By Hannah Green
On the 8th of October, the Swedish Academy announced American poet Louise Glück as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.
The award intended, like all Nobel Prizes, to recognise in its winner someone who had “bestowed the greatest benefit on mankind”, and, specifically to the Literature Prize, “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. At a time when the arts are increasingly under threat (we’ve all seen the poster), this is perhaps a good opportunity to consider what Louise Glück’s win can tell us about what we value and how we value it, in literature in general and poetry in particular.
Who decides the value of a profession?
The idea of literature as a force for “the benefit of mankind” is an interesting one, as is the question of how exactly anyone can possibly judge it, not to mention the irony of this prize being awarded the same week as the revival of the “Rethink. Reboot. Reskill.” campaign. The other areas that the Nobel Prize awards are Chemistry, Physics, Medicine and Economics, as well as the infamous Peace Prize.
Literature seems a strange addition to this science-heavy line-up – the closest anyone can come to measuring the ‘success’ of a particular author or publication is to look at its sales figures, but the Nobel committee works under no such considerations. Instead, we have the mysterious criteria and a secretive selection process, whose results are rarely anticipated. Poetry is subjective, as is the value of any profession.
The benefits of the arts
Glück served as American poet laureate from 2003-2004.
Each laureate brings something different to the post: Maxine Kumin started a series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress, whilst Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of putting poetry in public spaces, and other laureates have worked with school children of all ages. These are just some of the specific and targeted ways that poetry has been brought into the public realm, with an explicit aim to ‘do good’.
Ideas about how poetry can ‘do good’, not just to its individual reader but to wider society, are particularly pertinent at a time when the arts are facing such a monumental threat.
While many laureates’ impact on society has clearly been positive (Glück included), the neglect of the arts has not been helped by the appearance of the infamous ‘Fatima’ advert. Although the advert is actually from a 2019 governmental scheme to encourage more young people into cyber industries, rather than an explicit response to the current uncertainties faced by the arts, its resurgence is illustrative of a long-held undervaluing of the arts and their contribution to society. As this contribution cannot be easily measured or consistently monetized, it has been side-lined.
Despite the UK government’s £1.5 billion support package for the creative industries, many feel that this is simply not enough. With closing venues, struggling performers and high-profile job losses at cultural institutions like the Tate, the government’s disregard for the creative industries is clear.
Glück’s ‘beneficial’ poetry
What is it about Glück’s poems, then, that the Nobel Committee have recognised as particularly ‘beneficial’?
Glück maintains a privacy and a distance to her work, even when it is informed by her own experience. She has stated that, “I look for the archetypal experience, and I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique (…) I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of all humans, who are born and then forced to exist.”
Glück’s work does not reassure us. As Ellen Peirson-Hagger writes in the New Statesman, “she is a poet read for clarity, to have a magnifying glass held up to daily life, your greatest fears and daydreams lived, and understood”. If something is ‘poetic’, we might expect it to be romanticised or idealised. Gluck gives us the opposite; her poetry offers us a reflection of ourselves, a way of understanding our own feelings and experiences.
This is a poetry which speaks for itself, distanced from Glück’s personality or public persona. Perhaps this is what the Nobel committee is recognising in its choice of Glück, who is not the protagonist of her own poetry but instead acts as the mediator, the oracle through which it speaks.
The arts as a public service
Both the Nobel Prize and the laureateship suggest that literature is a resource for public good, recognising those who have brought value through their poetry, whose work has contributed something. The laureateship in particular allows the chosen poet to serve as a kind of medium between the abstract forces of poetry and the general public. One of the effects of the Prize is to bring the work of the winner onto the world stage, so that we can examine it with fresh eyes and consider just how it ‘serves’ us.
Every winner will be critiqued and contested, for the simple reason that it is impossible to choose a single, best writer who has given us, mankind, the greatest benefit in an “ideal” direction.
What the academy can do, however, is to pick out an example from the myriad of voices, one which, this year, “with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. This, I think, is the closest we can come to any kind of working definition for poetry: that which makes the individual universal. Poetry often gives us something beautiful, and maybe something moving, but at the base of it lies a recognition.
Glück’s win, and the conversation around the Nobel Prize, suggests that despite everything, literature in general and poetry in particular continues to connect us, not as a private and insular art but as a beneficial and public one. I can’t imagine the government turning around and telling Glück that she needs to be reskilled?