Have a Contentious and Uncomfortable Holiday; You May Save Humankind: Thoughts on “A Poison Tree”

19 11 2012

 A Poison Tree

By William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


There’s a whole spectrum of confrontation styles out there.  On one end we have people who do almost anything to avoid it, and on the other we have people who seem to thrive on it.  You know the type; they throw conflict wherever they go as haphazardly as a little flower girl tossing flowers before a bride. 

Happily, with the exception of teenage girls, most people occupy a space somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I don’t think Blake is espousing an overly combative lifestyle in this poem, but he does have a pretty strong message for those of us who lean too far toward avoiding conflict at all costs.  He reminds people like me, who tend to avoid conflict like I would avoid a snotty nosed child, that when anger is not expressed and resolved, it is dangerous. 

This poem consists of four quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and the first couplet of the first stanza covers what happens when you tell your friend that you are angry—just like in real life, it is over and done with fast. 

The rest of the poem, however,  delves into what happens when you swallow that anger and “plant” it like a seed inside you. The tree metaphor extends throughout the poem. 

Blake believes that when you swallow your anger, the seed that grows within you is nurtured by all the attention you give it.  Let’s face it, when you are mad at someone, don’t you just keep stewing over it until you do something about it?  It can take over your whole life if you’re not careful.  Anger can easily turn into hatred, and hatred and fear are really indistinguishable twin sisters.  I can’t think of a time when hatred exists for a reason other than fear.  Can you? 

The tree grows and grows with your fears and the tears you water it with. 

Eventually, you start to grow fond of  it and really care for it.  There is a sick pleasure in holding onto grudges—all the rehashing, the plotting for revenge, the sneakiness, the victimized feeling. 

The tree grows and grows till it bears fruit, a shiny poisoned apple, which you offer to your enemy. 

He takes a bite, dies, and you are glad to see him dead beneath your tree. 


Poison Apple

Poison Apple (Photo credit: andy castro)

What Blake is saying is that anger, when not dealt with, can take hold of your life and destroy it.  You can become transformed from someone who may have been legitimately wronged into  someone who, like a wicked stepmother, delights in murder—or if you want to take it down a notch—delights in hurting other people. 

Alert! Anytime you see an apple in literature, especially one that brings about destruction, you can be

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

pretty sure it is an allusion to the biblical apple in the Adam and Eve creation story.  The apple represents man’s downfall, so it is possible that Blake is saying that one of the faults that leads to man’s destruction and fall from a utopic life is repressed anger. 

This anger too easily develops into violence. 


Hopefully this poem can help us all deal with the uncomfortable nature of confrontation and calmly tell people when we are mad for any reason.

 Maybe we can stop some of the hatred/ fear in the world by doing so. 

For many of us, there is going to be a lot of family time coming up soon with the start of the holiday season.  Consider blowing away any seeds of anger that you may have by expressing your feelings, even if they are slightly confrontational.  You don’t want to grow any poison trees. 

And, if you happen to have a poison tree already fully grown, chop that sucker down before it bears any poison apples.


How Do You Help Fight the Blueblack Cold? “Those Winter Sundays” and Gratitude

9 11 2012

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden


Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?



In November, many of us reflect a little more on what we have and what we are grateful for.  One of my favorite poems about gratitude, or probably more accurately, regret over ingratitude, is “Those Winter Sundays”.


The speaker, an adult, reflects back with regret on the way he and the rest of his family treated their father while he was growing up.  His father was a hard-working man.  Simply by using the word “too” in the first line, we know that for this father, every day was a work day, even including the “day of rest”. 


His hands ached from his labors, but still, he got up before the rest of the family to warm the house.  He fought that blueblack cold alone till it splintered and warmed.  Only when the house warmed did he wake his family.


Martel and van Over have friends for dinner an...

Spintering the cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one thanked him.


In fact, they were all pretty indifferent to him.

 This man gave and gave, and they took and took.


I think it is possible that the speaker is being a little bit too hard on himself here.  Children are self-centered by nature, and I think if we are being honest, most of us are pretty horrified when we think about what brats we were to our parents at least at some point in our youth. 


I, myself, was pretty bratty till my late twenties.  My mother and I can laugh about it now. 


When he says, “what did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices”, I believe that he really didn’t know.  So, how can he blame himself for something that he didn’t understand at the time?


What is most important here is that he realizes it now. 


He can’t go back and change things that are long past, but he can do something about it.  He can recognize those sacrifices, both small and large, that people are making for him now.  Plus, maybe now he’ll be more ready and able to make similar offerings of “love’s austere and lonely offices”  for his family, and do so without feeling the need to be thanked. 


