These Old Poems #19:
Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris & The Red Poppy
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 8/29/02

  Louise Gluck is one of those poets who could be likeable, but on no intellectual grounds. I say this because she is, in fact, probably the only MFA styled poet I’ve read that I’ve ever liked (sometimes). She has some good lines. She has some nice imagery. Her line breaks are competent in her best work. But does this mean that she’s a good poet? No. So what’s wrong with her then? Her poems are often rife with clichés, are generic with only one or two metaphors throughout the poem & consist of much trite nature & “cloud-like” images. Does this mean she deserves induction into the Hall of Shame? I personally don’t think she’s there yet. LG is a professor at William’s College and lives in Vermont. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize for what is supposed to be known as her best book The Wild Iris. This is the only book I’ve ever read by Gluck, but I’ve been told that her book following, Meadowlands, is pretty bad. But this is just what I’ve heard. So to be fair, I chose 2 poems from The Wild Iris, in attempt to put her best work forward. Let us begin with probably what is her “signature” poem for this book, the poem entitled “The Wild Iris”, and I think it is safe to say that Gluck probably thought this one of her better poems, since after all- it’s the title of her book. (Note- clichés are italicized). 

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing.  The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little.  And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water. 

  This is a very generic poem with some nice images but also some bad clichés. Overall, the line breaks are solid. The 1st and 2nd lines are bad & a terrible way to begin the poem. The idea of a door being at the end of a great pain is the subject for every self-healing book. The 3rd and 4th lines are not as bad, but are clichéd in the context of this poem. So 4 lines in & the poem is a snoozer. The next stanza is just imagery- it is not good or bad. “Dark earth” from line 10 is a cliché, adding only unnecessary melodrama. “Soul being unable to speak” & “passage from the other world” are her ways of trying to imply death as the metaphor for being silenced, or in other words, not being able to write this mediocre book of poems. As for the last stanza, there are at least 4 cliches used in bland ways. “Center of my life”, “a great fountain”, “deep blue” (didn’t the MFA courses tell her these are teenage girl phrases?) and “azure sea water”. How many poems have you read where water is a symbol for life? How about “deep blue water?” Uh huh. This is why the ending does not work, yet why does it not amaze me that this trifle won a Pulitzer?. Overall, this poem is very bland, has no music, is clunky at times & says nothing of interest & worst of all, does not say it well. Let’s look at the rewrite:


The Wild Iris

Overhead: noises, branches of pine shift
nothing over surface.

It is consciousness
bending abruptly, ending. 

Unable to speak, the stiff earth
darts in you who does not remember

the other. Oblivion returns
from whatever finds.

  OK, I realize that I completely hacked this poem & probably changed some of the original “meaning”. Who cares? This version is better. The 1st stanza is an improvement over the original because we are beginning with a image that shows & does not tell. “Consciousness bending” is much more unique over “Consciousness buried in the dark surface.” Not only is it more active, but it is more concise. The 3rd stanza is much more ambiguous. This could be referring to the speaker, or another flower. The original version was much more linear & read like prose broken into lines. “Oblivion returns from whatever finds” is a tremendous improvement over” whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice”. It is obvious that she is referring to her “voice” as her poetic voice, which is cliché since this is about writing this book of poems, for better or worse. Her version is so wordy & mine is so crisp. Ask yourself which makes for better poetry. And keep in mind that my version is only a suggestion. There a probably a half dozen ways or so to improve the poem, but I tried my best to keep any additional stuff of my own from interfering.
 Let us now look at a 2nd poem, just for fun…

The Red Poppy

The great thing
is not having 
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they ///
govern me. I have 
a lord in heaven 
called the sun, and open ///
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire 
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters, 
were you like me once, long ago, 
before you were human? Did you ///
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never ///
open again? Because in truth 
I am speaking now 
the way you do. I speak 
because I am shattered.

  This is a very bad poem. Nearly every line has a cliché, poor line breaks & is very wordy overall. I can’t believe these images: “the fire of my own heart”, “Fire like his presence”- this is 15 yr old girl talk. The beginning of this poem does not work. In context, it is a cliché. The phrase might not be a bad line coming from a more philosophical stance, but for this poem, which is about “the heart” (since she practically strangles her readers with the damn word) it is trite. “Oh my brothers and sisters…” is not needed since the speaker is asking the “you” if “you” are like “me”. The last 4 lines are preachy wannabe Plathian drivel. Truth (line 4) is one of those watch out words in poetry, as are heart, silence, whisper, fire, light, rose, death ,blackness,  deep, dark, soul. This is only naming a few. Now how many of those words does LG use between these 2 poems?  Well, truth, heart, fire, death, deep, dark, soul, not to mention that silence is implied by “not being able to speak.” There is noting wrong with these words, per se, but if one chooses to use them- do so cautiously, by not doing so in a familiar manner. These are filler words that have no real value, only to add more words to make the poem appear longer. That one uses them in clichéd contexts only confirms the writer’s lack of creativity by watering down the idea to the point of making the writer look inexperienced & juvenile. This poem is clichéd in context, in phrases, has no music, poor line breaks, and is horribly overwritten. Let’s find a crisper version:

The Red Poppy

The great thing is not having. 
Feelings, I have those 

showing me once
before I was human. 

What could me be
if not glory long ago, 
permitting never again? 
The way I speak is because I am.

  As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways this poem can be rewritten. If LG was an attendant of the UPG, I would tell her to work more ideas in. This version is not a terrific poem, by any stretch, but is solid & more concise. Is this the poppy talking, or the speaker looking at a poppy? The idea of feelings doing the showing of what one is before he/she exists as a human being is an interesting thought. Do our feelings pick us, or do we pick them? This rewrite also reminds me of a Langston Hughes poem that says (paraphrase) “Once I was 16, then 5, then 3. Then nobody. Now me.” After reading this, I hope you’ll be a little more critical of these supposed “Pulitzer” winners, who as we’ve seen here- can write some pretty bad poems with some pretty obvious doggerel-like potential. Folks, this is just too easy!

Final Score: (1-100):

LG’s The Wild Iris: 62
TOP’s The Wild Iris: 78

LG’s The Red Poppy: 55
TOP’s The Red Poppy: 75

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