When I read poetry, I usually do it alone. I don’t necessarily mean “alone” as in my sipping at a mug of green tea while reading with glowing battery-operated candles (though this occasionally happens) but reading an individual poem by a different author each day (usually sent by Poets.org in their Poem-a-Day curation). I rarely, if ever, read a whole collection of poetry at once; to my prose-minded self, it’s like reading a book of short stories — sure, it’s cool if they’re organized by theme and I read them all together, but it’s not necessary. It’s commonly expected that a short story or poem should be able to stand on its own.
However, I recently read Louise Glück’s Pulitzer-winning collection “The Wild Iris,” which has shifted my perspective on how thematically-related collections can add value to the individual works. Each poem has its own spirit, but it also contributes to the deepening philosophical meditation of the relationship between humans and nature, which builds up throughout the collection. Rather than using rigid blocks of text in each poem to achieve literary depth, she relies on parallel discourses — with each poem embodying a voice for one side or another — between personified flowers of a garden to the human gardeners and humans voicing unanswered thoughts to an unnamed god.
Constant dialogue is occurring, with individual poems taking their turn to speak. At least for me, Glück’s austerity of expression provides a relatively easier entryway into the understanding of the real as more than the sum of its parts. I have always admired her ability to use deceptively simple language to express condensed ideas, but I am also interested in considering how her careful selection of poems into this collection guides the reader into deeper contemplation. When I read through the pages, I also feel that each poem, which is at most two pages, has greater significance when the next one after it is directly related in subject matter.
Simplicity does not signify simpleness of theme and meaning; one poem may contain a facet of the whole, but the cohesiveness of the integrated collection furthers the reader’s journey more than any poem alone. In the “The Wild Iris,” there are at least three different dialogues — the one of different flowers, the one among the human speaker(s), and the indirect one of flowers and humans through juxtaposition of the individual poems.
For the conversation of human speaker(s), Glück places seven poems titled “Matins” in dialogue with one another, and each presents a human voice struggling to come to terms with the absence of God. Interestingly enough, the title can refer to both the Christian service of morning prayer (as part of the traditional Divine Office) as well as the morning song of birds, thus referencing both the divine and the natural world with her careful selection.
With this dialogue amongst the seven “Matins” poems, we are placed into the introspection directly; Glück has no need for ornamentation that hides her aims. As we read through the collection (the “Matins” poems are not grouped together), we leave and rejoin — at various points — the fluid existential struggle of faith and human fallibility. The collection itself depicts a garden through the cycle of seasons, and it should be no surprise that the current of poetic voice likewise ebbs and flows, tying form with thematic unity. Though the speaker may occasionally “retreat” into the voice of a solitary flower once “buried” and now in “bloom” in between the association of poems in dialogue, we are reminded of the underlying spiritual strivings through the repetition of words and reappearance of nature motifs.
No single line or selection can elicit the full ethereal experience of the whole collection. In “Matins III” (the Roman numeral refers to the placement of the poem in regards to others in the collection), Glück writes on how “I cannot love / what I can’t conceive, and you disclose / virtually nothing.” Though this refers to the aloofness of God, a few lines later she wonders at “this silence that promotes belief / you must be all things” and if by the lack of discernible response, it is in fact a sign of his being everywhere. In the preceding “Matins II,” she hints at her understanding that “We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love / only what returns love,” on how we ourselves are flawed by an inability to avoid suffering.
The speaker considers that perhaps through her striving for something “more” that she (as humanity personified) struggles with this inherent absence; by constantly searching for what is not observable, she brings the pain onto herself. In “Matins V,” the speaker’s voice holds bitterness at the ambiguity of how she may weed clover from her garden and “[check] / each clump for the symbolic / leaf,” but her hands are yet “As empty now as the first note” of morning birdsong. In her grasping for some divine message, she is left without any response or foothold for her faith. In despair, she asks to the unanswering personhood, “was the point always / to continue without a sign?”
With this division of labor among the “Matins” in their collective arc, the speaker reflects with her forcefulness of thought on how mere existence may not lead to any enlightenment. Similar to how Glück’s poetry is stripped of unnecessary language, the speaker is stripped of her own illusions, anguish imbued in the later “Matins”es. As she says in “Matins VII,” “It is / a bitter thing to be / the disposable animal, / a bitter thing.” Yet, what other path exists for humanity besides striving for the unseeable?
As a whole set of seven “Matins”es, Glück expands the reach of one poem, transposing the reader into a series of reflections on the relationship between humanity and the divine. If these verses and the overall pondering of the existence of God were a collective ribbon in motion, it would take the shape of a gyrating spiral with the rhythmic fluidity of the words ascending and then gradually diminishing into the somber reflection in “Matins VII.”
Whether it elicits existential despair or the quiet beginnings of faith, the introspection is achieved through spaced out snapshots, and the recurrence of “Matins” throughout the collection signals how such subject matter cannot be safety set away after one reading of one poem. The poems between these “Matins”es voice another side, thus continuing the conversation in a contrasting manner.
In the “in-between” poems that likewise have their own separate dialogue, Glück challenges human melancholy, as the poems with the voices of flowers present another perspective of hope in the defiance of death. In “Snowdrops,” the flower relates how it “did not expect to survive, / earth suppressing me,” and thus through its survival it was “afraid, yes, but among you again / crying yes risk joy.” The snowdrop persists despite the potential bleakness of the earth, and the disjointed syntax of “crying yes risk joy” reflects its sheer exuberance of emotion; it cannot help but break the ground through its existence.
However, this could have been so easily missed. I chose to consider the “Matins”es in this article as previously I didn’t even notice their dialogical relationship, having read each poem first as an individual work. But in the cyclical nature of “The Wild Iris,” similar to the passing of the seasons, no plant or poem necessarily grows alone. (Of course you can, and perhaps you should, read each poem as its own, but I just thought it was valuable to consider them as a cohesive whole.)
Overall, what insights can a poetry collection offer that one poem alone cannot? I used to believe that curation was only for visual or tactile art (like in a museum exhibit), but now I am curious to explore how other text-based collections — Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” comes to mind — are organized precisely so that each story can be placed in dialogue with one another, and the collection builds up the reach of any individual work.
Perhaps it is a reminder that great work is best appreciated when we are also in dialogue with one another. Isn’t it exciting when Art imitates Life and reminds us that Life should also imitate Art so that we can potentially beget more Art and understanding?
Contact Shana Hadi shanah ‘at’ stanford.edu.