Poet and Nobel Laureate Louise Glück dies at 80

Originally Published: 13 OCT 23 17:02 ET
Updated: 13 OCT 23 18:06 ET

(CNN) — Louise Glück, the former US Poet Laureate and 2020 Nobel Prize awardee whose deceptively simple poems revealed visceral truths about love, loss and survival, has died at 80.

“Louise Glück’s poetry gives voice to our untrusting but unstillable need for knowledge and connection in an often unreliable world. Her work is immortal,” Jonathan Galassi, Glück’s editor and chairman at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said in a statement provided to CNN Friday afternoon. Galassi had earlier confirmed Glück’s death to the Associated Press.

Glück was one of the most-awarded American poets of her time, earning the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection “The Wild Iris,” the National Book Award for Poetry in 2014 for “Faithful and Virtuous Night” and the National Humanities Medal in 2015 from then-President Barack Obama, among other honors. She was often praised as an accessible writer, whose work “makes individual existence universal,” per the Nobel Prize committee that honored her.

“Louise Gluck’s poetry gives voice to our untrusting but unstillable need for knowledge and connection in an often unreliable world,” said Jonathan Galassi, executive editor and chairperson of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Glück’s longtime editor, in a comment to CNN. “Her work is immortal.”

Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and raised on Long Island. Art was considered a “noble calling” in her household, Glück wrote in her Nobel biography; her father, a Jewish immigrant who co-founded the cutting tools empire X-Acto, encouraged Glück and her siblings to embrace their creative passions, to write stories and to take classes in music, drama and dance. She sent her first completed book to publishers at 16. Though it wasn’t published in itself, lines she wrote in her teens have appeared, “reconstituted slightly,” in her later works, Glück’s Nobel biography also noted.

Glück was pulled out of high school during her senior year for treatment for an eating disorder. After about a year of treatment, she enrolled in poetry workshops at Columbia University in her native New York.

She was 23 when she completed her first published collection of poetry, 1968’s “Firstborn,” but fell into a period of intense writer’s block thereafter — she called it the “long silence.” That silence persisted into her late 20s, until she was invited to teach at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, after interest in her early work revived during a moment of “new curiosity about women poets.” She called her new profession a “miracle,” and one that inspired her to pick up her own pen again.

“The sense of obligation I felt to my own poems … I felt that same obligation for the work of others, which meant that I could be working even when I had no work of my own,” she said in an appearance on a 1988 episode of the program “Poetvision.”

It was during this period of productivity that she had a child, Noah, at age 30. As a new, single parent, Glück challenged herself to expand her oeuvre from meditations on love and loss to other richly rendered episodes of the human experience, often drawing from both nature and works from the classical literary canon (as in 1985’s “The Triumph of Achilles”) and her own experiences, from motherhood to the dissolution of her second marriage (as in 1999’s “Vita Nova”) to her sister’s death.

But like the works to which she was drawn as a child, the poems for which she is best known were meant to be private dialogues between the writer and reader. As she explained in her 2020 Nobel acceptance speech, “I liked the sense that what the poem spoke was essential and also private, the message received by the priest or the analyst.”

Her verse is often frill-less, precise and clear. Glück’s poems speak directly to her readers as active participants. She wrote about change, grief, surviving. The latter theme became the thrust of 2022’s “Winter Recipes From the Collective,” much of which was written in the summer of 2020 in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. In “Song,” a bittersweet poem from the 2022 collection, a character named Leo Cruz inspires Glück to dream of a world after the pandemic, when art is not merely a form of survival:

“We make plans

to walk the trails together.

When, I ask him,

when? Never again:

that is what we do not say.

He is teaching me

to live in imagination:

a cold wind

blows as I cross the desert;

I can see his house in the distance;

smoke is coming from the chimney

That is the kiln, I think;

only Leo makes porcelain in the desert

Ah, he says, you are dreaming again

And I say then I’m glad I dream

the fire is still alive”

“Yes, the world is falling apart,” she said in a 2022 interview with the Nation’s Sam Huber. “But here we all are, we’re still alive. And a sense of possibility emerges from that fact, from anything — just that stubborn human need to hope.”

Glück continued to write and teach until the end of her life, most recently as a professor of poetry at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and at Stanford University’s creative writing program. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature inspired “panic,” as she said in her acceptance speech, but also inspired her to relinquish some of the control she felt she had over her work. And though she feared the newfound attention might make writing more difficult, it didn’t complicate her creative process — at least not further.

“Except when it is insanely easy, writing remains elusive,” she wrote in 2020. “Always I am someone longing to be a poet, to make something never heard before, to be taken out of myself. That it happened at all is a wonder.”

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