All achievers

Louise Glück

Nobel Prize in Literature

Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance — bad luck, loss, pain.

Louise Glück photographed early in her career as poet and educator. (Library of Congress)
Louise Glück photographed early in her career as poet and educator. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Louise Glück was born in New York City and raised on Long Island. Her father, Daniel Glück, an immigrant from Hungary, was a successful businessman who helped develop and market the familiar household X-Acto Knife. The members of the family pronounce their name as “Glick.”

From an early age, Louise was deeply moved by language and narrative, an enthusiasm her parents encouraged. In her teens she was already submitting verses of her own composition to magazines and publishers. She graduated from high school in Hewlett, New York in 1961.

A troubled adolescent, she was diagnosed with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. She overcame these difficulties through psychoanalysis, a process she recalls as, “…one of the great experiences of my life. It helps me to live and it taught me to think.” She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University but left without taking a degree. At Columbia’s School of General Studies, she took night classes with the poets Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz, teachers she credits with helping her find her own voice.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1974, and again in 2000. He taught Louis Glück at Columbia University in the 1960s. (Photo by Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images)
Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1974. He taught and was a mentor to Glück at Columbia University in the 1960s.  Glück credits Kunitz with “helping her find her own voice.”

Her first published collection of poems, Firstborn, appeared in 1968. In the book, she assumes a variety of first-person voices, all angry or alienated. Some critics and readers were unsettled by the harsh tone of the poems, but more were impressed by the originality and skill of her poetic technique. Although the language of her poems, then and now, is direct and colloquial, she made fluent use of the traditional tools of rhyme and meter. The critical success of the book, which won the Academy of American Poets’ Prize, led to offers to teach in college writing programs, but Glück turned these offers down, fearing that a teaching job would distract her from her writing. She tried to support herself with secretarial work while concentrating on her poetry, but following her first book she experienced a profound writer’s block and considered giving up writing altogether.

Louise Glück reads her work at a 1968 gathering in the home of famed novelist Norman Mailer. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)
Louise Glück reads her work at a 1968 gathering in the home of famed novelist Norman Mailer. (Getty Images)

She was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when she was invited to attend a writers’ gathering at Goddard College in Vermont. She agreed to attend, hoping to meet one of her literary heroes, the poet John Berryman. Glück fell in love with the atmosphere of rural Vermont and, encouraged by other writers she met there, decided to look for teaching work after all. Rather than inhibiting her creativity, as she had feared, she found the experience of teaching an exhilarating one and felt inspired to write again. Over the next decade she would teach at a number of colleges and universities including Goddard College and the University of Iowa.

1992: Louise Glück’s Pulitzer prize-winning collection, The Wild Iris, is a long-form, book length poem. Set in a garden and written in three voices: flowers speaking to the gardener-poet, the gardener-poet, and a god figure.

Her second book, The House on Marshland, appeared in 1975. As in her first, she assumed a number of personae, including Joan of Arc, a favorite character of Glück’s childhood. The use of historical figures such as St. Joan — as well as characters from fairy tales, from the Bible and from classical mythology — would remain a defining characteristic of her work throughout her later career.

Over the course of her career, Glück would sometimes experience periods of intense productivity followed by months or even years of creative inactivity. Her third book, The Garden, followed within a year of her second, but her next book, Descending Figure, did not appear until 1980.

1999: Louise Glück’s Vita Nova is a book of deaths and beginnings, resignation and hope, brutal, luminous, and farseeing. Vita Nova earned Louise Glück the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University in 2001.

In 1983, she accepted a lectureship at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a post she would hold for the next two decades. She taught for one semester a year, making the three-hour trip once a week from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During the week, she stayed with a family in Williamstown, returning to Cambridge for the weekends. Her next book, The Triumph of Achilles (1985), continued her use of mythological themes and characters and showed a marked unity of subject matter from beginning to end. The book was well received and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.

Ararat (1990) marked a significant transition in Glück’s work. Rather than merely collecting poems written on diverse themes and occasions over a given period of time, Ararat represented a sustained portrayal of a given set of characters, three women dealing with the death of a husband and father. Although the book received some indifferent reviews at the time, it won the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress and has since become one of her most admired works.

