The Nobel and poetry

If your first reaction upon hearing that American poet Louise Glück had been awarded the nobel prize for literature was, “Who?” you are not alone. Even though Glück’s work has been intensely lauded over the years (she was the American Poet Laureate in 2003-04, won the National Book Award in 2014 and was given a National Medal of Arts and Humanities in 2015) she will still have been a relative unknown for many people before being awarded the most prestigious prize in literature.

Part of this may be down to the genre Glück works in. Poetry is not necessarily the most popular of the literary genres. When I mention poems I love in conversation, I frequently hear comments like, “I just don’t read poetry,” or “I don’t understand it” or “It’s not my thing.” The situation has gotten to the point where an essay in The Atlantic a few years ago categorized all non-poets as people, “who generally don’t read poetry.” But now that a poet has won the 2020 Nobel prize, the spotlight has turned to her, and to poetry, and it’s a great opportunity to shine a light on Glück’s work, and, by extension, on poetry in general. 

One of the problems with trying to recommend the quintessential Glück collection is that her work is incredibly varied. The 77-year-old has 12 full collections of poetry and two chapbooks to her name. Each of them vary fairly significantly in tone, style and theme. 

If you like raw, cutting poetry, Glück’s collection “The Triumph of Achilles”, which was written in the wake of a divorce, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award would be a good fit. For those who tend to enjoy books that are both popular and critically acclaimed, “The Wild Iris”, which has poems depicting a gardener’s conversation with garden flowers and which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good choice. For those who like their poems to be more epic, Glück’s book-length poem “October”, published in the wake of September 11, is a good read.

While Glück may not be the easiest introduction to poetry, she is known for her precision and austerity — frequently being compared to poets like Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop. Writing recently in The Guardian, Fiona Sampson said she loves Glück because she, “has the extraordinary writer’s gift of making clear what is, outside the world of her poem, complex.” This, I think, is the ultimate beauty of poetry, and why everyone should give it a fair chance. It has the ability to help us see things from a different perspective, to understand things in new ways.

Whichever book you choose to check out (and you can find a couple in the Norwich library catalogue), do keep in mind that Glück recently gave out her own suggestion to those who want to become more familiar with her. In an interview with the Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media Glück said that, “I would suggest they not read my first book unless they want to feel contempt.”

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