American poet Louise Glück has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a move that returns the prestigious honour to safer ground after recent years of controversy.
The Swedish Academy praised Ms Glück, a former US poet laureate, for her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. The judges celebrated her ability to take inspiration from classical myths and her use of everyday diction in clear, playful and technically accomplished verse that draws on the autobiographical without being confessional.
Ms Glück, 77, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1992 collection The Wild Iris and the 2014 National Book Award, was “surprised” to be chosen, according to the academy. Many Nobel Prize watchers had expected the academy would this year look beyond Europe and North America and honour a writer from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean.
The literature prize has battled with scandal and controversy in recent years, along with perennial criticism that its ambitions to global relevance are undermined by the preponderance of western honorees.
The decision to award last year’s prize to Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist, drew sharp criticism given his support of Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian strongman who died while on trial for war crimes committed during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
In 2018, the academy did not award a prize following a sexual abuse and financial misconduct scandal that engulfed the organisation. The award was later given to Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish writer.
Ms Glück, an adjunct professor and writer in residence at Yale University, was first published in 1968 after she had studied with poets Leonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz at Columbia.
Her earlier verse in particular possesses a steely formal discipline that, with a pared back vocabulary, can create an austere numbness of tone in poems such as her widely anthologised “The Drowned Children” from 1980’s The Descending Figure. In the same collection’s “Dedication to Hunger”, Ms Glück wrote about her own battle with anorexia and the body’s “need to perfect” — a drive paralleled, as critic Dan Chiasson noted, in both poet and patient.
Yet, while reading Ms Glück gives a sense of visiting her interior world, over the course of 11 collections her poetic world has expanded in time and register. She spins Greek myth into contemporary family life with a piercing modern voice in Meadowlands (1998) and the deeply moving Averno (2005).
In poems such as “Afterword” she pairs her characteristic precision with a fresh conversational air, while in the Pulitzer-winning collection The Wild Iris she gives human, if acutely poetic, voice to a garden flower.