Sunday, June 29, 2008

Trees and Poetry

My dad, though he would be quick to deny it, was a wise man by today's standards (when wisdom is misunderstood and little valued). His wisdom resided mainly in his ability to admit what he didn't know and what he lacked. More and more, at the age of 32, I find myself remembering and sympathizing with wistful comments he made when he was 60. "I wish I knew more about trees," he told me once. And in recent years I've found myself thinking the same thing. I don't know how to take care of the trees that surround our house; most of them I couldn't even identify by species. There's a blue spruce in our back yard... and I think I know which one it is. There's an apple tree, growing wild like a malignant tumor, that dares me to tame it. Two maple trees of some kind clinging to life. And... some other... stuff.

So I appreciate Alan Jacob's shamed reflection on trees. Shame, I think, is an appropriate emotion to feel at our insoucience and inattentiveness to these True Kings of the vegetable kingdom. (We, of course, are their counterparts, the sometimes absent kings of the animal kingdom--don't let anyone imply otherwise, saying that it's insects or something. Only democracy-obsessed moderns would so severely misunderstand the nature of monarchy.)

I've often thought (recently, anyway) that a forgetfulness of trees is one of the symptoms--if not a full-blown syndrome--of the disease that afflicts contemporary poetry, in which too many poets can blabber incessantly about their own bodies, their own feelings, their own "identities," and can't shake a stick at the natural knowledge of even Industrial Age poets. Yes, of course, we everyone must write about the world he lives in. When our poetry is evidence that we live in a world of narcissism, this isn't much of an excuse. (Ah, Narcissus! A great vegetative metaphor for an eternal human scourge. Where art thou, Ovid?)

Some of my favorite new musicians have charmed me with their felicity for botanical details. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, especially, seems to be a guy with an real, honestly earned knowledge of plants; not that I'm even remotely qualified to evaluate such things, but his descriptions of raspberry leaves, bougainvillea, or the "oak tree and its resurrection fern" certainly surprised me with their authentic sound. He just might know what he's talking about, which is one thing that makes his lyrics so impressive. Josh Ritter is no naturalist, but he has at least looked at trees long enough to know their metaphoric power--"The whole world was looking to get drowned / Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds"--and he can describe a box made of myrtle wood, and in a context that takes advantage of its classical implications. We should revoke the license to practice poetry of any ignoramus who can't at the very least name the plants he sees out his window. (I promise to practice this policy personally.)

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