The 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the American poet Louise Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
Here is one of her most well-known poem, entitled “Snowdrops”
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
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.
Considered by many to be one of America’s most talented contemporary poets, Glück is known for her poetry’s technical precision, sensitivity, and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death. The poet Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.”
Born in 1943, Gluck made her debut in 1968 with ‘Firstborn’, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most important poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards prior to her Nobel Prize, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014). To date, she has published 12 collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry.
Her books of poetry include the recent collections Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), winner of the National Book Award, and Poems 1962-2012 (2012), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She also wrote the essay collection American Originality (2017).
Glück’s early books feature the self grappling with the aftermaths of failed love affairs, disastrous family encounters, and existential despair, and her later work continues to explore the agony of the self. But she is not a confessional poet. Rather, she seeks the universal, often by taking inspiration from myths and classical motifs.
Because Glück writes so effectively about disappointment, rejection, loss, and isolation, reviewers frequently refer to her poetry as “bleak” or “dark.” The Nation’s Don Bogen felt that Glück’s “basic concerns” were “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it… She is at heart the poet of a fallen world.” Stephen Burt, reviewing her collection Averno (2006), noted that “few poets save [Sylvia] Plath have sounded so alienated, so depressed, so often, and rendered that alienation aesthetically interesting.” Still, readers and reviewers have marvelled at Glück’s gift for creating poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subjects.
Here is another poem by Louise Gluck. It’s called “The Past”
THE PAST (2014)
Small light in the sky appearing
two pine boughs, their fine needles
now etched onto the radiant surface and above this
high, feathery heaven—
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—
Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—
The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.
It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?
Loss and death is a theme that Glück frequently revisits. Generations after Walt Whitman declared himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul,” animated by an electric awareness of how the two are interleaved, we have a short, stunning poem entitled, “Crossroads”, in which Gluck explores the elemental fact of death and remembers the body, the sole arena of being. A video of the poem read by Gluck herself follows the poem.
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you,
very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was often so foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance,
too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul,
my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.
Video: “Crossroads”, read by Louise Gluck