‘Sharp wit’ and ‘austere beauty’: remembering Louise Glück
Glück, a Yale poetry professor and prolific writer, is remembered for her relentless honesty, sharp wit and support for her students.
Photo from Bollingen Prize for Poetry
Louise Glück worked through her students’ poetry line by line, even word by word, in classrooms at Yale — and also in her Vermont living room.
End-of-semester class dinners became a special tradition for Glück during her 20-year career at Yale. Last fall, which would be her last full semester of teaching, she invited her class of six to her home in Vermont, where she held a poetry workshop.
“I remember the precision and dedication she offered to every poem we workshopped there,” Logan Klutse ’23 told the News. “She had a way of seeing the poem you wanted to write before it’d fully come into being and guiding you toward it.”
Glück, a long-time Yale professor and titan of American poetry, died of cancer on Friday in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was 80 years old.
Throughout her life, she authored two collections of essays and more than a dozen books of poetry. Her many accolades include the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. From 2003-04, she was the U.S. Poet Laureate.
Glück’s writing incorporates themes of trauma and human emotion, bridging the gap between personal and shared experience. Langdon Hammer, a professor of English, described her work as “writing about the self while thinking about the self as a social being.”
Born April 22, 1943, Glück grew up in Cedarhurst, New York, on the south shore of Long Island. Her paternal grandparents were Hungarian Jews who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Her mother, Beatrice Glück, was a graduate of Wellesley College, and her father, Daniel Glück, was a businessman who helped invent the X-Acto knife.
Glück attended George W. Hewlett High School in Hewlett, New York, but dropped out before the end of her senior year to receive treatment for anorexia. Although she still graduated on time, the condition kept her from becoming a full-time college student.
Instead, she chose to enroll in poetry workshops at Columbia University. She has pointed to Leonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz, two of her professors there, as significant mentors in her development as a poet.
After leaving Columbia, Glück took a job as a secretary while continuing to write in her free time. She soon published her debut poetry collection, “Firstborn”, in 1968. Glück’s tendency toward multitasking, Hammer said, stuck for much of her life.
While teaching at Yale, Glück commuted from Cambridge to New Haven. In her final years, she moved back and forth between her home in Cambridge and her estate in Montpelier, Vermont.
Hammer said that the cyclical nature of Glück’s life appears in her writing. Her poetry often engages with Persephone, a mythical Greek goddess who spends half her life on earth and half in the underworld.
“This kind of rhythm, of moving between one thing and another, was deeply a part of her way of living,” Hammer said. “But it’s also written into her work as this kind of cyclical creativity.”
While between books, Glück would occasionally deal with bouts of writer’s block before making a breakthrough. It was by teaching — by working with others’ poetry when she could not write her own — that Glück was able to sustain her creativity.
She took her first job in 1971 at Goddard College in Vermont, where she wrote her second book, “The House on Marshland”, often considered her breakthrough piece.
“The minute I started teaching, I started writing,” she said in a 2016 interview. “It was a miracle.”
In 1984, she took a job at Williams College, where she taught for two decades.
Outside of writing, Glück was known for her prowess as a gardener. She loved rare, wild vegetation and getting her hands in the dirt.
One of her most famous works, 1992’s “The Wild Iris”, a book of dramatic monologues in which flowers speak to God, is inspired by gardening and life cycles of nature.
Glück arrived at Yale in 2004 as the Rozenkranz Writer-in-Residence, intending to teach a number of courses and workshops in poetry. During this first year, she lived in Grace Hopper College.
She soon began teaching the Iseman Seminar in Poetry, an intensive poetry workshop in the Yale English Department. But it did not take long for seats in the Seminar to become highly coveted by students.
John Nguyen ’24 told the News that he still remembers the moment he learned he could take the course.
“I remember sitting in Starbucks when I got the email,” Nguyen wrote to the News. “I didn’t want to make a scene, but in my head I was screaming.”
Glück was teaching the poetry class this fall; for the remainder of the semester, English Department director of creative writing Richard Deming will take over.
In many ways, Glück’s classes at Yale mirrored her cyclical life and writing. For most of her career, she led small, workshop-style seminars where students would prepare poems for class, and the class would focus on two to three students’ poems each week.
In her seminars, Glück delivered rigorous, constructive feedback with her signature witty touch. One student who took the course in 2005 described her as “challenging, but not intimidating.” Another, from 2022, called her “ruthless, but kind.”
Above all, students said that she helped spur their creativity and empower their writing.
“[There was] something about that kind of sharp honesty,” Jeremy Schmidt ’05, now a writing instructor and lecturer at the University of Chicago, said. “She really was good at making folks think that they had a chance, that they could certainly write and perhaps even be writers. It’s something that I try to keep in mind as a teacher. Students want to be taken seriously.”
Glück’s former students said that she offered unfettered criticism, unafraid to say “‘I know this isn’t your best’” or “‘I’m quite troubled by the work you’re turning in’” when their work did not meet her high standards.
But when earned, they said, her praise was deeply meaningful.
Lucy Teitler, ’05 recalled submitting a poem to the Yale Literary Review that “was hated and trashed on by everyone in the room.” She was not upset, however, because a few days prior, Glück had liked the poem and called it “funny” during a class workshop.
At the time, Teitler herself had not recognized the poem’s humor.
“Louise was extremely funny herself, and she recognized that it was the best thing in my writing and encouraged it,” Teitler said. “In general back then, there was an orthodoxy about poetry at Yale. It couldn’t be this, it couldn’t be that, and there she was, the most famous poet in sight, totally liberated from those rules.”
Teitler, now a playwright and screenwriter, credits Glück with advancing the University’s once-formal poetry culture.
Glück also pushed her own poetic boundaries while teaching at Yale. Hammer specifically noted her 2009 poetry collection, “A Village Life.” Its fictional, Mediterranean setting and use of multiple voices departed from her more personal and introspective earlier works, Hammer told the News.
“She was always pushing, always looking to do something she hadn’t done before,” he said.
In 2015, Glück received the National Humanities medal, which then-United States President Barack Obama awarded her at a White House ceremony.
Those who knew Glück closely remember her later life as indeed a time of growing fame but also of anxiety, in part a product of the frequent readings she performed.
Despite these difficulties, as well as her media-shy reputation, Glück was a “very social creature,” according to Betsy Sledge, a former Grace Hopper Associate Head of College.
Sledge said that Glück had “legions of friends everywhere that she lived,” and, in her early time at Yale, she would carefully plan out dinner schedules for her nights spent in New Haven.
Above all, Glück’s love for students defined her teaching philosophy.
“She followed her students, and if she saw someone with great promise, she never let them go,” Sledge said. “They were her students for life.”
When Glück received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature — making her the first American woman to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993 — the prize committee praised Glück’s “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
Soon after winning the prize, she bought her estate in Montpelier, where she often invited students to visit.
William An ’24, who was in Glück’s seminar and once visited her Vermont home, remembers her as “warm and witty,” someone with whom he felt “special” to have a relationship.
“Louise saw her students with the same precision and love with which she saw the world in her poems,” Teitler said. “To experience this kind of generosity as a college student was transformative — if someone of her caliber was searching for greatness in your work, maybe you were really capable of it, and at least it became your obligation to be the best you could be.”
Glück is survived by her son and two grandchildren.