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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Louise Glück (b. 1943)


American poet, essayist, and critic, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2020. According to the Finland-Swedish poet Tua Forsström, a member of the Swedish Academy academy from 2019,  the academy unanimous in its decision. Louise Glück is one of the leading poetic voices of her generation, who has been compared to such poets as Sylvia Plath and Stanley Kunitz. Glück's delicately crafted poems have the quality of transforming the personal into something universal, which is rich with mythical and archetypal meanings. 

"It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger,
because a woman's body
is a grave; it will accept
(from 'Dedicated to Hunger,' in Descending Figure, 1980)

Louise Glück was born in New York City, the daughter of Daniel Glück, a businessman, and Beatrice Glück (née Grosby), who was of Russian Jewish descent. Glück's father is said to have helped develop the X-Acto knife, originally invented in the 1930s by a medical supplier named Sundel Doniger.

Glück grew up in Long Island. Right since her childhood, her parents supported her writing and drawing. She started reading at a very early age. "Before I was three, I was well grounded in the Greek  myths, and the figures of those stories, together with certain images from the illustraions, became fundamental referents." (The Poetry of Louise Glück: A Thematic Introduction by Daniel Morris, 2006, p. 25) By the time she was five, she was already composing poems. Glück'a father, who had wanted to become a writer, told her the tale of St. Joan, when she was a child; the (starving) character of Joan has appeared in several of her poems. However, it was her mother, whom Glück wanted to please and whose approval  mattered to her most.

In 1961 she graduated from Hewlett High School, New York. Before transferring to Columbia University, in New York City, she attended Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, for one  year. Glück studied poetry with Stanley Kunitz, whom she considred a "companion spirit," and Leonie Adams, but she never graduated. In 1966 she received the Academy of American Poetry prize. For a period, Glück supported herself with secretarial work.

As a teen, she suffered from severe anorexia, which she has connected to the  death of an older sister before. With the help of psychotherapy, she eventually overcame her illness. Moreover, dream analysis pushed her to cultivate her capacity to study images as a language. Glück has touched upon the subject of anorexia in the long poem 'Dedication of Hunger' in Descending Figure (1980), arguing that a woman's body is "a grave." In Ararat (1990) the dominant theme is death. In this work the speaker reminds the reader: "That’s why I’m not to be trusted. / Because a wound to the heart / is also a wound to the mind." ('The Untrustworthy Speaker') Basically her alter ego, the lyric "I," is a poetic construct. Of course there is always the question: is she reliable when she presents herself as unreliable?

In spite of the recurret subjects – pain, grief, despair, loss, death – Glück's poems are not devoid of glimmers of hope and sense of humour, which often takes the form of ironic self-mockery. She has evaded labels and categorization ("Jewish American poet" or "female poet," etc.). To many readers Glück has appeared as a feminist, but she has said that she hardly knows what feminism means.

Glück's house in Vermont was destroyed by fire in April 1980. "I watched the destruction of all that had been, all that would not be again, and all that remained . . . and it conferred on daily life an aura of blessedness . . . all that remained took on a radiance." (A to Z of American Women Writers by Carol Kort, Rev. ed. 2007, p. 110) This personal disaster had an unexpected result: in June, she wrote thirteen poems over a period of two weeks, including the much anthologized 'Mock Orange,' in which  she writes:  "I  hate sex / the man's mouth / sealing my mouth, the man's / paralyzing body— / and the cry that always escapes".

Twice divorced, failed marriages have occupied a central place in such of Glück's  books as Meadowlands (1996), Vita Nova (1999), and The Seven Ages (2001). In 1967 Glück married Charles Hertz Jr.; they had one son. Her second marriage was to John Dranow, a prose writer and vice president of the New England Culinary Institute.

The Triumph of Achilles (1985), which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, drew from the Bible, classic myths, and fairy tales. Known for being reclusive and staying out of the media spotlight, it was not until the 1990s, when Glück poetry caught the attention of a wide reading public. Glück received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1993 for The Wild Iris (1992), in which she shifted from a singular lyric "I" to a plural, a conversation between three voices, flowers, a human gardener and a creator God of the Old Testament. The first voice is that of a flower: "At the end of my suffering / there was a door. / Hear me out: that which you call death / I remember." ('The Wild Iris) Critics praised the beauty of her language, its simplicity and intensity. The literary critic Helen Vendler compared her to the poet Emily Dickinson. When  she was named in October 2003 the US poet laureate, succeeding Billy Collins, she told the Associated Press that she preferred her audience small, intense, and passionate.

