NOTE: I first wrote this post in 2009, what seems a lifetime ago. Although it seems a lifetime, it is less than ten years, and it was the first year on which there were no veterans of the Great War to take part in the commemorations. It really is not that long a time, one century. We can reach out and practically touch it.

In June 1918, a young poet called Eloise Robinson, touring the Front on behalf of the YMCA, was giving a poetry recital to an audience of American soldiers. Guy Davenport tells it: “Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems.”

Eloise Robinson was reciting poems, and in the middle of one poem, Davenport tells us, her memory flagged. “She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home.” A hand went up, and a young sergeant offered to recite the poem. Here is what (in, as Davenport reminds us, “the hideously ravaged orchards and strafed woods of the valley of the Ourcq, where the fields were cratered and strewn with coils of barbed wire, fields that reeked of cordite and carrion”) the soldier recited:

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.

Eloise Robinson was surprised and impressed that he should know it. “Well, ma’am,” he told her. “I guess I wrote it.”

Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper less than two months later, three months before the Armistice. His most famous poem had been published in POETRY (Chicago) in 1913.

Eloise, for her part, continuing about her duties at the Front, wrote to POETRY that August: “I wish I might tell you of my visit to the French front, and how for two nights I slept in a ‘cave’ with seven Frenchmen and had a hundred bombs dropped on me. Not directly on top, of course. The nearest hit just in front of the house. And for five days and nights after that I was taking chocolate to advance batteries, to men who can never leave their guns.”

Davenport mentions how Kilmer’s Trees is in fact a self-reflective poem, about poetry itself. These days that’s a sort of no-no, a workshop cliché, but – even though the poem rates itself as second to a tree – the fact nevertheless gives us a clue to something. Kilmer was regarded as the foremost Catholic poet of his day, and like a good Catholic he concludes as he must that however he may feel driven to create, his power as a creator can never equal that of God. This sentiment is in keeping with the sentiment of most people of his time; far more than (say) Ezra Pound, to whom he was connected through both contemporanaeity and, more directly, the magazine itself. Pound will no doubt have despised this poem for its utter lack of fearless modernity (though Davenport talks of its “silvery, spare beauty” and “inexplicable integrity”). But it had one important, unavoidable and perhaps even tautological quality (aside from the fact of its enormous popularity): it is a poem.

In his recent look at the satire of the recently-late poet Tom Disch, in the Contemporary Poetry Review, David Yezzi quotes at length from the following poem:

I think that I shall never read
A tree of any shape or breed –
For all its xylem and its phloem –
As fascinating as a poem.
Trees must make themselves and so
They tend to seem a little slow
To those accustomed to the pace
Of poems that speed through time and space
As fast as thought. We shouldn’t blame
The trees, of course: we’d be the same
If we had roots instead of brains.
While trees just grow, a poem explains,
By precept and example, how
Leaves develop on the bough
And new ideas in the mind.
A sensibility refined
By reading many poems will be
More able to admire a tree
Than lumberjacks and nesting birds
Who lack a poet’s way with words
And tend to look at any tree
In terms of its utility.
And so before we give our praise
To pines and oaks and laurels and bays,
We ought to celebrate the poems
That made our human hearts their homes.

(from “Poems”)

According to Yezzi, this is “Kilmer’s earnest chestnut from the pages of Poetry… admirably cracked and roasted.” But I’m not so sure.

Kilmer may not have agreed with Disch’s treatment, on the face of it; he had his religious beliefs to support, and his poetry was full of the inspirations and consolations of nature. Even his war poetry is about the nobility of suffering, with prayers and expressions of piety towards the dead, as in Prayer of a Soldier in France, where he describes in rhyme all the ways he is suffering, like Christ did, and concludes:

Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me
Than all the hosts of land and sea.

So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.

