Not surprisingly, this poem was inspired by a girl—probably about
17 years of age—sitting in a tree. She was not alone, having a friend standing
beneath the tree, but the situation gave me an idea. I never considered
explaining why the girl in the poem was in a tree, but I toyed with
hinting at it or with suggesting possible motivations. In the end, I
did neither. The poet’s job doubtless is not always to provide answers,
though I sometimes worry that I offer them too seldom, which may be a sign
of cowardice or lack of imagination. (See, for example, “Sunday
Afternoon.”) In any case, in this poem, I wanted to preserve the
mystery. The poem was written April 17–18, 2004.
I elicited many interesting observations when
I subjected this poem to the literary scrutiny of friends. One was that
“Maidenhood” is written in the same meter as Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”
(My poem is a sequence of fairly strict iambic tetrameter couplets, whereas the
Kilmer poem deviates from this meter in a few lines that I have always
found troublesome.) This was a bit surprising, as the poem began as a
series of irregular lines that went through several transformations before
taking their final form. I gave no conscious thought to “Trees.”
Shortly after I wrote the poem, I took a copy
rehearsal and showed it to my friend Michael Plaskett. As it happened,
Mike delighted choir members by rehearsing a song that he was scheduled to sing the
following Sunday in honor of Earth Day, a once-popular setting of the
Kilmer poem by Oscar Rasbach. As I listened to Mike, I realized that my
words could easily be sung to the same tune and that, in fact, both poems
have twelve lines.
The next day, I sent an e-mail message to Mike
about these various coincidences and received in reply a poetic response
to “Maidenhood” (and “Trees”) that caused me to break out in
laughter. Mike kindly gave me permission to reproduce his poem here:
think there's naught I’d rather see
some girl perched up in a tree
dandling toes and calves of tan.
might become her biggest fan.
breasts delectable and pert
catch my eye; I’d hope to flirt.
at my ripe old age I’d be
invisible, and she
stay, complacent, in her tree
a thought of fools like me.
The poem Mike responded to was slightly
different than the version above. My friend Christopher Wilkins provided
a long criticism of the original poem, and he raised particular issues
he thought I needed to deal with. When I presented “Maidenhood” to my
writers’ group, I also offered a proposed revision. Some of my
substitute lines were well received; others were not. I struggled with
the poem for several days, completing the version above on May 15.
Here is the original version of
While passing by, I chanced to see
A maiden sitting in a tree.
How strange to spy a damsel there
Among the branches, in the air—
A girl within a wooden cage
Who had not learned to act her age,
Whose long, bare legs were hanging free,
Whose eyes stared past and over me.
Her breasts belied her childish pose,
As, with each breath, they fell and rose.
How came that girl to perch there so?
I did not ask; I do not know.
The more I considered this version, the more
dissatisfied I became with the first three couplets, and particularly with
third line. My concern was mostly with meter, although readers had mixed
reactions to “wooden cage,” and I had some ambivalence about it as
well. I found revision difficult, but I like the final result, which adds
to the mystery of the scene. I particularly like the second line, which is
less literal than the original one, though I also worry that it is not
literal enough. I changed “wooden cage” to “leafy cage,” which
seems to have less connotation of involuntary confinement, an idea that
was never intended. Notice that I changed the last line as well, though
the difference between the two versions is subtle.
— LED, 5/17/2004