A Simple Sounding: On “The Naming of Trees” by Theodore Enslin

Poetry is the distance like freedom. —Bei Dao

As the description of this blog makes clear, I’m interested in “extravagant language,” that is, language that exceeds what’s appropriate and reasonable, that wanders far from its appointed task, that’s somehow more than it needs to be—that’s “beyond beyond,” to borrow a piece of extravagant language from Cymbeline (3.2.60).

But such a notion assumes that there’s a clear sense of what language is supposed to do. It’s generally assumed, I think, that language exists primarily to communicate, that is to say, convey information. As always, Strunk and White are happy to tell us what’s proper, especially in writing:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. [The writer must ensure] that every word tell.

Good writing, as S & W would have it, is efficient. So extravagant writing gives us more than what’s needed to simply “tell.” Why it might be desirable to do so is the question I’m interested in exploring. Beyond communication, beyond expression, what can words do?

Consider this poem by Theodore Enslin:

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 2.04.39 PM.png

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).

The “thesis” of the “The Naming of Trees” is not hard to surmise: names—typically viewed as tools of knowledge and mastery—do not bring us closer to the tree: “the tree remains   beyond a name.” But the thesis is merely the poem’s starting point: the poem is an exposé on how names fail as well as a demonstration of language’s other capacities.

The articles in this poem are fascinating, especially with regard to the poem’s subject. “Tree” (singular) appears eight times, alternately articled “the” and “a.” The final occurrence as the last word of the poem has no article, but is preceded by a gap of a few spaces. “A” tree means “any given tree,” not a specific one, whereas “the” tree means a specific tree. Interestingly, “the” may also designate a class of objects: “The chicken is a type of domesticated fowl.” The poem puts “tree” through its paces: as unspecified (a), specified (the), or generalized (the, again). By using the articles interchangeably, Enslin demonstrates how such distinctions are ultimately beside the point: they all depend upon generalization. The actual tree, in all its living specificity, escapes the name. The final unarticled/gapped instance seems to hint at something else—perhaps an alternative to naming—but I’d like to spend some time with the rest of the poem before I contemplate that white abyss.

Sound is important to Enslin, as is evident in this poem, most obviously in the use of repetition. There’s also the subtle modulation of sound, from “To find…” (line 2) to “defined…” to “defies.” The slippage in sound enacts our loss of linguistic grip on the tree. “Sound” is also thematically taken up by the poem:

                                                            a tree

of many that the name does not concern them

is a secret known to trees  not lost

a simple sounding not a sound  nor said

nor will the wind resound it only

in the tree within what it means     tree.

In religion and myth, names wield mystic powers. Their mere utterance can conjure the things they name. Here, however, the name can’t even summon that which is already present. “Tree” resounds, echoing off what it presumes to name, returning our voices to ourselves.

And yet “to sound” is also to measure depth and distance. And this is what this poem’s extravagance has to offer: its incantatory repetition allow us to take true measure of the distance—to sound the vastness—between our words and the things we presume to name, releasing them from the strictures of nomination. What the poem names—if it names anything—is the gap created by means of its language—a space that allows things to keep their secrets.

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