The poet Louise Glück is the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 27 years. She is quoted for “her unmistakable poetic voice, which with its strict beauty makes the individual existence universal”.
Glück is the 16th woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first American woman since Toni Morrison received the prize in 1993. The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was a surprise winner in 2016.
The 77-year-old writer, one of America’s leading poets, has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He deals with topics such as childhood and family, and often revises Greek and Roman myths.
The chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee, Anders Olsson, welcomed Glück’s “open and uncompromising” voice that is “full of humor and biting wit”. Her 12 collections of poetry, from Faithful and Virtuous Night to The Wild Iris, are “characterized by a pursuit of clarity,” he added, comparing her to Emily Dickinson with her “rigor and unwillingness to accept simple tenets of belief.”
“In her poems the self listens to what is left of its dreams and delusions, and no one can be more difficult than she to face the illusions of the self,” said Olsson. “But even if luck would never deny the importance of the autobiographical background, she should not be regarded as a denominational poet.”
The Nobel Committee selected Snowdrops, a poem from her Pulitzer-winning collection, The Wild Iris, in which she commemorates the return of life after winter. “I did not expect to survive / the earth is suppressing me,” writes Glück. “I did not expect / to wake up again, to feel my body in damp earth / to be able to react again …”
Olsson called her collection Averno, an interpretation of the myth of Persephone’s descent into hell with Hades, “masterful,” adding that the National Book Award-winning Faithful and Virtuous Night collection “is another spectacular achievement.
“The reader is again impressed by the presence of the voice and happiness approaches the subject of death with remarkable grace and ease,” he said. “She writes Oneiric, narrative poetry that evokes memories and travel, only to hesitate and pause for new insights. The world is disappointed, only to be magically present again. “
Glück was born in New York City in 1943, grew up on Long Island and attended Columbia University. She has taught poetry at many universities and is currently Associate Professor of English at Yale. In an interview with Poets and Writers magazine, she spoke about the balance between your life and your work, arguing, “You have to live your life if you want to do original work” because “Your work comes from an authentic life, and when you do suppressing all your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you are making a terrible mistake. “
“When I was young, I led the life I thought writers should lead, rejecting the world and demonstratively devoting all of your energies to making art,” said Glück. “I was sitting at a desk in Provincetown and it was awful – the more I sat there and didn’t write, the more I thought I just hadn’t given up on the world enough. After two years, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, even though I’d spent my life thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job and when I started teaching – as soon as I had commitments in the world – I started writing again. “
President Barack Obama presented the 2016 National Humanities Medal to the poet Louise Glück. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
The award is a change for a writer who has often avoided the limelight. When Glück was named an American Poet in 2003, she said she “didn’t worry about expanding audiences” and that she preferred her audience to “small, intense, passionate”.
The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Mats Malm, confirmed that he has already spoken to the poet to let her know that she has won. “The news was a surprise, but a welcome one, as far as I could tell,” he said, “as early as it was.”
At the British lucky publisher Carcanet, which has published the poet for more than two decades, Michael Schmidt said the staff were “completely surprised” by the news, but also “amazed at the justice of the victory”.
“What the academy apparently did is they chose a poet who, in a sense, aesthetically and imaginatively, is at odds with age,” Schmidt said. “She’s not a cheerleader. She is in no way a voice for any reason – she is a person concerned with the language and the world. And I think there is this wonderful feeling that it is not polemical and maybe this will be celebrated. She is not a person trying to convince us of anything, but rather helping us explore the world we live in. She is a clarifying poet. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political involvement in her poetry. It’s really about the individual who lives in the world and in language. “
The last poet to win the Nobel Prize was the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer, who received the prize in 2011.
This year the prize is worth SEK 10 million (£ 870,000). It is awarded by the Swedish Academy of 18 to the writer who they believe has met the condition set out in the somewhat murky words of Alfred Nobel’s will: “In the field of literature the most outstanding work in one to have produced ideal direction ”.
After nearly three years of scandal, observers had predicted that the Swedish Academy would make a safe choice this year, along with Canadian poet Anne Carson, Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid, Chinese writer Yan Lianke, Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and the Japanese bestseller Haruki Murakami and the perennial contender Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer, poet and playwright, were named as possible winners. Of the 116 previous Nobel Prize winners, 15 were women, and the last black African writer was Wole Soyinka in 1986.
The August and clandestine electoral body was rocked by allegations of sexual abuse and financial misconduct in 2017, culminating in the 2018 conviction of Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of Academician Katarina Frostenson, for rape. Frostenson subsequently left the Academy after it was discovered to have leaked the names of previous winners and a string of Academic resignations followed, with the award being postponed for 2018.
The academy announced the winners of 2018 and 2019 last year and hoped for an end to the criticism. Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Prize for Literature Committee, promised that the jury would “be on the lookout for winners all over the world” and move away from a Eurocentric, male-oriented focus. Instead, they chose two European writers, the well-respected Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian writer Peter Handke, a choice that was widely criticized for Handke’s rejection of Serbian atrocities during the war in former Yugoslavia.