Nobelist Louise Glück’s poetry offers fierce beauty

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is Louise Glück, whose work is grim, but can help navigate life’s difficulties.

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Louise Glück, seen here receiving the 2015 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature Thursday.

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You know how they give out the Nobel Prize in literature and it always seems to be some Icelandic novelist you never heard of? And you think, “Oh, I must pick up one of his books”? Then you never do.

At least that’s my usual reaction. But not this year. Thursday it was announced the 2020 honor goes to Louise Glück, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

My reaction, “Wow! Louise Glück rocks!”

I’ve read all of Glück’s poetry, some poems many times. Sometimes in public, from a stage. I’ve not only talked with her on the phone but bargained with her and, ultimately, paid her money for her poems.

Where to begin? Something utterly ordinary, like the setting of a Glück poem — a room, with a table, a chair — only in this case, a newspaper, where lots of books arrive daily unsolicited. Unread books piled on tables, to be disposed of at “book sales,” where the staff snaps them up for two dollars each, the money going to charity.

I see this fat book and am drawn — wait for it — by the pretty dark orange stripe running across the bottom and the blurry photograph of Saturn — I love dark orange! I love Saturn! The title, “Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012” means nothing. She was poet laureate of the United States, yes, but who keeps track of those?

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The planet Saturn and a pretty orange stripe led me to devour 50 years’ worth of Louise Glück’s published poetry.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

So I pick it up and pay two bucks and start to read it because heck, now I own the thing.

The very first poem — “The Chicago Train” — sets the tone. A family, “across from me the whole ride.” A kind of terror fills the space. “The poison/That replaces air took over.” Glück battled mental woes for years. The poem ends with her staring at the lice in the baby’s hair.

That’s it, right? Most people in this world squint happily at the baby. The poets look closer and see the lice.

At that time I was writing a book with Sara Bader called “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” using literature as a guide through recovery from addiction.

Glück’s poems were perfect. The seven lines of “Tango” nail early rehab:

“What was it like to be led?/I trusted no one. My name/was like a stranger’s,/read from an envelope./But nothing was taken from me/that I could have used./For once, I admit that.”

Glück is not cheery. I love that:

“I caution you as I was never cautioned/you will never let go, you will never be satiated./You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.”

Three lines from a 34-line poem, “The Sensual World.” There is no First Amendment when it comes to reprinting the poetry of others. You need their permission, and you need to pay them. On the website of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Glück’s publisher, it says quite explicitly: Don’t bother asking to break up poems; you must print them entirely, with title, thank you very much.

Our book uses just the most relevant passages.

I carefully prepared a package for Glück — a few chapters of the book, the various parts of the eight, count ’em, eight poems of hers I had to have. “Obviously if you say ‘no’ we can’t use them,” I wrote, or words to that effect, “But if you say yes, we’ll pay you whatever you want.” I FedExed the package to her at Stanford.

She called. Mired in newspaper hackery, I nevertheless occasionally brush the hem of greatness. She was willing, she said, to allow portions of the poems to be used, for a price in the low four figures. We gladly paid her.

Not all poems speak to everyone. You might be more a Mary Oliver type, rejoicing with her over lakes and loons and surging tides. Nothing wrong with that. I’m more of a Louise Glück sort. She writes in “Stars”:

“I will never be banished. I am the light/your personal anguish and humiliation./Do you dare/send me away as though/you were waiting for something better?/There is no better ...”

If you want to take a close look at this difficult, often dark life we’re passing through all too briefly, Louise Glück is for you: A poet who sees more lice and less baby, I can’t recommend her poetry strongly enough, and now the Nobel committee backs me up on that.

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