Louise Glück, who won the 2020 Nobel prize in Literature has died at the age of 80. The Nobel Committee awarded her the coveted price “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Glück was also the recipient of many other distinguished awards, including the Pulitzer prize in 1993 for her book of poetry, Wild Iris, which dealt with themes of suffering, death and rebirth, the Bollingen prize for lifetime achievement in 2001, the National Book award in 2014 for Faithful and Virtuous Night, and the 2015 National Humanities Medal for her “decades of powerful lyric poetry that defies all attempts to label it definitively”.
Born on 22 April 1943 in New York City, Glück descended from eastern European Jews and was raised on Long Island. She developed an interest in poetry at a young age, though her later education was interrupted by anorexia nervosa, which consumed much of her adolescence and early 20s. Too frail to attend college, Glück sat in on classes at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, where she found inspiration in the work of the poet-teachers Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz.
A poet of succinct candor who worked with themes of disappointment, alienation, rejection, loss, and isolation, in a lyric style so taut and intense that reviewers often refer to her poetry as “bleak” or “dark.” Her followers, however, have marveled at Glück’s gift for creating poetry with a dreamlike quality that at the same time confronts the realities of life. “The advantage of poetry over life is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last,” she once wrote.
Three poems by Louise Glück
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.
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 by Glück, entitled, “Crossroads”, in which she 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.