I actually think this is rather wonderful. What exactly is the gift? By the same token one may wonder how consoling the lifestyle of a tree, with snow on its bosom and open to the rain, seemed to a soldier in a trench, when it came down to it; by the time Kilmer came to recite it that day for Eloise Robinson, some of his fellow soldiers must have heard it as a faint, decadent message from a faraway world. But there may be something wonderfully consoling about being, in some elemental way, like a tree.

Disch’s poem also gets at something else, something important, that Kilmer – however conventional and pious – knew very well, and knew while he was writing Trees: the reason why he would bother to write a poem about a thing like a tree in the first place – and the reason Eloise Robinson was reciting poems to soldiers.

Below are two pictures of Joyce Kilmer: one from the years just before the War, and one taken in 1918.

3778_118732369481jkilmer2

Let’s take this day to remember not only the fallen of the Great War and other wars, but also their lives, however banal in their expression, and life itself. The fact that we use language as our primary means of engagement with immovable, intractable nature – including our own – is more important to us as civilised human beings than almost anything else. Lest we forget.

There is more on Eloise here and here.  A lost poet of the First World War. You can read the original essay and also more about Eloise in my collection of essays, Forgive the Language (Penned in the Margins, 2015).

 

 

Well… maybe I get a little too much time to think on a Christmas Day. The festivities ended hereabouts at about 12:30 and the darkness descended… I had a lovely, quirky cup of tea with a friend who’s alone today – we thought of the Jewish bakery but it’s shut, but a pub turned out to be open (‘by reservation only’; we persuaded them to take us in). Facebook is teeming with family photos, puddings, pretty country scenes, presents, party frocks, Christmas jumpers & general jollity.

For the past twenty years, ever since a slightly precipitous ejection from the matrimonial home, Christmases have been a slightly truncated, or bifurcated, affair – frontloaded onto Christmas Eve, and over by about noon on the big day, frenetic shopping-cleaning-cooking followed by, just as everyone else starts the real thing, an abrupt bump. The big push made shove, exhaustion met head-on on the day before everyone else meets it… and then this sort of wind tunnel of – either going to someone else’s place, if that’s the thing that’s happening, or else being here on my own. I’ve done both. I used to go to a ‘best friend’ who later fell out with me – but that’s over and best not… and the newer ex used to arrive on Boxing Day, but no… After a while being a waif and stray gets a bit tiring – it’s a lot of annual thought and effort, & you’d think a person would have sorted their scene out by now – especially with so many family commitments. (So many and yet clearly not quite enough.) And after tomorrow there’ll be no one else to help me eat the mountains of leftovers I’m so very lucky (I know) to have. (WHY? Why do I cook as if everyone was just going to be here?) Too much time to think.

And what I think is this.

Christmas is a really powerful, dark time. It always seems to me that a miracle does happen on Christmas Eve, that time stands still for a moment, anywhere on earth. Or that the earth itself does. It’s like a tesseract: we connect with the Year Dot and some cosmic energy goes WHOOSHING around like at the end of the Superman movie – we double up on that apocryphal night made of romance, Druid lore and Middle Eastern politics, and a new Christmas miracle happens every year. Alongside everything else.

Like all myths, the Christmas story is a living entity, not just among the fundamentalists. I’m sure there are other times for other people (of other religions, in other periods) which have this same feeling; I don’t think it’s specifically about the day, though this one seems well worn in. It’s about energy. The slowing or stopping seems like a point – a punctum – into which the darkness is gathered, to be dispelled by the star, the Saviour, the hope of new life, new light, redemption, a new paradigm.

Christmas is literally dark – at least it is up here in the northern hemisphere. It’s about darkness. The darkest day of the year just past, the light beginning to think about coming back, after months of deepening we can at last afford to turn and look at how dark it is – acknowledge that – and look forward.

The story that gets told about this day gets its power from that darkness – both the night sky itself in which the great star shines, and also the darkness of poverty, bureaucratic oppression, and the horrors of the tyranny whose promises are kept in the next chapter. We’re in a time of growing tyranny now; it might just be worth remembering that.

