Nomination: The Trees [2 June 1967. From High Windows]
I love ‘The Trees’ because of the optimistic note on which it ends – optimism being, for me, a quality that is often overlooked in Larkin’s verse. The notion of starting “afresh, afresh, afresh” each year is one that I find sustaining. As in a lot of his work, there is a strong notion of continuity – things persisting whilst life moves around them. Think of “the earl and countess” lying “in stone” whilst around them “the endless altered people came” in ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and I think you have something similar to the “rings of grain” that mark the passing years for the trees, which otherwise would seem not to change or grow old at all. Life moving in cycles is a familiar theme in Larkin (Dockery’s son has followed him to Oxford), and it is present in spades here. We grow old, but the trees have mastered the trick of looking new each year, marking the cycle of each year with a ring.
‘The Trees’ was one of the High WIndows poems and was thus in the only original anthology of poetry Larkin published during my lifetime and The Whitsun Weddings, his penultimate anthology, had been published the year before my birth – so, as a schoolboy seeking out the modern, High WIndows was the first I read. Inevitably, as a teenager, I started with ‘This Be The Verse’, but even in those rebellious days there seemed to be a calmness and restorative feeling about ‘The Trees’ that made it stand out to my young ears – I remember talk of it being “quoted in the streets” (who did say that about it?) when it was first published and there are precious few poems of which that can be said.
Larkin’s characteristic control of his medium is much in evidence – note the structure of the rhymes at the end of each line, but one of the things I like is that there are parts of it that even now I really don’t understand. Why are the trees coming into leaf like “something almost being said”? Why isn’t it like something actually being said – they are actually coming into leaf after all, not almost coming into leaf? I can’t think of any other poet that would have used that as an image, and yet it’s the most arresting image of the whole poem – if you remember anything of ‘The Trees’ likely it’s that line you remember. The use of words in poetry generally is inspiring to me, since I work in a profession that also utilizes language for intellectual and emotional impact. I tell my pupil barristers that they should read poetry to learn how to use fewest words to greatest effect. The shortness of this poem is no bar to the feelings and emotion it triggers and is as good an example of the economy of poetry as any.
I nominated it as poem of the month simply because it is a Springtime poem, but I have to say that I had forgotten that the poem actually mentions May. It seems particularly appropriate that it should therefore be poem of the month for May this year.