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Poet Louise Glück, a ‘guiding spirit’ for many writers, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

The Cambridge resident is praised for her ‘unmistakable poetic voice.’

On Sept. 22, 2016, President Obama awarded poet Louise Gluck the 2015 National Humanities Medal at the White House, On Thursday, the poet was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature.
On Sept. 22, 2016, President Obama awarded poet Louise Gluck the 2015 National Humanities Medal at the White House, On Thursday, the poet was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

The American poet Louise Glück, whose work harnesses the power of myth to grapple with some of our darkest human concerns, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In its announcement Thursday, the Nobel Committee praised Glück, a longtime Cambridge resident, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” adding in a separate statement that she is “a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss.”

Glück, 77, is the author of 12 collections of poetry, including “The Wild Iris,” which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. With Thursday’s announcement, however, she has earned what many regard as literature’s highest laurel.

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She learned the news by phone early Thursday morning, she said, adding that she was still in a state of “turbulence and agitation,” with photographers camped out in front of her home.

“It’s only been in my head for a few hours,” Glück said, pausing to receive a bouquet delivery. “I think it gets absorbed. I think you go back to worrying about whatever it is that you worry about.”

In “Averno," a poem that wrestles with the isolation that comes with age, she writes how children “wink at each other” as they “listen to the old one, talking about the spirit/because he can’t remember the word for chair.”

In “Monologue at Nine A.M.,” she describes the end of a relationship noticing his poached "[e]gg staring like a dying eye, his toast untouched.”

Former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky praised the intelligence, clarity, and power of her verse.

“She thinks, with tremendous lucidity, about motives, conscious and unconscious, her own and those of others,” Pinsky said in an e-mail. “That intense understanding produces that penetrating style. Tempting to copy, for young poets, but almost impossible to match.”

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Stephanie Burt, an English professor at Harvard University, praised Glück’s ability to excavate the foundations of emotions.

“She’s someone who’s been able to make emotional states vivid on the page without sacrificing intellect,” said Burt. “A Louise Glück poem is recognizable: It is almost always in free verse. It is stark. It is often, but not always, sad, and it brings us to some kind of realization about the sources or consequences of its feelings.”

Born in New York in 1943, Glück published her first volume of poetry, “Firstborn,” in 1968, quickly cementing her reputation as a poet of remarkable technical precision who deployed straightforward language to get at the heart of deep-seated apprehensions: loneliness, rejection, divorce, death.

In the decades since, she has become one of the country’s most celebrated literary figures. In addition to the Pulitzer, she served as US poet laureate in 2003-04, and in 2014 she won a National Book Award for “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”

More recently, Glück, who is a writer-in-residence at Yale University, was awarded the 2015 Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Humanities Medal.

“Few poets have tried as hard as she has not to repeat herself. And her strongest books are really different from one another,” said Burt. “She’s someone you can read straight through without getting bored, even though every page sounds like her.”

Glück said she will go extended periods without writing, adding that each book should feel like an “adventure.”

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“It should be a new angle of vision, a new set of tones,” she said. “I crave it. I wait for it, and oftentimes I wait a long, long, long time.”

The 2020 Nobel award, which includes a roughly $1.1 million cash prize, comes after several years of controversy.

The award was postponed in 2018 after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy.

The committee named two laureates the following year, with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke, a controversial choice who’s been regarded as an apologist for the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars.

Several countries, including Albania, Bosnia, and Turkey, boycotted the Nobel awards ceremony in protest, and a member of the committee that nominates candidates for the literature prize resigned.

Glück said that when someone from the academy phoned her with the news, she told him she was surprised at the choice.

“It seems to me unbelievable that you would choose a white American lyricist,” she recalled saying. “And he said, winningly: ‘Well, it was not happy for us that you were American, but we couldn’t ignore the poems.’ So that was a nice little conversational interlude.”

Poet Dan Chiasson said that although some of the recent Nobels in literature have been “kind of baffling or even upsetting,” Glück has been a profoundly consequential voice and a “guiding spirit” for generations of students, writers, and readers.

“She offers someone who thinks about poetry 24/7 a lot of inspiration, but she’s also on a lot of bookshelves,” said Chiasson, a friend, who added she is a generous reader of her fellow writers' work. “I’m full of emotions: She is simply the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

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Glück’s poetry often employs the language of myth, channeling figures such as Dido, Eurydice, and Persephone as, in the words of Nobel Committee chairman Anders Olsson, “masks for a self in transformation.”

“The deceptively natural tone is striking,” he continued. “We encounter almost brutally straightforward images of painful family relations. It is candid and uncompromising, with no trace of poetic ornament.”

At Yale, where Glück is an adjunct professor of English, she served for years as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, where colleagues say that, uncommonly, she worked closely with poets she chose for the prize and those she did not, helping them shape their work.

“In that very practical way she’s had an enormous influence on a great many figures,” said Langdon Hammer, a professor of English at Yale. “She’s someone who has a deep vocation as a teacher.”

Glück described teaching and writing as symbiotic.

“I [teach] not out of selflessness or generosity: I do it because it feeds me,” she said. “It feeds them, too, so it’s a happy relationship. I’m sure not all my students feel that way, but some do. I never feel that it takes me from my work: I think it gives me my work.”

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Over the years, Glück has become a fixture in Cambridge, where Chiasson said many of the restaurant workers and shopkeepers know her by name.

“I’m thinking of all the waiters and cab drivers and neighborhood people who’ve come to know her,” he said. “She’s just a great person in the world.”

Glück, who said she would rather “be still than repeat myself,” said she hoped excitement about the award wouldn’t change her day-to-day life.

“I worry about my aches and pains: That’s where I live, and I imagine that will continue,” she said. “I don’t see myself as traveling the globe now, speaking for eternal virtues and truth. I see myself teaching, and seeing friends, and hoping that I get to write another book.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.