Louise Glück addresses the Academy delegates at 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

The 1990s would prove to be one of the most acclaimed and productive decades of Glück’s career. In 1992 she published one of her best-loved books, The Wild Iris. The 54 poems in the book were written in only ten weeks and follow the progression from spring to late summer in a New England garden. The Wild Iris received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, as well as the award of the Poetry Society of America, a prize named for a favorite poet of Louise Glück’s, William Carlos Williams. The Wild Iris was followed within a year by Mock Orange. In 1994 she also published her one prose collection, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. The success of The Wild Iris increased demand for Glück’s earlier works, and in 1995 an edition of The First Four Books of Poems appeared.

MIT President Emeritus Susan Hockfield, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Peter C. Agre, and Louise Glück arriving at the Banquet of the Golden Plate gala ceremonies held in Washington’s historic Willard Hotel during the 2012 Summit.

Her 1997 book, Meadowlands, juxtaposes the Homeric tale of Odysseus, Penelope, and their son Telemachus with a modern tale of marriage and divorce. The title alludes to both the sports stadium in New Jersey and the traditional setting of pastoral poetry. Louise Glück has never sought publicity, and has always been reticent about discussing her personal life, but many readers saw this book as a response to the end of Glück’s marriage, her second, and its effect on her and her son.

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Louise Glück receives the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement from Awards Council member Dr. Susan Hockfield, President Emeritus of MIT, during the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington.

Vita Nova (1999) takes it title from Dante and links the poet’s experience of loss and recovery to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In 2000 Louise Glück received the coveted Bollingen Prize for Poetry, awarded every two years by Yale University. The same year she began a three-year term as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress for its bicentennial observances. She continued to write at a steady pace, publishing The Seven Ages in 2001.

The year 2003 was a momentous one for Glück. After 20 years at Williams College, she accepted an appointment as Rosencranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale University. In August she was named by the Library of Congress to serve a one-year term as United States Poet Laureate. A poem in six parts, October, was published in one volume towards the end of the year.

Poet Louise Glück, 2013. (Steven Barclay Agency )
2013: Poet Louise Glück, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the 2015 National Humanities Medal.

Glück’s tenth book of verse, Averno (2006), takes its name from a lake in southern Italy, which the ancient Romans believed was the entrance to the underworld. Her interest in the history and culture of the Mediterranean continues to inform her work. Her 2009 book, A Village Life, chronicles the life of a small town in an unnamed Mediterranean country, as a traditional way of life, tied to the rhythms of nature, gradually gives way to the pressures of modernity. A Village Life won some of the best reviews of Glück’s career and confirmed her reputation as a major voice in American letters.

Five decades of her work were gathered in her Collected Poems 1962-2012.  Her 2014 collection of original verse, Faithful and Virtuous Night, brought her the National Book Award.  President Barack Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal in 2016.  The following year, Glück published American Originality: Essays on Poetry.  She continues to reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to teach at Yale University. She is in demand as a public speaker, and reads her work to appreciative audiences across the United States. In awarding her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020, the prize committee praised “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2012

Louise Glück is “a strong and haunting presence” among America’s greatest living poets. Her work is distinguished by a rare ability to deploy ostensibly simple language to evoke powerful emotion. While many of her poems clearly address the challenges of life and love in the contemporary world, they are at times informed by the themes and landscapes of classical mythology.

She has published more than a dozen volumes of verse to date, including The Seven Ages, Vita Novo, Triumph of Achilles and Averno. Her book The Wild Iris received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has since received virtually every other major award for poetry, including the Bollingen Prize in 2001 for her lifetime achievement. In 2003, she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States.

Born in New York City, she began writing at an early age. She studied at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University, and although she never took a degree herself, she has spent much of her life teaching in universities. For 20 years, she taught at Williams College in Massachusetts. She now teaches in the creative writing program at Boston University and is the Rosencranz Writer in Residence at Yale University.  The first 50 years of her work have been collected in a comprehensive volume, Poems 1962 – 2012.  In 2020, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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We’ve read that you were drawn to poetry at a fairly young age and that you felt almost a sense of companionship in the poetry of William Blake and others.

