And that’s how American poet Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature
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?
The American poet Louise Glück won this year’s Nobel Prize in literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
Hers is a style unlike that of many others, whose word choice often alienates the reader, particularly the non-poet. Hers are poems unlike those of many, whose voice is a shrine to exclusivity, decipherable only for those in the know.
In her poem “The Past” from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), complexity is disguised ironically in the simplicity of her words, in her diction that seems to approximate that of everyday conversations. Hers is poetry that is accessible, or at least seems accessible, like the shallows through which one must wade on one’s way to the deep.
A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you
but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.
In this poem, “The Myth of Devotion,” reimagining Hades’ abduction of Persephone, Glück plucks the story from the bosom of ancient myth and, using common words and common expressions, portrays them like you and me, like characters in a modern-day love story, although on deeper inspection, theirs, like ours, as told in her collection Averno (2006), is not so much a romance as a lamentation over the approaching winter, the gathering darkness, or the march to death. But who knows? Like many of her poems, “The Myth of Devotion” looks sparse on the page yet it is packed with possibility the reader is free to deduce. It is poetry, after all.
a peach in a wicker basket.
There was a bowl of fruit.
Fifty years. Such a long walk
from the door to the table.
Take this passage from “Ripe Peach,” an ode to memory that is all at once a jab at aging or the passing of time. From The Seven Ages (2001), this poem is classic Glück, sophistication masquerading as approachability or approachability that betrays its sophistication only in deeper analysis. Either way, you can enjoy the verse and either way, you can sense how the poet compresses time so that the minutes it takes to walk across a room full of memories can feel as long as a lifetime.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.
But Glück does not gloss over life, though she paints it with poems like this from her collection Ararat (1990), “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” whose words are often no more than three syllables long. Descended from a family of Hungarian Jews who moved to America, hers is a walk on the darker, edgier side of life. In The Poetry Foundation website, “technical precision, sensitivity, and insight into loneliness, family relationships, divorce, and death” are ascribed to her lifework. She is the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction, the Bollingen Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Awards for mastery in the art of poetry, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2003, she was named the 12th US Poet Laureate.
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
And now Glück has the Nobel, the 16th woman to win the prize in the history of the Swedish academy, and the first American woman to win it after Toni Morrison in 1993.
We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.
Hers is the victory of poetry that finds expression in words unadorned, unembellished, uncomplicated, unpretentious, and unostentatious, just like these words in the opening lines of “The Wild Iris,” which won Louise Glück the Pulitzer in 1993. Yes, ordinary words can make extraordinary poetry.