Helena Nelson considers the pros and cons of Tree Poetry
If you want to win a national accolade, don’t write poems about trees. Check out the weighty ‘over-arching themes’ for this year’s Forward Prize shortlists. We’re talking post-colonial legacies, linguistic reconciliations, threats of mortality, human vulnerabilities, violent acts (various), mythic ideologies, issues of race / gender / class – even (phew) love. But not trees. So Katharine Towers’ most recent collection, Oak, which is from start to finish about one tree, was taking a risk. Her two previous books The Floating Man (Picador, 2010) and The Remedies (Picador, 2016) found their way onto shortlists; the first won the Seamus Heaney Prize. Oak, however, didn’t win anything, unless you count being one of four in a Guardian best recent poetry review round-up.
Cue disclosure. As HappenStance Press editor, I published Katharine Towers’ The Violin Forest (2019) and – yes – this pamphlet has trees in it. Several. But it took me a while to get around to reading Oak, even though some of my favourite poems happen to be about trees. I don’t mean Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s annoyingly memorable ‘Trees’ (“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree”). But I love Cowper’s ‘The Poplar Field’ (“The poplars are felled, farewell to the shade / And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade”). From my bedroom window as a child I could see a long line of poplars – a “cool colonnade”, no less. The thought that someone might come and cut them down was appalling: they were tall trees I could recognise and name. My first landmarks, and they’re not there now. Why? Because builders and developers – human beings worldwide – regularly chop down trees while poets / lyricists go off and lament the fact.
Writing about trees being chopped down is easier than saving them. Hence the rich poetic tradition of arboreal elegy. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’ subscribes to the Cowper mode (“My aspens dear […] / All felled, felled, are all felled”) and his lament has never been more pertinent:
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Edward Thomas was another tree lover. For him, an aspen was the tree that “ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves”, and if you suspect him of hyperbole, go get yourself a couple of aspens and one light breeze. Nothing compares to the extraordinary sound of their shivering leaves. (Larkin surely has a distant echo of Thomas’s ‘Aspens’ in his own ‘The Trees’: “Their greenness is a kind of grief”.) Then there’s Housman’s cherry, Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s Charter Oak (the “tutelary tree”), not to mention more recent, but no less evocative, examples in Candlestick Press’s Ten Poems About Trees, edited by no other than Katharine Towers. But before I get to Towers’ tree book, I want to talk about Trees by Harold Monro.
Who? I mean the Harold Monro who wrote ‘Milk for the Cat’ and ‘Overheard on a Salt Marsh’ (both widely anthologised). The man who set up The Poetry Bookshop in London in 1913, hosting regular poetry readings in an upstairs room, even during a World War. The man who edited the first issues of The Poetry Review. The man who, under the Poetry Bookshop imprint, published the best-selling ‘Georgian Poetry’ series, not to mention the far less successful (at the time) Des Imagistes, edited by Ezra Pound. The man who rejected ‘The Waste Land’ (he wasn’t always right). A poetry idealist, his modest independent income was dedicated to the cause. Numerous leading poets read at (or attended) events at his bookshop, despite its downmarket setting: Masefield, Yeats, Gibson, Graves, Hodgson, Bridges, Newbolt, Noyes, Drinkwater, W. H. Davies, De La Mare, Brooke, Eliot, Frost, Pound, Thomas, the Sitwells, Wilfred Owen, Charlotte Mew, Anna Wickham and so on. Their host, Monro, was a problem drinker and a deep thinker, a married man tortured by his closeted sexuality. As a literary personage, he was widely respected. He was – in today’s terms – an influencer.
Monro, was a problem drinker and a deep thinker, a married man tortured by his closet sexuality. As a literary personage, he was widely respected. He was – in today’s terms – an influencer
And this troubled bookshop owner loved trees. Had he known about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, he would not have been surprised. He was one of the first poets to know about, and experience, psychotherapy, and as for ‘mindfulness’, he was doing it before it was invented. Woodland, for Monro, offered a sort of mystical (albeit dangerous) access to a different form of existence, an escape from the tyranny of thought:
Tree-growth is but a corridor between
The Seen and the Unseen.
Trees are like sentinels that keep
The passage of a gate
From this sleep to that other sleep:
Between two worlds they wait.
Am I alone in hearing echoes of Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’ (“One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.”)? Either way, Frost’s poem is remembered; Monro’s is hard to find (contact me and I will send you a copy). Michael Cullup didn’t include Trees in his 2018 Greenwich Exchange selection, but the book is at least still in print. Dominic Hibberd’s excellent 2003 volume does include it but you can only get it second-hand, at some cost.
First published in 1915, in a single slender volume, Monro’s Trees is one long poem in four sections (with varying line length and orchestrated patterns of rhyme). It is sonorous and clearly intended to be read aloud. It evokes a world in which trees exert power over humans, not the other way around. Trees, says Monro, “[crowd] the brink of silence everywhere” and they
[…] follow and haunt us. We must build
Houses of wood. Our evening rooms are filled
With fragments of the forest: chairs and tables.
We swing our wooden doors;
Pile up, divide our sheds, byres, stables
With logs, make wooden stairs, lay wooden floors,
Sit, move, and sleep among the limbs of trees,
Rejoicing to be near them.
That vision of houses full of “the limbs of trees” has an eerie effect on me: I look again at the wooden desk I’m leaning on and the shelves weighed down by books. Even the walls in this room are covered in paper. When Monro talks about the felling of trees, it’s not a tragedy; his trees move on to new existences: “Some learn to sail / on white enormous wings, / Scattering blossom along their trail”, while others
Oh, what a wild and windy woodland call
Out of the lips of the violin!
