Elemental empathy, “the sky above us stayed the dull gray”.
Organic imagery in the form of the father feeling depressed and mournful yet towards the end the tree brings him hope.
Personification as mentioned in first impressions.
No metaphors or similes.
Lack of literary devices shows the reader how this poem doesn’t focus on other worldly, distant, figurative aspects but instead focuses on how harsh and plain life is.
Background of the poet:
“Poet, critic, and best-selling anthologist, Dana Gioia is one of America’s leading contemporary men of letters. Winner of the American Book Award, Gioia is internationally recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter, and narrative in contemporary poetry. An influential critic, he has combined populist ideals and high standards to bring poetry to a broader audience.
Gioia (pronounced JOY-A) was born of Italian and Mexican descent in Los Angeles in 1950. The first member of his family to attend college, he received a B.A. from Stanford University. Before returning to Stanford to earn an M.B.A., he completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop.
In 1977 he moved to New York to begin a career in business. For fifteen years Gioia worked as a business executive, eventually becoming a Vice President of General Foods. Writing at night and on weekends, he also established a major literary reputation. In 1992 he left business to become a full-time writer.
Gioia's poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and The Hudson Review. He is also a long time commentator on American culture and literature for BBC Radio.
In 1996 Gioia returned to his native California to live in Sonoma County. In November, 2002 he was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Unanimously confirmed by the U. S. Senate, Gioia began serving as NEA Chairman in February, 2003. He currently divides his time between Washington, D.C. and California.”
[Source: (Poet’s official website)]
Important points to be considered in commentary:
- Of Italian descent. Therefore the reference to Sicilian Tradition.
- He is said to be “recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter and narrative in contemporary poetry” however this poem does not have a rhyme scheme. This shows that this poem was unlike most of his other poems and therefore may have been more personal to him although his first born son did not die. In my opinion the poem may have been about an experience of someone close to him.
Structure of Commentary
- Name, author and overall theme.
- How the background of the author may have influenced the poem.
- My first impression of the poem.
- Definite structure but no rhyme scheme.
- Speaker and Tone.
- Literal Meaning
- Figurative Meaning
- Relationship [how they are more interlinked than usual due to the down to earth nature of parts of this poem.]
- Literary Devices
- Overall themes
- How the literary devices help convey the theme.
- How the other aspects of the poem [speaker, tone, structure, lack of a rhyme scheme] add to the poem.
- How the poem is addressed to the tree.
- What burying the infant’s hair and “birth cord” is supposed to symbolize.
- Personal response. [I find that imagery is used in just the right amount and this prevents the reader’s mind from wandering. Liked how the tone changes as it goes along and also liked the idea of what the tree symbolized (link to the burying of the hair and birth cord)]
- This poem and the emotions going through the speaker enforce the saying “the greatest tragedy is when a father outlives his own son”.
Planting a Sequoia - Commentary
‘Planting a Sequoia’ by Dana Gioia is a father planting a sequoia tree to mark the death of his first born infant son. Upon reading the title, I guessed that the poem would focus on appreciating nature and sequoia trees. I was dramatically incorrect. However, my first impressions after reading the entire poem was that it was quite upsetting although towards the end, the tree becomes a symbol of how ‘good things’ can still take place after ‘bad things’ in someone’s life. The most noticeable feature of the poem at first was the apostrophe, that is, the poem seemed to be addressed to the tree being planted.
