Louise Glück: where to start with an extraordinary Nobel winner

Fiona Sampson
·4-min read

I have been reading Louise Glück for more than 20 years, longer than the many poets whose star has risen and waned in the meantime; longer than I’ve been writing poetry. Perhaps this is why I’m so moved and excited by today’s announcement that the 77-year old American has won the Nobel prize in literature.

But I think it’s much more than this. The 12 collections (and two chapbooks) of poetry that Glück has published to date vary enormously in style and theme, from the domestic and familial stories of her first books, 1968’s aptly-titled Firstborn and her breakthrough second collection The House on Marshland (1975), to the fabular and increasingly philosophic writing of later work like Averno (2006) – named for the entrance to the Classical underworld – and her most recent collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014). But what unites all this work is a quality of lucid, calm attention. You read a passage by Glück and think, Ah yes, of course, this is how it is. She has the extraordinary writer’s gift of making clear what is, outside the world of her poem, complex.

Here she is in the 10-part poem Ripe Peach, on arriving at middle age:

There was
a peach in a wicker basket.
There was a bowl of fruit.
Fifty years. Such a long walk
from the door to the table.

This is classic Glück, distilling time, beauty, and emotional ambivalence in a single clarifying gesture. Only the literary allusion betrays the complexity behind the apparent ease: no poet can avoid hearing George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome…” in the offering, although the reader doesn’t need any such knowledge for the poem to work. That single gesture is an inclusive, not exclusive, one. Through decades of Anglo-American poetry alternating between over-intellection and misery-memoir confession, Glück has continued to write poetry that is accessible, despite its huge sophistication.

Ripe Peach is published in The Seven Ages (2001), a book I’ve always loved. Where, in As You Like It, Shakespeare has Jacques’s famous Seven Ages tell the story of a man’s life; with equal lightness of touch, Glück has the confidence to assume that a woman’s experience can provide the human example. By doing so she’s already managed, without polemic, to assure several generations of women that their lives are as real, and as mighty a measure of the human, as any man’s. She’s neatly shown a path through the canon for everyone who feels themselves excluded by that white male norm we should be past questioning.

Descending Figure (1980), another cunningly-appropriated title, reveals some of how this is done – like in the poem Portrait:

A child draws the outline of a body.
She draws what she can, but it is white all through,
she cannot fill in what she knows is there.
Within the unsupported line, she knows
that life is missing…

This quiet, but steely feat of readjustment to lived experience runs through Glück’s work. The House on Marshland, a book full of sibling and filial jostling, starts the poetic lifework of revealing how extraordinary everyday life is. “Even now this landscape is assembling. /The hills darken. The oxen /sleep,” it opens. There’s nothing passive or pastoral about this, but the sense of something thrillingly about to happen:

and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

Writing such hair-raising poetry by just her second collection, it’s no surprise that Glück would receive the US’s leading literary honours, starting with two Guggenheims and multiple National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. Her fierce and grief-struck fourth book, The Triumph of Achilles (1985), won the National Book Critics Circle award: “The city rose in a kind of splendour /as all that is wild comes to the surface,” it prophesied. And Glück continued, and continues, to come to the surface. In 1993, The Wild Iris won a Pulitzer prize. In 1999, she received a Lannan award; in 2001, the Bollingen prize; in 2003, she became US poet laureate. And this year, as well as the Nobel, she’s received the Tranströmer prize, awarded in memory of the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer – the last poet to receive the Nobel prize, back in 2011.

Of course, it’s not that she is suddenly “big in Sweden”. What Glück shares with her fellow laureate Tranströmer is a compassionate, comprehensive vision of human understanding and destiny. Much of what powers her work is explored in her two books of essays, Proofs and Theories (1994) and American Originality (2017). “The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness,” she tells us in th essay Education of a Poet; their life “is dignified, I think, by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement. In the actual work, a discipline, a service.” Glück’s poetry, for all its huge distinction, its vibrant intelligence and its beauty, has never lost the ability to serve society, or the reader.

  • Fiona Sampson is a poet. Her latest collection is Come Down (Corsair 2020).