Ararat and the Wild Iris: a Study in Voice

Studying Ararat, the earlier book, has helped me to understand a bit of the trajectory of poetic development Louise Glück undertook towards arriving at her masterpiece, The Wild Iris. In both Ararat and The Wild Iris, Glück employs bold declarations, often at the beginning of her poems, to remarkable effect. For example, the first line of the first poem in The Wild Iris is, “At the end of my suffering / there was a door.” The first line of the first poem in Ararat is, “Long ago, I was wounded.” These are simple statements, issued in a very bold, clear, undecorated voice. Both plunge us immediately into her world, and leave lots of room for further development in many possible directions, making them compelling first lines. Glück’s repeated use of these kinds of statements gives both works an allegorical and at times almost prophetic feel.

Probably the most identifiable craft element that makes The Wild Iris the more breathtaking book is that in The Wild Iris Glück speaks through others about herself, adopting the persona of flowers rather than speaking directly about herself and her life. This brings a whole new dimension to the speaker’s voice and the possibilities of what that voice can say or mean–blurring the boundaries between woman and flower, compelling me to read and reread to understand the archetypal qualities such a voice lends to the work.

I have found in my own work that speaking through an object–bird, plant, or even vegetable–very much enhances the power of the poem. I feel freer to make bold declarations and somehow, they feel less prosaic than if I were simply saying them in my own voice. One reason I think this works is that the reader feels less manipulated by a character voice than if someone is simply telling them directly about something difficult or painful. We all have difficult, painful experiences in life. Somehow, hearing it as a poem about a flower, when in fact it is about so much more than just a flower, seems to break down the reader’s defenses.

That said, Glück does succeed with some pretty devastating bold declarations using her own voice in Ararat. One poem begins, “In the same way she’d prepare for the others, / my mother planned for the child that died.” This poem goes on to succeed for me because from this moment on, she describes the preparations objectively. Without the opening line, we’d think this was a happy poem about the hopeful preparations of parenthood. Yet the bold opening sets up greater and greater poignancy as the poem progresses through the mother’s expectancy and delight, the gap widening between what we know will happen and what the mother knows in the poem.

While workshopping my own sequence of poems about the death of our son during my first residency at Pacific, I kept getting the feedback that the reader needs to know the child has died, or will die, early on. Otherwise the reader doesn’t know quite how to relate to the absent other or the descriptions of childbirth. Glück gives a masterful example here of setting the scene with a single, bold stroke.

I have always been fascinated with the use of bold declarations–be they Zen-like words of wisdom, or sinister prophecies like that of the witchgrass in The Wild Iris–because I like how it can change the texture and meaning of a poem. I also think it is risky business, because done wrong it can seem prosaic or awkward. I’ve found a useful study in Glück, and this analysis leads me to believe choosing an appropriate voice is one critical element to pulling off bold declarations within poems.

I have often suspected that lush imagery and metaphor surrounding the bold declaration helps offset it, but at the same time see how too much change in the voice from highly lyrical to stripped and spare can be jarring in a harmful way. So, it seems to me that taking on the voice of a character, like a field of witchgrass or an iris, and making statements that are “in character” as well as using precise and descriptive language around the bold declarations can help to unify both the lush and spare language with a common voice. The title poem of The Wild Iris, for example, does this expertly.