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The poem "Vespers" (reproduced in full at the linked page, and in the revision history of this post) comes from The Wild Iris, a 1992 book of poetry written by Louise Glück, the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It begins as follows:

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.

Who is the second-person addressee, the "you" whose "extended absence" does not excuse them from blame for heavy rains and cold nights, who has no heart and "do[es] not discriminate between the dead and the living"? Does the tomato blight symbolise anything else, or is the poem just about a disappointed gardener? Why is a maple mentioned as well as tomato plants? Was this poem inspired or influenced by any others (for some reason it reminds me of William Carlos Williams's "This is Just to Say")? What is the effect of the poem's casual style, without rhyme or metre or starting lines with capital letters?

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    The Wild Iris is a book of poems that benefits from being read as a whole, not just reading the poems individually. If you read other poems from this book, you will see the same you is addressed in many of these poems, and maybe you will then be able to get a better idea of who this you is. It seems to be at least in part someone along the lines of God/Nature/Creator.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 24 at 15:46
  • There are many poems called Matins and Vespers in this book, all addressing someone who I presume is the same you. For example Matins (You want to know) and Matins (Unreachable father) and Vespers (Once I believed in you).
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 24 at 15:46
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I haven’t read the volume but I believe the poem can be understood in and of itself. Nietzsche’s great quote that to appreciate an artwork is to feel we understand why the artist made those choices (or something akin to that) is my yardstick here for feeling confidence in my interpretation.

The question of if the poem has a double meaning or symbolises something cannot be answered absolutely without deeper scholarly familiarity with Gluck’s oeuvre and maybe things she stated explicitly about her writings, but I do not feel this poem begs for a symbolic, allegorical layer to resound as a complete artwork unto itself.

The poet is in their garden tending to their tomatoes, distressed by the appearance of blight - a spotty, fungal condition on tomatoes.

They address nature itself directly, in a way that feels mystical. Gluck says that nature doesn’t seem concerned about the difference between life and death as humans perceive it, since death is so clearly part of the natural cycle. She points out how nature brings destruction just as much as it brings life. Nature is thwarting her efforts at gardening with heavy rain and plant disease.

Nature is transcendental. It doesn’t share her suburban feeling of “terror” - her casual, everyday concern about her tomatoes - due to the “foreshadowing” of the patches on them, that their health is declining.

The autumn leaves of the maple tree extend the metaphor of nature as being just as much about decay and loss as it is about life and growth.

The use of the word “terror” is powerful, because it adds to the way in which such a mundane moment is coupled with such an otherworldly feeling of nature as a superior force that beckons grand feelings. Gluck is concerned about her tomatoes but it somehow echoes out into building up the feeling of scale, in her addressing of nature directly. Even though she refers to the tomatoes, it’s sort of a profound implication that maybe nature, even though she stands in awe of it, also terrifies her a little bit for its grandness or vastness. The last clause “I am responsible for these vines” is an anticlimax: she brings us back to mundanity, almost cheekily, in the contrast between everyday, trifling concerns and Nature. She says nature doesn’t have a heart like she does, so nature is indifferent while she is pained.

It doesn’t need a second symbolic layer to be appreciated. As for how the meter serves to create a certain effect, I wonder if that’s almost ineffable. It’s just how the poet felt a certain musical rhythm to her words in that moment expressed the moment best. I don’t know who she was specifically influenced by, but Emily Dickinson is a strong parallel in content, style and region.

Here’s a line by line analysis:

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment.

When nature lets up on the rains, she can garden. She feels nature is sending her a signal, calling on her: now you may grow. But she feels nature wants her to do it for nature, like she owes nature something in return, like nature is expecting something of her.

I must report
failure in my assignment,
principally
regarding the tomato plants.

It didn’t go well.

I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer.

It’s not really her fault. Nature made it hard for her.

All this
belongs to you:

She says, “You are nature. I am trying to garden, but you’re the one in control of all this.”

on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil,

She was the one who made the human effort, and she got hopeful when she saw the plants sprouting from the ground, almost like they were taking wing.

and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows.

Even though she was the one putting in the effort, she was the one who felt the sting of disappointment. It’s nature’s fault this happened, yet she was the one who took on the pain and was affected adversely by this. The black spot is blight, a tomato disease, and tomatoes are planted in rows.

I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term.

Unlike how Gluck’s heart was pierced, nature is indifferent and transcendental - it exists in a plane beyond the human way of being. It doesn’t have a heart. That means it doesn’t love or become attached or feel the pain of loss like a human does. Nature is powerful, awe-inspiring yet also cruel, from the human vantage point.

You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living,

Nature is both life and death. Everywhere in nature we see this yin and yang.

who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing,

So nature isn’t distressed by what the black spots on the tomatoes are foreshadowing, that the plants aren’t healthy. Nature is invulnerable to the concerns that she has to live with.

you may not know
how much terror we bear,

Nature doesn’t realise how it hurts her with its indifference to her designs.

the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness:

An autumnal image.

I am responsible
for these vines.

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