On Trees and Poetry

In the midst of my final semester of grad school, while planning on writing a thesis and studying up for my language test, I am taking a poetry class.

A writing poetry class.

For fun.

And also because, as my thesis is ON poetry,  I should try to understand some of the process of writing and honing and playing with poetry.

But mostly, just for fun.

The professor had begun the class with that all-important questions of “What is a poem? What is poetry? Are they the same?” And to open the discussion, he presented us with two different poems. Both have tree imagery, and both are fairly well-known

The first is Joyce Kilmer’s age-old poem “Trees”, that my grandmother used to recite to me.

 I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

This work has a nice rhyme scheme and meter, and a seeming pretty conceit.  It was very popular, and although it presents a rather grotesque image and mixed metaphor – if it’s mouth is pressed to the ground’s “breast”, how are the eyes looking at God? the branches are both the arms and the hair? is this a monster tree? – we cannot really argue with the sentiment. Yes, only God can make a tree, and God’s work will always be more lovely than our own.

But just because we agree with the moral of the story, and it has the shape of a poem, does that make it poetry?

The second piece is an Italian poem, by the modern poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. Roughly translated, it goes,

Soldiers (1918)
They stood there like leaves on trees, in Autumn.

One line, and it feels like a kick to the stomach.

In Italian it has more of the typical form and schema of a poem, but even in a different language Soldati has the power of poetry.

Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.

The image of a tree is used so differently and to such different effect in these two. And while I cannot fault Kilmer’s feelings, his poem lacks that bit of human connection that it takes to make poetry. Ungaretti, writing not just from his own experience in World War I, but from his classical education, draws on an image first seen in Homer and writes a short sentence that evokes an emotion so strong it almost feels physical.

And that, dear ones, must be poetry.

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