Poetry Friday: Birches

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

On the first day of March I wake to find the woods behind the house covered with snow and ice after one of the few storms we’ve had during this unusually mild winter. The birch saplings that edge the woods actually do “bend to left and right/ Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Those bent so low their top branches brush the ground do look “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” I did not see birch trees this way before I knew the Robert Frost poem. And I cannot stand in a field bordered by pines on a cold, snowy day without “One must have a mind of winter…” from Wallace Stevens’ “The Snowman” entering my mind.

In April, when the field below the house will be thick with sweet fern, “and elder and mullen and pokeweed,” I know it will be because of Whitman’s praise of them in “Song of Myself” that I will recognize them by their names, and see the beauty of plants I otherwise would have disregarded as weeds.

There is something in the naming of things that changes the way we see. Sometimes it can be limiting. But a field guide that catalogues the difference between conifer and deciduous, describes the distinctive characteristics of oak, spruce, sycamore and sugar maple, actually changes the way we see a forest. Instead of a green wall, we see distinctly varied shapes and patterns.

The naming in a poem is quite different from that in a field guide. It begins with the paradoxical understanding that we can never fully name anything. The name “Birches” is not enough. Frost needs the entire poem to approach understanding the thoughts and feelings they summon in him. He makes the attempt knowing he can never quite fully succeed.

Isn’t one of the essential motivations behind all art the attempt to understand what we see, to try to share it, and to always wonder “Does anyone else see it, too?” Isn’t this an essential element of all life, all our relationships? And isn’t what passes between us and the poet just one more relationship? Even if it is with an artist who may have died centuries ago?

And our relationship to poetry can change how we see not only birch trees and pokeweed, but a city street, the people of that city, or country, or race, or religion, or sex, or sexual orientation. The vague cliché that art “broadens our minds” is true in a very specific sense: We see that the inner lives of people who may appear utterly unlike us are as rich, complex, filled with longing, suffering, hope, disappointment, fear and joy as our own. We don’t just learn about other cultures and customs. We can get that from anthropology, sociology and history texts. How we see has been altered by the artist’s attempt to have us experience what he or she sees. And if we have imagination enough, that image becomes as much a part of us as one of our own memories. It changes our minds. Literally.

In Sebastian Seung’s new book, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, he explains how a memory is formed by neurons in our brain connecting into a new synapse. The more reinforced the memory, the stronger the synapse. These connections can actually be mapped because they are a part of the brain. So if we memorize a poem, that poem has become a part of us. It has, on the molecular level, changed our minds. When I see birches, the synapses that connect them to my memory of Frost’s poem are sparked and reinforced. To assert that art changes how we perceive the world is not a sentimental claim; it is a scientific fact.

So poetry and art are more important now than ever. It is during difficult, unstable times that stress and fear make us retreat into old ideas, assumptions and prejudices for comfort. History has shown us how intolerant and inhumane we can be when we retreat in this way. Art is not a luxury at such times. It is a necessity. Perhaps it evolved to save us from ourselves.

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For more information on the Poetry Program, please visit www.dodgepoetry.org

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