Louise Glück is a sly poet. And her use of sound is just as subtle as her manipulation of meaning. When you conduct a preliminary sound check of "The Wild Iris," you won't find a lot of honks of the horn. There's no end-rhyme, for example.
Still, if you take a closer look, you'll discover several incredibly cool uses of sound to enhance meaning.
Check out the repetition of the word "returns" in line 19: the word shows up at the beginning of the line and then it returns (get it? get it?) at the end of the line. And consider the phrase "You who do" in line 16: all three words rhyme. Shmoop thinks that the rhyming words emphasize the urgency of the speaker's desire to communicate (yoo-hoo!) and create an echo effect that spookily reverberates from the "other world."
The poet also uses consonance (repetition of identical or similar consonants) to emphasize connections among key concepts. Consider, for example, how the repeated v sound links the ideas of "oblivion" and "voice" in lines 19 and 20. In the final line of the poem, the sh sound in "shadows," joined to the zh sound in "azure," alerts us to a mysterious transformation of darkness into blue light.
It's a good thing that Louise Glück entitled this poem "The Wild Iris." Without the title, readers would really be up the creek without a paddle, since the poem itself contains no recognizable references to a flower. But once you connect the title to the lines that follow, you can start unraveling the riddle of the poem.
On a literal level, the title refers to a plant that has tall slender stalks, long pointed leaves, and brightly colored blooms One of the most common types of wild iris is the blue flag. The plant prefers full sun and moist soil.
The wild iris is a perennial plant, which means that it reseeds itself, blooming spring after spring without being replanted. This fact relates to the poem by creating associations of spiritual as well as physical rebirth.
The word "wild" adds another ingredient to the poetic pot. The fact that the wild iris is uncultivated (that means it's not planted or harvested by humans) lends it a certain independent authority as being in Nature with a capital N. Other meanings of the word "wild"—rough, desolate, stormy, violent—convey whiffs of mystery and danger that foreshadow the poem's exploration of suffering and death.
Time and place in "The Wild Iris" are kind of tricky. We know that the speaker is talking to us, in the present, about something that happened in the past. That much is clear, based on the speaker's use of present tense and past tense verbs ("I remember […] then it was over"). But how long these events lasted or how long ago they happened is left for us to guess.
It's certainly a challenge to figure out where the events occurred. There's a door at the beginning of the poem but no description of a structure to which the door is attached. So instead of picturing a room of some sort, we might be better off imagining a more abstract kind of door. To get in the mood, sneak a peek at "L'embeillie," a painting by the Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte.
By the third stanza, we're on more solid ground ("dry surface") in a recognizable outdoor setting with at least one pine tree and some weak sunlight. The stanza that follows plunges us into darkness, as the speaker recalls being buried alive. Though the idea is fantastical, the setting in stanza 5 remains natural, with references to the "earth" as well as "birds" and "low shrubs."
In stanza 6, the speaker refers to "the other world" and "oblivion" but provides no descriptive details about that world. How would you describe nothingness? While we're still scratching our heads over that one, a "great fountain" suddenly appears. The reference to "seawater" may make us think of the beach, but this time the setting is clearly abstract rather than naturalistic, as the fountain is located in "the center of my life."
"The Wild Iris" is narrated in the first person, using the pronouns I, me, and my. The speaker addresses us, the readers, as you. But that's about all we get.
Readers should never assume that the writer of a poem is also the speaker in the poem. In every single English class Shmoop ever took, the teacher tried to hammer this lesson into our thick skull. But you have to admit, it's still tempting to assume that Louise Glück is the speaker of the poem. If you want to make this assumption in the privacy of your own home, you're free to do so. The SWAT team isn't going to break down your door and arrest you (or dock your grade).
But there are a few factors you might want to consider. For example, the poem itself contains no evidence that the speaker is a poet named Louise Glück. Moreover, the poem has no hallmarks of the confessional poetry genre—you know, that type of poem where the poet lets it all hang out, providing lots of information about his or her personal life. TMI, much?
