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Louise Glück: The poet of the hidden voices

  • Published at 07:12 pm October 15th, 2020
Louise Glück
Image: nobelprize.org

She is the second female poet to win the Nobel Prize after Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska

The selection of former US Poet Laureate Louise Glück as the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature is not an obvious but a worthy choice. One of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature, Glück has received almost all of the major awards for poetry in her country. She has been awarded the Nobel Prize "for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal." With this she becomes the 16th woman to have won the award.

Glück is most well-known for her lyric poems. Poet Robert Hass has recognized her as “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.” Her poems are characterised by technical precision, straightforwardness, clarity and a dream-like quality. They are candid, emotionally intense and brutally honest, which seem to emanate from her core. In her poem "First Memory," which was published in her sixth poetry volume entitled Ararat, she writes:

“in childhood, I thought

that pain meant

I was not loved

It meant I loved.” 

Final lines of the title poem of Vita Nova say:

“Surely spring has been returned to me, this time

not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet 

it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.” 

Readers find her poetry gripping; relatively easy to understand and relate to—they see the contours of their own inner lives in them. Dan Chiasson rightly said in New Yorker, “…she appeals to people who read only poetry and to people who read almost no poetry”. 

Thematically speaking, Glück’s poems are about family, childhood, love, desire, sex, death, loss, trauma, isolation, nature, and animals. They speak of disillusionment, disenchantment, and changeability of self. She focuses on issues of self in relation to others and to the natural world, and urges us to listen to ourselves, our unheard voices. In her essay “Education of the Poet”, she writes, “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known but to illuminate what has been hidden”. As in her poetry she draws heavily on her life events and sees through deeply personal lens, she is often called an autobiographical or a confessional poet. Regarding this, chairman of the Nobel Committee Anders Olsson has noted: “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’s poems make use of archetypal subjects of Greek and Roman mythology, fairy tales; they also draw on the Bible. Through myths and fairy tales, and happily-ever-after stories, Glück poeticises the terror and trauma of life. 

In her career that spans almost half a century, Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. She has changed her aesthetic strategy over the years and many critics think that her poetry has become consistently better with each of her new books. Her poetry has been translated in Spanish, German and Swedish. 

She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn about which she has told Media after winning the Nobel Prize: "I would suggest that they not read my first book, unless they want to feel contempt”. Her second book, The House on Marshland (1975), which came seven years after the debut book is often cited as her breakthrough volume. Her sixth poetry book Ararat (1990), a ruthlessly probing family portrait in verse, is a brutal, intimate and semi-autobiographical collection. 

The Wild Iris (1992) that brought her the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 encompasses the natural, human, and spiritual realms, and is bound together by the universal themes of time and mortality. With clarity and sureness of craft, poems in this book take readers on an inner journey by exploring their deepest, most intimate feelings; they question, explore, and finally celebrate the ordeal of being alive. Vita Nova (1999) is a work of ends and beginnings. Drawing symbols from both personal dreams and classic mythological archetypes, she dramatises the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new life.

Her Poems 1962–2012 (2012) was hailed as "a major event in this country's literature" in the pages of The New York Times. Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), her most recent publication, won a National Book Award for poetry. In this volume, Glück responds to mortality of human beings—an encounter with the unknown through a knight's undaunted journey into the kingdom of death.

In 2016, President Obama bestowed the National Humanities Medal on Gluck in a White House ceremony. The 2020 Nobel Laureate in Literature has been adjunct professor of English and Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale since 2004.


A look at Louise Glück’s books


Faithful and Virtuous Night (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

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

A Village Life ( New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Averno ( New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

October ( Louisville, Ky: Sarabande Books, 2004)

The Seven Ages (New York: Ecco Press, 2001)

Vita Nova (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1999)

Meadowlands (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1996)

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

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

Ararat (New York: Ecco Press, 1990)

The Triumph of Achilles (New York: Ecco Press, 1985)

Descending Figure (New York: Ecco Press, 1980)

The Garden (New York: Antaeus Editions, 1976)

The House on Marshland (New York: Ecco Press, 1975)

Firstborn (New York: New American Library, 1968)



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

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



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