Keys to success — Passion

Louise Glück: I learned to read very early, very young, and my father was fond of writing doggerel verses. So the children, the two of us, we started writing books very early. He would print them out and we would illustrate them, and many times the text was in verse. But I started reading poems that I found. I remember my grandmother, who wasn’t a bookish woman, had a tiny little anthology — it was physically a small object, as I remember — of “Beloved Poems,” or some sort of comprehensive title of that kind. And I remember reading Blake’s “Little Black Boy,” and I remember reading the song from Cymbeline, “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.” And I must have been five years old — four years old — little. But I heard those poems. I often didn’t know — with Blake’s poem I knew, obviously, nothing of the historical background of the poem — but the cry from the heart to my ear, that I could hear. And I thought, “These are the people I am speaking to, and this is why my everyday life is such a catastrophe.”

Léonie Adams was an award winning American poet. In 1948, she was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Adams was a teacher of English at a number of different American colleges and mentored up and coming young poets such as Louise Glück. At 18, Louise Glück enrolled in poetry workshops at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, first with Adams, and then for five years with Stanley Kunitz.
Keys to success — Passion

I remember, a little later than that, having in my mind a sort of private crucial competition for the greatest poem ever written, of course based on the sample I had then read.  And the finalists were Blake’s “Little Black Boy” and “Swanee River.”  And if you think about it, they’re tonally very alike.  The same solitary voice raised in lament, essentially, and grief.  That tone reached me very quickly.  The songs from the plays of Shakespeare were very different.  Many times I didn’t understand some of the words and had no idea what need they filled in the play.  I don’t even think I knew that they were parts of plays.  But I read them hypnotically.  Even after I had memorized them, I kept reading them.

As I got older I read constantly. Much fiction, which I still read to divert myself, to be happy.  When I want to be happy, I read a novel.  But in my early teens and mid-teens, I would just read, deep into the night, all those poets who were commonly anthologized. I came from a family committed to education, but not particularly literary.  My father’s interest was much more in history and government.  My mother liked the arts, but I wouldn’t say she was informed or a tremendous judge.  But they were very pleased with my early sense of vocation.  There was a tremendous parental support for that.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück is also the recipient of the Bollingen Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

How early did you feel that sense of vocation?

Louise Glück: Bizarrely early.

It was one of those sort of child dreams that oftentimes gets knocked out of the child and replaced by something else, sometimes something equally grand.  Well, from the time I had that little poetry competition in my head between “Swanee River” and “Little Black Boy,”  I always  knew that what I wanted was to write.  And I digressed occasionally.  There was a period in which I wanted to be an actress, which I later realized was simply that I wanted to be applauded.  I had no gift for theater at all. I had a good memory.  I could memorize lines, but I was a very wooden performer.  I was cleaving so hard to an evolving self, the idea of subordinating that self to a role was completely impossible.  My mother, with whom I was often at war in that period, kept saying, “Darling, darling, it’s such a shame you want to be an actress, because you’re such a fine writer and painter.”  And she left the rest unsaid and that made me more stubborn.  But that was very brief. And then I went back to what I dreamed of.  I didn’t know what you did to become a writer with a book.  But I wrote poems from the time I was in my early, early teens.  I submitted my first book when I was 13 or 14.  It was, of course, sent back.  And poems to magazines.  And I persisted.

Former Poet Laureate of the United States and Academy honoree Louise Glück addresses the student delegates and members at the Hay-Adams Hotel during the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Former Poet Laureate of the United States and Academy honoree Louise Glück addresses the student delegates and members at the Hay-Adams Hotel during the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

A moment ago, you referred to your everyday life growing up as a catastrophe. In what sense?

Louise Glück: Probably a fairly ordinary sense in many ways.

I was not a successful adolescent.  I seemed strange to the other children and they were nasty to me.  I became quite withdrawn and then I became severely anorexic, which is why I was taken out of high school, even though my plans for myself were all intellectual. I thought, “I’m going to be an artist and I’m going to be naturally a professor.”  But the professor part happened in a sort of back-door way.  It was a very, very, very important event for me, because it got me into psychoanalysis, which became important to my thought.  I feel as though I learned how to think in psychoanalysis.  And I recovered a self that could be in the world.