On Thursday, Louise Glück was announced as the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. Glück, a former United States Poet Laureate, has contributed poems to The New Yorker for more than fifty years. Reviewing her collected poems, in 2012, Dan Chiasson placed her “among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing”; the Nobel committee commended “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
Though Glück’s first poems in the magazine belong to a style she soon abandoned, they establish themes and attitudes that have carried through her career. “Late Snow” and “The Racer’s Widow” unsparingly intertwine mortality with intimacy; “Letter from Provence” lampoons the tourist’s (and perhaps the poet’s) tendency to romanticize and thus obscure the real. As Chiasson put it, “Only a poet susceptible to authentic rapture makes an art out of hunting down its counterfeit,” and, with her second and third books, Glück began to hone the “intensity of address, leanness of sentiment, and precision of speech” that would allow her access to the sublime.
Glück has long and famously used mythology to explore—though, crucially, not to elevate—experience. Early examples, such as “Pietà” and “Aphrodite,” physicalize the female archetypes of mother and lover; in Glück’s taut telling, these idealized women are subject not only to the narrative structures they support but also to the effects of time. For Glück, art negotiates between the ephemeral past and the inevitable future, between transience and permanence. In “Night Song,” a moment of passion banishes a fear of change—“Tonight I’m not afraid / to feel the revolutions.” Sex is a memento mori: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.”
The often dreamlike universe of Glück’s poems is largely indifferent to human affairs; its sense of alienation can be devastating but also, sometimes simultaneously, the source of a dry, trenchant humor. In “Field Flowers,” from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “The Wild Iris,” a collectively voiced bunch of buttercups jab at humans’, and maybe especially artists’, transcendent ambitions: “What are you saying? That you want / eternal life? Are your thoughts really / as compelling as all that?” (Lyric poetry takes another hit—“O / the soul! the soul! Is it enough / only to look inward?”) Meanwhile, the gardener-speaker of “Vespers” converses with God in a humble, businesslike fashion: “In your extended absence, you permit me / use of earth, anticipating / some return on investment.” The speaker admits “failure in my assignments” but goes on to claim a right to that failure, as a creator. “All this / belongs to you: on the other hand, / I planted the seeds . . .” Glück writes, “and it was my heart / broken by the blight.” Furthermore, the divine cannot comprehend the mortal’s plight:
The gardener’s lament is echoed in “Gold Lily.” “All around, / my companions are failing, thinking / you do not see,” the dying flower entreats. “How / can they know you see / unless you save us?” These are creations forsaken by their creator.
In “Nest,” a sort of ars poetica that The New Yorker published, in 1999, Glück asserts, “in my life, I was trying to be / a witness not a theorist.” For all its transformation and ventriloquy, her work’s revelations are rooted in observation; epic frameworks illuminate frequently ugly truths. “I never turned anyone into a pig,” begins “Circe’s Power.” “Some people are pigs; I make them / look like pigs.” That poem’s penultimate stanza contains a succinct description of Glück’s own particular skill: “every sorceress is / a pragmatist at heart; nobody / sees essence who can’t / face limitation.” In recognizing the boundaries of an individual perspective and syntax, she continually probes toward a deeper, wider resonance. “The world / was whole because / it shattered,” she writes, in “Formaggio.” “But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared.” The world’s multiplicity engenders the same in its inhabitants: “Tributaries / feeding into a large river: I had / many lives.”
“Prism,” a haunting long poem that The New Yorker published, in 2003, shows how a single life is refracted through memory, art, and love (or the idea of love). Childhood and its ending provide a central subject for Glück, who here turns over and recombines certain elements, repeating lines and motifs within and across sections, to results at once searching and highly controlled; the potentially infinite realm of the imagination runs up against the confines of the body, not to mention of social expectation. “The riddle was: why couldn’t we live in the mind. // The answer was: the barrier of the earth intervened.”
The “Tributaries” of the self reconfigure as streets that meet at a central fountain in Glück’s 2009 collection, “A Village Life.” The book’s apocryphal setting, like the writer’s mind, is possessed of its own legends and customs, along with its own perimeters. Although poems like “Noon,” “March,” and “Marriage” are more linear and less fragmentary than much of Glück’s work, they remain keenly conscious of what they cannot contain: as “Before the Storm” ends, “The night is an open book. / But the world beyond the night remains a mystery.” Part of Glück’s oracular bearing lies in her ability to evoke that “world beyond” what the poem names, even as the poem, in its texture and strangeness, seems a world unto itself.