Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Eve Merriam - Willow and Ginkgo (Overview)
This poem is a classic. It is taught in English-speaking schools to demonstrate how similes work in favor of descriptions and students are often assigned to write their own poem which should include a number of similes. This is an activity I heartily applaud as it introduces poetry to a younger audience, enabling every imaginative dreamer to experiment with novel ways to express their creativity and inner world.

Merriam's gift is to balance her thoughts perfectly as she weaves her argument, sweeping us with her objective and inventive comparisons, making us think this is a neutral, matter-of-fact exposition of two trees, then hitting us with an emotional viewpoint to draw the matter to a close.
The overview that follows covers basic aspects of the poem to help teachers, students or poetry buffs understand Merriam's work more systematically. 

Find questions under the "Themes" section and use them as discussion starters.
If you haven't already done so, take a look at the following list to understand some of the terms used in this overview:Literary Terminology List

Read the poem here.

Eve Merriam - Willow and Ginkgo

  • 1916 – 1992, American poet, writer


  • 5 stanzas: 4 quatrains, sestet (some versions have six stanzas = 5 quatrains and a couplet)
  • development of Merriam’s argument:
    • 3 alternating couplets (2 verses) + 2 alternating stanzas of 4 lines each comparing the 2 trees
    • 3 couplets + 1 stanza focus on the willow
    • 3 couplets + 1 stanza focus on the gingko
    • poem’s conclusion (final couplet) = one verse on the willow, one on the gingko
    • poem shows fair, balanced description + argumentation of both trees
  • each time, comparisons start with the willow and end with the gingko
      • this creates a stronger effect because the gingko remains in readers’ minds at the end
  • poem begins with “The willow” but ends with “the gingko”

Rhyme scheme

  • stanza 1: abab (forced or oblique rhyme = imperfectly matching sound)
  • stanza 2: dede
  • stanza 3: ghih
  • stanza 4: jjkk
  • stanza 5: llmmnn (mm is a forced rhyme)
  • Note: verse 4 of the final stanza contains an internal rhyme: “Somehow it survives and even thrives


  • willow verses: long sounds (diphthongs)
    • fine-lined, sky (stanza 1)
    • sleek, velvet-nosed calf (stanza 3)
    • streaming hair, grows, green, gold, fair, favorite, daughter (stanza 4)
  • gingko verses: short, rough plosives (p, b, k, g, t, d); fricatives (release of air through a narrow opening = f, v, th)
    • crude sketch (stanza 1)
    • chorus, joining (stanza 2)
    • old bull, stubby rough wool  (stanza 3)
    • forces its way through gray concrete, thrust against  the metal sky, survives and even thrives
  • result of this choice of sounds:
    • willow:
      • refined, sleek, long and elegant sound describes its beauty
    • gingko:
      • rough sounds created by explosion or forcing of wind through one’s lips implies baser beauty, aggressive characteristics but also reminds readers of air and therefore breathing = this tree is alive through its struggle to survive

Comparison (linked to the senses)

  • (eyes, art) etching: fine lines
  • (sound, music) soprano, delicate, thin: rare
  • (touch) sleek velvet-nosed calf: soft
  • (touch) silken thread branches: soft, expensive material
  • (eyes, color) nymph, streaming hair, green, gold, fair: mythical, not of this world
  • (movement) dips into the water, is protected, precious like king’s daughter: royal

  • (eyes) crude sketch, not to be signed: base, ordinary
  • (sound, music) chorus, everyone joins in: common, not extraordinary
  • (touch) leathery old bull: coarse, animal, aged
  • (touch) stubby, rough wool branches: rough, not slender
  • (eyes, color) city child, gray, metal, concrete: ordinary, real
  • (movement) forces its way through metal and concrete: aggressive, strong-willed

Imagery (figurative language which appeals to our senses)

  • willow:
    • classy: etching, opera singer
    • sweet: calf
    • refined: silken thread
    • magical: nymph with streaming hair
    • precious / noble: gold, king’s daughter
  • gingko:
    • crude, simple: sketch
    • common, possibly uncultivated: chorus
    • rough, old: bull
    • unrefined, unprocessed: rough wool
    • violent: forces, thrusts
    • unprotected, unfavored: city child growing up in the street

Persona (the poem’s speaker)

  • observant
    • uses his/her senses to explain each tree
    • notices details
  • sensitive
    • his/her eyes “feast”
    • his/her “heart goes to” the gingko
  • imaginative
    • comparisons are elaborate, creative

Conclusion / Overall Message

  • willow: beautiful to look at
    • touches the persona’s eyes + mind
    • satisfies his/her sense of beauty
  • gingko:
    • has character (touches the persona’s heart)
  • all beautiful things have their charm, but not more than that
  • some things have
    • a privileged upbringing
    • an environment that protected them and favored their growth
    • been endowed with the gift of beauty
  • other things have had it rough
    • their existence, though not outwardly exceptional, shows greater character
    • these things have the same if not greater value than other privileged creatures

  • beauty
    • what is beautiful?
    • is beauty important? 
  • appearance vs. inner self (personality)
    • does one take precedence over the other?
    • why do we place so much importance on appearance in our days?
  • survival
    • how strong an instinct is our instinct to survive?
    • is survival linked to character building? 
  • character 
    • what defines who we are?
    • how is character built? 
    • what factors determine our character?


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