What follows is a now-annual, more or less, reprise of a post I originally wrote in 2008. A couple of years ago I wrote more about the student protests and the need to encourage education and uphold the values of a liberal civilisation – precisely because we have fought so hard for it, and so many have died. This year we’re still in extremis, by now deeply entrenched and global, and it seems to be growing. This week we escaped the jaws of a truly terrifying American presidential election, defeating a liar whose rhetoric and methods bear comparison with the scariest post-Depression governments. Wars grow more and more disastrous, more and more pointless, and the rhetoric more and more about protecting the military at any cost. I like this story. It’s about people. Tomorrow I’ll reprise the surprising aftermath from last year.
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.”
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, only 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 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 may well 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.
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 must be something wonderfully consoling about being, in some elemental way, like a tree.
But Disch’s poem gets at something else, something important, something that Kilmer – however conventional and pious – knew very well, and knew while he was writing Trees. It was the very 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.
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.