The Nobel Prize for Literature: Louise Glück

Archaic Fragment

I was trying to love matter.
I taped a sign over the mirror:
You cannot hate matter and love form.

It was a beautiful day, though cold.
This was, for me, an extravagantly emotional gesture.

…….your poem:
tried, but could not.

I taped a sign over the first sign:
Cry, weep, thrash yourself, rend your garments—

List of things to love:
dirt, food, shells, human hair.

……. said
tasteless excess. Then I

rent the signs.

AIAIAIAI cried
the naked mirror.

Source: Poetry (January 2006)

So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.

The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.

It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as

Now I have fed and eaten up the rose
Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand.
That I should ever feed upon a rose
I never had believed in liveman’s land.

It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.

4 thoughts on “The Nobel Prize for Literature: Louise Glück

    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      Thanks for the kind comments, Richard! I’m delighted you intend to share it widely, and delighted to be told. We have our work cut out if we are to reestablish formal verse as the exemplar of poetry. Translations of poetry are largely to blame, I think, for muddying the water, but it is uplifting to see rap, hiphop, rock songs, country and western, etc, all bubbling up from educated and uneducated alike, as reaffirmations of the inherent strengths of traditional verse. We need to allow a place in literature for the works of people like Louise Glück, but not under the name ‘poetry’.

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  1. George Simmers

    Yes, it is poetry, very skilfully crafted, but also deeply imagined. Each phrase works to carry on the thought; each line has is proper rhythm; not a word is redundant. There is skill in the lengthening and shortening lines that keep there rhythms unexpected and alive.The classical references work without being forced.
    there is more than one kind of poetry.

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    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      I appreciate all your points, George, and I agree that it is literature. I stand by my claim that it lacks all the qualities that make poetry easy to memorise (especially rhyme and metre) and that in themselves created the nature of English poetry. So, again, we need a word for work that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. I have heard the phrase “lineated prose” for such work, but I’m sure better terms exist. I always remember Carvosso’s Credo:
      Nor shall we sit to lunch with those
      Who moralise in semi-prose.
      And I do write free verse myself, as well, as you know… but I’m just not very proud of it!

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