Monday, October 31, 2005

To Bewitch or Not to Bewitch: Tone in Louise Glück’s “Witchgrass”

As a plant, it was introduced from Europe to North America for erosion control in cultivated fields, but as a word, witchgrass has a somewhat more colorful history. From the Middle English, quitch grass, the word came to modern English as the homophonic quick grass, due to its nature of spreading rapidly and uncontrollably. When American farmers discovered that the hairy weed, which can grow to over three feet tall, not only spread rapidly, but refused to die - as if protected by some other power - the name quickly developed the connotation, witch grass. In her 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Wild Iris, Louise Glück uses tone to give voice to this relentless supernatural weed with her poem, which shares its name.

The opening stanza of “Witchgrass” establishes the mood – dark and mysterious:

Comes into the world unwelcome
Calling disorder, disorder—

What is named here is not a plant, nor a man, but “something.” “Something,” implies that this thing is unknown - ‘the unknown’ being a key attribute of fear.

This “something” does not have a ‘natural’ arrival: It does not sprout, as a plant; it is not born, as a man; it, rather in a spiritual manner, “comes into the world unwelcome.” Which raises the question: Why is it unwelcome? And unwelcome to whom?

Supporting this tenuous mood, Glück’s repetition, “disorder, disorder” recalls the language of a spell – in the manner of the incantations of the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Double double, toil and trouble”


“A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come!”

Having established the Salem witch-hunting mood in the first stanza, the poem dons second person in the second stanza. The tone: defensive – even defiant. As if accused of being a witch, the plant takes voice and scolds the reader:

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

One can literally feel the plant’s hairs rise from the page with the phrases “you hate me so much” and “don’t bother.”

The focus of the poem narrows as the plant clarifies who has considered it unwelcome: the “you” and “your” here, refer to those who call the plant “witchgrass” – i.e. English speakers, or more generally, Man. The plant construes its bestowed name as “one more slur” and “…another way/ to blame.” The personified plant’s tone for the remainder of the poem is appropriately indignant.

In the third stanza, the plant appeals to the religious sensibility of man for a change in its perception:

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

“As we both know” is nothing less than patronizing. And if one considers that modern English speakers are overwhelmingly monotheistic, “if you worship/one god…” is merely rhetorical – and certainly sarcastic. The plant’s tone is undermining its appeal to be seen in a different light. Which raises the question: Is this really an appeal for a change in Man’s opinion?

And just in case Man is too thick-skulled to notice this subtle exercise in condescension, the fourth stanza, which contains the crux of the poem, opens with the plant stating its stance directly:

I’m not the enemy
Only a ruse to ignore
What you see happening
Right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure

The plant maintains that it is not the enemy of Man. The plant asserts that the negative attention its name garners simply distracts Man from his real enemy, Satan. And while the poem has presented itself as largely literal prior to this point, it announces itself as allegorical in the lines “here in this bed/ a little paradigm/ of failure.” This “bed [of soil]” where this “what” that Man sees “happening” is a microcosm of the failures of the World.

The poem then specifies this “what” that is happening and resumes its bitterness:

… One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day

The word “precious” here is filled with vitriol. This tone is not one of attracting more flies with honey. Rather, it is the scathing tone of one who has given up the art of persuasion. And taking the allegorical clue from earlier, the “here” where the “precious flowers” die can be read as the World; the “precious flowers”: as Man, who inhabits the World. The plant is saying that despite the reality that Man dies everyday, Man still searches restlessly for meaning. The plant underscores that this meaningless searching is the real root of the problem:

and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion

and in the fifth stanza

… you… go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together

Here, the plant points out Man’s irrationality. Man’s “cause” of why the precious flowers have died is not specified. Rather, the cause is “whatever is left,” “whatever happens to be sturdier…” The repetition of “whatever” highlights the lack of rationale in Man’s process and speaks to the plant’s exasperation. The plant insists that its naming as “witchgrass” is not a result of any actual witchcraft – has no real basis - but is just another “whatever” in Man’s irrational process of “laying blame.”

If one considers that “a weed is just a flower out of place,” as the old saying goes, then “Witchgrass” is a poem of a plant bitterly asserting its flower-tude. And in the final two stanzas, the plant asserts its self-determination:

I don’t need your praise
To survive.

Finally, the plant ‘pulls rank’ on Man, attacking him with a dart of truth, which is undeniable, but also eternal:

I was here first,
Before you were here, before
You ever planted a garden.

The plant declares its seniority with, “I was here first.” It reminds Man that before Man exploited “witchgrass” for his own cultivating purposes – even before Man ever existed – the plant already lived on Earth.

This now yields a different reading of the opening stanza:

Comes into the world unwelcome
Calling disorder, disorder—

It is not the plant, who is unwelcome; it is not the plant, which causes disorder. It is Mankind. And if religion is a search for eternal Truth, then, in the poem’s conclusion, the plant leaves Man a taste of his own piety:

…I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

This is a truth which echoes. And after refuting being named for the witch for the entire poem, “Witchgrass” ends bewitchingly with these haunting lines.

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