Anonymous as Weeds: On Plumly’s “Wildflowers”

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known.—Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar”

Language’s capacity to abstract is both a strength and a liability. On the upside, it helps us navigate our way through the day, shaping experience, making the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world manageable. On the downside, language can also oversimplify and stereotype, thereby blunting our thinking and closing off the richness of experience.

“Weed”—the word—is an example of language at its worst. It doesn’t name a specific plant, only our attitude towards it. When we say “weed,” we mean “That plant-like thingy over there that I don’t want around.” I once read (I forget where) that the quickest way to weed a garden is to stop calling the weeds weeds, and accept them for the plants they are. Instant weedless garden. Even etymologically speaking, “weed” dead-ends in a question mark, unworthy, it seems, of even linguistic roots.

Because weeds designate an un- or under-languaged realm of experience, it’s not surprising that many poets have taken an interest them. A while ago, I wrote a couple posts about weeds in the poetry of James Schuyler and John Clare. Schuyler, for example, uses weeds to foreground the difficulty of putting into language that for which we have no name. Currently I’m reading Tony Hoagland’s new book of criticism, Twenty Poems that Could Save America, and he cites a weed-related poem, “Wildflower,” by Stanley Plumly. Here are the final 6 stanzas of the poem:

It is June, wildflowers on the table.
They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
with the whole day ahead of them.
They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley,

day lilies, or the clustering Canada, large, gold,
long-stemmed as pasture roses, belled out over the vase—
or maybe Solomon’s seal, the petals
ranged in small toy pairs

or starry, tipped at the head like weeds.
They could be anonymous as weeds.
They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,

toadflax almost, the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have “the look of flowers that are looked at,”
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.
I remember the summer I picked everything,

flower and wildflower, singled them out in jars
with a name attached. And when they had dried as stubborn
as paper I put them on pages and named them again.
They were all lilies, even the hyacinth,

even the great pale flower in the hand of the dead.
I picked it, kept it in the book for years
before I knew who she was,
her face lily-white, kissed and dry and cold.

Hoagland reads the poem as a description of a sort of fall: the younger version of the speaker described in the concluding two stanzas knows the names of the flowers, and therefore knows the flowers, whereas the older speaker of the poem’s present forgets their names. As a result, he is “estranged from the natural word and estranged from language.”  

However, I read the poem in almost the opposite way. Previously for the poet, the act of collecting and “tagging” was more important than simply seeing the flowers. Via this naming process, the flowers become “stubborn / as paper,” as the poet names the already-named.  

The older poet, however, struggles to find the right names. The result is fascinating. The poet guesses: “They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley/ …  or maybe Solomon’s seal” and as a result he (and we) begin to enjoy the richness of the words themselves, even when they name “the same thing”:

They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,

toadflax almost… .

Also, because the flowers in front of him are “anonymous as weeds,” he begins to do more than name them. Instead, he notices the flowers in detail:  

the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have “the look of flowers that are looked at,“
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.

Notice, by the way, that these flowers are rootless, not only linguistically but also literally: “rooted in … water, glass, and air.”  

As Hoagland would have it, the poem “tells a tale of a fall from grace.” To me, however, “Wildflowers” is an indictment of our faith in names. As the speaker lets go of his youthful certainty, his perceptions as well as his language become richer. Paradoxically, it is this rootless condition that allows the poet’s words to thrive.


Postscript: I may disagree with Hoagland in this particular instance, but Twenty Poems that Could Save America as a whole is criticism at its best: precise, detailed, and nuanced readings written in lucid prose. 

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