Friday, November 26, 2010

thankful for big ideas

I have a new favorite book. I'm late to the party as usual, but through the 2009 Poetry Notables session at NCTE last weekend I heard about a slew of books new to me, and ordered several titles on the spot using my handy-dandy wireless device. It was an eminent body of work that arrived on my doorstep, but the most thrilling was The Tree That Time Built. I had not heard of it at all, nor read a single review, so I was taken by glorious surprise.

This weighty collection of about 125 poems is much more than a themed anthology. I find myself wishing that I were a 5th-grade science teacher so that I could use it as the basis for a whole year's study of what might ordinarily be called evolutionary biology. The cover says the poems were "selected by" Mary Ann Hoberman, 2008-2010 Children's Poet Laureate, and Linda Winston, a cultural anthropologist and teacher. However, the work they did in compiling this rich array of poems by everyone from William Blake to Emily Dickinson to Langston Hughes through to Douglas Florian, Alice Schertle and quite a handful by Hoberman herself goes way beyond "selection." (You might call it "supernatural selection.")

The title doesn't give it away, so I opened The Tree That Time Built expecting a "celebration of nature, science, and imagination." But this collection is really a tribute to the towering ideas of Charles Darwin, two anniversaries of whose were celebrated in 2009, and is an examination of the ways that the work of scientists (and particularly naturalists) and the work of poets resemble each other. "Science and art have often been cast as opposites," says the Introduction, " but the division is an artificial one. Scientists, like poets, depend on imagination for many of their core insights. And poets, like scientists, observe and explore connections within the natural world." Through their thoughtful selection and arrangement of the poems, Hoberman and Winston layer pockets of tiny detail, swathes of rock-solid description, and seeping realizations on a grand scale. Then, through their commentary on both the science and the poetry at work in each poem, they cut a cross-section through those layers to expose a whole new view of our natural history and the way we humans have expressed our understanding of it.

I've always been a fan of the idea of evolution and its grandeur, and the notion that it all happened without any hint of human agency save for naming it tickles my mind. Impossible to choose just one from this book, but here's a simple, elegant piece by Mark Van Doren.

If They Spoke

The animals will never know;
Could not find out; would scarcely care
That all their names are in our books,
And all their images drawn bare.

What names? They have not heard the sound,
Nor in their silence thought the thing.
They are not notified they live;
Nor ask who set them wandering.

Simply they are. And so with us;
And they would say it if they spoke;
And we might listen; and the world
Be uncreated at one stroke.

~ Mark Van Doren
The Tree That Time Built, 2009

Enjoy a Friday full of poetry with Ms. Mac at Check It Out today!


  1. Thanks for the intro to The Tree that Time Built. I just checked our online catalog and found that it's on my library's shelf! Somehow I missed it, too.

  2. This was my favorite poetry of 2009, and remains in my top 10 of all time. The glossary that has poetic terms side by side with scientific terms. Brilliant!

    Great to see you and chat and hug at NCTE! How's that book coming?!?!

  3. What a fantastic review - you've given me the idea to share this with my science teacher hubby...thank you! I love the strength of the two poems you shared today. Happy Poetry Friday & Thanksgiving too...I am thankful that we finally met! A.

    ps - I have still not listened to the CD in the back of the book...


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