Plus, Louise Glück has a history of getting cranky when people identify her too closely with the speaker in her poems, saying things like, "I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography" (source). Ouch! Maybe we should look for a different speaker after all.
So what are the options? Well, there's the wild iris itself. Like many people, you may enjoy talking to your flowers, but presumably the flowers don't talk back (unless, of course, your name is Alice, and you hang out with a guy in a top-hat who looks suspiciously like Johnny Depp). In poetry, however, anything is possible.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: there's a convincing argument to be made that the wild iris, the flower in the title, is the speaker of the poem. For example, all that talk about being buried makes sense when you consider that a perennial flower, such as the wild iris, dies each season, only to be reborn the following spring.
But that's not the only option. Even though the title refers to a flower, a human could still be the one doing the talking, either in this world or the next. Maybe a human speaker is contemplating a wild iris: the life cycle of the flower is relevant to the speaker's concerns, so the speaker imaginatively identifies with the flower. The concepts of "consciousness" and "voice" certainly make sense in reference to a human speaker.
Maybe you subscribe to the flower speaker theory, while your friend is sure it's a human. Which interpretation is best? Don't look at us: Shmoop refuses to referee this one (we haven't made up our own mind!), so have fun hashing it out among yourselves.
"The Wild Iris" draws you in with its simple vocabulary and conversational tone, but the speaker, setting, and message are pretty mysterious. So you'll probably enjoy hiking this trail more than once.
Shmoop thinks of "The Wild Iris" as the gift that keeps on giving. The more we read it, the more we're into it. Don't worry if you feel like you never quite connect all the dots. In the end, "The Wild Iris" is a poem that may speak more to your heart than your head.
"The Wild Iris" uses a lot of simple words, including many that contain just one syllable ("there was a door […] Hear me out […] I tell you I could speak"). These are the types of words used in ordinary speech, and they make for a conversational style in the poem. Louise Glück's poetic style is often called "spare," meaning plain. Turns out she doesn't like fussy clothes either. According to the Yale Daily News that she is often seen wearing a no-nonsense baseball cap and her trademark leather jacket—how cool is that? (source).
Still, Glück's poems are not easy just because they tend to use simple words. And she doesn't rely completely on simple vocabulary. When she does introduce a fancier word ("oblivion … azure"), it packs a wallop, contrasting with the unremarkable words that surround it.
Plus, the ideas in her poems are often deep and complex. "From the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary," she explains. "What fascinated me were the possibilities of context […] I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind" (source).
All poets want to fly and be free. Some poets find it freeing to exercise their creativity within the secure boundaries of a formal metrical structure or rhyme scheme. But other poets—and Louise Glück is one of them—prefer to reinvent the wheel, using free verse to make up the poem's structure as they go along.
"The Wild Iris" is actually one poem in a book-length collection that forms a narrative sequence. We're analyzing this poem separately from the sequence, but you're in for an additional treat if you read the whole collection. While some of the poems focus specifically on flowers, other poems seem to reveal the thoughts of a human gardener on the one hand, and a kind of Divine Gardener on the other.
"The Wild Iris" has seven stanzas of varying lengths. The logical connections between stanzas are often mysterious, so during the white spaces, you have to give some thought to the meanings that are emerging. "I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem," says Glück. "I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power" (source). Yep, those frequent white spaces aren't just there to ease the eye. They're meant to give you a chance to ponder in silence, to connect the poem's ideas.
The poetic technique of enjambment—continuing one line of poetry into the next without punctuation—is another way that Glück draws attention to what she's not saying.
Consider, for example, the way that lines 3 and 17 end with white space after the word "death" and the phrase "the other world," dropping you off a cliff into the Great Beyond without even the safety harness of a single period or comma.
