April showers bring May flowers, or so conventional wisdom would have us believe. But for those of you disheartened by flowerbeds still too puddle-muddied to bloom, there’s no need to count the days until May — in the meantime, there are plenty of poems about flowers to keep you satisfied. Poetry has you covered with a veritable garden of floral verse.
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan asks, “What might our ancient attraction for flowers have to teach us about the deeper mysteries of beauty — what one poet has called ‘this grace wholly gratuitous’? Is that what it is? Or does beauty have a purpose?”
This “ancient attraction for flowers” is as much a poetic inheritance as it is a cultural inheritance in that encapsulating flowers in poetry has been something of a literary rite-of-passage dating as far back as Hellenistic verse. However, as this subgenre has continued to evolve, it hasn’t been all petals and perfumes — these poems derive their source material anywhere from verdant valleys to asylums and hospitals, and as such, they ask that we complicate our understanding of beauty, and the places from which it can stem or be stained.
If beauty has purpose, as Pollan wonders, it certainly has more than one, but for now, leave the cataloguing of purposes to the philosophers and enjoy just this one — ringing in the colors of spring a little early.
"I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying: 'Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer's heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales.
A poem by Blake just wouldn’t be Blake if it wasn’t a song of innocence and experience, would it? Though “The Book of Thel” falls within the category of Blake’s lesser-read illuminated prophetic books as opposed to his legendary Songs of Innocence and Experience, those same perennial themes haunt its protagonist, the virtuous shepherdess Thel, who must experience suffering and mortality in order to discover her purpose. If you’re less interested in the philosophy, stay for “the vales of Har” — Thel’s mythological home, filled as it is with talking lilies-of-the-valley and chatty clods of clay, is a veritable garden of Eden fit to cure your spring blues in no time.
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
Bedridden in 1961 after a miscarriage and ensuing appendectomy, the inimitable Sylvia Plath glanced at the tulips delivered to her bedside table by a visitor and turned to poetry to express her disdain of them. As if often the case with Plath, even this standard-issue hospital scene has touches of the psychiatric ward in that her suicidal rejection of life and all its trappings is distilled into her rejection of the tulips. Don’t go looking for a shot of spring joy from this poem (or from Plath on the whole, for that matter), but if you recognize as Plath does that flowers have more emotional heft in them than pure happiness, you’ll appreciate their intrusion into the poem’s world of whiteness and anesthetized silence.
made a canopy over us and it seemed I heard
its durable roaring in the companion sleep
of what must have been our Bedouin god, and now
when the poppy lets go I know it is to lay bare
his thickly seeded black coach
at the pinnacle of dying.
We all know Raymond Carver of the famously minimalist short stories beloved by graduate-level writing workshops the world over, but fewer readers know Tess Gallagher, the highly-lauded poet to whom Carver was married. Gallagher is a formidable artist in her own right, and in “Red Poppy,” it shows and then some — this is the heartrending narrative of the moment of Carver’s death from cancer, and through the hospital backdrop, it explores the medicinal aspect of the poppy as well as the visual. Look to have your gut wrenched by Gallagher, but she may also inspire you to brew floral tinctures of your own.
But then you see the poppies, a disheveled stand of them. And the sun shining down like God, loving all of us equally, mountain and valley, plant, animal, human, and therefore shouldn’t we love all things equally back?
As the emblem of WWI’s decimation of a generation of innocents, poppies have been poeticized with relation to war and death more than enough to be mentioned twice, but sometimes, the metaphor is a sweeter one. Jennifer Grotz’s “Poppies,” rife as it is with the startling revelation of nature’s minute miracles, recalls Michael Pollan’s reference to Annie Dillard, who wrote at length about “this grace wholly gratuitous.” For Grotz, such grace is in the details, and her evocation of it will leave you feeling a bit more charitable toward the springtime bugs coming in through your windows.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle.
If it’s elegies of Abraham Lincoln that high-school English teachers are looking for, let’s dispense with the tedious “O Captain, My Captain!” and transition instead to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman’s no-holds-barred Lincoln elegy that far surpasses its more frequently anthologized cousin. In this lush, sweeping evocation of a nation in mourning, Whitman asks how he and his countrymen can pull themselves together in the wake of such tragedy, and he looks always to the lilacs for guidance. Prepare to commit some time and brain power with this one, but if it didn’t sprawl like a field of spring flowers, it wouldn’t be Whitman.
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze.
“Sunflower Sutra” is as much a full-howl cry for change as it is a poem. Embittered by American consumerism, conformity, and industrialization, Ginsberg looks to a downtrodden sunflower as he questions how his fellow man fell so far away from independent creativity, and begs that we all strive to resuscitate our inner sunflower of beauty and individuality. Ginsberg’s sunflower is certainly no glamour-queen, so don’t be surprised if its brutalized imagery sends you into the backyard to plant a garden.
A rose is a weapon, a guide, a compass.
It shatters the glass to explain a spilled blue shore. This is how we know we are in the presence of tragedy.
If you’ve ever thought about naming a daughter after a blossom, you’ll think again after Elizabeth Willis’ “Steady Digression to a Fixed Point,” as life doesn’t work out so well for its titular Rose. That Rose is Rose Hobart, a criminally overworked stage and screen actress from the golden age of Hollywood who was blacklisted as a result of her tireless campaign for an eight-hour workday for actors. In a withholding stream-of-consciousness narrative, Willis explores the dialogue between woman and flower, and the ability of cinema to give eternal life to both. If spring hasn’t quite meant frolicking weather for you just yet, let this poem serve as a guided tour of the vintage films with which you can wait out the rain.
Buttercups have honeyed hearts,
Bees they love the clover,
But I love the daisies' dance
All the meadow over
Marjorie Pickthall’s “Daisy Time” is a simple ditty, but a pleasing one— full of imagery and musicality, celebration and unbridled joy. No matter how hardened your heart has been by winter, it’ll leave you wanting to print the verses on greeting cards for friends, or to throw open the doors and windows to let in the “happy winds.”
Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Robert Herrick’s take on spring isn’t earth-shattering—new daffodils are born, old daffodils die, and so too do human beings. Yet, steeped as this poem is in all the elegance and airs of seventeenth-century English, arriving at Herrick’s conclusion alongside him is an eloquent, adventuresome journey. “To Daffodils” is hardly the most optimistic of floral poems, but what says spring more than the death of old life and the birth of new?
Images: Rachel Kramer/Flickr; Getty Images (9)