This winter we’re challenging young poets everywhere to write about our fir-y friends: trees! We’re delighted to share seven exciting prompts to help inspire your tree-writing. Read on and get scribbling…
In the northern hemisphere, winter is in full swing and we’re thinking about trees. Many of them have already shivered off their leafy coats to conserve energy for the spring. But the evergreen among them sprout leaves and needles that are still going strong. For many, spruces, holly and pines conjure Christmas. For others, particular trees evoke memories, scents and feelings. Trees can also remind us of stories associated with them. Whatever your relationship with our leafy friends is, this winter we’re challenging young poets all over the world to write in response to trees. Feel free to make it festive – but we’ve plenty of prompts to suggest seven different ways into tree-writing
Trees in stories and mythology – prompt #1
Write a story, myth or fable about a tree. Have you ever noticed how important trees are in many religions? You may already be familiar with the tree in the Biblical Garden of Eden, whose fruit gives the eater knowledge of good and evil. But did you know Eden also contains a tree of life? If you touch it, the verses say, you’ll have eternal life.
According to Buddhist teaching, Buddha Siddhartha Gautama sat still for seven weeks and achieved enlightenment beneath the Bodhi (fig) Tree of Bodh Gaya. And in many conceptions of the universe the idea of a ‘world tree’ is a common motif: in Old Norse cosmology, the entire universe comes from a single tree called Yggdrasil.
Trees are also important in lots of stories – think of the woods in Hansel and Gretel; the woods that lead us into Narnia; Tolkien’s Ents; the forest that takes us into hell in Dante’s Inferno; Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree; the Whomping Willow in Hogwarts’ grounds; the wych elm in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Why do we see trees as so magical?
Time for your first writing prompt! Read Don Paterson’s poem ‘Two Trees’. The poem tells the story of Don Miguel and his orange/lemon tree. Curiously, it ends by denying the tree symbolises anything: ‘They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout. / And trees are all this poem is about.’ Paterson suggests we shouldn’t read anything into the tale… But by telling us what the trees don’t do, the reader is forced to think about it. Paterson mixes up people and trees: he uses tree-language to describe Don Miguel (an idea is ‘rooted’ in his head) and human-language for the tree (the branches are called ‘limbs’). Even as he says one thing, Paterson is suggesting the opposite.
Your first poetry prompt is to write a story about a tree. You could invent a story, or research a myth or story associated with a famous tree (such as John Keats’ mulberry tree, Isaac Newton’s tree or the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree). You could tell the reader something while showing them the opposite through your choice of language. If you get stuck, choose one single line from Paterson’s poem (or another tree poem in this challenge), write it at the top of your page and free-write responding to it in some way – carrying on the thought in that line, reacting against it or taking it as a point of inspiration.
‘The language of the trees’ – prompt #2
Write a poem about tree language. The word ‘tree’ has an ancient root (if you’ll pardon the pun). According to some, it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *deru-, meaning ‘be firm, solid, steadfast’, relating to wood and trees.
Write down as many names of specific trees and their parts as you can: spruce, oak, yew, branch, twig, root… You might like to look up pictures of trees to find out their names – the Woodland Trust website might be helpful if you’re based in the UK. Scribble down anything that pops into your head!
Names (or lack of names) might be a starting point for a poem, as it is for W.S. Merwin, who begins his poem ‘Native Tree’: ‘Neither my father nor my mother knew / the names of the trees’. The poem’s speaker explores what happens when we name something. Do you think a word can capture the tree-ness of a tree? What about a word in another language? You might like to write a poem about naming trees – a previous poetry challenge about names might inspire you further.
You may be inspired by the beauty and mysticism of trees-words. Read Howard Nemerov’s poem ‘Learning the Trees’ in which he pays tribute to ‘The language of the trees’. The speaker’s tender feeling is felt in their lists: ‘samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome’. But despite learning tree-language, the speaker ends the poem feeling ‘their comprehensive silence stays the same’. You might like to use your list of tree-words to think through this idea.