Do you have someone who splinters the cold for you? I hope you do.


Or maybe a better question for reflection is how do you splinter the cold for those you love?

Instead of feeling like a jerk for all the crappy things you did as a child after reading this poem, try to think of all the ways you can help someone else fight off that blueblack cold. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t cold.   

Is it Possible to be a Feminist Stay-at-Home-Mom? Redefining “Women’s Issues”

25 10 2012




Woman Work

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.

Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.

Maya Angelou

In our modern conversation, the phrase “women’s issues” has become code for birth control coverage and abortion rights. How insulting is that? Sorry buddies, but this woman has far more pressing issues in my life.

I agree that both of these topics have a place in the conversation, but women are far more complex and are concerned with more than sex. Let’s try to expand that definition a bit.

Take a look at Maya Angelou’s “Woman Work,” and you’ll find that “women’s issues” extend well beyond reproductive matters.

The speaker in this poem starts out with a long series of couplets detailing her daily “to do” list. The rhyme and the rhythm in this first section creates a sense of the frantic pace of being a woman, and in particular, being a mother. Interestingly enough, even though the rhythm makes it sound a bit frantic, it also makes it sound a bit monotonous, as many days in the life of a mother can (paradoxically) seem.

If you take an even closer look at her list, you’ll see that it isn’t arranged chronologically—getting the tots dressed comes way after “company to feed”, “garden to weed”, and “clothes to mend”. This disorganization paints an accurate image of a woman with so much to do that she can’t keep things straight or think things through all the way. The way she’s running through her list makes me believe she feels overwhelmed in her many duties.

Woman in a rowing boat

Woman in a rowing boat (Photo credit: National Media Museum)

I feel overwhelmed for her just reading it. I want to go over and give her a hand.

But then I take pause. Things really haven’t changed too much for the modern mother since then, have they? Our culture has given us the script, and it reads that mothers must do everything. And do everything perfectly.


We cannot bi-locate. We cannot be perfect moms and perfect at work. Something has to give. We can pretend that we can do it all, but guess what? No one is happy doing that. Look around.

The speaker in the poem is a mother who works outside of the home. Check out where the two “work” related items fall in her list, the very last two:

“Then see about the sick/ And the cotton to pick.”

Her two outside jobs, tending to the sick and picking cotton, are the very last things on her overburdened mind.

That reminds me of where my work priorities were when I returned to work after having my twins. I really wanted to do it all. But I wasn’t on top of my game at work, and I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be, either. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a good enough mother, and a good enough teacher, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to make a painful choice.

And I know I am not alone.

Getting back to the poem for a minute, there is a dramatic change in tone and form after she goes through her list. The speaker, in contrast to the first part, is now speaking in very eloquent quatrains. She speaks poetically about her desire for a bit of rest and a return to nature. She addresses the sun, rain, wind, snow, and star shine, directly in what literary types call an “apostrophe”. What it boils down to is that she feels like she has nothing except nature. She doesn’t have any personal possessions.

Lately, I have had several conversations about the incredible difficulties women have deciding what to do after having children.

It is hard to leave a career you built, a career that you love, a career that makes you feel modern and feminist. But for many of us after having a baby, it is what we feel is the right thing to do for our families. It is the only option we are comfortable with.

I am the last person I ever thought would feel this way.

When I was pregnant with my twins, my superintendent came to talk to me a few days before I started maternity leave. I remember sitting sideways in one of the student desks as I talked to her (the only way my considerable girth would fit in the desk.) I told her I would be back in eight weeks, no doubt. She told me that I may change my mind. I was adamant that I wouldn’t. I had been there for nine years, and I had a position that I loved.

Well, I returned to work sixteen months later only to finish out the semester and resign when part-time work wouldn’t be negotiated. I am home now, and I am at peace with that decision, even though I miss having the ownership of something outside of the home, kind of like the speaker in the poem, in a way.

For me, the most important “woman’s issue” is finding a place of balance between work and home. Like the speaker in the poem, this would let mothers have the ability to both mother and have at least a partial ownership in their working world.

It would do MUCH more for us as individuals and as a nation if our employers could help mothers return to work in a more comfortable way; maybe let them share positions; work from home; who knows, get creative!

If we let Mom be present in her children’s lives more, AND let her still work in some capacity, we all will benefit, but


our children

will benefit.

This issue is more important to our nation than who is paying for the pills.

Some say that being a stay-at-home-mom is a luxury of the wealthy.


If you are not wealthy, it comes with considerable financial sacrifices, yes—but, for many, it can be done with creativity and serious downsizing, prioritizing.

Does that make me less feminist? Some would say yes.

Others would say No, and think yes.

No matter. I am happy with my rewritten script.