The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Black Walnut Tree,” written in free verse, is a short poem of thirty-five lines. The title immediately draws the reader’s attention toward the natural world and the center of emotional conflict in the poem. Like the large branches of an ancient walnut tree, Oliver’s poem is shrouded in the shadow of her family tree. Using the first person, Oliver makes no distinction between the speaker of the poem and herself; in fact, the poet’s family history is the source for the events described. In this poem, as in much lyric poetry, the speaker addresses the reader directly about her personal experience, and, by using this poetic form, Oliver makes the reader part of the events she describes, forcing one to consider the poem’s dilemma as if it were one’s own.

“The Black Walnut Tree” concerns the poet’s and her mother’s struggle to decide whether they will have a tree on their property cut down. If they decide to have the black walnut tree removed and to sell it for lumber, they will be able to pay off their home’s mortgage; however, if they remain faithful to everything the tree represents, they risk a limb falling through the roof of the house in some storm or, worse, foreclosure and the loss of the house itself.

The poem opens with this general dilemma but moves quickly to its inevitable consequence: the two women trying to sort out what is really the best course of action in such a situation. Part of the poem’s strength...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Poet and novelist James Dickey suggests that Oliver’s poems are “graceful and self-assured, serene even when they treat the ordinary agonies of liferichly complex without throwing complexities in the way of the reader.” In “The Black Walnut Tree,” Oliver does indeed suggest the complexity of what might be overlooked as merely mundane. She does so, however, without obscuring the events of the poem. As in much of Oliver’s poetry, she achieves clarity in this poem by using common language to develop a short poetic line and metaphor that grows naturally out of her subject matter, all couched in a domestic narrative.

In “The Black Walnut Tree,” as in much of her work, Oliver makes use of the lyric as plainsong, never allowing traditional verse forms to intrude on her subject. The short line she favors appears to have little to do with phrasing; rather, it establishes white space for contemplation. By placing so few words in each line, Oliver insists that the reader account for each word and the possible connections that the word may offer within the line and then within the poem as a whole. Perhaps this formal consideration culminates most dramatically in the final two lines of the poem, when Oliver hyphenates and splits the word “whip-/ crack,” placing the emphasis equally between the two. The split allows the word to take on the physical characteristics of a whip: On one line it is drawn back; on the next it comes forward to lash its subject, the “crack” of the mortgage sounding....

(The entire section is 619 words.)