Turning away briefly from his administrative responsibilities to appreciate contemporary art, President Barack Obama awarded one of this year’s 12 National Humanities Medals to poet and Yale English professor Louise Glück on Sept. 22.
The award crowns an acclaimed poetic career for Glück, a writer-in-residence and adjunct professor who came to Yale in 2004. She received the medal during a brief ceremony at the White House last month. Glück’s achievement was met with great excitement and pride in Yale’s English Department.
“I join with everyone in our department in celebrating our colleague’s spectacular achievement and its recognition by the president,” Jessica Brantley, director of undergraduate studies for the English Department, wrote in an email to the News.
The National Humanities Medal honors those who have deepened our national understanding of and engagement with the humanities, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities website. It is awarded annually to a dozen writers, artists, actors, historians and musicians. The president, in consultation with the National Endowment for the Humanities, selects each year’s medal winners. This class of medal recipients included jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya. Glück’s medal citation stated that she had given “lyrical expression to our inner conflicts.”
Though Glück said that winning the National Humanities Medal has not significantly changed her life, she said she was grateful for the honor. However, she noted that this recognition has not lessened her drive to write.
“It always seems a very great gift to write a poem of which you stay proud longer than 24 hours. That is what I want more than anything I can name,” she said.
Glück’s poetry has been praised for its retelling, refashioning and reviving of mythological stories. Additionally, Glück is highly regarded for her technical ability as a poet. Working within the lyrical poetic tradition, she simultaneously conveys both song and narrative in an often precarious balancing act, said English professor Richard Deming, who directs the department’s creative writing program.
“She finds ways that those stories and myths aren’t past, but are psychological and emotional realities that she allows us to reinhabit in a way that makes it feel like they are, whatever else they might be, the stories of what it means to be human,” Deming said. “She [works] within a music of familiar language, of immediate language, of direct language.”
According to Deming, this combination of powerful craft and complex content makes Glück’s poetry popular. Deming went on to say that Glück is one of the great figures in contemporary American poetry and one of the most influential.
While Glück said she prefers to not overanalyze her own work, she noted that her work fits within traditional poetic motifs.
“Most writers would say that they write about life, death, love and work, with very enormous variations within those categories,” she said. These themes recur in her 1986 poetry collection, “The Triumph of Achilles,” in her 2006 National Book Award Finalist “Averno” and most recently in the 2014 collection, “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”
The National Humanities Medal is just the most recent prize on Glück’s long list of accolades. In 1993 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection “Wild Iris” and in 2001 was awarded Yale’s Bollingen Prize for a life’s work of exceptional poetry. From 2003 to 2004, she served as the United States Poet Laureate.
Nonetheless, Glück maintained that her awards are not her legacy. Rather, she said, “I would hope that I’m writing things that people would read for a long time.”
Instead, Glück views teaching as an essential part of her literary legacy. By teaching, she is able to both honor the great teachers who helped her improve her writing and share her gifts with future generations. As an added benefit, teaching seems to help her write, she said. “Teaching keeps me alive in my mind,” said Glück.
“In reality, the value of having someone like Louise Glück is not the awards that she wins but her absolute dedication as a teacher, her commitment to working with students and helping them become the writers they have it in them to be,” Deming said. “She’s about as necessary a poet as we have in these days when language feels so fraught and embattled.”
Glück’s essay collection “American Originality: Essays on Poetry” is set to be published in March 2017.