The poem has a definite structure, 5 stanzas with 5 lines each, but no rhyme scheme or rhythm. In my opinion, the lack of a rhyme scheme represents how unpredictable life is. The speaker is a father who is addressing a tree and telling it the story of why he is planting it and what it’s purpose of entering this world is. The speaker refers to a Sicilian tradition where a father plants an olive or fig tree to mark the birth of his first born son. Olive and fig trees are small, short trees that bear fruits while sequoias are tall, fruitless trees and so it is fitting that the speaker, to mark the death of his son instead of birth, plants a tree that is in a way the opposite of the trees planted to mark a son’s birth. Although the poem never actually states that the speaker is the father and not the mother, it is safe to conclude that it is indeed the father as it is the father who plants the tree in the Sicilian tradition. The tone of this poem changes as the poem progresses, it starts of mournful, “rain blacked the horizon”; leading into wistful, “I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s orchard” and finally, towards the end, there is a hopeful tone, “when our family is no more … I want you to stand among strangers”. I believe that the poet used this changing tone to help readers empathize with the speaker as they go through the same emotions as him.
In my opinion, most of the literally and figuratively refers to the tree as a symbol of the father’s hope that still carries on after the infant’s death. The literal and figurative meanings are closely linked in this poem because of it’s down to earth and harsh nature. The poet wants readers to understand how brutal real life is and so the figurative, mystical meaning that normally can be found in most poems is the mostly same as the literal one in this poem, the only exception being the fourth paragraph which I believe refers to the tree and nature as a child and parent, that is, nature is raising the tree.
A whole collection of certain types of literary devices and a complete lack of certain types of literary devices make this poem unique. While there is no assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia; no metaphors or similes and only one example of personification, there are several examples of imagery and elemental empathy. Visual, “rain blackened the horizon” and tactile, “cold winds kept it over the pacific”, imagery is used in the first paragraph to set the gloomy atmosphere for the beginning of the poem. The fourth paragraph uses auditory, olfactory and visual imagery to stimulate the reader’s senses. Examples of which are “days softened by the circuit of bees”, “nights scented with the ocean fog” and “bathed in western light” respectively. Elemental empathy also helps set the tone and atmosphere, “the sky above us stayed the dull gray”. Organic imagery is present in the form of the father feeling depressed and mournful at first and also at the end when the tree brings him hope that his son’s legacy will be carried on for years to come. While the imagery adds to the poem, there is still a significant gap where the other types of literary devices normally present in a poem are missing. Another notable literary device in this poem is the sequoia tree and it’s indirect comparison to the olive and fig trees. Olive and fig trees are planted as “a sign that the earth has one more life to bear” and they bear fruit which symbolizes how the sons will have more children and so on whereas the sequoia planted to represent this infant’s death bears no fruit so it represents the end of the life and legacy of the infant but it will live for far longer than the other trees so it will be a symbol of the ever lasting memory of the infant that will last for far longer than the lives of it’s parents and family.
It is my belief that by not using certain kinds of literary devices, the poet hoped to instil a sense of how down to earth the theme of this poem is and to remind the reader that this poem does not focus on other worldly, distant, figurative aspects but instead focuses on how harsh and plan life is. The other literary devices however aid in setting the tone and atmosphere of the poem and also help the reader empathize with the speaker. The literary devices also help convey the actual theme of the poem which is how a father’s feelings change and move forward after the death of his infant son. The fact that the speaker is the father himself and not a narrator who had nothing to do with the events taking place makes the poem more personal.
The most striking feature of this poem, in my opinion, is how it is seemingly addressed to the tree and what the tree represents to the speaker. These factors lead to the belief that the tree is supposed to carry on the life of the infant after death. I believe that the lock of hair (which is supposed to represent the essence of a person) and ‘birth cord’ being buried with the seed of the sequoia supports my deduction that the father hopes the tree will in a way carry forward the ‘essence’ of his son. The mention of the birth cord also alerts the reader to how young the speaker’s son is and makes the reader empathize further.
I believe that the poet has used just the right amount of literary devices to convey his ideas and themes. By not using an excessive amount of imagery, the poet prevented the reader’s mind from wandering and made sure the poem didn’t sound repetitive. I personally quite liked the idea presented by the burying of the hair and birth cord along with the tree to make the memory of a person live on. In conclusion, I see this poem as one that enforces the saying “the greatest tragedy is when a father outlives his own son”.