Nobel reminds us why Glück's poetry matters now

Louise Gluck's books are on display during the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on October 8, 2020.

Richie Hofmann is the author of the poetry collection "Second Empire" (2015) and winner of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. He is a lecturer at Stanford University. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In spring, as I was preparing to teach my poetry course, remotely and online, in the first months of the pandemic, I decided to scrap my syllabus and to teach books that had changed me utterly, as a person and as a writer -- books I have carried with me through the years, from apartment to apartment in tattered copies, books that have grown and changed with me.

Richie Hofmann
The first day of class was the first day of spring. We read Louise Glück's "The Wild Iris," a book of poems written in the language of flowers. On Zoom, unmuting ourselves, we read the first poem out loud:
    At the end of my suffering
    there was a door.
    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.
    ("The Wild Iris")
    Though the book was published in 1992, well before my students were born, and when I was only a small boy; it was speaking to us from beyond, from that timeless "elsewhere" that so many of Glück's poems so crisply capture. Her poems are alert to human feelings, both ugly and exalted, and to our will to survival in the face of a world that would cut us down.
    Good poetry is not a place for easy consolations, for platitudes. Instead, poems can be a space where uncertainty and complexity commingle. When we needed her lessons -- each of us uncertain of the future, isolated, terrified -- Louise Glück has been a poet who could teach us that suffering, oblivion, even death would not be the end of us.
    One of her poems, "The Red Poppy," asks us:
    Oh my brothers and sisters,
    were you like me once, long ago,
    before you were human? Did you
    permit yourselves
    to open once, who would never
    open again? Because in truth
    I am speaking now
    the way you do. I speak
    because I am shattered.
    ("The Red Poppy")
    Readers and admirers of Louise Glück's poetry are celebrating her work this week with a collective sense of pride and pleasure to see her considerable contributions so deservedly recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature. The last American woman to win the honor was Toni Morrison in 1993.
    But, in spite of the outpouring of joy on social media at this monumental public recognition of her artistry, Glück's poems themselves are not bombastic or public facing. Rather, they preserve intimacy, privacy and interiority in an age of constant broadcast, rapid news cycles and shameless self-promotion.
    And in a time when we are so often reminded of ways language is used to manipulate and mislead, her work is a testament to the power of clarity and precision.
    I cannot go on
    restricting myself to images
    because you think it is your right
    to dispute my meaning:
    I am prepared now to force
    clarity upon you.
    ("Clear Morning")
    Glück has authored over a dozen collections of verse, and she has received nearly every major prize for American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. Additionally, she has served as United States Poet Laureate and has been awarded the National Humanities Medal. A dedicated teacher, she works with students at both Yale and Stanford.