UU English Department Blog

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2020


By Daniel Kane

This text was translated and published in Dagens Nyheter 6 November 2020.

Louise Glück, a writer of concise and often deeply melancholy lyric poems, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This should surprise no one. Glück, after all, is a former Poet Laureate of the United States who has previously won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and many others.

Her poems, haunted as they are by the presence of Persephone, Euridice, Achilles and Dido, are invested deeply and complexly in the Western literary tradition. They are typically free-verse, often first-person. They are regularly celebrated for being “accessible” because of their relatively plain diction while simultaneously “grim” and “complex” due to the thorny and uncomfortable themes (eating disorders, depression, divorce) they address. They arguably do not advance the radical experiments in form we associate with American poets Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and the writers following in their wake. And, given the recent controversies associated with the Nobel Committee, it is a relief that there are no unsavoury associations one can pin on Glück. She is no Peter Handke blithely denying genocide, for sure! And for those purists tut-tutting Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel, they can now rest assured the prize has gone to a “real poet.” Glück, in other words, is practically the definition of a safe choice.

And yet, Glück’s Nobel has caused any number of people to express shock and delight, as if the fact that an oft-garlanded poet winning yet another major literary prize (albeit the “Big One,” for lack of a better phrase) is somehow proof of revolutionary change in the staid literary establishment.  At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, though, I think the language used to celebrate Glück’s work actively demeans the possibilities and energies evident in much contemporary poetry being written today.

Those of us on what we call “Poetry Twitter” have these past few days been treated to all-cap tweets including “I HAVE THE STRENGTH TO GO ON IN THIS DARK WORLD,” “LOUISE GLÜCK HIVE ASSEMBLE,” and my personal favourite so far, “LOUISE FUCKING GLÜCK.” Michael Schmidt, Glück’s British publisher at Carcanet Press, is quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian saying his staff was “completely surprised” at the news but also “astonished at the justice of the win.” Given Glück prize-winning history and her ironic, gloomy and scholarly lines, is it not a little weird that her winning the Nobel is garnering reactions like the ones you might imagine greeted Seabiscuit when he won the Triple Crown? But perhaps reactions like these are not so surprising – are, in fact, relatively sober – when we see how the Nobel Committee framed Glück’s good fortune.

The October 8 Svenska Academien press release announcing Gluck’s award– quoted dutifully throughout the world in national newspapers in India, the United States, Qatar, the United Kingdom, France, Greece, China, Japan and so on – explained Glück got the prize “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” The “biobibliographical notes” expand on this theme:

Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

So, right here, right now, in October of 2020, the Nobel committee frames the “universal” as grounded in the classical West. Is this statement not just a bit, shall we say, problematic? Naïve? One person’s Odyssey, after all, does not equal another person’s The Classic of Mountains and Seas. There is a long history of conservative literary critics claiming “universal” status for a work of art in order to hold on to, assert and expand their power to determine what constitutes acceptable form and content. If I were Glück, I would be embarrassed to be saddled with the task of being “universally valid.”

And, indeed, one wonders if Glück is a bit embarrassed. After all, responding in The New York Times to a question about how she felt receiving the Nobel prize, Glück responded charmingly. “When you think of the American poets who have not gotten the Nobel, it’s daunting,” she said. “I was shocked.” Glück added that she was “Completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet. It doesn’t make sense […] I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes.” Glück seems vastly more aware than the Nobel committee itself that the archetypes she is praised for are hers, specific to her culture and upbringing. She is, in her own words, “a white American lyric poet,” certainly not She Who Speaks For Us All, however austerely or beautifully.

I can only imagine how deflated ambitious poets must feel now when they read Glück’s poetry – with its multiple references to Greek myth, its geography of genteel New England towns and landscapes, its tendency to articulate a paraphrasable narrative that ends in a beautifully bathetic revelation – and recognize that, when it comes to who gets the prize, that world still trumps their worlds. I say this not just in terms of the obvious issue of identity, but in terms of poetic form, because beyond trumpeting Gluck’s work as “universal” the Nobel Committee perhaps more insidiously supports that claim by suggesting she’s kind of easy to read. Glück’s poems, the committee claims, “are characterized by a striving for clarity.” Her mid-career books find Glück experiencing a eureka moment when “she realized how to employ ordinary diction in her poetry.” Images are “brutally straightforward.” The work “is candid and uncompromising, with no trace of poetic ornament.” To in part illustrate these points, the committee in its biobibliography quotes the final two lines from Glück’s book Vita Nova which read  “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.” You’ve got your Dante (his La Vita Nuova), you’ve got your Harvard (Cambridge), there’s a wry and desperately sad laugh at the end,  a gracious glimpse of promise (maybe?) in the world despite depression.

Yes, Gluck is a fine writer. But what about poets whose works through their very form enact doubt, indecision, fragmentation, confusion, stupefaction, wilful boredom? What about poets who reject “ordinary diction,” a “refined sense of composition” and narrative because the very horrifying and wonderful world we inhabit asks for a poem whose form is antithetical to beginning, middle and end? What about poets who refuse the solace of coherence and insight, however qualified that insight might be in work like Glück’s? What about poems that spit at the dream that we are all, no matter where we are from or what we’ve experienced, essentially and sweetly human? What about any number of poets who are contemporary to Glück whose range of styles and experiments in form over the past fifty years or so not only refuse a consistent “voice” but shatter the illusion of “voice” by staging a radical critique of the way the concept of the universal has been used as a tool of oppression? In work like theirs, the “I” is not so much a stable individual expressing perpetual truths through classical masks as she is a tapestry of quotations, a revelation that the “individual” standing blissfully apart from the political is a prop for power, a prop ripe to be torn down.

The Nobel Committee, for all its good intentions, has insisted on accessibility as value, thereby patronizing any number of readers who might otherwise be encouraged to read the challenging and the weird over the relatively predictable and normative. It has reified a fundamentally conservative vision of the “universal” as grounded in a specifically Western tradition. Glück, and modern and contemporary poetry more generally, are not served well by this. Can we at the very least work to remove “universal” from the dictionary of poetry reception, and see where that excision takes us?

Last modified: 2021-02-22