“In times like these to have you listen at all, it’s necessary to talk about trees.”
By Maria Popova
“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing … that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare, language as a tool of love, and the poet’s role in a divided society, adding: “It is said that [Shakespeare’s] time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.”
To ask ourselves what kind of time we live in is to consider the sources of our sorrow and unease, to confront the brokenness, but also to discover the cracks through which the light gets in. It is the poet’s task — “poet” in that expansive Baldwinian sense of wakeful artist in any medium — to do the asking, so that we may contemplate an answer and find a little more ease, perhaps even the promise of spaciousness and light, in the act of contemplation.
At the end of the 1930s, as terror was engulfing Europe, the exiled German poet Bertolt Brecht posed this question chillingly in a poem titled “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake”:
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
Half a century later, the great feminist poet, essayist, and activist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), who devoted her life to the conviction that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility,” picked up Brecht’s question in a piercing 1991 poem titled “What Kind of Times Are These,” found in her Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library), and reframed it into a new landscape of possibility that contained within itself the answer.
In this recording from PBS’s Poetry Everywhere project, Rich reads her rousing masterpiece as her sonorous words reach across time and space to speak, as all great art does, directly and intimately to our time:
WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light —
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Complement with Rich on how relationships refine our truths, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, how silence fertilizes the imagination, and her beautiful tribute to Marie Curie.