The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Testing-Tree” is a poetic sequence divided into four sections, each written in supple free verse with no stanza breaks. The lines themselves are prepositional phrases or noun clauses and are generally enjambed, giving the reader a sense of flowing, forward movement. The title, the same as that for the entire volume of poetry in which it was originally published, is mythic, suggesting the biblical Tree of Knowledge where Adam and Eve are tested and Ygdrassil, the tree of wisdom from Norse mythology. The title is also specific, being emblematic of the tree where the narrator played games and in which he carved his name. Each sequence within the poem operates on both levels—the mythic and the local.

In section 1, the narrative “I” recalls the imaginary games and challenges of childhood in which reality, “the Academy ballpark/ where I could never hope to play,” is juxtaposed against the imaginative life in which “magic Keds” bring “the prize of the mastery” and the speaker is the “world’s fastest human.” The speaker recalls these imaginative visions with concrete nouns (“flying skin,” “crouching start”) and makes these experiences vivid for the reader, while the quotidian events of daily life are only hinted at in the first three lines of the section before being abandoned in favor of the imaginary, which offers more potential and fulfillment. It is the “magic” that is able to project the speaker beyond a rather banal present into a realm of imagination; the speaker is...

(The entire section is 621 words.)