Your relationship with trees – prompt #3
Write a poem about a tree that you love, hate, fear or feel strongly about. Look again at your list of tree-words and think about the memories and stories you associate with these trees. Are you drawn to any particular tree? What is special to you about a beech, as opposed to an acacia, or a baobab? Some trees might not conjure any memories or images; some might remind you of when you were little, your house or walk to school. Read Catherine Bowman’s poem ‘Story of a Tree’ in which the speaker describes a tree they love in San Antonio. Examine the striking images in Bowman’s poem, notably, ‘You were my first true church’. Can you use similarly evocative images in your poem?
There may also be certain kinds of trees that you have only seen in a certain place or at a certain time of your life. In Jonathan Tel’s poem ‘Ber Lin’ the speaker tells the reader about this association this outright:
The leaves are turning. Right near where I live,
in fact, there’s a ginkgo – which I always think of
as the quintessentially Chinese tree. This morning
from the overground commuter train (it’s not
so fast but prettier than yours) I saw an apple tree,
and this reminded me of my last-but-one visit to Beijing.
The gingko tree grows in a different country from the speaker’s home, and as such it’s associated with ‘Chineseness’ in this poem. But for millions of people, gingko trees represent home, and maybe not a Chinese culture. This idea of ‘foreignness’ is difficult to navigate and might be interesting to think about in your poems. You may have a particular relationship with a particular type of tree, but that relationship is different for everyone.
Trees that talk, trees that walk: personification – prompt #4
Write a poem drawing parallels between a tree and a person. In stories and our imagination, trees often have personalities, or can speak. Incredible as it may sound, some people think trees can communicate with one another through their roots. They have even been described as ‘social’ organisms, as they seem to look after their sick by re-routing nutrients underground. You might like to research more tree facts which could inspire you to bring a tree to life – for instance, did you know that ‘trees are the longest living organisms on Earth and never die of old age’?
Make sure to hone in on the specific detail: what attributes do trees have, as opposed to any other kind of organism? And what characteristics does this particular tree have? Is it (un)like yourself, or someone you know?
In her poem ‘A Young Woman, A Tree’, Alicia Ostriker hones in on a tree’s colour when comparing a young woman to ‘that red tree – / The one that bursts into fire / All this week’. This juxtaposition is a source of vivid and unexpected images throughout the poem. Could you focus on one aspect of a tree to think about a person?
In e.e. cummings’ ‘[little tree]’ the poet speaks to a tree as if they were their friend or lover:
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
Just as we can comfort trees, trees can comfort us. Read Jackie Kay’s ‘The Kindness of Trees’. This tree ‘understood everything that was bad / And everything that was good’; ‘When every child was asleep in bed, / The tree sang a lullaby.’ And people, too, sing to the tree, ‘A song of what we know without knowing.’ You might like to write about how trees have comforted you or someone else you know, and what solace we can bring them in return.
Trees and the senses – prompt #5
Write a tree poem that awakens your reader’s senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Trees are rich in symbolism, partly because they can evoke so many different senses. Think of all the different parts of a tree. Perhaps you could examine one particular part of a tree’s anatomy: the roots, bark, fruit, blossoms…
Read ‘From Blossoms’ by Li-Young Lee, in which the speaker focuses on peaches that have come from a blossoming tree. The poet uses the succulent peach as a clever metaphor for ‘what we love’:
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade
This stunning comparison surprises and compels us because we have already been drawn in by the evocative description of the peach. How can you awake your reader’s senses in your poem? What could gnarly knobby oak bark be a metaphor for? How does it smell? What sound does the trunk make when you knock on it? Does the wind whistle through any holes in the bark? What would it taste like – would it be chewy or stiff? Further examples of this technique: Alice Oswald describes the sound of the trees as ‘worldwide’ in her ‘Time Poem’; Pablo Neruda famously wrote, ‘I want to do with you what spring does to the cherry blossoms’ (read about this poem and the original Spanish); and in Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’, the poet uses a tree ‘coming into leaf’ to think of rebirth, but first to think of ‘something almost being said’. Foyle Young Poet David Carey uses a tree as a metaphor for time in his winning sestina ‘The Apple Tree’:
You told me once that growing
up was like walking up a downwards
escalator. I think I was too young
to understand back then: I thought of time
as a steadily growing tree
that I hadn’t yet started climbing.
