When Toni Morrison made headlines in 1993 as the second American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — Pearl Buck, who lived her last years in Vermont, was the first, in 1938 — the author flew to Stockholm and floated down a marble staircase, flashbulbs popping, on the arm of the King of Sweden.
Louise Glück, the third and latest U.S. female writing laureate, accepted her award Monday with considerably less fanfare.
The former Vermont state poet wasn’t able to attend the usual heady European ceremony because of this year’s coronavirus pandemic. But Glück (the Hungarian name is pronounced “Glick”) also declined an invitation to livestream a New England event and instead received her honor privately before posting her resulting remarks online.
“Those of us who write books presumably wish to reach many,” she said from her current home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.”
The new laureate summed up the $1 million award as “choosing to honor the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace.”
Glück’s seemingly tradition-shattering actions have precedent. When the Nobel Committee phoned her early Oct. 8 with news she had won, the 77-year-old poet resisted comment.
“It’s too new — I don’t know really what it means,” she said in a recording on the Nobel Prize’s Twitter page. “I really have to have some coffee.”
Pressed, Glück offered one specific before hanging up two minutes later.
“Practically, I’ve wanted to buy a house in Vermont, and I thought, ‘Well, I can,’” she said. “But mostly I am concerned for the preservation of daily life with people I love.”
Glück shared even less when shooing away a gaggle of journalists outside.
“Please, there’s a car waiting — he’s earning his living by driving me places,” the writer told the press as she pointed to a young man alongside a vehicle. “Jose, you want to get in a picture?”
Glück, born and raised in greater New York City, began her remarks Monday by recalling when she staged a childhood contest in her head to decide whether Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” or Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River” was the greatest poem in the world.
“Competitions of this sort, for honor, for high reward, seemed natural to me,” she said. “Later I began to understand the dangers and limitations of hierarchical thinking, but in my childhood it seemed important to confer a prize.”
Glück began writing as a teenager — a time when she nearly starved herself to death, only to overcome the eating disorder anorexia through psychoanalysis. Going to, yet not graduating from, Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, she took night classes with the late Stanley Kunitz, who was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Glück’s first published collection, 1968’s “Firstborn,” won acclaim from the Academy of American Poets. But, experiencing writer’s block, she almost quit before visiting Goddard College in Plainfield in 1971.
“My writing life at that point was spent sitting in front of a piece of white paper at a typewriter, completely paralyzed,” she recalled in the recent American Academy of Achievement podcast “What It Takes.” “The minute I got to Vermont, I thought, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ It was one of the most dramatic, transformative experiences of my life. I started writing with a fluency that I had never experienced.”
Glück would join Goddard’s faculty, marry a colleague, give birth to a son, then divorce two decades later. Yet the personal hardship led to further professional success.
“I write to discover meaning,” she told the “What It Takes” podcast. “Nothing should be wasted. Something must come of it. And writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance. Bad luck, loss, pain — if you make something out of it, then you’ve no longer been bested by these events.”
Glück went on to teach at several other schools — she’s currently an adjunct professor at Yale University — and to hold such positions as Vermont state poet from 1994 to 1998 and U.S. poet laureate in 2003-04. Her 12 poetry collections include 1992’s “The Wild Iris,” a Pulitzer Prize winner that chronicles the progression of a New England garden from spring through summer:
You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?
Glück won a National Book Award for “Faithful and Virtuous Night” in 2014 and a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2016. Even so, she never thought she’d win the Nobel “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
“I was unprepared — completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet,” she told The New York Times in one of the few interviews she’s granted since. “I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.”
Others were more understanding.
“Her work is thrilling and surprising; it’s both intimate and grand; she appeals to people who read only poetry and to people who read almost no poetry,” Vermont native turned The New Yorker contributor Dan Chiasson wrote for the magazine. “If you want to know what it’s like to fall in love, to have an abortion, to have a child, to be seriously ill, to get divorced, to shop for cheese, to weed, to plant, to grieve for your parents and teachers: You can find it in Glück’s work.”
Glück struggled to write at the start of the pandemic, only to recently finish a new collection, “Winter Recipes from the Collective,” for publication next year. Then came the paparazzi.
“It was a surprise to me on the morning of Oct. 8 to feel the sort of panic I have been describing,” she said Monday. “The light was too bright. The scale too vast.”
That’s why the new laureate flipped back to the beginning.
“Blake was the winner of the competition,” she recalled of the childhood contest featuring her two favorite poems. “But I realized later how similar these two lyrics were; I was drawn, then as now, to the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing.”