Twice appointed American poet laureate, Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) grew up in New York City. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, and after the war he began a distinguished career as a professor by teaching literature to fellow veterans. Nemerov was known for his meticulously crafted verse, and "Learning the Trees" is no exception. In blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) quatrains, the narrator tells us that we cannot really know trees unless we learn their names. Only then can we “go forth to the forests and the shady streets”—to learn how imperfectly the "chaos of experience" relates to the ideal or average examples represented in books. This poem poses fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge and language. It could be used to launch a conversation about the relationship between the natural world and human knowledge. The poem also could inspire a rich discussion of the extent to which the specialized language and categories we use in our professional lives capture, or fail to capture, our experiences with individuals. How well does our professional vocabulary match the reality of "the one in front of us"? Are there times when it is necessary to maintain the "comprehensive silence" that Nemerov attributes to the trees, or to respect such a silence in others?
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The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.