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Recommendation: The Wild Iris

Louise Glück is one of America’s most accomplished poets, and her Pulitzer Prize winning The Wild Iris encapsulates what is so arresting about her numerous volumes: a stately, ethereal elegance that never veers into the mawkishly personal,  but simultaneously avoids prideful bombast. It hovers on a plane rarely attained-where the poems are delicate, crystalline, and lyrical, but void of pretension; somewhere between academic and confessional. The tone recalls H.D.’s early Imagist work, but strays in its philosophical musings that rise out of the interplay of the lyrics. She is undoubtedly one of the few contemporary poets who possess the unhurried control and rhetorical skill necessary to weave these 56 poems into a meaningful lyric sequence that is powerfully effective both as a long poem, and as a series of short lyrics.

The subject matter is rife with pitfalls. It is a lieder cycle in the musical sense, a group of songs (in this case poems) linked through discourse, which eventually weave into a meaningful tapestry, and in this case, the conversation is between flowers, humans, and God over the course of a year-the possibilities for failure are vast. But what keeps this volume grounded is the mournful tone conveyed through her language-the sense of perpetual misunderstanding between nature, humanity, and God that all three try desperately to correct, but never can. It is as constant as the death and rebirth of flowers, and while Glück never explicitly states her intention, the form masterfully informs the theme.

She writes in the lyric “Midsummer,” “How can I help you when you all want/ different things-sunlight and shadow,/ moist darkness, dry heat-// Listen to yourselves, vying with one another-// And you wonder/ why I despair of you, you think something could fuse you into a whole-//” The addressee is a field of flowers, but some ambiguity creeps in; many of these lines could be directed from God to humans. Thus, the unspoken connection between the Earth, humans, and God is expressed while frustration in the inability to discover that bond is realized through a field of flowers which is as fractured as humanity itself. We wish to be “fused into a whole,” but have no appreciation as to how, particularly when constantly “vying with each other.” I believe Glück is expressing some sort of unrealized Pantheism, that is buried like “The Wild Iris” at the beginning of the volume: “At the end of my suffering/ there was a door.// Hear me out: that which you call death/ I remember./” And later, “It is terrible to survive/ as consciousness/ buried in the dark earth.” And the final stanza of the final lyric “The White Lilies” reads, “Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me/ how many summers I live to return:/ this one summer we have entered eternity. I felt your two hands/ bury me to release its splendor.” The flower has returned into the Earth-a white lily contains and releases the unspeakable splendor of the entire universe. The first word of the stanza contains the essence of “The Wild Iris,” as expressed through its methodical elegance and contemplative tone: shun the squawking institutions of mankind and stop trying so hard to find the answers-just “hush” and listen to God expressed through the constant rebirth of nature.

I highly recommend this volume to everyone, whether for the rich subject matter, or the seasoned, mature, and elegant technique that is on display–we can only improve as poets by absorbing the work of a true modern master, even if we cannot fully understand her intent. Perhaps what is most fascinating and important for our purposes is her reinvigoration of traditional poetic images that date back to the beginning of recited verse: the spring, rebirth, the lilies of the field, death, and God. Glück proves that the great, impenetrable mysteries of life and “traditional” subjects were not worn out by Milton, Dante or Dickinson. Rather, she teaches us an indispensable lesson as young poets: to draw on the accumulated knowledge of the centuries and thus appreciate our place as “poets,” in the same vein as philosophers and seekers. In other words, Glück is a big poet with big ideas who does not underestimate her considerable talent. Her role as “Poet” (with a capital “P”) is fully manifest in The Wild Iris.

Nathan

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