Revisiting Louise Glück’s ‘The Wild Iris’: Laws of demand, supply in meager times

Illustration of Louise Gluck
Cynthia Shi/Staff

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Louise Glück’s garden is in disarray. The Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist turns out to be a rather unsuccessful and unfortunate gardener, working strenuously only to yield scanty harvests. Instead of staple crops or lovely flowers, various wild plants have invaded and occupied the meager soil of her garden.

Like her garden, the world during the pandemic has been tumultuous. Despite the gradual return to normalcy in 2021, people often still find themselves deprived of the proper means or purposes to achieve anything ambitious, heroic or at least worthwhile. In turn, they are left to muddle along with daily trivialities, confined social spaces and hampered dreams.

But the garden must be tilled; the soil of life must be cultivated. What are the basic needs of life in a time of scarcity? How do people supply their personal needs? In ​​her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection “The Wild Iris,” Glück offers her laws of demand and supply to provide some possible answers.

The first law: A time of dearth brings greater demands for creativity. Meagerness in the physical world can be compensated by the affluence of the mind, like how Glück supplies her infertile gardens with rich, imaginative poetry. For example, she endows her plants with the human capacity to think, speak and even criticize the gardener — Glück herself, in this case.

In her poem “The Hawthorn Tree,” the personified tree quietly observes and mildly chides the “human passion and rage” that lead humans to “let drop all (they) have gathered.” Through this monologue, Glück offers a mild self-criticism of how she has recklessly wasted the hard-earned fruits from times of harvest. Using poetry to humanize the surrounding natural world and furnish meaningful self-reflection, she motivates her readers to do the same. The mind’s innovative capabilities can reinvigorate an otherwise dull reality.

The second law: Always find new supplies. Since Glück fails to raise roses or violets, she turns to discover and appreciate the quieter yet more meaningful beauty in wild plants that have invaded her garden. In “The Wild Iris,” the seed of a wild iris speaks about its underground hibernation, arduous germination and eventual blooming. As Glück imagines a transcendental experience of death and resurrection through the perspective of the iris seed, in a way, the seed becomes her guide through the underworld, like how Virgil leads Dante through hell in the Inferno. As this tiny seed assumes such an essential and enlightening role, Glück reminds her readers that even everyday trivialities, like a wild plant in a shady garden corner, might provide unexpectedly illuminating lessons.

The small seed also promises unlimited potential. Glück compares its growth into a flower, highlighting its bursting energy: “From the center of (its) life came / a great fountain.” She builds the wild iris — otherwise just a wildflower to any other unimaginative gardener — into an emblem of blossoming life and hope in her barren garden. With her close examination and poetic re-imagination of the natural world, little wildflowers such as the iris provide her with adequate alternative supplies for her need for beauty from the garden.

The final law: Even basic demands are not always satisfied. In “Vespers,” she complains how a god sends “heavy rains, the cold nights” that incessantly plague her garden, while others enjoy “twelve weeks of summer.” Her god would not even allow minimally good weather for her tomatoes to survive. In numerous vespers and matins including this one, she openly accuses her god of cruelty and dinginess.

However, since explicit criticism would be too bitter, she adopts satire by impersonating a grumpy, patriarchal god. In “Clear Morning,” her god resolves to “ready to force / clarity upon (her)” after Glück firmly ignores the divine will to halt her garden projects. In such impersonating poems, she delightfully caricatures a bad-tempered god with sharp, satirical language.

As much as she is devoted and respectful to her god, she is also lightheartedly critical of his unfair treatment. She cannot sway her god to help her infertile garden; regardless, she still makes a mild, jesting protest against her god to extract amusement from an otherwise grim, frustrating reality. Her easy, optimistic mentality offers a crucial message for her readers as well — even if life doesn’t go as planned, she advises, always try to have a little fun.

Even in barren gardens, flowers of poetry still blossom; even on tedious days, little hopeful matches unexpectedly strike in the dark. With an acute and introspective mind, Glück meets the basic needs for her garden by compensating its physical meagerness with rich imagination and satirical fun. Like her garden, life has its harvests and shortages. As the basic needs for novelty and entertainment remain vital, especially during the gloomy, deficient days of the pandemic, these illuminating revelations reaped from Glück’s garden still resonate.

Contact William Xu at [email protected].