Afternoon sunshine twinkles off the Charles River’s tiny blue waves and warms the grass on its shores. Beneath the nearby trees, students lay out on towels with their laptops and textbooks. Some people on the walking path seem hurried, others are enjoying a leisurely jog or stroll. Several, however, have stopped to read the mysterious string of poems stapled to a nearby tree.
The Poetry Tree is a recent addition to the Charles River path. Though it wasn’t started by an undergraduate artist, its creator and caretaker, Michael F. Epstein ’67, says he was inspired by a student project. Epstein has retired from his position of associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and is a proud grandfather. He recalls, “My wife and I moved to Cambridge ten years ago, and that first year, there were poems in laminated sheets of plastic posted on little that were placed along the river, labeled ‘The Leverett House Poetry Society.’”
“I thought that was a great idea, great fun, but they never reappeared. My guess was that it was a senior who had a project, graduated, and no one ever picked it back up,” he states.
Epstein didn’t think much of the poems until two years ago. He says, “I put a poem on the tree, but it disappeared in a day or two.” Epstein posted another poem a few days later, but that sheet also disappeared, so he “just sort of forgot about it.”
Just this past spring, Epstein posted another poem as a fresh attempt. “The first thing that happened was that nobody took it down, and the second thing that happened was that other people started posting poetry next to it,” he says.
Epstein curates the tree’s poems with methodical care. He posts a few starter poems at the beginning of each season, makes sure each sheet is tucked safely in a plastic sleeve, and takes down the poems at the end of the season to make room for a fresh batch. Epstein even learned some web design so he could make a website with background information about the tree and an archive of every poem that had been posted. He references the website as an assurance that anyone interested can find and enjoy the small poetry collection no matter what happens to the tree’s sheets.
In his frequent visits, Epstein maintains a good knowledge of the poems on the tree. He has found most of them to be fairly modern, a page or less in length, and generally taking on a seasonal or natural theme. “In the spring, someone put up a poem by e.e. cummings,” he says. “There was also a wonderful Philip Larkin poem about trees. The Frank O’Hara one about having a Coke with someone wasn’t particularly seasonal or natural, but it’s a great little poem.”
The Poetry Tree also has become a venue for local budding poets to share their work. “A couple people put up poems that they evidently wrote themselves, because I can’t find the poem or its author in my research.,” Epstein says. While it may not be the best way to get feedback, a wide and varied audience is a definite plus to posting poetry by the Charles.
Most poems arrive on the tree in-person, but Epstein does give an email link on the website for submitting poems and comments online. Only a single piece of tree-mail has come online so far. “It was a man visiting from Ireland,” Epstein remembers, “who emailed to say how much he enjoyed it, and asking what kind of tree it was.” The Poetry Tree is a cherry tree, with wide and low boughs great for climbing as well as poem-posting. Epstein hopes to add pictures of the tree across the seasons to the site to complement its written content.
“It’s fun to see people enjoying it as I stroll along unannounced,” he claims. “We’ll see what happens. As long as people keep posting poems and visiting the website, I’ll keep doing it.”