W&L wraps up virtual Nobel Symposium

The 2020 Nobel Symposium celebrated the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and literature

Anneliese Schneider

Author and Washington and Lee University professor of Spanish Seth Michelson presented virtually about this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, American poet and essayist Louise Glück earlier this month. 

Glück, who has been writing since 1968, is the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993. Prior to Glück’s win, only 15 of the total 116 Nobel Prizes in literature had been awarded to women.

Last month, Tom McClain, a visiting assistant professor of physics, presented about the Nobel Prize in physics, which was awarded jointly to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” Professor Janice Friend, a visiting assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, presented about the Nobel Prize in chemistry, which was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing.” 

 The Nobel Committee recognized Glück for her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Michelson believes Glück’s voice is the cornerstone of her work.

“That voice is her poetic career. It transcends the books, has distinct interactions thematically,” he said.

Other important aspects of  Glück’s body of work, are, in Michelson’s words, her “use of masks or persona, existential despair and loneliness, the pain of the past endlessly interrupting the present,” and “withering lucidity, a clarity that does not compromise complexity.”

Additionally, he noted that, “She’s got a feminist thread weaving through her work that’s strong and inspiring and consistent, and worth pointing out for new readers”.

The virtual talk took place on election night over Zoom, but Glück is not the poet to turn to for comfort.

“She’s not a poet of solace,” said Michelson. “She is a poet to read when one is bold enough to engage with the unfinished, the ephemeral, the uncertain.” 

Glück does not touch on many political subjects in her work, which makes her recognition interesting in a year that has, in many ways, been defined by political upheaval, Michelson said. 

“She’s a safe choice, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, of the #MeToo movement, a global reckoning with the remnants of colonial violence and genocide, she is a white woman of means writing an introspective intertextual poetry very much in the occidental tradition.”

However, Michelson said he did not think her undeserving since she deals with difficult subjects, though in the personal realm. 

“I admire the courage in writing in such a bold way, unapologetically, about the brutalizing experience of self with loss in a way that is completely anti-sentimental,” said Michelson. “She’s vicious about carving any emotionality from the work.”