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Poet Louise Glück Wins 2020 Nobel Prize In Literature

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

American poet Louise Gluck has won a Pulitzer, a Guggenheim, a National Book Award and, as of this morning, a Nobel Prize in literature. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more about the writer celebrated by the Swedish Academy for the austere beauty of her poetry.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Louise Gluck grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Her father, an Hungarian immigrant, helped invent the X-Acto knife. Gluck is an incisive writer. In 2012, she told the Academy of Achievement how her father helped shape her sense of language.

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LOUISE GLUCK: My bedtime story when I was very, very little, my father used to tell my sister and me the story of Saint Joan without the burning. And, you know, she heard voices. And I was very accustomed to the idea that one heard voices. I hear language. It's not like an angel speaking to me.

ULABY: That said, angels are among the spiritual beings animating Gluck's work. Here she is on NPR in 1995 with a poem about the Nativity.

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GLUCK: It is the evening of the birth of God. Singing and with gold instruments, the angels bear down upon the barn - their wings neither white, wax nor marble. So they have been recorded.

ULABY: Gluck's worldview sweeps in Bible stories, figures from Greek mythology and unsung lonely mothers from today. For many of Gluck's 77 years, she's taught at institutions like Yale and Williams College, where one of her students was Claudia Rankine, now a celebrated poet herself.

CLAUDIA RANKINE: I always think of Louise's work like great sculpture. There's no excess.

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GLUCK: Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras. And there were other signs that death wooed us by water, wooed us by land...

ULABY: That's Gluck reading from her first collection of poetry, published in 1968. It's called "Firstborn" for an older sister who died. As Gluck said in a 1988 interview on the Library of Congress website, her early success was followed by paralyzing writer's block.

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GLUCK: I wasn't writing because there was too much in my life to distract me, so I kept paring away activities until my life was nothing but sitting at a desk and looking at blank paper.

ULABY: Gluck had struggled with anorexia as a teenager. Filling up her life with more than language was difficult. But when she had a son in 1973, Gluck was shocked by how much it improved her writing.

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GLUCK: I was not happy during that period. I was exhausted, and I thought my life was ruined. And I thought, I can't do this. I felt so sorry for this poor little boy. I thought, you know, he's dependent on me. But I was writing well.

ULABY: Motherhood also reinforced some of Gluck's favorite themes, including our tenuous control over life.

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GLUCK: At the end of my suffering, there was a door. Hear me out - that which you call death, I remember. Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting. Then nothing.

ULABY: That's click reading "The Wild Iris," part of a collection of poems that won her a Pulitzer in 1993. But this Nobel win is a surprise. It was widely assumed that a writer of color might win this year. Gluck is the eighth white laureate of the decade. Still, Claudia Rankine says picking her was inspired.

RANKINE: You know, the thing about Louise that's really fantastic and why she's an incredible choice is not just her work, but she has had a long history of mentoring writers like myself.

ULABY: Writers who are African American, writers not always assumed to be Nobel Prize contenders. Neither was Louise Glick, a poet and teacher whose primary purpose has always been to welcome others to a universe of imagination.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.