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.