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Louise Glück
Image: Niklas Elmehed for Nobel Media

Nobel Prize in literature goes to US poet

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
October 8, 2020

The Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to US poet Louise Glück for her "unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal."


US poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy announced on Thursday in Stockholm. Glück is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who is also a professor of English Literature at Yale University.

The Swedish Nobel committee described her as "one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature."

In addition to her poetry collections, Glück is also a renowned essay writer and literary critic. Her first published poetry collection appeared in 1968.

The 77-year-old poet has also previously been recognized with the National Book Award. Her works are "characterized by a striving for clarity," often about the human condition, and deal with themes of childhood, family life, death and human mortality, the Nobel Academy announced. 

Seeking the universal 

Glück debuted as a writer in 1968 with Firstborn and "was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature," as the Swedish Academy wrote in its statement revealing the 2020 laureate.

She has since published 12 collections of poetry, as well as volumes of essays on poetry.

The writer draws on myths and classical motifs in most of her works to seek the universal, often adapting and incorporating Greek and Roman mythology.

"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," read the academy's statement.

The Swedish Academy described Glück's 2006 collection Averno as a "masterly collection, a visionary interpretation of the myth of Persephone's descent into Hell in the captivity of Hades, the god of death."

Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, praised Glück's "candid and uncompromising" voice, which he called "full of humor and biting wit." He went on to compare her to American poet Emily Dickinson with her "severity and unwillingness to accept simple tenets of faith."

Olsson added that "even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet."

Other notable works by the poet include The Wild Iris, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, and Faithful and Virtuous Night, honored with the National Book Award in 2014. Glück was appointed as US poet laureate in 2003.

Louise Glück in 2014
Louise Glück at the National Book Awards in 2014 Image: Robin Marchant/Getty Images/AFP/picture alliance

'Live your life'

Born in New York in 1943, Glück grew up on Long Island and attended Columbia University. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has taught poetry in several universities.

In an interview with Poets and Writers magazine, the writer advised: "You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work," because "your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake."

The writer has often avoided the spotlight in the past. 

Mats Malm, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Glück was "surprised" when she received their phone call. It came "as a surprise but a welcome one, as far as I could tell," Malm said.

Years of controversy at the Swedish Academy

Glück becomes the 16th woman to win the award for literature out of 113 laureates in total.

The prize, bequeathed by Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, has been awarded almost every year since 1901 and is seen as one of the most reputable literary awards in the world. It comes with a gold medal and 10 million krona (more than $1.1 million; over €950,000).

Prior to the award being announced, many betting websites and commentators suspected that the committee would make a "safe choice" for the winner.

The 2020 prize comes after years of tumult and controversy. In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that chooses the winners, and sparked a mass exodus of members.

Read more:2020 Booker Prize announces shortlist, highlights diversity

A large number of the winners of the Nobel Prize wrote in English
A large number of the winners of the Nobel Prize wrote in English

After the academy revamped itself in a bid to regain the trust of the Nobel Foundation, two laureates were named last year, with the 2018 prize going to Poland's Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria's Peter Handke.

Read more: Opinion: Peter Handke's Nobel flattery falls flat

But Handke's prize caused a storm of protest: a strong supporter of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars, he has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes. Several countries including Albania, Bosnia and Turkey boycotted the Nobel awards ceremony in protest, and a member of the committee that nominates candidates for the literature prize resigned.

Earlier this week, the awards for medicine, physics and chemistry were already handed out. Friday sees the announcement of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, while the prize for economics will be awarded next week.

ed/sms (AP, dpa)

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