The Christmas story is, of course, literally, about redemption – and about the way redemption only comes when there’s despair. If there isn’t despair you don’t need redemptionIf you look at redemption as a concept, and it’s my favourite one, you see in ‘The Magic Flute’ or ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, or for that matter ‘Jackie Brown’, that redemption doesn’t come to those who are doing fine. It comes – if it comes – in despair, doubt, darkness, when you’ve been beaten or are lost. It doesn’t always come. If it does, it’s a miracle. And when it doesn’t, or didn’t, we sit with the despair and hold it in the light.

Christmas (as much as All Saints’ Day) is about death. For some reason – holiday stress, emotional overload, simply the cold – it’s a common time for dying,  just like for divorces and being born. The membrane is thin here. I’ve had both a Christmas baby and a Christmas Eve death, and it felt oddly right when there was a Christmas tree in the church at my father’s memorial service. Both a theatrical and a wholehearted thrower of a great Christmas, Dad.

At Christmas we sit with the people we’ve lost – this year, or ever – and hold them with us in this strange bubble of light. The hope for the future that Christmas represents – that it held for each of the dead too, maybe, back when they had a future. And, as there are different ways of losing a future, we also hold – or I do, anyway – some of those we’ve lost simply to vicissitudes. It’s a day for remembering who we love, and why, and holding that up to the light. Lucky us if we’re with some of them.

I don’t know. You lot out there. I know it’s all happening, right now – love and loss and heartbreak and destitution and drunk rages, and murder and war and terrible, terrible governments and big mistakes, and broken lives and love that just somehow dissipates. I know. And now I’m going to watch a movie or something.

Merry Christmas!

(Image: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, ‘The Queen of the Night’, set design for Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, 1815. Via Stephen Ellcock)

‘So Glad I’m Me’ at the Betsey: so glad I went!

November 24, 2017

‘Home Sweet Home’ So, last Sunday. A celebration (rather than a ‘launch’, as it’s already been out for a while, and there were very few copies for sale on the day) of Roddy Lumsden’s new collection, So Glad I’m Me. I will be writing more about this book in due course, as it’s shortlisted for […]

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7th annual TS Eliot Prize workshop: one day, ten poets

November 16, 2017

13th January, 11am-4.30pm Ten books. Ten poets. One day. (And what a day it is!) The TS Eliot Prize Shortlist has been announced, and on 13 January, 2018 – the day before the ten poets shortlisted for one of the UK’s two most prestigious poetry prizes will read their work in the Royal Festival Hall – we’ll be meeting […]

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A great day out at the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair

May 14, 2017

Sometimes someone comes along and does something that, once it’s done, seems like it must always have been this way. Charles Boyle did one of those things when he started the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, however many years ago it was now – five? Six! That first year it was a pretty small affair, in the […]

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Why, it’s a commendation!

January 8, 2017

I’ve recently started entering competitions again. Well – I entered two. And because of the year it was (2016 of course), I forgot to keep notes, so I entered the same poem into both of them. Kids! Don’t do this! So I effectively paid two fees and entered one competition, and probably pissed off the people […]

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TS Eliot weekend approacheth, and with it, the all-day shortlist workshop…

January 3, 2017

Well, it’s that time of year. The TS Eliot Prize is coming up, marking the end of this year’s ‘prize season’. In recent years it’s been the most prestigious, and biggest, award for poetry in the UK; it’s getting a bit of a run for its money lately from the Forward Prize, but still forms a defining look […]

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No No No, NaNoWriMo

December 1, 2016

Well, it’s December now. All over for another year. The failure, the ignominy… The typewriter you see above is not mine, as you’ll read in a minute. It is, in its cool, metallic, clean-lined sleekness, in its bland-faced 1960s rationality, in its businesslike luxe, its straightforward imperturbability, everything I could not be in November 2016. There […]

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