In Memoriam

Louise Glück, Nobel laureate and beloved Yale mentor

Glück, who was regarded as one of America’s greatest writers by the time she arrived at Yale, in 2004, was a dedicated teacher and mentor to students.
Louise Glück
Louise Glück (Photo by Katherine Wolkoff)

Louise Glück, a poet whose evocative voice shaped the literary world for decades, earning her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020, and who became a beloved teacher and mentor as a member of the Yale faculty, died Oct. 13 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was 80.

Glück, who published 13 collections of poetry, was already regarded as one of America’s best writers when she joined the Yale faculty, in 2004, as the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence. She had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her collection “The Wild Iris,” the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 for “The Triumph of Achilles,” and was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2003-2004.

She would go on to earn the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry for her book “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry for her collection, “Poems 1962-2012,” and the National Humanities Medal in 2016, among dozens of other awards and accolades.

In October 2020, Glück became the latest Nobel laureate on the Yale faculty. The Royal Swedish National Academy, in announcing the honor, praised her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Amidst the accolades and new volumes of poetry, she remained dedicated to her Yale students, teaching courses and workshops in poetry, and meeting with them formally and informally. She was known to practice a deeply engaged approach to pedagogy, mentoring and nurturing the creative aspirations of her students, and never shied away from providing incisive feedback when warranted. She was a fellow in Grace Hopper College.

Last year, Glück was appointed the Frederick Iseman Professor in the Practice of Poetry in the Department of English, in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

The world knew Louise Glück as a writer of rare talent and insight, a poet of the interior life whose inquiries into the self yielded illuminating poems of expressive beauty,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “But here at Yale, we also knew her as a galvanizing teacher and mentor whose uncommon dedication to her students enriched the entire campus community.”

At Yale, in addition to teaching, Glück brought young poets to the attention of wider audiences as the judge, from 2003 to 2010, of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, the oldest annual literary award in the United States.

Her colleagues admired the way that teaching was part of her poetic practice, challenging and energizing her own poetry.

Through her poetry and her person Louise created life-affirming intimacies,” said Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray, Jr. Professor of English at Yale. “So many people count her among their close friends. Her students and colleagues and fellow poets and poetry readers on both coasts of the U.S. and in between feel the pain of her loss.

But Louise is not going anywhere,” he added. “She set out to say permanent things in poetry and she succeeded. That takes inspiration but also grit. And she had both, always.”

Her literary archive is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Glück was born in 1943 in New York City, and grew up in the suburb of Woodmere, Long Island. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

Family relationships, childhood, divorce, and death were recurring themes in Glück’s work. Her writing style made her poetry widely accessible and relatable — the critic Wendy Lesser, writing in the “Washington Post Book World” in 1986, said that, while Glück’s language was carefully selected for rhythm and repetition, her language was “staunchly straightforward.”

The strength of her voice, Lesser wrote, “derives in large part from its self-centeredness — literally, for the words in Glück’s poems seem to come directly from the center of herself.”

Her first book, “Firstborn” (1968), finished when she was 23, was rejected 28 times before being accepted by New American Library, according to an account she wrote that appears on the Nobel Prize site.

Glück’s other collections include “The House on the Marshland” (1975), “Ararat” (1990), “Meadowlands” (1996), “Vita Nova” (1999), and “Averno” (2006).

Her work is guided by a subtle, incisive intellect that travels through loss and joy, sounding the whims and demands of the body, exploring the intensity of being alive and all that that astounding circumstance asks of us,” Jessica Brantley, professor and chair of Yale’s English department, said after Glück received the Nobel Prize in 2020.

She is also the most devoted of teachers, and the influence she has had on contemporary poetry both as mentor and as model is beyond measure.”

Also speaking in 2020, Lucy Silbaugh ’21, at the time one of Glück’s students, commented that her talents as a teacher were equal to her writing genius. “Her remarks are always discerning and exact; sometimes her comments almost feel like poems themselves because they are so striking and offhandedly brilliant,” Silbaugh said. “Louise takes teaching very seriously and never, ever praises idly; if a poem is terrible, she will tell you it is terrible. But she also takes genuine delight in a good line; she seems to really want to be thrilled and surprised by her students’ work.

That, I think, is extremely remarkable, especially for someone of her renown.”

Said Kathryn Lofton, the FAS dean of humanities: “As the numerous poets who honed their craft under her guidance can attest, Louise Glück had the rare ability to teach as well as she wrote. We are so fortunate to have her poems to continue to teach us.”

Stefanie Markovits, a professor of English and director of undergraduate studies, called Glück “a gift to the English department.” When she was a junior faculty member, Markovits’ office was located down the hall from Louise Glück’s.

And I remember the students who would line up patiently outside her office, waiting, no doubt, long after I had headed out,” she said. “It was clear that the kind of attention she gave them was well worth that wait.

I can't tell you how often students have extolled her dedication and care,” Markovits added. “And I have known students who faced real life troubles for whom she was not just teacher but mentor and friend, someone who made Yale a place in which they could flourish intellectually and artistically.”

Tamar Gendler, dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, reflected Friday on Glück’s poem “October,” which concluded with a reminder: “my friend the moon rises: / she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?”

Louise was always a teacher: teaching us to look, teaching us to appreciate, teaching us to feel sorrow, teaching us to take joy,” Gendler said. “May we find solace in her luminous words and joy in her legacy.”

This story will be updated.


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