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Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup. I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. There’s been a short break, but Poetry Soup is back, with “Witchgrass,” by the late Louise Gluck.

Louise Gluck was born on April 22, 1943 in New York City. She wrote 12 books of poetry, including The Wild Iris, which I will be reading from today. Though she never finished a degree, Gluck attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, and went on to later teach poetry at Stanford and English at Yale. She won many awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. From 2003 to 2004, she was also the U.S. poet laureate. She died on October 13, 2023.

Louise Gluck’s personal experiences are prominent in her poetry. She often wrote about trauma and sadness. Some of her poetry was also influenced by Greek mythology, such as in her chapbook, October. Her poems are haunting, even in The Wild Iris, when Gluck combines her themes of tragedy with seemingly innocent flowers, which is exactly what she does in “Witchgrass.”

comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—

If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything—

as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
One enemy—

I’m not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion—

It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.

I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

Louise Gluck centers her poem on a plant called witchgrass. It’s a sort of weed, unwanted in gardens and often pulled out. Gluck connects this unwantedness to her own life, as well as to the lives of others. Rather than backing down from the slurs and names she refers to in stanza two, she proudly declares, “I was here first.” Rather than agreeing that witchgrass is unneeded and forgetting about it, rather than getting rid of it and writing about something different, something more exciting, Gluck gives this plain weed a personality and significance. She shows how important the smallest things can be, how everything can play a role. By identifying with a plant – and a despised, insignificant one at that – Gluck composes an original and deep poem.

In the first three stanzas, Gluck ends with dashes, signifying pauses in her speech. As she keeps going, however, she gets rid of these, showing that she is becoming more confident in what she is saying.

But even the witchgrass has grown violent from the ages of violence that have been committed towards it. It has grown over the flowers, an act it cannot control, but one that it doesn’t excuse – it is stronger, or “sturdier,” after all. In a way, the witchgrass has embraced the concept of “survival of the fittest.” For plants and animals, this is a law of nature – the bigger organisms survive more than the smaller. But, humans having stepped in, the situation becomes a question of either preference or prejudice, leaving us to ponder whether what is acceptable in nature is acceptable for human beings – and why it is or isn’t.

Told from the point of view of the plant itself, Gluck ends the poem with the line, “I will constitute the field.” She means that witchgrass, despite being hated by humans, has the right to and can be a part of the field that they love. However, this is where survival of the fittest comes in again – because witchgrass could also reclaim the field when the weaker flowers that rely on human care have died.

In “Witchgrass,” Louise Gluck shows us the perspective of an ordinary weed and leaves us to think about the meaning behind it. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!

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