The announcement on Thursday morning that Louise Glück had won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature must have come as a big surprise to British bookies, who famously produce lists of likely winners every year for people to bet on. Glück wasn’t on those lists. But this honor for Glück made sense in Iowa City, where her work is well-known.
Glück, who was born in New York in 1943 and is currently an adjunct professor of English at Yale, has been a visiting faculty member in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2007-08, she held the Ida Beam Visiting Professorship at the University of Iowa.
In its announcement of the prize, the Swedish Academy said Glück, a former United States poet laureate, had been selected “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
The academy’s statement echoes the one from the National Endowment for the Humanities when it awarded Glück a National Humanities Medal in 2015. The NEH said Glück had given “lyrical expression to our inner conflicts. Her use of verse connects us to the myths of the ancients, the magic of the natural world and the essence of who we are.”
Those connections often come in quotidian, domestic settings. Gardening, household labor, a walk through a familiar landscape and other activities that make up a daily routine are common in her restrained, interiorly focused poems.
Her poem “The Mystery” doesn’t start with great questions of existence or identity; it starts with Glück’s description of sitting in a folding chair on a sunny afternoon, rereading a mystery novel “for the twentieth time, / a mystery that has become restful.” But it builds as she thinks about the orderly plot of the novel and her own life, which seems “all entirely arbitrary, / without discernable form.”
I carried my book everywhere,
like an eager student
clinging to these simple mysteries
so that I might silence in myself
the last accusation:
Who are you and what is your purpose?
“Louise writes with surgical precision in the rooms and fields of emotional drama,” Marvin Bell, a longtime professor in the Writers’ Workshop and Iowa’s first poet laureate, told the Press-Citizen in 2003, when Glück was named poet laureate of the United States. “She has one of the strongest poetic voices of her generation.”
Like most U.S. poet laureates, Glück held the position for one year.
In addition to the honors already mentioned, Glück has also won the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014) for her poetry.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee for the prize in literature, cited the poem “Snowdrops” from Glück’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris when describing Glück as not only a poet of the “shifting conditions of life,” but also “a poet of radical change and rebirth.”
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.
Glück is a very private person — “I have very little taste for public life in the way that they understand it,” she told the Boston Globe when she was appointed poet laureate — and did not issue a statement on Thursday morning.
Update: The New York Times published an interviewpublished an interview with Glück Thursday afternoon in which the poet said she was “completely flabbergasted” by the news of her Nobel Prize award.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she told the Times. “Now my street is covered with journalists. People keep telling me how humble I am. I’m not humble. But I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.”
She also discussed her recent work and sources of inspiration — many sharpened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique. They feel unique as you experience them, but I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit. I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever.”