I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.
The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.
It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).
Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:
“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”
Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:
“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”
How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?
Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.
This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:
“I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.
I will constitute the field.”
This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.
Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016. He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.
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