The paper birch is one of the most glorious trees of northern North America. It’s not a universal image, perhaps (any more than the blackberry canes that cover waste ground in England), but it’s one of the most striking features of the New England landscape, and familiar to more people than perhaps have ever seen live birch trees through the medium of Robert Frost’s great poem “Birches.”
Birches, as the poem suggests, are easily bent. It’s their way of surviving northern winters, with their frosts and icings. The phenomenon of birches bent to the ground, never quite recovering their upright posture, can be seen in any number of photos on the Internet.
But that is a matter of fact, and “Birches” is a matter of fancy. The speaker imagines a boy taking the place of a natural force. That boy takes up a lonely game of standing in for ice, swinging the birches down with his own weight, so that they will resume their upright posture afterwards, no worse for the experience. The very uncanny nature of the game makes the poem great and terrible. Frost, as we have seen this semester, is the great poet of working outdoors. But this poem is all about play, done purely for its own sake. And while people have doubtless swung birches just as Frost describes in the poem, and still do and will do as long as children have leisure and short attention spans, the game is so pointless that it captures the wonder of art and of existence.
Swinging birches is a benign game with enough of a hint of danger to be momentous. As Frost describes it, it’s also a careful art with enough of a hint of freedom to be exciting – much, certainly, like poetry itself.
Sylvia Plath had one of the most storied lives (and deaths) of any poet. The truly tragic circumstances of her passing, and the white-hot rhetoric of the poems that she wrote in the final year of her life, can sometimes obscure her exceptional poetic gift. “Blackberrying” is for me her masterpiece. It’s a poem of plain description that holds at its center something huge and unspoken.
There is no mystery to be “solved” in “Blackberrying”; the poem’s descriptions and events do not “stand” for anything but themselves. But that makes the poem even stronger, and more suggestive. It’s a piece that suggests the wonder of life itself, an amazement that such a conjunction of sights and sounds (of feasts for all five senses, in fact) could come to exist. “I knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” Elizabeth Bishop says in a different (but just as ordinary) context. Why should humans seek out fruit, why should they compete with flies for it, why should blackberries grow (as they do in England) on scraps of waste ground? Why are humans drawn by an ocean, even when they cannot sense it, and why do such marvelous juxtapositions of land and water exist in our world?
I love this poem for the way it is continually drawn beyond its subject, toward wonder. Plath is often celebrated for her extreme hatreds, for her acid satires of conventional life. But she was also capable of turning her titanic energies toward an expression of just how fabulous it is to be alive in the world.
“Blackberrying” is also a masterful use of free verse, with its long, non-rhyming, irregular lines that wander in and out of the standard ten-syllable line that is the most common pattern in English verse. It is too rhythmic and too meandering to be good prose, but it’s great free verse, unsettling readers and keeping us off balance, just as the day of blackberrying upsets and unsettles the speaker.