By Vikas Datta
New Delhi, Oct 8 : Acclaimed American poet Louise Gluck, who draws on classical mythology, family life and nature in her precise and spare rendition of certain traumatic facets of the human condition such as pain and loss — both personal and public — but also longing and self-realisation, was on Thursday awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2020.
The New York-born Gluck, 77, is the 16th woman to win the prestigious prize, and the first American to receive it since singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016.
The Swedish Academy cited “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal” in selecting her for the prestigious prize.
Gluck, who overcame her anorexia affliction, disrupted education and lack of academic qualification, and writer’s block to emerge an important voice in American letters over her over half-decade career, has at least 12 volumes of poetry and several collections of essays on poetry to her credit. Her most recent published work was “American Originality: Essays on Poetry” (2017).
Publishing her first collection of poems “Firstborn” in 1968 to some positive feedback, she subsequently complained of writer’s block but said it slowly dissipated after she started teaching poetry in a Vermont college. It was her second volume “The House on Marshland” (1975), which brought her to prominence, and showcased “her distinctive voice”, as per American critic Daniel Morris.
Assessing her work, Nobel Committee Chairman Anders Olsson said her poetic oeuvre is “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,” he wrote on the Nobel Prize’s website.
However, as Olsson, and many scholars have noted, that while Gluck draws on her own life for her work, she is not a “confessional poet”, like, say, Sylvia Plath, and her verse eschews ethnic, religious or gender categories of identity politics, or a definite classification.
Gluck, instead, prefers to use prominent figures from Greco-Roman mythology such as Dido, the Queen of Carthage whose unrequited love for Aeneas doomed her, Persephone, the Greek goddess of Spring and abducted by the Lord of the Underworld, the gloomy Hades, to be his bride, and Eurydice, who almost came back from the land of dead due to her suitor’s persistence.
Then, her book-length six-part poem “October” (2004), drawing largely on Greek mythology, deals with the 9/11 attack.
But, Gluck also uses non-human narrators, with her work “The Wild Iris” where garden flowers talk to a gardener and a deity about the nature of life.
Poem “The Red Poppy” goes: “The great thing/is not having/a mind. Feelings:/oh, I have those; they/govern me. I have a lord in heaven/called the sun, and open/for him, showing him/the fire of my own heart, fire/like his presence…., while in “Snowdrops”, on rebirth and redemption in changing seasons, goes: 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 -…”
But it is not always gloom and pain in Gluck’s poetry. She can sometimes also display a trenchant wit, as Olsson points out, the collection “Vita Nova” ends: “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken./Then I moved to Cambridge.”
Currently an Adjunct Professor of English and Rosenkranz Writer in Residence at Yale University, she is the recipient of a host of prominent literary awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1981, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1993 for “The Wild Iris”, and the National Book Award in 2014 for “Faithful and Virtuous Night”.
She was also Poet Laureate of the United States (2003-04).