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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Poetry II -- TREES, an Arboretum of Them

My intent is not to make each week thematic.  Last week holiday stuff, this week trees, next week....  I don't know yet.  Most likely it will turn out that way--thematic--contrary to my intentions--because my fingers and (if this makes any sense at all) my brain have a mind of their own.  (See?  Make any sense?)

Anyway, I was scanning my bookshelves for potential sources for poetry entries and saw the book that I will eventually describe and also show later.  After seeing it and remembering what's in it (it's been a while since I read it), I followed myself backward through my mind along the path that you, as your read, will take, not backward, but--yeah--forward.  Got it?  Totally lost?  Sound like total bunk?  Who cares.  You've read The Giving Tree, right?

That's good enough.

So, trees.  What about them, aside that since moving to Utah, after having grown up in Ohio, then Michigan, then back to Utah, where, by the way, there aren't trees, except in the mountains where you only go a couple times a year when you've got time or gas money or the roads aren't under twenty-five feet of snow, I've realized trees are a major part of my personal identity.  This trait came into particularly sharp focus my first year teaching at the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy when the other H.S. English teacher and I took the kids on the traditional writers' retreat to Higgins Lake.  Trees, glorious trees, were everywhere, and more than just me, seemed to consume the greater part of nearly everyone's writing.  (I will not condemn you to reading any of mine.)

And how apt they are for verse and metaphor!  We're all familiar, though likely you won't have read the piece in its entirety or been familiar with its poet:

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.
"TREES," by Joyce Kilmer

a bonsai -- metonymy of metonymies
Poetry, however, and contrary to the opinion of most, doesn't need to swing merrily from its iambs or heroic (or nearly so) couplets.  A poem, I feel very safe saying, and despite the master, Coleridge's, claim that poetry is "the best words in the best order," doesn't even need to dwell within the confines of words, as "Trees," though it doesn't exemplify, yet claims; what it does need is, at least, an image (at right):

(By the way, to those of you who've read Life of Pi, which I've mentioned here before, don't lines 5 and 6 of Kilmer's poem remind you of the moment on the carnivorous island when Pi finds the pathetic little tree apart from the forest?  Even better, the opening sentence even sounds like Kilmer!

"I know I will never know a joy so vast as I experienced when I entered that tree's dappled, shimmering shade and heard the dry, crisp sound of the wind rustling its leaves.  The tree was not as large or as tall as the ones inland, and for being on the wrong side of the ridge, more exposed to the elements, it was a little scraggly and not so uniformly developed as its mates.  But it was a tree, and a tree is a blessedly good thing to behold when you've been lost at sea for a long, long time.  I sang that tree's glory, its solid, unhurried purity, its slow beauty.  Oh, that I could be like it, rooted to the ground but with my every hand raised up to God in praise!  I wept.")

Poetry, I think, is an encapsulation of a little piece of the world.  Not like a good fiction is.  Good fiction, to me, is more like a tremendous landscape, capturing the world--or a large piece of it--all at once and in glorious and meticulous organization; poetry is the metonymy of that landscape, a single detail that somehow speaks for the whole.  Trees do this well.

David Byrne (yes, the same David Byrne as the man from The Talking Heads) wrote--or drew--a book, published by, yes, McSweeney's, and quite a lovely bit of poetry it is, and exemplifying, and certainly beyond Coleridge's quotation's words' initial intentions, because whoever said that the words had to be in any kind of prescribed left-to-right or top-to-bottom orientation, or even one following the next?

the whole book
By calling to mind the forms of trees (and other familiar forms) and using them to add visual cue to seemingly random groupings of words, he causes the reader/viewer to create associations (which is what any art and artist, however simple or complex, attempt and attest to do) previously unexplored or explored via new routes and under new illumination.  Byrne himself, in his intro, "Why?" says in the final paragraph: "So, here I am pencil in hand, poking around in the dark--wait, is it a pencil or a flashlight? ...that's it!  The pencil is a flashlight, and it roughly illuminates a tiny part of the above 'intelligence.'  Maybe just enough to get it all wrong, but the puzzle pieces are us--we can recognize familiar pieces of ourselves, and so they are scary, fascinating and lovable."

I can't show you the whole book, save from without the confines of its cover, like I could if we were sitting in a classroom.  However, I can show you the cover, and I can show you a couple things that are behind it.  If this pique your interest, buy the book.  You won't be sorry.  (...except that maybe you won't have any money left!  Holy crap!  I didn't know it wasn't available anymore except for, like, a million dollars!  Maybe I'll have to sell mine....  Any takers?)

Here are four "poems" or trees, photographed from my copy of Arboretum (and not very easy to read--sorry).  While examining, thing about an actual tree: the roots and the branches word in a sort of tandem cause and effect--the roots cause the growth of the limbs and leaves, which in turn feed the growth and nourishment of the roots.  Locate items in mirrored position above and below and ask how they might feed, engender, or cause the growth of (or, conversely, the death of) the other.


Finally, and in an epilogue of sorts, Byrne's trees remind me of a sort of metaphorically treeish version of  Everything that Rises (another big recommendation for this post), the book and concept themselves as trees, from Lawrence Weschler, plus all the additional convergences, also at McSweeneys, as a type of verbal reckoning of Byrne's trees, and one in particular, whose image is here, with its two corresponding links (enjoy):


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  1. This is really cool stuff. The poetry forces you to make distinctions and connections. You're participating just as much as the writer.

  2. As I said in the post itself, I think that this participation on the part of the reader is at least as--if not more so--important as that of the artist/writer. This isn't a flawless assumption though--well, according to your definitions of art (which, when it comes down it, of course, there are MANY functioning definitions of art) --because this means that anything can be art, accidental (with or without artists) or intentional. Though there is a whole school of ACCIDENTAL ART. If it engages the viewer/reader to bring about connections such as these of Arboretum, is it art?



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