I Thought a Tree Dying by Sandra Doller is a philosophical poem in which the poet traces many lines of thought. These span from understanding lifespans, and wondering if we, as humans, are someone’s pet. Doller also touches upon language, how even a letter change can change the meaning of a sentence. Finally, Doller focuses on growing up, and how everything can change so quickly.
Explore I Thought a Tree Dying
The strangeness of growing up, death, pets, and trees are all touched on by the poet. Doller begins by focusing on a tree dying, the reason behind this astounding her. This then naturally follows on to the death of other things, like dogs. If dogs die in only a fraction of human life, are humans then the pets of trees, that live much longer than us? Many rhetorical questions are asked throughout the poem, Doller not sure where to point her curiosity. The poet then moves through the intricacy of language, finally settling on the realization that she has grown up.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Sandra Doller splits I Thought a Tree Dying into 10 lines. Each of these lines bears no continual structure. The poem is written in free verse, the writing sprawling across the full page. This form is used to reflect the stream of consciousness of Doller. She is moving through different aspects of human philosophy, the form reflecting this restless undulation of the mind.
There is no rhyme scheme to the poem, written completely in free verse. This lack of rhyme could reflect the strange confusion of the tone. There is no connection between some of the subjects Doller drifts into, reflected in the absence of rhyme.
One of the central themes of I Thought a Tree Dying is philosophy. Doller is wondering about the different aspects of human life in the poem. Her questions span from tree death to humans growing up, weaving through many different examples. For Doller, these questions are interesting, giving an insight into the human condition. The poem is meant to make you think, as much as to be read and enjoyed.
A secondary theme that Doller touches on throughout the poem is death. Both beginning with the death of a tree and ending with a human growing old, death is ever-present. Doller suggests that one certainty in life is death, this being comforting. The fact that she has become an adult, now having no one to ask these questions of shows her process of growing up. No one can stop the passing of time, death coming to all – no matter ‘tree’, ‘dog’, or human.
One technique that Doller uses when writing I Thought a Tree Dying is caesura. In an otherwise structureless poem, caesura gives a sense of purpose and form. The metrical pauses that caesura cause leads to moments of emphasis, Doller places metrical stress on certain ideas. Where a sentence comes to an end, there is a slight pause, the reader asked to reflect.
Another technique that Doller uses in the construction of the poem is consonance. Repeated sounds across sentences give a sense of connection. This connection could be a reflection of the link that all of the worlds has, dogs, trees, and humans all coexisting. Yet, this connection could also be a reflection of the ‘concentric circle of lifespans’, language repeating as life also does.
I Thought a Tree Dying Analysis
I thought a tree dying was a sign of pestilence or terror or you’d done something wrong in your life
in the concentric circle of lifespans, who wins that contest and is that how you decided to make god
The poem begins with the past tense, both from the opening words and the title, ‘I thought’. This use of tense could suggest that Doller has now changed her opinion. This shifting opinion and idea reflects the tone of the poem as a whole, with Doller moving from topic to topic in her philosophical exploration.
As we read the poem’s future, we discover that Doller has indeed changed her opinion on what happens to trees. She argues that ‘sometimes… they just go’. The use of caesura within this line slows the speed of the poem, the reflection on death requiring a somber tone. The slow pace of the poem in this line helps achieve this tone, Doller reflecting on the death of ‘pet[s]’ and ‘trees’.
Doller employs rhetorical questions to reflect the curious tone of the poem. I Thought a Tree Dying is a philosophical poem, trying to get to the bottom of many life questions. Due to this, Doller frequently employs rhetorical questions, asking herself about the nature of life. She is curious and inquisitive, wanting to know more about the way of the world.
Indeed, Doller knows that she has no one to ask but herself. Unable to ask ‘my mother’, she must look within herself. This inability to gain insight from her mother reflects the childlike asking of ‘why’ to every question. There is always another ‘why’, always something else to discover. Doller also reflects the fact that she has grown up in this phrase, now unable to have those conversations with her mother.
a thing? Who am I asking all these questions of, my mother? I am the mother now and have to
the letter. It’s when I saw my hand holding the baby’s head I realized I wasn’t the baby anymore.
The focus on linguistics is fitting considering the medium Doller has selected to explore her philosophical ideas. The poet watches as ‘now’ changes to ‘not’ in a single letter. The simple change between two opposing concepts through the deviation of one letter. The simplicity of language change is simultaneously incredibly concept, a simple change leading to a big difference. If something this small is so important, what could larger changes lead to?
The consonance of /h/ in ‘hand holding the baby’s head’ creates a sense of unity. The connection between the three words, particularly ‘hand’ and ‘head’ suggests a unity. Doller is able to hold the baby, have a whole life in her hands. This simple moment has strange weight, with Doller realizing that she holds a life against her. It is at this moment that she releases that she ‘wasn’t the baby/anymore’. Doller has grown up, leaving behind childhood as quickly as closing a door.
The isolation of ‘anymore’ could reflect the strange isolation this realization gives. Doller is no longer who she once was, the poem presenting a form of transformation. Although philosophical, the poem balances simplicity with depth – creating something memorable and reflective.
The harmony between humanity and nature in this poem is similar explored in Y Gaer and The Hill Fort by Owen Sheers. Both of these poems, acting as a diptych, symbolize a unity between humanity and nature. While Doller is philosophical about the purpose of life, Sheers focuses on human grief, and how that can be consoled by nature.
The focus on trees as a unifying part between man and nature is also explored by William Carlos Williams in Winter Trees. Williams’ poem focuses on how alike humans trees can be, taking off their leaves like we take off clothes. The only difference is the fact that one day for a tree is one year for us. This huge life span is similarly touched upon by Doller in this poem, I Thought a Tree Dying.