Word Greed

Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.

Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.

David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.

Earth Day & Trees

It’s Earth Day and I am thinking about trees. One of my first childhood friends was a giant sugar maple from which hung my rope swing with its blue wooden seat. I did not name the tree–it needed no name. It was always there. It did not scold when I nicked the bark with the swing seat. It seemed not to mind the bare spot in the grass over its roots where I pumped my feet to fly up toward its branches. I saw that tree a few years ago—it was a tall broken stump full of ticks, and I felt that I had lost a family member. In truth, I had. In the largest sense, we are family, humans and trees. Then there was the wind-fallen oak behind the house where we lived when I was in high school. That long, horizontal trunk was what in a more adventuresome girl would have been a balance beam, but the idea of gymnastics was unknown to me. I knew how to walk that tree.

Having grown up mostly in Maine, “The Pine Tree State,” trees still feel like a necessity and I welcome the thick greenery of the place on my annual visits back. I go in high summer when the foliage is almost ominous in its thickness. Let the “leaf peeping” tourists admire the flaming fall colors. I’m content to bask in the deep shade of hardwoods and mixed evergreens.

As I write I’m wearing my tree of life earrings, Yggdrasil, a mythic green ash done in silver. The branches and the roots, both visible in the jewelry, remind me that trees feed the imagination. Words are the fruit of the forest, which is our library. On my current reading list are The Tree by John Fowles and three others recommended by a favorite librarian: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Song of Trees by David George Haskell.

Here then is my modest Earth Day celebration of the tree:


     I’m going off to find

            a tree I can lean on,

                        watch the grass grow.

In another life

             I might be a tree

                                   oak or maple, pine or ash.

           Ah, sapling, I will be

                           your shade and your soil

                   until you are tall

                    and well rooted.


Tuesday Tip-Simple poems or simplistic?



Kate Bariletti says: Here is a poem i’ve written that may give your group some grist. I am questioning it as to whether it’s beautifully simple or just simplistic. Tui and fantail are birds native to New Zealand. Thanks.

I walk the same path to the lake

a surprise awaits

the chuck of a tui

the tease of a fantail

ground rolled with acorns

kayakers slid through the lake’s loose ruffle

A very good question, Kate. I believe that your poem is simple, not simplistic. A simple poem has singularity and particularity without a lot of filigree. Its meaning is not necessarily simple, though. Think of Dickinson’s “A narrow fellow in the grass.” Or Blake’s  “The Sick Rose.” The language is familiar, the images clear and unmodified, but the depth of meaning is startling in Blake’s case, more subtle in yours. 

Simplistic, on the other hand, is Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” No particularity here. It’s a tree, not a blue spruce, a sugar maple, or bristle-cone pine. The personification of the tree as a woman with a bird’s nest hat feels just silly. The rhyme scheme does not add anything despite its tight architecture. In fairness, Kilmer died at age 31, so he never had a chance to mature as a poet. His son has said that Kilmer intended the tree to stand for all trees, but that approach lacks the close observation, the bearing witness to what is, that engages me  in a poem. Kilmer has focused on his cleverly extended metaphor instead of showing me something new and important in the world of experience. Your poem, Kate, does that, shows me that even a familiar landscape can surprise.

I would love for others to comment here. Let’s keep the conversation going. And thanks, Kate, for sharing your work.