“Trees”

Have you ever heard/read the poem “Trees”?  It’s a short poem by Joyce Kilmer.  Although very popular, “Trees” is often dismissed as simple, dated, sentimental, and sappy.  This poem has underwhelmed on such a grand scale that Columbia University (Wilmer’s alma mater) holds the annual Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.  I’m no literary scholar, but I think “Trees” gets a bad rap.  For one thing, the timing of Kilmer’s work toward the beginning of the twentieth century predates the modernist movement by barely a decade.  To judge Kilmer against poets like TS Elliot and Ezra Pound, is like judging 90’s climbers for wearing SKIDZ.  It’s not their fault that Prana and Lululemon didn’t exist yet.

Now I’m not saying “Trees” is a masterpiece.  Even when considered apart from the modernist tradition, it still reads more like a religious nursery rhyme than a poem deserving of in-depth analysis by every high school sophomore on the planet.

Independent of whether or not “Trees” is deserving of poetic blame or praise, there is no question that the opening stanza is remarkably memorable!

I think that I shall never see 

A poem as lovely as a tree.

I was around ten years old the first time I heard “Trees,” and I remember the circumstances vividly.  My mom (a nurse) was working in some director capacity for a nursing home.  Often, this would be my landing spot between the time school got out and the time my mom got off work.

Hanging around a nursing home was a fantastic educational experience for a ten-year-old kid.  Exposure to death, loneliness, and Alzheimer’s, all in addition to the rich personal histories of people who would invite you into their room to show of their secret stash of sugar packets.  This was the ultimate lesson in what the far end of life’s spectrum could look like.  It also taught me that when the old guy in the red and brown robe was out, it’s best to look in the opposite direction because he didn’t wear underwear, and his robe was rarely closed.

Most of the residents were very happy to have a young person around.  Residents would often mistake me for their son, or grandson, or childhood friend, this in turn would lead to me sitting and reminiscing about events that I had no part in.  Some personalities really stood out, like the lady who may have been married to a mob boss and loved to cook for her sons.  There was the lady who thought she was a newborn baby, and of course the man with his penis hanging out of the red and brown robe.  There was also Mary, I think her name was Mary, but for all I know it could have been Rose or Agnes or Edith, but we’ll go with Mary.  Mary was a retired schoolteacher who spoke in a way that left no doubt about her command of proper communication.  She was very kind with a perceived clarity of her situation.  From what I remember, Mary dressed as well as she articulated.  With a wealth of knowledge, she would sometimes recite poetry from memory.  Her most memorable citation was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.

The way Mary recited that poem with such confidence, her crackling voice and perfect annunciation made “Trees” seem like it was wisest combination of words ever assembled.  It must have been another five or six years before I heard that poem again, and despite thinking it was markedly worse than I remembered, that first line still struck a chord.

I love being out in nature, I love being surrounded by trees, Joyce Wilmer’s intentions and reputation notwithstanding that first line of “Trees” carries value.  It may be downhill from there, the poem may be simple, dated, sentimental, and sappy, but it’s rare that I pay close aesthetic attention to any part of nature without being reminded of Wilmer’s poem as recited by my elderly acquaintance, Mary (at least I think her name was Mary).

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

Is it a good poem or not?  You decide.


Carrot

85 Replies to ““Trees””

  1. Oh what a gorgeous piece. Thank you for the history. I am moved to tears by this piece. God talks about trees clapping. Just wait till we get to heaven and talk to them. They are wondrous creatures indeed. Thank you for this gift this morning. 🤗 virtual hugs, Joni

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Love your nursing home story . Not sure why you’re so down on the poem . As a tree-hugger and a God lover, I think the poem is just fine. 😊 There was a power by a trail running blogger this week that expressed her love of the trees she regularly passes on her runs . I could relate to it very well . The blog is called Be Short, Run Ultra.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. I think that if Kilmer had ended the poem after the famous first 2 lines, it would have retained it’s power and beauty. It’s essentially a beautiful haiku at that point.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. It is indeed a classic and one I recall from my school years….way back. Obviously it meant the world to Mary and was her gateway to her past. Cheers. Allan

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Esoteric literary merits aside, I like this poem because I love trees. I would also like to think that you being exposed to the “…far end of life’s spectrum…” at a early age made you a better person.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. This is a great post! I didn’t have an opinion about the poem Trees before this post but because of it, I will now always remember it fondly! Beautiful!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. That bit of “good” vs ” great” vs “mediocre” poetry has all but killed poetry for people in general. Back in my mom’s day kids memorized long poems at school, complicated pieces like Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” My grandfather — beginning the first day of December — began reading “Snowbound” to his 9 kids every single year. I can’t take a walk out there this month without hearing my mom’s voice (a good voice this time) saying, “The sun that brief December day, rose cheerless over hills of gray.” The determination of good poetry is total bullshit for bloodless academics sitting in campus pubs staring at grad students (female) bending over the pool table to get a good shot.

