Learning the Trees

By Howard Nemerov 1920–1991 Howard Nemerov
Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn   
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,   
Out of a book, which now you think of it   
Is one of the transformations of a tree.

The words themselves are a delight to learn,   
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,   
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.

But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.

Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets   
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.

Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do   
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”

Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three   
Around the stem; the one in front of you   
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;

Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.   
It may be weeks before you see an elm   
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,   
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.

Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does   
And how it does it, cutting across the world

Not always at the joints, competing with   
Experience while cooperating with   
Experience, and keeping an obstinate   
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.

Think finally about the secret will   
Pretending obedience to Nature, but   
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,   
Dividing up the world to conquer it,

And think also how funny knowledge is:   
You may succeed in learning many trees   
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.

Howard Nemerov, “Learning the Trees” from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977). Copyright © 1977 by Howard Nemerov. Reprinted with the permission of Margaret Nemerov.

Source: Poetry (August 1975).


This poem originally appeared in the August 1975 issue of Poetry magazine

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August 1975
 Howard  Nemerov


Howard Nemerov was a highly acclaimed poet often cited for the range of his capabilities and subject matter, "from the profound to the poignant to the comic," James Billington remarked in his frequently quoted announcement of Nemerov's appointment to the post of United States poet laureate. A distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis from 1969 to 1990, Nemerov wrote poetry and fiction that managed to engage . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT School & Learning, Reading & Books, Trees & Flowers, Activities, Nature, Arts & Sciences

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

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