When I first encountered Louise Glück’s poetry, I was trying very hard to make a garden out of an overgrown and neglected patch of forest behind my house. Redwoods shaded the area for most of the year, and when the sun finally rose high enough to shine over the trees in summer, its heat dried the soil to a fine powder. It took me years to understand how this piece of forest functioned, and that my efforts were not only futile, but harmful.
During this time in my life, I found Glück’s poem “Daisies” in Writing Poems, a poetry-writing textbook by Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau. When I read the first lines, “Go ahead: say what you’re thinking. The garden / is not the real world. Machines / are the real world,” I felt as if I’d received advice from a wise, acerbic and difficult friend, one whose presence I could tolerate only once or twice a year—not because we didn’t get along but because spending time with her affected me so profoundly that I needed a long time to recover.
I didn’t immediately understand that Glück wrote the poem in the voice of the daisies and not the voice of their human caretaker, even after reading the lines “It is very touching, / all the same, to see you cautiously / approaching the meadow’s border in early morning.” I initially thought that the poem was a conversation between two humans in the presence of the flowers. After reading it several more times, it finally dawned on me that Glück wrote the poem from the daisies’ point of view.
In Glück’s essay “Against Sincerity,” she writes: “The artist’s task, then, involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty or sincerity.” In this passage, Glück basically describes the paradox of “Daisies:” the flowers speak, which as far as we know they cannot do, but nevertheless, they tell the truth:
No one wants to hear / impressions of the natural world: you will be / laughed at again; scorn will be piled on you.
Later in “Against Sincerity,” Glück writes, “the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.”
I finally gave up on trying to create a garden out of the area behind my house. To paraphrase the line from “Daisies,” I had been making an “impression of the natural world” that no one wanted—a garden in a place completely hostile to my idea of what a garden should be.
I should have listened to the flowers.
Louise Glück received the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 8, 2020.
Categories: Diary of a Poet