Former US president Barack Obama awards the 2015 National Humanities Medal to poet Louise Glück at the White House on September 22 2016. Picture: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON
Former US president Barack Obama awards the 2015 National Humanities Medal to poet Louise Glück at the White House on September 22 2016. Picture: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON

Stockholm — American poet Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel prize in literature for works exploring family and childhood in an “unmistakable ... voice that, with austere beauty, makes individual existence universal”, the Swedish Academy said on Thursday.

Academy permanent secretary Mats Malm said that Glück (77), also a multiple winner of US literary awards, was “surprised and happy” at the news when it came in the early morning hours US time. She gave no immediate comment to journalists gathered outside her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A professor of English at Yale University, Glück first rose to critical acclaim with her 1968 collection of poems entitled Firstborn, and went on to become one of the most eminent poets and essayists in contemporary America.

The Swedish Academy said that in Glück’s works “the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting illusions of the self”.

Drawing comparisons with other authors, the academy said Glück resembled 19th-century US poet Emily Dickinson in her “severity and unwillingness to accept simple tenets of faith”.

Erica McAlpine, associate professor of English at Britain’s Oxford University, said Glück “has managed to feel urgently contemporary and yet simultaneously timeless ... The occasional bleakness of her voice speaks especially well to our present moment, and yet her poetry has always been intimately connected to the long lyric tradition behind it.”

Jonathan Galassi, president of her publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said via e-mail that he was certain the Nobel prize would bring Glück “to many, many new readers”.

“She is one of the rare contemporary poets whose work has the gift of speaking directly to readers through her great and subtle art,” he said.

Glück was previously awarded a US Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was Poet Laureate of the US in 2003/2004.

In 2015, president Barack Obama honoured Glück with the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, saying her “probing poems capture the quiet drama of nature and the quiet emotions of everyday people”.

Nobel prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry were awarded earlier this week, and the peace prize is to be announced on Friday.

The Nobel awards are named after dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.

Controversies, scandal

Glück’s Nobel prize follows years of controversy surrounding the literature award, but Malm sidestepped questions about whether Glück was chosen to address any related concerns.

Alluding to past disputes, he told reporters: “I’d say that in our Nobel prize work the crisis hasn’t been decisive.”

In 2019, the academy exceptionally named two winners after postponing the 2018 prize in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving the husband of one of its members. The secretive, 234-year-old academy later announced changes it billed as improving the transparency of the awards process.

But one of the literature laureates announced last year, the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke, had drawn wide international criticism over his portrayal of Serbia as a victim during the 1990s Balkan wars and for attending the funeral of its nationalist strongman leader Slobodan Milošević.

The 2016 literature prize granted to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan polarised opinion over whether a popular musician should be given an award that had been largely the domain of novelists and playwrights.

Like much of public life around the world, this year’s awards have taken place under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the splashy Nobel prize-giving ceremony held each December in Stockholm. Instead, a televised event will be held with winners receiving their honours in their home countries.

This year’s winners will be invited to a ceremony in 2021 to celebrate alongside next year’s laureates, assuming the pandemic has eased by then. 


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