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Crooked, black tree

on your little grey-black hillock,

ridiculously raised one step toward

the infinite summits of the night:

even you the few grey stars

draw upward into a vague melody

of harsh threads.

 

Bent as you are from straining

against the bitter horizontals of

a north wind – there below you

how easily the long yellow notes

of poplars flow upward in a descending

scale, each note secure in its own

posture – singularly woven.

 

all voices are blent willing

against the heaving contra-bass

of the dark but you alone

warp yourself passionately to one side

in your eagerness.

At one level this poem is silly: there is no music actually playing. The trees and flowers and stars are playing no melody. There is no blending of voices. A tree is certainly never passionate nor eager.

There is certainly something striking and picturesque about a tree bent against the wind. It is a common symbol of resolution before contrary forces.

Then what is the point of such a poem? What does Williams do with these words – if anything?

First, the poem permits us to see something of the world. We are so busy with our lives, that we easily fail to take notice or thought of what is before us. We live with pre-digested entertainment, carefully constructed to make sure we know exactly how we are supposed to feel.  We use things for what they can do for us. We become the center of our world.

But this poem does nothing for us: it will not make anyone richer. There is no secret embedded within. But also it is not particularly easy. It is not digested for us: it makes some demands up the reader with his observations.

The poem re-presents a moment of observation: He saw a tree on a hill bent against the wind and standing beneath the stars. The moment must have been lovely.

The measure and harmony between the earth and sky is striking.

In fact, as he looked from the poplars below to the crooked black tree on the hill and up to the stars, he sees a harmony and proportion between the trees and stars and the darkness. All of it comes together into a whole.

Hence, there is a music between the parts. It is not just that the scene is aesthetically pleasing; it is that the scene is harmonious: there is a sympathy from the trees to the stars.

Look at how he notes the trees reach to the sky:

 

ridiculously raised one step toward

the infinite summits of the night

 

The phrase “ridiculously raised” is the key: Yes, there is an infinite space from the tree to the stars. The tree cannot possibly hope to reach the stars; it is “ridiculous,” and yet the tree reaches.

 

The tree on its hill has been shaped from the conflict here on earth:

 

Bent as you are from straining

against the bitter horizontals of

a north wind

 

The tree becomes even more comic and endearing. It reaches to the sky while it strains against its own conflict. And then below, there is a place of peace: the yellow poplars. How we know the poplars are yellow in the dark and starlight is not explained. In fact, it is the music, not the trees which are yellow: long yellow notes.

 

The tree now occupies a place between heaven and earth: the earth comes to the tree; the tree reaches to the sky.

 

The objects are all singing a counter melody to the darkness; those things that are hang against what is not:

 

all voices are blent willing

against the heaving contra-bass

of the dark

 

But the tree occupies a unique space:

 

            but you alone

warp yourself passionately to one side

in your eagerness.

 

The tree again is comic: it is passionate and eager; it even warps itself in its straining so.

 

And so the poem brings us in a moment of Willams’ revery.  We can see a moment through his eyes from 100 years ago and look at this tree.

 

But is there is something more than just a quirky thought of a long dead physician? There is a way of seeing the world in harmony and sympathy. There is a pattern which runs through creation and engenders an affection for even a crooked black tree.

 

I remember being in college and trying to gain some important proposition out of a poem. But I now I understand something about poems like this which I did not understand then. Looking at the world as Williams did so long ago; imaging that moment of an evening by the trees, beneath the sky; has its own effect.

 

We often wonder and worry what effect this or that photograph or word or scene or videogame or movie or what not will do to someone. The world is stuffed full of wickedness and corruption and truly hateful things. And all such things have a corrosive effect upon us all.

 

But moments of beauty, the delight in the common grace which God has bestowed upon us all from his unending wealth and lavish care, have their own effect. I think we are better for such observations.

 

C.S. Lewis speaks of his salvation coming in through the idea of joy: why is there joy in a brutal meaningless world? Why is there beauty? How is that explained? Why is there harmony and sympathy through the creation?