On Tree Forts and Poetry, Structure and Support

Earlier this summer when I was planning my MFA class on the relationship between form and content in poetry, somehow in the process of deciding what and how to approach this course I got to thinking about tree forts. Growing up near woods and with plenty of free time on my hands, I built a lot of tree forts when I was a kid. Sadly I don’t think that’s much of a thing anymore, but that’s a subject for another essay.

Anyway. Obviously my friends and I had no formal building or architectural training, yet we managed to build some large and complex forts high in the trees. It helped a bit that a friend’s father worked at a lumber yard, so we had access to lots of scrap wood. One of our forts included three stories, was more-or-less waterproofed, heated, and looked like something Frank Loyd Wright would design if he was a 13 year old making tree forts.

Somehow we had this gift, probably luck, for finding the right trees for the job. In our style of tree fort, you needed three or four trees. They were the main structural supports. They had to be close enough together that our frame boards could reach, reasonably straight and not too rotten. For our largest and most well-built tree fort we used four trees growing out of a hill so one side was closer to the ground than the other, which made it easier to build a ramp to get to it. I think about those support trees when thinking about poems. Their position determined a lot—the shape and size of the rooms especially—and I’ve asked myself what the equivalent would be in a poem. It varies of course, but having some secure starting place to hang your first board, or your first line, and build on that, can be the difference between a fort that leaks and gets overrun by raccoons and one that you can spend the night in without fearing collapse.

“You use what you have, you learn to work the structure to create what you need.” writes Julia Alvarez about writing sonnets in her essay Housekeeping Cages. This was our approach, my friends and I. We had plenty of woods with tall trees. We had access to limited building materials (from our parents or stolen from construction sites) and we had time on our hands. Our materials gave us a start, even gave us the ideas to work with, but they didn’t limit us. We took risks (like building a hibachi and old tin pipe into a fireplace 40 feet off the ground), and got creative (we sealed cracks with melted candle wax, which of course melted away in the summer.)

We also had a reasonable arsenal of tools for the job. Hammers and saws mostly, buckets of nails, because we were crude builders making up the rules as we went along. “One has to know the tools, so he doesn’t work against himself. Tools make the job easier.” writes Yusef Komunyakaa about a period in the ’80s when he discovered the voice and form for some of his poems. Our forts would probably have gone higher, lasted longer and looked less like trash heaps with better tools.

I try to impress upon newer writers the importance of acquiring as many tools as possible, of studying structures and approaches that have worked in the past, so they can use them, adapt them, expand on them for their own poems. And I continue to try to acquire new tools myself.  I’ll never build a tree fort again, but I remember the feeling of searching around our heap of crap wood looking for the perfect beam, the right plank of plywood, and the satisfaction of seeing how well it fit.

Here’s one of my tree fort poems, published by Foliate Oak.

By the way, we always called them forts, not houses. Maybe that’s a regional thing, or just a neighborhood thing, or maybe we thought we were defending something with these structures. That’s probably for a later poem.

All Poems are Triangles

Form in poetry is more than just meter, stanza, and line break. It’s also a way of thinking. It’s the direction, pace and energy of the poem, and one of the main ways a writer can direct the reader’s experience. And, at least in my way of understanding, it’s also not something that’s simply visible on the page or scannable across a line. Shape and structure is metaphysical as much as it’s physical.

And this all is a way into my idea that all poems are triangles. Poems are kinds of vessels of energy. You cram a bunch of things in one end (images, concepts, sounds, ideas) and something else emerges from the other. Like a triangle, poems have a wide end and a narrow end. From a content point of view, a poem can start with a small point (a particular image, moment, or idea) and then expand, the way an ant hill expands as it gets to the base. Or the poem can start out large, with a wide idea that that covers everything, then narrows to make a particularly sharp point at the end. Think of that as a large funnel you dump the poem into, and it comes out a small opening at the bottom.

The most typical, at least in my experience (and in my own writing) is the poem/triangle that starts small and gets wider as it develops. Remember, I’m talking about the idea structure, not the line length or any other kind of structure. Often you’ll see a poem use some small moment or image as a trigger, which leads to another, and another, and as the images build, so does the idea and consequence of the poem. Take this William Stafford poem as an example:

At the Bomb Testing Site

By William E. Stafford

At noon in the desert a panting lizard

waited for history, its elbows tense,

watching the curve of a particular road

as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off

than people could see, an important scene

acted in stone for little selves

at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it

under a sky that never cared less.

Ready for a change, the elbows waited.

The hands gripped hard on the desert.

It starts with the lizard just sitting on a road panting, but almost immediately the poem starts to expand (“waited for history”) until at the end the poem seems to encompass the whole future in it.

This Jane Hirshfield poem does a very similar thing. It begin with on a small point, the young tree, and ends wide with “immensity taps at your life.”


By Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish

to let a young redwood

grow next to a house.

Even in this

one lifetime,

you will have to choose.

That great calm being,

this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.

Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

This poem by Natasha Trethewey, does the opposite. It starts with a large idea, almost the way an essay may start with a thesis statement, and then the poem progresses with details to support or explain the first idea, finally landing on a point, like a gymnast beginning with a large opening move then landing solidly on small, steady feet.

Theories of Time and Space

by Natasha Trethewey

You can get there from here, though

there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere

you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-

by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this

to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where

riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over

the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp—buried

terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory,

its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,

someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—

will be waiting when you return.

Note that the wide parts of a poem tend to be statements or metaphors, while the narrow parts tend to be images. Metaphors, especially similes, are expansion devices. Look at what a simile does—it takes one thing, compares it to something else, and creates a third space.

First, of course this silly idea about triangles doesn’t always work. Some poems are straight columns. Some are so gerrymandered that you can’t even name their shape. So how do I use this concept anyway?

Thinking of the shape of a poem’s idea helps me visualize how its energy and pace work, how it tightens and speeds up, or comes to a pause. In composition this can help me overcome roadblocks. If a poem seems to be stalled at some point, not moving the way I want, I’ll overlay the triangle to it and test which direction the poem is pointing, what kind of base or point is has, and where the break in its energy is. This can sometimes help me solve problems I otherwise couldn’t see. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a poem but can’t seem to see the shape, I’ll try to carve a triangle out of it—the way a sculptor sees a shape inside a block of stone.

It also helps me when reading poems, especially when I want to analyze how a poem works. I’ll look at the opening and closing to figure out which is the wide end and which is the narrow end. Is the narrow end a landing or the tip of a funnel. Does the wide base allow the idea to keep growing beyond the poem?