[The JRB Daily] Louise Glück wins the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature

American poet Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The award was announced by the Swedish Academy on Thursday at a news conference in Stockholm.

The Academy praised Glück ‘for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal’.

Glück will receive 10 million Swedish kronor in prize money (over R18 million) along with a gold medal, courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

During the announcement, the Academy’s permanent secretary Mats Malm confirmed he had spoken to Glück just before. ‘The message came as a surprise, but a welcome one as far as I could tell, early in the morning as it was,’ he said.

Glück is the first woman poet to win the prize since the late Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska won the award in 1996. She becomes the sixteenth woman to win the Literature Nobel, and the first American woman since Toni Morrison’s win in 1993, twenty-seven years ago.

Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She made her poetry debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and has since received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014). She is the author of twelve collections of poetry and several volumes of essays on poetry, and is professor of English at Yale University.

The Nobel Committee called Glück ‘a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss’, and quoted from her poem ‘Snowdrops’, from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris (1992), in which she describes the miraculous return of life after winter:

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.

Anders Olsson, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, notes of her books:

All are characterised 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.

The Swedish Academy may hope to steady the ship with this year’s announcement, after some controversy over the past few years. A sexual abuse scandal involving the husband of one of the Swedish Academy members sparked a mass exodus of members and resulted in the 2018 prize announcement being postponed. The Academy was also criticised for the overly secretive process in which it selected literature laureates, and in 2019 announced changes billed as improving the transparency of the awards. Then, in October 2019, two winners were announced concurrently, for 2018 and 2019: Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. Handke was also a controversial choice, being the subject of international criticism as an apparent apologist for far-right Serbian nationalism, and a vocal supporter of Slobodan Milošević.

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