The Black Walnut Tree

by Mary Oliver

Start Free Trial

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“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 originates in what Oliver, in typically understated fashion, calls a “difficult time.” While the responsibilities of home ownership are often thought too mundane to be the subject of poetry, Oliver manages to make a connection with her audience by plumbing the joys and burdens of owning a home or, more precisely, exploring how a home becomes more than a physical property.

In an attempt to convince each other that the only logical and financially responsible action is to cut down the tree, the poet tells her mother that the tree’s roots are in the cellar drains, to which the mother replies that she has noticed the leaves growing heavier in the fall, when they must be raked, and the tree’s fruit becoming increasingly difficult to gather. Clearly, however, the fruit this tree bears represents strong and essential connections to the past, an issue with far greater consequence than the tree’s present inconveniences.

Thus, in the sixteenth line of the poem, there is a shift: The speaker realizes, in the process of her deliberation over the physical problems the tree presents, that “something brighter than money/ moves in our blood.” At this point, the problem evolves from merely a physical dilemma to a spiritual one, and Oliver’s insight is confirmed that night as she sleeps. Her dreams are populated by her Bohemian fathers—men who worked the “blue fields/ of fresh and generous Ohio”—and she wakes with the knowledge that she can never remove the tree. However, even though the poet is reconciled to the threat of high winds, heavier leaves, and falling fruit, she still hears “the whip-/ crack of the mortgage” as the poem closes.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 619 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

At the same time that this “crack” relates to the mortgage, it also suggests the movement of the walnut tree’s limbs. By constructing her metaphors from the very fabric of her narrative, Oliver gracefully and unobtrusively pushes the reader toward a recognition of the many levels at work. Truly, one might best describe Oliver’s use of metaphor as organic or holistic, a practice that suits her spiritual perspective nicely. However, because of this practice, upon a first reading of the poem, it is relatively easy to overlook the extended conceit that Oliver carefully constructs.

The conceit grows from the black walnut tree at the center of the poem, taking on three interrelated meanings that function on significantly different levels. First, the black walnut tree exists on the physical plane, creating tangible, concrete problems for the poet and her mother. The tree has grown old, making inroads into the foundation with its roots, its falling fruit is more of a nuisance than a blessing, and its leaves pile higher with each passing autumn, becoming more difficult to dispose of.

Second, the tree exists on a spiritual plane that involves the deeply entwined history of the family. The walnut tree, like any other living organism, has started from a seed, and the poet realizes that “an edge/ sharp and quick as a trowel/ that wants us to dig and sow” moves in her blood. She is beckoned by this tree, in her own and her “fathers’ backyard,” to remember her fathers who filled the fields of Ohio with “leaves and vines and orchards.” Thus, the tree in her yard comes to represent both the spiritual and physical call of her heritage.

Finally, as the poem closes, the tree takes on yet another meaning. The tree, limbs moving in “leaping winds,” becomes a symbol of the mortgage that threatens to destroy the poet’s own life with her mother, as well as the memory of her fathers. This final move allows the reader to recognize the complex and potentially tragic dimensions of this situation. The metaphor coalesces, encompassing both the physical and the spiritual, both the past and the present, to profound effect.