That With Austere Beauty Makes Individual Existence Universal

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(Award ceremony speech)

 Presentation Speech by Professor Anders Olsson, Member of the Swedish Academy, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, 10 December 2019.

Your Majesties, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen

Everything finds new meaning in retrospect. In the American poet Louise Glück’s work Faithful and Virtuous Night from 2014 there is a poem titled “Afterword”, not at the end of the book but in the middle.  The poem is an intermission, where the person speaking takes a pause to reread what he has written. The speaker is an elderly painter who has reached the critical point where his brush freezes at the aspect of chaos and where he has to confront belief in individual fate. He talks about the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “exalted solitude” on his walks to the bridges of Königsberg. Parenthetically, the painter adds: “(We share a birthday.)” Checking, you find that Louise Glück was born on the same day as Kant, the 22nd of April, and Kant’s themes are also hers: they include the sublime, but also our imprisonment in perceptions and difficulties in grasping reality. The writing painter is a thin mask for the poet to enunciate through.

Louise Glück’s poems are written in retrospect. Childhood and taut relationships with parents and siblings are motifs that have never loosened their grip. Glück has produced twelve collections of poetry and a couple of volumes of essays on poetry, all marked by a drive for clarity. Nobody is more adamant than she against self-illusions. The autobiographical material is crucial, but Glück is scarcely a confessional poet. The “truth” to be revealed detours through imagination and vicarious voices, like the painter´s. In several of her books, Glück speaks through mythical figures such as Dido, Persephone or Eurydice. They are masks transcribing private intimacies into something as universal  as it is ambiguous. Glücks lyrical discourse has one of its premises in the divided self, as testified by the red poppy in the collection The Wild Irisfrom 1992:  “in truth / I am speaking now / the way you do. I speak / because I am shattered.” In her writing two contentious truths can share the last word. And this is what happens in her poem “Afterword”:

Shall I be raised from death, the spirit asks.
And the sun says yes.
And the desert answers
your voice is sand scattered in wind.

Aside from the world of classical myth, Glück’s principal literary reservoir is the rich heritage of English-language poetry. It can be what she has called the ”inward listening” in John Keats, the solitary, demanding voice of Emily Dickinson, or the tone of urgency in T.S. Eliot. She is drawn to the intimate voice that invites participation. Significant is Glück’s discovery how to make poetry of her spoken language in the Ararat collection from 1990. She gives us almost brutally open-hearted images of family life, freed from all poetic edifice, but also a masterly sense of lyrical form and architecture.

Louise Glück is a writer not only of contradictions and austere reflection. She is also a poet of renewal, with few coequals. Even if her poetry is written in retrospect, and seems bound to the apple tree as it was seen once in childhood, one of her keywords is change. She teaches us that the moment of renewal is also the arrival of words. Her inner driving force is a spiritual hunger and an exceptional reverence for the possibilities of poetry. The leap of renewal can employ the seemingly plain diction of thoughtful parables, but also comedy and biting wit. And when Louise Glück in her later work confronts the inevitable end, there is a remarkable grace and lightness in her touch. It is a note that lingers and can carry us readers forward as well.

Dear Louise Glück, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, it is my privilege to convey to you our warmest congratulations to the Nobel Prize in Literature 2020.


Louise Glück. I’m nobody! Who are you? 

(Nobel Lecture)

When I was a small child of, I think, about five or six, I staged a competition in my head, a contest to decide the greatest poem in the world. There were two finalists: Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River.” I paced up and down the second bedroom in my grandmother’s house in Cedarhurst, a village on the south shore of Long Island, reciting, in my head as I preferred, not from my mouth, Blake’s unforgettable poem, and singing, also in my head, the haunting, desolate Foster song. How I came to have read Blake is a mystery. I think there were a few poetry anthologies in my parents’ house among the more common books on politics and history and the many novels. But I associate Blake with my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was not a bookish woman. But there was Blake, The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and also a tiny book of the songs from Shakespeare’s plays, many of which I memorized. I particularly loved the song from Cymbeline, understanding probably not a word but hearing the tone, the cadences, the ringing imperatives, thrilling to a very timid, fearful child. “And renownèd be thy grave.” I hoped so.

Competitions of this sort, for honor, for high reward, seemed natural to me; the myths that were my first reading were filled with them. The greatest poem in the world seemed to me, even when I was very young, the highest of high honors. This was also the way my sister and I were being raised, to save France (Joan of Arc), to discover radium (Marie Curie). Later I began to understand the dangers and limitations of hierarchical thinking, but in my childhood it seemed important to confer a prize. One person would stand at the top of the mountain, visible from far away, the only thing of interest on the mountain. The person a little below was invisible.

Or, in this case, poem. I felt sure that Blake especially was somehow aware of this event, intent on its outcome. I understood he was dead, but I felt he was still alive, since I could hear his voice speaking to me, disguised, but his voice. Speaking, I felt, only to me or especially to me. I felt singled out, privileged; I felt also that it was Blake to whom I aspired to speak, to whom, along with Shakespeare, I was already speaking.

