Louise Glück, 80, Nobel-Winning Poet Who Explored Trauma and Loss, Dies


Louise Glück, an American poet whose searing, deeply personal work, often filtered through themes of classical mythology, religion and the natural world, won her practically every honor available, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and, in 2020, the Nobel Prize for Literature, died on Friday at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 80.

Her death was confirmed by Jonathan Galassi, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Richard Deming, a friend and former colleague of hers in the English department at Yale, said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Glück (pronounced glick) was widely considered to be among the country’s greatest living poets, long before she won the Nobel. She began publishing in the 1960s and received some acclaim in the ’70s, but she cemented her reputation in the ’80s and early ’90s with a string of books, including “Triumph of Achilles” (1985), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; “Ararat” (1990); and “The Wild Iris” (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Her work was both deeply personal — “Ararat,” for example, drew on the pain she experienced over the death of her father — and broadly accessible, both to critics, who praised her clarity and precise lyricism, and to the broader reading public. She served as the United States poet laureate from 2003 to 2004.

“‘Direct’ is the operative word here,” the critic Wendy Lesser wrote in a review of “Triumph of Achilles” in The Washington Post. ”Glück’s language is staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech. Yet her careful selection for rhythm and repetition, and the specificity of even her idiomatically vague phrases, give her poems a weight that is far from colloquial.”

Her early work, especially her debut, “Firstborn” (1968), is deeply indebted to the so-called confessional poets who dominated the scene in the 1950s and ’60s, among them John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.

But even as Ms. Glück continued to weave her verse with an autobiographical thread, there is nothing solipsistic in her later, more mature work, even as she explored intimate themes of trauma and heartbreak.

“The poets I returned to as I grew older were the poets in whose work I played, as the elected listener, a crucial role,” she said in her Nobel acceptance speech. “Intimate, seductive, often furtive or clandestine. Not stadium poets. Not poets talking to themselves.”

With sometimes remorseless wit and razor-sharp language, she seamlessly tied the personal to the social, the particular to the universal, looping together meditations on her own struggles with themes of family, mortality and loss.

In awarding her its prize for literature — she was the first American-born poet to win it since T.S. Eliot in 1948 — the Nobel committee praised her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

“Bleak,” “alienated” and “austere” were all adjectives one got used to finding in reviews of Ms. Glück’s work. “She is at heart the poet of a fallen world,” the critic Don Bogen once wrote.

Nature is rarely a thing of beauty in her work; it is full of sadness, danger and disappointment. In what is perhaps her most famous and widely anthologized poem, “Mock Orange,” she wrote:

We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?

But if her work rarely offered redemption, let alone joy, it did seek solace, if only in the acceptance of the world as it is — Achilles’ triumph, in her view, was his realization of his own mortality.

And in mortality and death, she felt, one might find the hope of rebirth. In the title poem of “The Wild Iris,” she wrote, from the flower’s perspective,

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.

Louise Elizabeth Glück was born on April 22, 1943, in New York City and grew up in Cedarhurst, on the South Shore of Long Island. Her father, Daniel, was a businessman and a frustrated poet who, among other things, helped invent the X-Acto knife. Her mother, Beatrice (Grosby) Glück, was a homemaker.

Louise was an intensely intellectual child. In her Nobel lecture, she recalled one evening, when she was about 6 years old, staying up late debating with herself what the “greatest poem in the world” was and unable to decide between the two finalists: “The Little Black Boy,” by William Blake, and “Swanee River,” by Stephen Foster. (After much back and forth, Blake won.)

“Competitions of this sort, for honor, for high reward, seemed natural to me,” she said. “The myths that were my first reading were filled with them.”

But she was also competitive with herself, and intensely self-critical. She struggled with anorexia as a teenager, dropping to just 75 pounds before entering therapy.

“Later I began to understand the dangers and limitations of hierarchical thinking, but in my childhood it seemed important to confer a prize,” she said. “One person would stand at the top of the mountain, visible from far away, the only thing of interest on the mountain.”

Her condition made it hard for her to attend college, though she took classes at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University, where she studied under the poets Léonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz.

By the mid-1960s she was working as a secretary by day and writing poetry in her free time. Soon she was getting published in high-profile magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Nation.

Her marriages to Charles Hertz Jr. and John Dranow ended in divorce. Survivors include her son, Noah Dranow, and two grandchildren.

Her first book, “Firstborn,” left Ms. Glück drained and with a serious case of writer’s block. Though she had said, at the start of her career, that she did not want to become a teaching poet, she accepted a position at Goddard College in Vermont.

Somewhat to her surprise, she found that she enjoyed teaching and even drew inspiration from it. She remained in the classroom the rest of her life, with later positions at Williams College, Yale and, beginning this year, Stanford.

She published 14 books of poetry, including, in 2012, “Poems: 1962-2012,” a complete compendium of her published poetry at the time. Today it is considered required reading by any aspiring poet — and, arguably, anyone serious about modern American literature.

Ms. Glück won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2014, for “Faithful and Virtuous Night.” Earlier volumes — “The Wild Iris,” “Vita Nova” (1999) and “Averno” (2006) — were all finalists for the award, while “The Seven Ages” (2001) was a finalist for the Pulitzer. She received the Bollingen Prize from Yale in 2001.

She also wrote two collections of essays and, in 2022, “Marigold and Rose: A Fiction,” a book that straddles the line between novel and poetry.

In 2016, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal in a White House ceremony.

Ms. Glück was never comfortable with her public prominence, and she worried that being considered a popular, accessible poet was a halfway house on the way to mediocrity.

“When I’m told I have a large readership, I think, ‘Oh, great, I’m going to turn out to be Longfellow’ — someone easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many,” she said in a 2009 interview with the blog Scarriet. “And I don’t want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I don’t.’”

But she came to accept the praise as a hint of the immortality that she had sought as a child — and an acceptance, on her part, of the tension between the personal and the universal that had fueled so much of her work.

“Some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium,” she said in her Nobel speech. “They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.”

Bernard Mokam and Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

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