Nobel 2020 – Literature

This is where the Nobel award step away from the three big science awards and instead turns its focus on literature. While it is true that publishers and authors need and love such awards to drive sales, there is something very profound behind it all. The ability to persist our ideas such that our thoughts, and dreams live on long after we are gone has dramatically altered our species. The advent of the printing press opened a door for vast numbers of people and exposed them to new ideas and concepts.

One other interesting twist to all of this is that in 2018 there was no Nobel award for Literature. Why that happened is itself a saga of corruption, sex (yes really), rape, and more. If curious I laid out the details in a posting back then here. It was all such a horrendous mess that they needed to scrap the existing committee and start from scratch afresh in 2019. So that is why last year there were two Nobel awards for Literature … and both were well deserved.

The Nobel award for Literature is of course not about just one notable book, but rather a body of work that has been built up over a lifetime.

Side Note-1: They usually get it right but that can also get it catastrophically wrong. For example in 2016 they awarded it to singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. The French writer Pierre Assouline described the decision as “contemptuous of writers“, and I must admit, he has a point.

Side Note 2: Many famous authors who truly deserved to win never did. For example  James JoyceLeo TolstoyAnton ChekhovMarcel ProustHenrik Ibsen, and Henry James.

In other words, it is not perfect and there is a great deal of wholly justified and well-earned criticism bubbling away behind this award.

So who has won in 2020, who has poured their heart and soul out to such a degree that it attracted the committees attention?

The 2020 winner – Poet Louise Glück


The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2020 is awarded to the American poet Louise Glück

“for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.

Biobibliographical notes

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

With collections like The Triumph of Achilles (1985) and Ararat (1990) Glück found a growing audience in USA and abroad. In Ararat three characteristics unite to subsequently recur in her writing: the topic of family life; austere intelligence; and a refined sense of composition that marks the book as a whole. Glück has also pointed out that in these poems she realized how to employ ordinary diction in her poetry. The deceptively natural tone is striking. We encounter almost brutally straightforward images of painful family relations. It is candid and uncompromising, with no trace of poetic ornament.

It reveals much about her own poetry when in her essays Glück cites the urgent tone in Eliot, the art of inward listening in Keats or the voluntary silence in George Oppen. But in her own severity and unwillingness to accept simple tenets of faith she resembles more than any other poet, Emily Dickinson.

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

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.

It should also be added that the decisive moment of change is often marked by humour and biting wit. The collection Vita Nova (1999) concludes with the lines: ”I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.” The title alludes to Dante’s classic La Vita Nuova, celebrating the new life in the guise of his muse Beatrice. Celebrated in Glück is rather the loss of a love that has disintegrated.

Averno (2006) is a masterly collection, a visionary interpretation of the myth of Persephone’s descent into hell in the captivity of Hades, the god of death. The title comes from the crater west of Naples that was regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld. Another spectacular achievement is her latest collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), for which Glück received the National Book Award. The reader is again struck by the presence of voice and Glück approaches the motif of death with remarkable grace and lightness. She writes oneiric, narrative poetry recalling memories and travels, only to hesitate and pause for new insights. The world is disenthralled, only to become magically present once again.

Anders Olsson
Chairman of the Nobel Committee

Bibliography – a selection

Works in English

Firstborn. – New York : New American Library, 1968

The House on Marshland. – New York : Ecco Press, 1975

The Garden. – New York : Antaeus Editions, 1976

Descending Figure. – New York : Ecco Press, 1980

The Triumph of Achilles. – New York : Ecco Press, 1985

Ararat. – New York : Ecco Press, 1990

The Wild Iris. – Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1992

Proofs and Theories : Essays on Poetry. – Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1994

The First Four Books of Poems. – Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1995

Meadowlands. – Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1996

Vita Nova. – Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999

The Seven Ages. – New York : Ecco Press, 2001

October. – Louisville, Ky : Sarabande Books, 2004

Averno. – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006

A Village Life. – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Poems 1962–2012. – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

