The 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on October 8 to the American poet Louise Glück, "for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal."
Glück will give her Nobel lecture in the United States due to coronavirus travel restrictions, according to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the prize. After receiving the Award, in a short phone conversation with a representative of the Academy, Glück said her first thought upon hearing the news was "I won't have any friends, because most of my friends are writers." She added: "It's too new. I don't know really what it means. It's a great honor, and of course there are recipients I don't admire, but then I think of the ones that I do."
Glück's current publisher, Farrar, Straux & Giroux, will go back to press on all her books following the announcement, although the press did not cite specific numbers. In addition, FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi, Glück's editor, said that a new collection of poetry, Winter Recipes from the Collective, is due to be released next year, although a date has not been decided upon.
Glück, a former U.S. poet laureate, is considered one of the foremost voices in American poetry, and is the author of 14 collections—her first, the appropriately titled Firstborn, with New American Library in 1968, then nine books with Ecco, followed by four with FSG starting in 2006. In 1985, she won the National Book Critics Circle award for The Triumph of Achilles and, eight years later, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and the William Carlos Williams Award) for The Wild Iris, perhaps her best-known collection.
Her other collections include Vito Nova 1990), Proofs and Theories (1994), Meadowlands (1996), Ararat (2000), Averno (2006) The Seven Ages (2007) Poems 1962-2012 (2012), and Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014). In addition, Glück has published two chapbooks and two essay collections, 1994's Proofs and Theories and 2017's American Originality. In her call with the representative of the Academy, Glück suggested Averno or Faithful and Virtuous Night as good entry points to her oeuvre for first-time readers.
Glück has received the Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Poetry, the National Humanities Medal, and dozens of other honors. Born in New York City in 1943 and raised on Long Island, she attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, and now lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at Yale University.
The award comes only four years after Bob Dylan, another American, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and many pundits were skeptical that an American would be named a laureate again so soon. After all, the drought between wins for Americans prior to Dylan was nearly a quarter-century long, as Toni Morrison had previously been the most recent American to be named Nobel laureate, in 1993. Galassi, for one, was certainly as surprised as he was elated.
"It's very deserved, and her work has innate translatability—she's already been translated in a number of countries, and I think there will be a lot more of that," Galassi said. "And I think we're going to have a lot more readers for Louise. Her work is deeply poetic and literary, but also deeply sensical and direct. It's like you hear your inner voice when you read her."
The poet Daniel Halpern, who, in his tenure as publisher of Ecco, published Glück's work for more than 30 years, was also both stunned and thrilled. "It's such a great choice," He said. "You never know what the Swedish Academy is going to do. I didn't think they would go back to America so quickly, but it's really a righteous award, and a beautiful one. They picked one of the best poets writing in the world."
Ecco published Glück from 1975 until 2006, when she moved to FSG. "I think that, from her first book, it was clear to me that she was going to be one of the most important poets in America," Halpern said. He added: "It has to do with the way she schemetizes the world—it's definitely her voice and that language, which is unmistakable. I don't think you'd ever not recognize a Louise Glück line if you'd read it."
This year's prize was awarded after two years of turmoil for the Swedish Academy. The suspension of the 2018 prize ceremony until 2019 came as the awards body was mired in a complex controversy surrounding sexual harassment and other issues that saw a mass exodus from its ranks. And last year, when two prizes were awarded, the selection of Austrian writer Peter Handke, an apologist for Serbian-led genocide during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, spawned a controversy of its own.
This year's award, Galassi speculates, might soothe critics of the Academy for the time being. "I think it's a really great Nobel Prize in that it's really about literature—it's not politicized, and it's sort of a return to a calmer, more considered award than we've had," he said. "There was a lot of turbulence around the Nobel for quite a while, and this is the kind of award that makes a lot of sense."
In the announcement, a representative of the Swedish Academy said that Glück "won early acclaim as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature," describing all of her collections as "characterized by striving for clarity, childhood and family life, the close relations to parents and siblings is a thematic that has remained central with her. Even if the autobiographical background is significant," the Academy representative continued, "Glück is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. She seeks the universal, and in this, she takes inspiration from myth and classical motifs. The voices of Dido, Persephone, or Eurydice are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as they are universally valued."
In her work, which is filled with "the topic of family life, austere but also playful intelligence, and a refined sense of composition," Glück regularly employs "ordinary diction in her poetry," the representative said. "We encounter almost brutally straightforward images of painful family relations without a trace of poetic ornament. Louise Glück's voice is unmistakable. It is candid and uncompromising, and it signals that this poet wants to be understood. But it is also a voice full of humor and biting wit. This is a great resource when Glück treats one of her great topics, radical change, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss." He added: "She writes oneiric, narrative poetry recalling memories and travels, only to hesitate and make a halt for new insights. The world is disenthralled only to become magically present once again."
This story has been updated with further information.