Trees are Poetry

The morning sun was muted as it pushed through the trailing clouds from last night’s storm. The ground was still wet and water droplets clung to the maple leaves. The little birches were starting to show the signs of the changing seasons, while the white pine stood stoically on the edge of the road.  I paused and gazed up at trees. Standing under their canopy of leaves I said to myself, there is poetry in these trees. 

Wooded Road

As it just so happens, I am not the only one who thought about poetry while admiring the trees.  Poets such as Joy Harjo and Joyce Kilmer have also proclaimed this connection between the trees and poetry. 

“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.

In 1913 Joyce Kilmer published “Trees” in Poetry Magazine.  “Trees” became his most famous poem and was then reprinted in his 1914 book Trees and Other Poems

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's 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.

For Kilmer, the mere existence of a tree is poetry.  And a tree’s poetry exceeds any poem that can be created by a human.


“Speaking Tree” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo was appointed to a third term as US Poet Laureate in November 2020.  Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry and the winner of many literary awards including  the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction for her memoir Crazy Brave

In “Speaking Tree“, Harjo explores her place in the natural world and her relationship to all things

I  had a beautiful dream I was dancing with a tree.
 
                                                                   —Sandra Cisneros
 
Some things on this earth are unspeakable:
Genealogy of the broken—
A shy wind threading leaves after a massacre,
Or the smell of coffee and no one there—
Some humans say trees are not sentient beings,
But they do not understand poetry—
Nor can they hear the singing of trees when they are fed by
Wind, or water music—
Or hear their cries of anguish when they are broken and bereft—
Now I am a woman longing to be a tree, planted in a moist, dark earth
Between sunrise and sunset—
I cannot walk through all realms—
I carry a yearning I cannot bear alone in the dark—
What shall I do with all this heartache?
The deepest-rooted dream of a tree is to walk
Even just a little ways, from the place next to the doorway—
To the edge of the river of life, and drink—
I have heard trees talking, long after the sun has gone down:
Imagine what would it be like to dance close together
In this land of water and knowledge. . .
To drink deep what is undrinkable.

In this poem, Harjo says that people who assume that trees are not sentient beings do not understand the poetry.  Perhaps, as a person begins to understand poetry, they can begin to understand the beauty of the unseen communication of the trees.  Or, perhaps as people begin to connect to the natural world, they will begin to speak like poets.

You can listen to Joy Harjo read “Speaking Tree” on her webpage.

Wooded Road second photo

Are you inspired to write poetry while spending times with the trees? Feel free to share in the comments below.


Resources:

  1. “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer
  2. “Speaking Tree” by Joy Harjo
  3. Joy Harjo’s website

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34 thoughts on “Trees are Poetry

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  1. Ah, trees trees trees. Living poetry, like flowers and waterfalls. The first two lines of Joyce Kilmer’s poem are popular, but reading the other lines is rewarding. Such a good line of the tree lifting “her leafy arms to pray.” Thanks for sharing this celebration of nature.

    1. Hi Dave, I was happy to find both of these poems this week. It is that time of year here in the north east where I become acutely aware of the trees as we get closer to fall. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Marvellous post! You have me thinking about the big oak in a neighbour’s garden and how much its presence and the life that it supports affects this neighbourhood. There is surely a poem to be written about it. I’ll let you know! 🙋‍♂️

  3. I feel inclined first to apologize for posting this here, it’s a very different type of poem, but yes, I actually did write this, while in the woods (surrounded by trees) doing field work in 2001 (in South Carolina). I dug this out of a pile of poems I wrote while doing field work, which I called “field poetry” – and read this now makes me laugh. I hope you enjoy. 😉

    One day in the woods… (by L Bowen 2001)

    One day in the woods
    I met a pig
    that was very big
    it grunted and snorted
    but I retorted
    and then in a rush
    it rain off through the brush
    and as it went
    I walked into a tent
    of spider web
    that stuck to my head
    and the spider fell
    on my lapel
    so I looked down
    towards the ground
    and brushed it off
    with a bit of moss
    and when I looked up
    I was awe struck
    for I was lost
    and I had tossed
    away my map
    which was covered with sap
    from the big pine tree
    when I’d bumped by knee
    stepping over a log
    to avoid the hog
    as I watched for birds
    that sang not a word
    so looked up when one chirped
    and a piece of dirt
    fell into my eye
    which made me cry
    so I could not see
    the vine on the tree
    which was poison ivy
    so now I’m all hivey…
    so just let me say
    “Oh, what a day!”

      1. What a day indeed! I really like this because it is not only a story of a series of unfortunate events, but it always highlights the interconnected nature of all things. I read this and think about how every action we take has a consequence. Some are small, and some are larger, but every action has impact. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Dear Mark and LizzieBird,

      I have enjoyed reading your respective tree-inspired poems. Thank you for your poetic efforts.

      I shall resonate with your love of trees as follows:

      Factories don’t make oxygen. Trees do. Respect nature.

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

  4. I’ve always had a fascination with dead trees. There’s something so primal and powerful about these skeletal giants, the way the light (sun or moon) plays on barren branches, the stillness and forlorn silence they evoke. I grew up on a farm in SE Utah. About a mile away was the dead husk of a towering Ponderosa pine. This thing had been standing, dead, since before my mom was born in 1940. I called it the Landmark Tree. Whenever I was away from the farm and heading home, as soon as I saw its solemn form above the surrounding junipers and pinyon pines, I knew I was close to home. Later, when I became involved in nature photography, I made sure to make a few images of this tree. I haven’t visited the farm in more than six years now, but I still think about this old Landmark Tree. I have no idea if it’s still standing or if lightning or wind or wildfire has finally taken it down. It’s sort of amazing how something as simple as a tee–even a dead one–can have such a profound impact on a person…but nature is magical that way, I suppose. As always, a wonderful essay, Mark, and I really enjoyed the poems you included (Kilmer’s was familiar, o’ course; Harjo’s was new to me and a delight).

    1. Hi Mike, thanks so much for the comment and sharing your memories of the Ponderosa pine. It is kind of amazing how we have these types of connections to trees or rocks or other natural objects. To me it reminds me that we aren’t separate from nature, but a part of it. Thanks again for visiting. Be well!

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