This is a tree-lover’s poem if ever there was one. I find it unforgettably different.
Which is an irony, considering it seems to have been forgotten. I hope the same fate will not befall Katharine Towers’ Oak, not least because the two books fit beautifully into a common tradition, despite the century between them. They willingly hark back to voices older than themselves. In Harold Monro I hear Milton and Blake (“Oh, silly tree-adept!— / Out of arboreal delight I crept; / Crept, was afraid, and ran— / Too much mortality I kept.”) In Katharine Towers I hear Shakespeare, the King James Bible, nursery rhymes and proverbs, Edward Thomas, even Beatrix Potter. Towers is just as musical as Monro: even without a rhyming form, her phrasing and pacing is consciously melodic.
Towers is just as musical as Monro: even without a rhyming form, her phrasing and pacing is consciously melodic
Different times; different formatting decisions. In 1915, Monro started each line with a capital letter, and his punctuation was traditional and formal. He experimented with line length to aid conversational tone and natural pacing. Towers, just over a century later, drops all caps and punctuation (the odd question mark and exclamation mark slips through). This means her line and stanza breaks are crucial. She must write in such a way that nobody gets lost. She succeeds. Oak is a brilliant (and rare) example of how a poet can drop all the prose pointers – the commas, the full stops, the colons and semi-colons – and still make everything work. She even gets away with suddenly capitalising a noun in the eighteenth-century way, promoting it to a major player. For example, the three ‘true loves’ of an oak are Air, Rain and Light:
and Rain will wash an oak tree clean
and the oak will hang out its leaves to dry
and the leaves will show forth
their perfect tiny geographies
The lines above are contemporary in their mode and absence of formal codes. But the diction, or the balance of phrase, invokes an archaic world with all its strangeness (see the repetition of “and”; the expression in “show forth”). You can’t read Oak without feeling the time spent with the tree has given the author a new poetry voice (search in vain for a lyric ‘I’ in this volume). It has perhaps changed even her attitude to language itself. Again and again, she defines her terms: “to flourish meaning to flower”; “soldier meaning one who is paid with gold coin”; “a sapling meaning one who’s young”.
She also experiments here and there with type size, though I’m less convinced this works. There are no titles here, just section divisions. But three pages have something in larger font that looks like a title; later, three pages pick out their concluding lines in a similar way. Once, she offers the phrase “joyous muchness”, and makes it ‘louder’ (by means of indentation, italics, a larger typeface, and even an exclamation mark). But I think her real strengths are in melodic understatement, precision, pacing and authority of tone. Like Monro’s Trees, this long poem is intended to be heard, and you can’t hear a bigger typeface.
It’s hard finding precisely the right ending for a long poem. Monro concludes with a key point, but his chugging tetrameter sounds like he’s run out of steam:
And you, be certain that you keep
Some memory of trees for sleep.
Katharine Towers is subtler. As she approaches the death of the tree, she artfully slows her pace through short lines, enlarged spaces, and hypnotic repetition. But as an afterword, she offers “and all this may take years” as though this time-scale is a surprising new idea. Has she forgotten the earlier conversation between the tree and the milk-cap fungi (“there may be a message / and such a message may take years”)?
Oak is, nevertheless, so unusual, so tender in its development, its expression, its characters, that for my money it deserves exceptional attention, if not cash prizes. Besides, according to the marketing blurb, the book has “an ecocritical awareness that renders it utterly contemporary.” Oh dear. Do we really need to justify poetry in such hollowly topical terms? Is it not okay just to write about … trees? I don’t even think the book is ‘ecocritical’ except by implication. Would you even know that the attack of the oak processionary moth (it pops up in the poem) was made more likely by global warming? Harold Monro, on the other hand, does deliberately highlight the risks to the planet in his work – albeit not in Trees, which is about trees. In ‘The Earth For Sale’, he writes: “Is there no pledge to make at once with Earth / While yet we have not murdered all her trees?” He might even earn the adjective ‘ecocritical’, which still hasn’t made it to most of the English dictionaries.
Oak is, nevertheless, so unusual, so tender in its development, its expression, its characters, that for my money it deserves exceptional attention, if not cash prizes
But for my money, Oak should be treasured and remembered — not because it’s ecocritical, but because it’s original, delightful, well-written and innovative, and at the same time has a firm foothold in tradition. It’s accessible to all ages. Its roots (sorry about the pun) are pre-literary: it evokes the earliest features of oral storytelling. It relishes language without brandishing vocabulary. It teaches you something without erudition. Forestry terms are slipped in naturally (“mast year”, “sinker root”, “roothairs”, the risk of “windthrow”). You may not know about “the kindly milk-cap family”, “beefsteak fungus” or the “oak splendour beetle” but here they are, as real creatures not metaphors. This is a fabulous long poem about a tree. I predict that little bits of it will be extracted for anthologies, but in truth every element is carefully woven into the whole. Have you looked at an acorn lately – really looked? I’ll close with a few stanzas from Oak that may encourage you:
hold an acorn in your palm to see its shine
like well-loved furniture
and how it fulfils the tiny chalice
which is rough and seemingly unfinished
the cup partakes of the nature of the tree
being workaday and built to last
and the nut is the pearl of great price
bearer of a secret code
which is the singularity of an oak
alone in a field