    Believe me, I KNOW.

    My thesis advisor was a really fine scholar of American literature. You’d probably love his Thoreau biography, “Thoreau, a Life of the Mind.” But I remember one day walking back to the English Department Office with him and his fans were all around asking deep questions about some deep American poet and he said, straight, “People didn’t read this. People read other things. For one, they loved Robert Service.”

    Some groupie goes, “Oh! Robert Service! I’ve never heard of him!”

    My relationship with that marvelous man began that afternoon, a lifelong friendship, opened with my chirping into the cold Colorado air, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun but the men who moil for gold. The arctic trails have their secret tales, that will…”

    And he said, “make your blood run cold. The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see, was the night on the marge of Lake LeBarge” and in unison we said, “I cremated Sam McGee.”

    So the big question is “What’s a poem for?” Some artist serve nature. Some serve the public. Some serve some theory and to understand it, a person has to look at their world.” For me a good poem is one that I can never, ever, ever forget and that makes my world and vision larger, that holds within it a particular human sensibility and adds to mine. There is also a matter of personal taste. Critics try to be arbiters of that but fuck it. They can’t. My beliefs, experience, yearnings can’t be changed by Prufrock. But this did it.

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
    Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
    Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

    And you know, as a climber, that it’s only “sheer plod” that carries you safely up a pitch. AND this is a fantastic depiction of a raptor hunting. I see it all the time. I hear this in my mind when I see it. Is Hopkins great poetry? Anyway, this poem might be as lovely as a tree. I know a bunch more that are right up there with trees and trees are a high standard for poetry.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Martha, the moment the idea for this post came to me I was hoping that you would be able to comment on it, and you did not disappoint. I have to say that your description of bloodless academics in pubs starring at grad students is so unbelievably spot on. The details should be listed in the About page or the FAQ page department websites.

      Thank you or sharing your memories, experiences, thoughts, and pieces of poetry.

      This is was perfect!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Grad school was surreal. I barely made it out. When I turned in my thesis for approval by one of those very bloodless academics he said “You really did it. It isn’t even bad.” He made me reprint one page and he signed it. Basically, I got thrown out but was “allowed” to submit a thesis if I wrote one. Not my milieu…

        Liked by 2 people

      2. It also reminded me of Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society” reading someone’s algorithm for judging the quality of a poem. As his students dutifully scribbled notes, he stopped and told them to rip those pages out of the book, then passed the trash can around the room.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I went to Joyce Kilmer School in Chicago (a public grade school), and either the first or the final two lines of “Trees,” I forget which, are painted in German-looking gold script on green above the school’s small auditorium stage.
    I always thought I should have a knowledgeable opinion about poetry (as an English major), but no… at some point I thought, if I like it, it’s good. Even if it’s a sentimental poem, or pop lyrics.

    Liked by 7 people

  9. Mad Magazine once parodied Kilmer’s poem with “I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/And if the billboards do not fall/I’ll never see a tree at all.”

    Liked by 4 people

  10. I love your memory of the older people you met when you were younger! I find Kilmer’s poem, “Meh”. I love trees, but the “praise to God” aspects of it turn me off. Maybe I should write bawdy poems about trees. Hmm, there’s a thought. You know how they like to spread themselves around and catching all us other living creatures in the funk. The audacity! An ode to allergies…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. HAHA…I vote yes to that! Trees are like a wolf in sheep’s clothing! That would be a really funny new poetry genre. The beast behind the beauty written in rhyme!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You asked me to decide. Did that long ago. You did not ask me to share my opinion. That was your intention, but I’m not gonna do it. Good to learn the background you provide. Good post, good read.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Pingback: 💥Peace & Truth
  13. Tried to comment earlier, but apparently I wasn’t logged in, so I don’t think it went through. Of course feel free to delete if this is a duplicate. Below is the gist of what I tried to say…

    I loved this. And I loved the comment about the professors at the campus bar. I am not a very social person, so I never attended those odd gatherings at professors’ houses, but I did always wonder what happened at them.

    I love only two poems: Desiderata, which was given to me by my 12th grade English teacher, and the one about the plums and the icebox. Years ago, when I told my 9th grade students that the plums poem was my favorite, they said, That’s your favorite poem?!

    As for Desiderata, I used to keep a handwritten (by me) copy of it in my nightstand, but after I moved recently, it got lost. Just the other day, I saw the poem quoted in a book I was reading. “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” Those. Those are my favorite poetry words.