Though the poem has no set meter, Glück uses rhythm to enhance the simple vocabulary and conversational quality of the poem (see "Calling Card"). Repeated accents on single-syllable words hammer home important points. This technique is evident in lines such as, "Hear me out: that which you call death" and "I tell you I could speak again." In formal meter, two accents in a row are called a spondee. If "The Wild Iris" used a formal metrical structure, each of the two lines just quoted would contain triple spondees. That's one way to get our attention, that's for sure.
The word "iris" is everywhere and nowhere in this poem. Appearing only in the title, the word nonetheless triggers a powerful set of symbolic associations that shape the poem as a whole. Do you remember playing that mind game where someone says, "Don't think of an elephant"? Of course, as soon as you hear those words, you can't help thinking of an elephant. It's the same with this poem. As soon as you read the title "The Wild Iris," it's impossible not to think of a flower while you read the poem. And if you happen to be familiar with the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris, you'll probably find yourself thinking of her, too.
In the second line of the poem, the speaker mentions a door but won't tell us where it leads. Talk about a teaser. Doors make us curious because they represent change, movement from one place (or state) to another. Depending on how you interpret the poem, you might view the image of the door as a symbol of positive change, of movement from death to life. To explore this idea further, think about other images in the poem that suggest a tension between movement and stasis, or stillness.
One of the most intense moments in "The Wild Iris" comes when the speaker recalls the horror of being buried alive. Yep, that sounds a lot like death to Shmoop. Luckily, we've got other imagery to compensate for this awfulness, including images of being above ground, and even in the air.
The world can be a pretty noisy place, so we're often grateful for a little peace and quiet. But there's quiet, and there's quiet: sometimes silence can be unwelcome or even creepy. In "The Wild Iris," sound tends to be a good thing because it shows you're alive. Sound is also closely linked to speech. Some of us are chattier by nature than others, but everyone is entitled to a voice, so being deprived of the ability to speak is a pretty scary thought.
Images of light and darkness are everywhere in poetry. In fact, if you went to shop at the poetic devices store, the most crowded aisle would probably be the one where all the light and dark images are stocked. But, as we've noted elsewhere, Louise Glück is kind of a minimalist, and she doesn't appear to have hoarded many images of light/darkness, at least for this poem. Still, she takes full advantage of their potential as poetic symbols. Though the word "dark" appears only once, that's all it takes. The darkness of burial and death overshadows much of the poem.
Speaking of fountains, that water imagery in the last stanza seems to come out of nowhere. Still, Glück has prepared us for it by including a single contrasting reference to dryness early in the poem. Rich with symbolism, the image of the great fountain is connected to life, while absence of water is associated with death.
"The Wild Iris" is approved for general audiences, so feel free to read it aloud to your younger brothers and sisters (if you can persuade them to sit still and listen). The poem includes plenty of references to nature but no mention of the birds and the bees.
Louise Glück is gaga for Greek mythology. She even based her poetic sequence Meadowlands on the Odyssey—a long poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer—borrowing the characters Odysseus and Penelope to comment on contemporary marriage.
So it's probably not too much of a stretch to see a mythological allusion in the title of "The Wild Iris." In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, connecting the sea and sky (hmmm, there's seawater in this poem… ). And Homer refers to Iris as a messenger who links the gods to humanity.
Images of the goddess Iris appear on Greek vases. She is portrayed as a young woman with wings who carries a staff and a container of water.
Some commentators go even further, suggesting that Glück's poem also alludes to the Greek myth of Persephone. Kidnapped by Hades, who is god of the dead and ruler of the underworld, Persephone must live underground with him during the winter (talk about a nightmare!) but is allowed to rejoin her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, for the rest of the year so that the crops (and wild iris?) will grow.
Granted, this kind of cyclical descent and ascent seems relevant to the themes of the poem, but we're not sure Persephone really qualifies as a shout-out, since Glück doesn't refer to the goddess by name. What do you think?