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American Jewish poet Louise Glück wins Nobel literature prize

Writer recognized for her ‘unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal’; critics see traces of her Jewish heritage in several poems

US author Louise Glück giving a speech at the 2014 National Book Awards in New York City, November 19, 2014. (Robin Marchant / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
US author Louise Glück giving a speech at the 2014 National Book Awards in New York City, November 19, 2014. (Robin Marchant / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

The Nobel Literature Prize went Thursday to American Jewish poet Louise Glück, honoring a writer known for themes of childhood and family life, the jury at the Swedish Academy said.

The prize was announced in Stockholm by Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Gluck, 77, was honored “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” the Academy said.

Glück, a professor of English at Yale University, “seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works,” it said.

Born in New York in City 1943, Glück’s paternal grandparents were Hungarian Jews who emigrated to the United States. Her father, Daniel Glück, was in business with his brother-in-law and invented the X-Acto brand of precision craft knife still in production.

In a 2012 interview with the American Academy of Achievement, she spoke of writing books at a very early age with her sister, which her father would print so they could illustrate them. She also recalled that “my grandmother, who wasn’t a bookish woman, had a tiny little anthology — it was physically a small object, as I remember — of ‘Beloved Poems,’ or some sort of comprehensive title of that kind.”

The Academy said her 2006 collection “Averno” was a “masterly collection, a visionary interpretation of the myth of Persephone’s descent into Hell in the captivity of Hades, the god of death.”

Glück published her first poems in 1968 in a collection titled “Firstborn.” She has published over a dozen books since then and in 2003 was named poet laureate of the United States.

Many of her works draw from Roman and Greek classical themes, though critics have also detected traces of her Jewish heritage in a number of poems.

“In The Triumph of Achilles (1985), she creates her own midrashic interpretation of a story from the Midrash Rabbah and measures her immigrant grandfather’s life against that of Joseph in Egypt,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

The author has previously won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her collection “The Wild Iris,” and the National Book Award in 2014.

In 2016 then-US president Barak Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal.

US President Barack Obama embraces poet Louise Gluck before awarding her the 2015 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, September 22, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Glück would normally receive the Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

The prize, which includes 10 million kronor (more than $1.1 million) prize, comes after several years of controversy and scandal for the world’s pre-eminent literary accolade.

In 2018 the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that chooses the winners, and sparked a mass exodus of members. After the academy revamped itself in a bid to regain the trust of the Nobel Foundation, two laureates were named last year, with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke.

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Jewish American Harvey J. Alter, American Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.

Tuesday’s prize for physics went to Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany — who are both of Jewish descent, and Andrea Ghez of the United States for their breakthroughs in understanding the mysteries of cosmic black holes.

The chemistry prize on Wednesday went to scientists behind a powerful gene-editing tool.

Still to come are prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.

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