    Thank you for the post and for the opportunity to share. Sorry if this was a duplicate!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Suzanne, I feel like your students are really lucky to have you as their teacher! I have a few LIT friends who can toss all these poems and lines from poems around in common conversation, and I am always so impressed by that. I can barely speak my own words sometimes. I enjoy poetry, but ultimately am a total ignorant when it comes to the depth and analysis.

      I feel bad that you lost your handwritten poem…maybe that is an opportunity to write it out again?

      Thank you very much for sharing, and I don’t think you missed anything by missing the professors gatherings!

      All the best!

      -Carrot

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Sorry, but I can’t help it, since I quoted Mad Magazine before. The National Lampoon once parodied “Desiderata” with “Deteriorata”. The line you cited was parodied as “Go placidly amid the noise and waste,
      And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.”

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I am a nature lover as well, and no doubt this poem will go through my mind the next time I’m paddling down a stream shaded by trees.

    Liked by 5 people

  15. I LOVE the poem, but I love trees and the “language” they “speak” to me 😉 IF they COULD speak, what a tale they might tell!!!!!
    Thanks for sharing this tree pic and the poem, as well as your thoughts in this post!

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Thanks for this. I concur with those that say that the poem is not of the best quality, since its structure seems rather facile and bland of image. Yet its concept, its central thrust is I think very important and a view badly needed at this time in particular, with deforestation nearly everywhere and ongoing in most remaining reserves and unfixed carbon abounding in the atmosphere.

    I am an atheist but the phrase “only God can make a tree” is a powerful one to me, replacing “God” with “Nature”. Trees are great to see, to feel, to climb, to sit under and to harvest carefully and great also is the life they sustain, both directly and indirectly.

    The memoir of the nursing home was great too, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such a thought out comment, I really like the idea that “God” is a place holder, that is a great thought! Much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. It was my mom’s favorite poem and always makes me smile. It may be too simplistic for some but the entire poem is a prayer. It’s a reverent moment in nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. What a heart-warming (and funny) post. I think it’s great that you got to hang out at the nursing home when you were a kid and I can see why the poem holds special memories for you. Being a tree-lover, I think the poem is right on.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Enjoyed the post as well as all posted comments. From Trail Running to Dead Poet’s society, you have some thoughtful and quality responses. And I hear you re the nursery rhyme feel but if we’re judging a poem on the strength of the imagery, hard to argue that this isn’t a beauty!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Your essay and the people in it came alive in my head. In 9th grade we had to make a collection of ten poems or so that we liked. We had to illustrate the poems and answer questions about them. “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer was one of the poems that made the cut into my book of ten. I still like the poem and I enjoyed reading it again in your essay. I also like the poet Robert Service!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a sweet compliment, thank you for sharing expressing your thoughts. They are really reinforcing, and I appreciate it! Happy new year to you and cheers to finding more great poetry in 2022!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. I enjoyed the poem. I agree with the commenter that they could have stopped at the first two lines. Do I think it’s an amazing piece of art that everyone should know because it’s a masterpiece? No. But I definitely think it’s good because I feel it accomplished it’s goal which was delivering the message that we cannot ever create something as brilliant as a tree.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. It has a certain ‘ethos’. It is sublime, rather powerful in its evocation of an intense feeling or moment of awe. In its simplicity and unfeigned imagery it has ‘power.’ Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is really well put! I think you’re right it’s power does seem to come from its simplicity. Good call, thank you!

      Like

  23. Reblogged this on via laterale and commented:
    The title drew me in. Thinking about my tree in Cologne (Germany) I could lie on his mighty trunk, observing the dance of the leaves. He broke during a thunderstorm, Broke but not dead, From the stub of the tree little twitches in uncountable number cheered about the fact that they no longer needed to travel all the way up the trunk to catch sunlight

    Liked by 1 person

  24. I must say that the poem isn’t something that strikes you at the first read and only subsequent reads reveal the layers, however simple, they may be. There are stories that are left for the reader to imagine, the family of robins, the snow during winter months, stories that aren’t direct but left to the imaginative reader to ponder and think of. It may have a similar simplicity like the poem ‘Leisure’, a poem which is ingrained in my heart and head. And I think, much like you, it arises from the circumstance-in your case the narration by Mary left an impact and in my case my teacher from primary school who made the poem her own with her deep emotions! Therein, a poem, a prose, an essay may not strike the same chord with everybody for our perceptions keep differing and the circumstance in which they were read, written leaves an impact for life.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. This is beautiful. I’ll never consider this poem the same way again! And like you, I love those first two lines. Those are the lines I remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. I will ever remember “Trees” now, thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of reflection on the magnificence of God’s creation!

    Liked by 1 person

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