When darkness hovers over earth, and day gives place to night, Then lovers see the Milky Way gleam mystically bright, And calling it the Way of Love they hail it with delight.
Joyce Kilmer, Summer of Love
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth’s 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.
In Minnesota, May is the month of trees even more so than the splendor of the fall. Minnesotan’s come out of a long winter eager for the warmth of spring. The bare and brown trees tease us all April long, with hints of green and growing things. But it isn’t until May that the canopy is filled with as many colors of green as the mind’s eye can imagine. Then, about the middle of the month, crab apples and lilacs fill our neighborhoods with their delights. By Memorial day their blossoms will be gone, their sweet smells a reminder to slow down, close your eyes and breath.
The beauty of this year’s greenness got me thinking about poems about trees. It’s what lead me to James Emanuel’s poem A Fool for Evergreen. Of course the most famous poem about trees is Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I asked a good friend of mine who was in her 90’s at the time a few years back; “what are some of your favorite poems?” The first one she recited from memory was I think that I shall never see…. I was surprised. It feels like such a simple poem for her sophisticated and educated pallet. I hate to say I had even found Kilmer’s Trees a bit cliche prior to writing this entry. But of course I hadn’t realized Kilmer died in World War I as a young soldier, on a brave and fool hardy mission, in which lives were shed needlessly, as easily as petals fall from the trees. I had not stopped to listen to her reverence for the poem through her eyes until today.
Kilmer entered the army as a statistician for the New York National Guard in the summer of 1917, shortly after the death of his daughter Rose and the birth of his son. He left his wife and newborn son with visions of writing a book of prose and poetry based on his wartime experiences. The reality of being a soldier drained him of his creative energy and he wrote little during the final 9 months of his life. He arrived in France in November 1917 and like so many young men of that war, who thought there was glory to be found, found something else was waiting. By spring of 1918 he was volunteering for ever more dangerous assignments putting him in harms way at the front lines, possibly out of survivor’s guilt. On July 30, 1918 he was shot and killed while as an advance scout for the 165th Infantry Regiment in an open field, at the crest of a small hill, trying to identify the precise location of a nest of German machine guns that were raining down death upon his comrades.
I didn’t think about it until now, my friend who was born in the early 1920’s, that in her grade school years the healing from World War I had barely begun for the families scarred by its tragedies. She memorized Kilmer’s poem in grade school a decade after Kilmer’s death, probably from a lesson plan taught by a young female teacher; Kilmer’s poem both a way to honor those that they had known who had died in the war and as a primer for young students for a life long love of literature. The poem is sometimes looked down in the halls of literary criticism for its simplicity, an object that is not valid in my mind. Simple poems, in my opinion, are the foundation of literature that offer a foot path into the vault of our adult imaginations.
Do grade school children memorize poetry anymore? What poems will become their primers for healing for the dissonance of the past couple of years? Are the poems that this generation memorizes in childhood similar or different than the past? What literature is lurking beneath the beats of hip hop and Tik Tok, countless young people absorbing its artistic energy, without the rest of us even aware? A hundred years from now, what poems will people share with each other from this decade? Do you have a poem that has touched your heart in a different way these past two years that you will carry with you from here forward in a different light, a perfect light about you? In what form did that poem come to you? You may not even realize how it has buried itself under your skin until that day you find yourself saying it out loud to a friend….
by Joyce Kilmer
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men, Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves, Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves; They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen. The gate clangs to—we stir—we sway—and then We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
Hurled through the dark—day at Manhattan Street, The rest all night. That is my life, it seems. Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet. The sunlight comes in transitory gleams. And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet, The perfect light about me—in my dreams.