Describing these physical attributes might lead you on to thinking about something more abstract, like ‘what we love’, or ‘growing up’, or ‘trust’.
Trees in danger – prompt #6
It is difficult to write about trees today without thinking about deforestation, climate change and fossil fuels. Many of the products we use every day are made from trees or cause trees to be cut down. A recent UK supermarket advert showed the destruction of forests and orangutan habitats caused by palm oil production. By some estimates, more than half of products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil and dozens of orangutans (and other creatures) die every day as a direct result.
Perhaps you’d like to write a poem in defence of trees, as in A.F. Harrold’s poem ‘In The Tree’s Defence’: ‘Inside their sturdy hearts of wood / trees are simply doing good.’ You could write a speech-like poem, listing and defending all the good things trees do.
You might also write a more socially conscious poem about the problems caused by cutting down trees, and why we need to protect them. This environmental strand might feed into any of the prompts you follow: Jackie Kay briefly references ‘The polar bear, the ice melting’ in ‘The Kindness of Trees’, a spectre haunting this otherwise cheerful poem. Alternatively, this theme might be the focus of your poem, as in Elise Paschen’s ‘The Tree Agreement’. Here, the poet makes the political personal by referring to her neighbour:
The neighbor calls the Siberian Elm
a “weed” tree, demands we hack
it down, says the leaves overwhelm
his property, the square backyard.
The small detail and home life of the speaker here can stand in for the greater issue of deforestation, climate accords, and a global lack of appreciation for trees. The poem ends on a triumphant note, supported by a full rhyme between ‘overwhelm’ and ‘Elm’ again at the end of the poem: ‘Leaves overwhelm. / The tree will stay. We tell him “no.” / Root deep through pavement, Elm.’
Though she died 90 years ago, Charlotte Mew explores the issue of deforestation in a similar way in ‘The Trees are Down’. Mew’s form is also bold and brilliant, moving around the page just like a tree in the wind – maybe you could think about experimenting with form.
The Poetry Foundation website has a great section on poetry and the environment. As well as the poems you can find there, you may like to read some essays about ecopoetry, nature and panic, and understanding forests scientifically (and through poetry). There are also interviews with ecopoets which might inspire you.
O Christmas tree… – prompt #7
Write about the Christmas Tree. Christmas Trees loom large in Western tree culture: many of the poems we’ve looked at reference Christmas trees, from e.e. cummings to Jackie Kay.
We’ve got a bank of Christmas Tree poems: each year, London schoolchildren write poems about the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree (gifted to London from Oslo), and The Poetry Society commissions a children’s poet to write in response to their work. The final poem is then hung around the tree in Trafalgar Square for the festive period. You can find all past Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree poems for free here and see this year’s poem in Trafalgar Square soon.
There are many competing stories about the history of the Christmas tree and putting up and taking down a Christmas tree is also very ritualistic. Do you have any traditions in your family, among your friends or community about decorating or taking down the tree? ‘Taking Down the Tree’ is actually the name of Jane Kenyon’s poem. The tone of the poem has ‘something more than caution’, reflecting the speaker’s gentle touch removing the decorations. The ending evokes that post-Christmas feeling wonderfully:
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
Write a poem inspired by trees. You can follow the prompts above, or you can be inspired in your own way!
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 20 January 2019. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. You can send as many poems as you like.
If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poems to email@example.com with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Tree challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on 20 January 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws.
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