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:

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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.

From the cutting room floor: notes on Robert Hass’s “Weed”

As an experiment, I’m going to start posting notes, etc. that didn’t make it into the final version of an essay or post, but are nonetheless interesting (at least to me). Sweepings from my cutting room floor, so to speak.

Original Post

Poem

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Hass says the name horse-parsnip  “is history / but means nothing”

-—— “is history” can either mean that it’s important, or that it’s over: “you’re history!”

Horse-parsnip: named for the animal to which it is poisonous (humans, too), so the name is important, but nothing in the poem suggests this is on Hass’s mind.

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1933…..“in New Jersey / in 1933”———The year is a mystery: Williams’s poem “Queen-Anne’s lace” was published in 1920, so it’s not about when it was written/published. And though it’s presented as a childhood memory of the speaker, the year cannot apply to Hass, who was born in 1941. Typo?  1953 would work. OR a persona? He’s used them before (though not many comment on that).

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Horse-parsnip….more commonly referred to as wild parsnip, is in the carrot family—as is Queen Anne’s lace! They’re cousins. Complicates Hass’s comparison significantly.

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“the name / is absurd”

“Absurd” is Stevens’s word: “The sounds of the guitar / Were not and are not. Absurd. The words spoken / Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.” (from “The Rock”)

J Hillis Miller points out that “absurd: from ab, away, an intensive here, and surdus, deaf, inaudible, insufferable to the ear… . The Latin surdus was chosen in medieval mathematics to translate an Arabic term that was itself a translation of the Greek alogos: speechless, wordless, inexpressible… “ (The Linguistic Moment 394).  

Robert Hass vs. William Carlos Williams, Language vs. Language

The point of a poem is to become wordless…—A. R. Ammons

Weeds often signal neglect, spontaneous testimony that someone hasn’t been attending to her garden. Robert Hass’s poem “Weed” has served that function for me. It’s offered a counter-example to my grand theories about language and weeds, that the word “weed” is always a lazily-named plant—a sign of language’s unrealized potential.  

Hass’s “Weed” shows me that I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to this fascinating linguistic territory. Here’s the poem. Hass begins by riffing on the name of this particular weed, the “horse-parsnip,” explaining that “Horse is Lorca’s word, fierce as wind, / or melancholy, gorgeous, Andalusian.” But this poetic and exotic reading is short lived: “parsnip is hopeless,” states Hass, and to associate these two words with the plant “is history / but conveys nothing.”

The poem contrasts this with Queen Anne’s lace, a name that not only “is history” but also uses that history to “convey” a description of the plant, with the white flowers being the “lace,” and their purple-pink centers being the blood from when Queen Anne pricked her finger while making the lace.

That it’s located in New Jersey suggests that this Queen Anne’s lace belongs to William Carlos Williams. In Williams’s poem, the plant serves an analogue for a woman’s body:

Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire…

In the context of Hass’s poem, I’d like suggest, the overt sexuality of Williams’s poem models a certain mode of language use, a kind of Edenic naming, where Adam named not only the animals, but also “woman”: “She shall be called Woman,” Adam explains, “because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). In other words, “She’s mine.”  For Adam (and for WCW, at least in this poem) names are a form of mastery and possession. So described, it’s hard not to read such naming as gendered and, frankly, sinister: a tool of domination.

But that’s not the sort of naming this poem is interested in. Hass suspends actually stating “horse-parsnip” until the very end of the poem. The poem reads like a riddle whose solution doesn’t much matter. This places “Weed” in similar territory as Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Trees”: language that neither names, nor points to something beyond words, but treats language as a weed, removing it from where it does not belong.

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.