In addition to poetry, Glück has published essay collections. Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (1994) won the PEN/Albrand Award for nonfiction. Her  second volume of essay, American Originality: Essays on Poetry, appeared  in 2017. "Fans of Glück’s own poems will recognize her trademark severity. In her extreme focus and clipped, uncompromising sentences, Glück recalls no one so much as Susan Sontag. Like Sontag, Glück assumes her readers know the texts under consideration – she often omits the customary quotations critics use to illustrate their points." ('Deep Dives Into How Poetry Works (and Why You Should Care)' by Craig Morgan Teicher, The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2017) Glück's first work of fiction, the short novel Marigold and Rose (2022), is about the inner lives of two infant twins.

Glück has taught in several universities and colleges, first in the 1970s at Goddard College in Vermont. At  Williams College, in Williamstown,  Massachusetts, where she began teaching  in 1984, she  eventually became a senior lecturer. In 2004 she moved to Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. She lives now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For further reading: We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress: Essays by Craig Morgan Teicher (2018); Women Versed in Myth: Essays on Modern Poets, edited by Colleen S. Harris and Valerie Estelle Frankel (2016); Poetic Memory: the Forgotten Self in Plath, Howe, Hinsey, and Glück by Uta Gosmann (2012); 'Louise Glück: the death of romanticism,' in History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture by Ira Sadoff (2009); 'Glück, Louise' by 'K.D. [Kathleen D'Angelo], in World Authors 2000-2005, edited by Jennifer Curry, David Ramm, Mari Rich, and Albert Rolls (2007); Overheard Voices: Address and Subjectivity in Postmodern American Poetry by Ann Keniston (2006); The Poetry of Louise Glück: a Thematic Introduction by Daniel Morris (2006); Defensive Measures: the Poetry of Niedecker, Bishop, Glück, and Carson by Lee Upton (2005); On Louise Glück : Change What You See, edited by Joanne Feit Diehl (2005); Embodying Beauty: Twentieth-century American Women Writers' Aesthetics by Malin Pereira (2000); The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery, in Five American Poets by Lee Upton (1998) - Suomeksi Louise Glückin runoja on kääntänyt Anni Sumari teoksissa Merenvaahdon palatsi: Yhdysvaltalaista nykyrunoutta (2019) sekä Uskollinen ja hyveellinen yö (2020), alkuperäisteos Faithful and Virtuous Night. Kustantaja on ollut Aviador.

Selected works:

  • Firstborn: Poems, 1968.
  • The House on Marshland, 1975
  • Garden, 1976
  • Descending Figure, 1980
  • The Triumph of Achilles, 1985
  • Ararat, 1990
  • The Wild Iris, 1992
    - Villi iiris (suom. Anni Sumari, 2023)
  • Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, 1994
  • The First Four Books of Poems, 1995
  • Meadowlands, 1997
  • Vita Nova, 1999
  • The Seven Ages, 2001
  • [Stikhi / Luiza Glik] = Poems, 2002 [selections; Russian & English]
  • Poet Laureate Louise Glück reading her poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, May 4, 2004, 2004 [sound recording].
  • October: Poetry, 2004
  • Averno, 2006
  • A Village Life, 2009
  • Poems: 1962–2012, 2012
  • Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014
    - Uskollinen ja hyveellinen yö (suom. Anni Sumari, 2020)
  • American Originality: Essays on Poetry, 2017
    - Esseitä amerikkalaisuuden ytimestä (suom. Jussi Niemi, 2022)
  • editor: The Final Voicemails by Max Ritvo, 2018
  • Poems 1962-2020, 2021 (Penguin Classics) 
  • Winter Recipes from the Collective: Poems, 2021
    - Talvisia reseptejä kollektiivista (suom. Anni Sumari, 2022) 
  • Marigold and Rose, 2022

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