whether that will happen, and there will be no knowing, no matter how many blue ribbons have been plastered to my corpse.”
The literature prize comes after several years of controversy and scandal for the organization that awards the accolade. In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked a mass exodus of members.
After the academy revamped itself to try to regain the trust of the Nobel Foundation, two laureates were named last year, with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke., who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes. Albania, Bosnia and Turkey were among the countries boycotting the Nobel awards ceremony, and a member of the committee that nominates candidates for the literature prize resigned.
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