Blake was the winner of the competition. 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. And the poets I returned to as I grew older were the poets in whose work I played, as the elected listener, a crucial role. Intimate, seductive, often furtive or clandestine. Not stadium poets. Not poets talking to themselves.

I liked this pact, I liked the sense that what the poem spoke was essential and also private, the message received by the priest or the analyst.

The prize ceremony in my grandmother’s second bedroom seemed, by virtue of its secrecy, an extension of the intense relation the poem had created: an extension, not a violation.

Blake was speaking to me through the little black boy; he was the hidden origin of that voice. He could not be seen, just as the little black boy was not seen, or was seen inaccurately, by the unperceptive and disdainful white boy. But I knew that what he said was true, that his provisional mortal body contained a soul of luminous purity; I knew this because what the black child says, his account of his feelings and his experience, contains no blame, no wish to revenge himself, only the belief that, in the perfect world he has been promised after death, he will be recognized for what he is, and in a surfeit of joy protect the more fragile white child from the sudden surfeit of light. That this is not a realistic hope, that it ignores the real, makes the poem heartbreaking and also deeply political. The hurt and righteous anger the little black boy cannot allow himself to feel, that his mother tries to shield him from, is felt by the reader or listener. Even when that reader is a child.

But public honor is another matter.

The poems to which I have, all my life, been most ardently drawn are poems of the kind I have described, poems of intimate selection or collusion, poems to which the listener or reader makes an essential contribution, as recipient of a confidence or an outcry, sometimes as co-conspirator. “I’m nobody,” Dickinson says. “Are you nobody, too? / Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell…” Or Eliot: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table…” Eliot is not summoning the boyscout troop. He is asking something of the reader. As opposed, say, to Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”: Shakespeare is not comparing me to a summer’s day. I am being allowed to overhear dazzling virtuosity, but the poem does not require my presence.

In art of the kind to which I was drawn, the voice or judgment of the collective is dangerous. The precariousness of intimate speech adds to its power and the power of the reader, through whose agency the voice is encouraged in its urgent plea or confidence.

What happens to a poet of this type when the collective, instead of apparently exiling or ignoring him or her, applauds and elevates? I would say such a poet would feel threatened, outmaneuvered.

This is Dickinson’s subject. Not always, but often.

I read Emily Dickinson most passionately when I was in my teens. Usually late at night, post-bedtime, on the living room sofa.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

And, in the version I read then and still prefer:

Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know…

Dickinson had chosen me, or recognized me, as I sat there on the sofa. We were an elite, companions in invisibility, a fact known only to us, which each corroborated for the other. In the world, we were nobody.

But what would constitute banishment to people existing as we did, in our safe place under the log? Banishment is when the log is moved.

I am not talking here about the pernicious influence of Emily Dickinson on teenaged girls. I am talking about a temperament that distrusts public life or sees it as the realm in which generalization obliterates precision, and partial truth replaces candor and charged disclosure. By way of illustration: suppose the voice of the conspirator, Dickinson’s voice, is replaced by the voice of the tribunal. “We’re nobody, who are you?” That message becomes suddenly sinister.

It was a surprise to me on the morning of October 8th to feel the sort of panic I have been describing. The light was too bright. The scale too vast.

Those of us who write books presumably wish to reach many. 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.

I believe that in awarding me this prize, the Swedish Academy is choosing to honor the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace.


The Little Black Boy

By William Blake

 My mother bore me in the southern wild,

And I am black, but O! my soul is white;

White as an angel is the English child,

But I am black, as if bereav'd of light.


My mother taught me underneath a tree,

And sitting down before the heat of day,

She took me on her lap and kissed me,

And pointing to the east, began to say:


“Look on the rising sun: there God does live,

“And gives his light, and gives his heat away;

“And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive

“Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.


“And we are put on earth a little space,

“That we may learn to bear the beams of love;

“And these black bodies and this sunburnt face

“Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.


“For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear,

“The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice,

“Saying: ‘Come out from the grove, my love & care,

“‘And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.’”


Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;

And thus I say to little English boy:

When I from black and he from white cloud free,

And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,


I’ll shade him from the heat, till he can bear

To lean in joy upon our father’s knee;

And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him, and he will then love me.


“I’m nobody! Who are you?”


By Emily Dickinson

I'm nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!

They'd banish us, you know.


How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!


“The Little Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. Poetry and Prose of William Blake/ edited by Geoffrey Keynes. London : Nonesuch, 1927

“Old Folks at Home” / “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”, 1851. Words and music by Stephen Foster.
“Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” from Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene II) by William Shakespeare.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Emily Dickinson. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson. London : Jonathan Cape, 1937
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot. Collected Poems 1909 – 1962. London : Faber & Faber, 1963
Sonnet XVIII: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” by William Shakespeare.


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