Language as Invitation: Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees”

I’ve had “something” on my mind lately. A tool of conversational evasion and non-committal compliments (“Wow, that sure is…something!”), “something” isn’t typically viewed as the stuff of poetry. It’s not euphonious. It’s a pronoun in search of a referent. What use could poetry possibly have for such a prosaic, homely, and hazy term?

Yet I’m struck by how many poets and writers have lavished attention on “something.” David Ferry is a heavy user (see, for instance, “Scrim”); Annie Dillard perfectly employs it in the final paragraph of this essay; Robert Frost capitalizes on its murky qualities in the appropriately titled, “For Once, Then, Something” (also the poem’s parting words).

“Something” is central to this poem by Robert Hass:

The Problem of Describing Trees

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
Aspens doing something in the wind.

That “something” is hard won. The poem takes the via negativa, depicting the process of trying to describe “what the tree did,” rejecting a few options, and finally resigning itself to not so much naming what the tree does as gesturing in its general direction.  Drop your linguistic hubris, Hass seems to say (disenchanting/disabusing us); “something” is the best you can do.

In this interview, Hass comments on this poem and language as such: “Wittgenstein said, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ which I don’t think is quite true… [A]t some point, it dawns on you that you just—we don’t have a language for what would be the experience of a tree.”

But I want to resist the cliché that the tree can’t be put into words, or is beyond words, or any other spatial metaphor we resort to when we say language doesn’t work the way we want it to. For instance, I appreciate that Hass’s “something” is surrounded by elemental terms: mountain, sky, wind. There’s a haiku-like beauty in such stark naming. It’s like he’s showing us what language can describe.

He also seems to suggest that language can do more than name. It can offer praise (the title of Hass’s second book), a kind of language that respects things without grasping at them. I think of Bronk’s “To Praise The Music,” a poem that’s also about the problem of describing trees:

I praise. If only to say their songs,
say yes to them, to praise the songs they sing.
Envied music. I sing to praise their song.

Finally, my attention is drawn to the italicised line: “Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.” Language not as naming, but invitation, an openness to things, calling both trees and poet to dance.

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One thought on “Language as Invitation: Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees”

  1. […] The seemingly innocent subject betrays what’s at stake. Etymologically speaking, “tree” finds its roots in “true” (from the Proto Indo-European*deru- “to be firm, solid, steadfast”), so it’s not surprising that poems about trees are often tests of poetry’s truth. See, for instance, Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees” (click here for my discussion of the poem). […]

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