"The Wild Iris" by Louise Glück is not a flowery poem. It's not all sweetness-and-light-and-flowers-that-bloom-in-the-spring-tra-la-la. Where this poem takes you is unexpected and mysterious. In its own quiet way, "The Wild Iris" is a wild ride, so fasten your seatbelt.
Your navigator for this trip, Louise Glück (pronounced glick), has won a slew of big-deal poetry honors and awards for her books, and "The Wild Iris" just so happens to be in one of them. In 1992, the poem was the title poem of a book-length collection of poems that form a narrative sequence, telling a story about a garden. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2003 Glück became the country's poetic head honcho for poetry (a.k.a. the Poet Laureate of the United States).
What's all the fuss about? Well, you'll just have to read the poem to see for yourself. But we will say that Glück is known for not wasting time or words, which makes her poetry pithy and to the point. And she definitely cuts to the chase in "The Wild Iris."
The speaker begins with an end—the end of "suffering"—then flashes back to the experience of death. If the poem is about a flowering plant, you might think that "burial in the dark earth" would be a good thing. After its growing season, a wild iris dies back, but it reseeds itself and blooms again the following spring. It's a natural process, so why all the agonizing? Crack a smile. Sheesh.
In fact, the emotions that the poem expresses are all too human. It's almost as if we're reading two poems at the same time. One poem celebrates the cyclical process of death and rebirth in nature, while the other explores human anguish about the terrible (or awesome) fact that we don't get to live forever. Bummer.
So this is not your average poem, folks. But, as we noted earlier, Louise Glück is not your average poet. With breathtaking sleight-of-hand, she makes it all work. In the final stanza, the celebration and the anguish squish together in the image of a big blue fountain. But we won't spoil it for you. Read the poem and see how it all comes together with your own eyes.
You don't have to be the outdoorsy type to enjoy flowers. They look like eye-candy, and they smell like perfume, so what's not to love? Many poets celebrate the beauty of nature in general and flowers in particular. Still, so-called nature poetry isn't everyone's cup of tea. Even the most passionate hiker may start glazing over after one-too-many rapturous descriptions of daffodils.
But "The Wild Iris" is not your typical nature poem. In fact, the flower itself shows up only in the title. Still, there's no way around that title. For some reason, the poet insists that we connect human experience to the life cycle of a solitary wildflower. Nature, she says, is totally relevant.
Okay, so how is a person like a flower? Here's how.
As human beings, we are undeniably part of nature. Even if you're not a big fan of the Great Outdoors, you share the planet—its air and water and other good stuff—with all kinds other life forms, right down to those tiny microbes that live in the primordial and über-hot ooze of Yellowstone. And yes, including the wild iris. Like them, we live and grow and die.
To be fair, death is a bummer. And so are all those other hard experiences—like fear, loss, and disappointment—that can make us feel like we're dying inside. Maybe one message of "The Wild Iris" is that nature can make us feel less alone, offering us the comfort of connecting to something larger than ourselves. You don't have to get all earthy-crunchy, and you don't have to start hugging trees. Hey, you can even keep wearing deodorant. But the next time you're feeling blue, you might try going somewhere green.
The wild iris promises that it will speak, and there's no translator required; even city kids are born knowing the language of nature. And the iris's words are reassuring: suffering will end; oblivion doesn't last forever. As you listen, you may start sensing a new voice of your own, welling up from the center of your life like a great, blue fountain.