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.