Learning the Trees


Nemerov, Howard




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.


Impact and OutcomesKnowledge and UncertaintyNature and the EnvironmentSpeech and ExpressionTeaching and Learning

Big Questions

What do we know for sure? What do we not know?What is the value of uncertainty?How does language define our worldview?Where does the best learning happen – in the classroom or elsewhere?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the speaker suggests we have to learn the language of trees before we can learn trees?
  2. Why might we find delight in learning the words of this language?
  3. What do you think it means to be ''sufficiently provided"? How do we know that we are sufficiently provided?
  4. What happens to this preparedness once it ventures out into the world?
  5. What do you make of the phrase 'dreadful doubt'? What role does doubt play in the process of learning?
  6. What is this secret will? How does it pretend 'obedience to Nature'?
  7. By the end of the poem what knowledge has the speaker gained?
  8. What role do uncertainty and certainty play in teaching and learning?
  9. What sense of risk or error is there is in teaching and leaning?
  10. What sense of learning a process emerges here? Do you agree with it?
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