Faithful and Virtuous Night. – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

American Originality : Essays on Poetry. – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Works in Spanish

El iris salvaje / traducción de Eduardo Chirinos. Texto en inglés y traducción en espanol. – Valencia : Pre-Textos, 2006. – Título original: The Wild Iris

Ararat / traducción de Abraham Gragera. Texto en inglés y traducción en espanol. – Valencia : Pre-Textos, 2008. – Título original: Ararat

Louise Glück : poesía selecta / traducción de Beverley Pérez Rego. – Caracas : Universidad Metropolitana, 2008

Averno / traducción de Abraham Gragera y Ruth Miguel Franco. – Valencia : Pre-Textos, 2011. – Título original: Averno

Las siete edades / traducción de Mirta Rosenberg. Texto en inglés y traducción en espanol. – Valencia : Pre-Textos, 2011. – Título original: The Seven Ages

Vita nova / traducción de Mariano Peyrou. Texto en inglés y traducción en espanol. – Valencia : Pre-Textos, 2014. – Título original: Vita Nova

Praderas / traducción de Andrés Catalán. Texto en inglés y traducción en espanol. – Madrid : Pre-Textos, 2017. – Título original: Meadowlands

Works in Swedish

Averno / tolkning av Jonas Brun. – Malmö : Rámus, 2017. – Originaltitel: Averno

Ararat / översättning av Stewe Claeson. – Malmö : Rámus, 2019. – Originaltitel: Ararat

Vild iris / översättning av Jonas Brun. – Malmö : Rámus, 2020. – Originaltitel: The Wild Iris

Works in German

Averno : Gedichte / übersetzt von Ulrike Draesner. – München : Luchterhand, 2007. – Originaltitel: Averno

Wilde Iris : Gedichte / übersetzt von Ulrike Draesner. – München : Luchterhand, 2008. – Originaltitel: The Wild Iris

Further Reading

Dodd, Elizabeth, The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet : H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. – Columbia : University of Missouri Press, 1992

Gosmann, Uta, Poetic Memory : The Forgotten Self in Plath, Howe, Hinsey, and Glück. – Madison : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012

Harrison, DeSales, The End of the Mind : the Edge of the Intelligible in Hardy, Stevens, Larking, Plath, and Glück. – New York : Routledge, 2013

Keller, Lynn, “’Free of Blossom and Subterfuge’ : Louise Gluck and the Language of Renunciation” in World, Self, Poem : Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the “Jubilation of Poets” / edited by Leonard M. Trawick. – Kent, Ohio : Kent State University Press, 1990

Keniston, Ann, Overheard Voices : Address and Subjectivity in Postmodern American Poetry. – New York : Routledge, 2006

Morris, Daniel, The Poetry of Louise Glück : A Thematic Introduction. – Columbia : University of Missouri Press, 2006

On Louise Glück : Change What You See / edited by Joanne Feit Diehl. – Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2005

Simic, Charles, The Renegade : Writings on Poetry and a Few Other Things. – New York : George Braziller, 2009

Upton, Lee: Defensive Measures : The Poetry of Niedecker, Bishop, Glück, and Carson. – Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 2005

Upton, Lee, The Muse of Abandonment : Origin, Identity, Mastery, in Five American Poets. – Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 1998

Vendler, Helen, “Flower Power : Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris” in Soul Says : On Recent Poetry. – Cambridge (Mass.) : Harvard University Press, 1995

Vendler, Helen, “Louise Glück” in Part of Nature, Part of Us : Modern American Poets. – Cambridge (Mass.) : Harvard University Press, 1980 [7th ed. 1996]

Vendler, Helen, “Louise Glück, Stephen Dunn, Brad Leithauser, Rita Dove” in The Music of What Happens : Poems, Poets, Critics. – Cambridge (Mass.) : Harvard University Press, 1988

Nobel Literature 2020 – Tweets

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