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.)