The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brendan Galvin’s “Pitch Pines” is a forty-four-line poem divided into nine stanzas of four to six lines each. Each stanza presents a series of images that culminate in the stanza’s final image. In stanza 1, for example, the trees are described as assaulted by winds and other natural forces; they are bent and twisted. In the final line of the stanza, readers see the trees as a jumble, leaning in all different directions. Stanza 4 gathers images of sourness and acidity until the final line states that the pines’ pollen “curdles water.” The cumulative effect is one of harshness, of forces constantly attacking the pitch pines and the pines barely able to withstand the attack.

Although the predominant images in the poem are those of assault and death, the overall impression crafted by Galvin is one of awe and respect. Despite the inhospitable environment and indifferent treatment by nature (storms and fires), the harvesting of forests for human needs, and the pitch pines’ own sometimes thwarted efforts to survive (they pollinate windows and water), they do survive. While other varieties of trees—cedar, birch, elm, beech, and oak—are harvested for specific purposes, the lowly pitch pine stands neglected; it may be knocked down by accident or as a matter of course. Nevertheless, they have developed ways to hold on. The poet is as interested in looking at previous generations of trees as he is in the trees standing in front of him.


(The entire section is 512 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Galvin does not depend on conventional devices such as rhyme and meter to shape and control his poems. Readers must look for subtle devices that are closely tied to the subject matter and the cadence of the lines. He writes in vernacular English at its best, firmly in control of the words and how they will be read. The conversational tone of the poem holds readers’ attention as they await the next phrase, the next image. The brief lines waste no syllables. Each contains three or four stressed syllables in conversational rhythms. The no-nonsense lines and clear images command attention. Powerful, sometimes unexpected, verbs propel the lines along: Winds are “salted out of the northeast,” old branches are “knotted” and “mingleand rot,” a shower of pollen “curdles water,” and the cape is “timbered to its shores.”

The diction that shapes the terse lines and stanzas is also forceful. Repeatedly in Galvin’s work, poetic structures gather power from the transforming power of nature. In this poem a particular “[verb] to [noun]” structure is used no less than a half dozen times; it propels action and emphasizes the transformation and use of the elements involved. Three examples are “limbs flaking and dying/ to ribs,” “a shower/ that curdles water to golden scum,” and “hardwood that fell to keels.” In these very brief, consistent structures, massive natural and artificial forces are shown at work. Like much that is American, there is little time for the decorative—the elaboration of phrase, the prettification of an image or action.

Unlike the landscape that is clear-cut in the process of harvest, unlike the gigantic wastefulness that Galvin depicts, the poem itself is economical. The poet demonstrates, without explicitly lecturing his readers, that the best approach for humans is to conserve, to trim—in a sense, to edit their actions. Just as humans have the power to “[boil] the Atlantic to its salts,” they have the power to reduce and concentrate their efforts when it comes to nature. Galvin subtly advises his readers to see how the pitch pines have learned to hold on, to clutch their threatened seeds inside cones.