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.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, . .That mark our place; and in the sky . .The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, . Loved and were loved, and now we lie, . . . .In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw .The torch; be yours to hold it high. .If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow . . . In Flanders fields.
We Shall Keep the Faith
by Moina Michael (1869–1944)
Oh! You who sleep in “Flanders Fields,”
Sleep sweet—to rise anew!
We caught the Torch you threw
And, holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier’s, from the front—
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. It’s cancelled now, he wrote.
My luck is at the bottom of the sea.
Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun,
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men,
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.
My Grandfather’s luck was better. He served in both World War I and World War II. But because he was a civil engineer, he was never assigned to combat duty, his skills in building bridges and roads more highly prized behind the front lines. He was also fortuitous in the timing of his enlistment in WWI, finishing boot camp and embarking for France only months before the end of the war. I am glad my Grandfather’s was not only unfamous history but also unremarkable, coming home physically and mentally intact with only a finer appreciation of european beer.
But luck and War have always been connected. Maybe it’s why I have an aversion to the omnipotent presence of technology in our lives. Technology that seems so benign in peace time will be the scourge of luck in war-time. The next world war will be fought with such inhuman precision that luck won’t stand a chance.
Let’s honor the brave and the fallen in World War I on this 100 year anniversary of the end of the war, but let’s not glorify it. The battle field poets certainly didn’t on both sides of the conflict. Let’s save some of our patriotic fervor to hold accountable our current leadership. Hold them accountable to value diplomacy and reasoned avoidance of conflict as just as critical to a strong national defense, as the bloated budget for the Department of Defense. Let us hope that the lessons of the past informs our leadership of tomorrow and that pride and ego do not plunge us into war that could have been avoided with a touch more humility and a lot less bombastic lunacy.
The Man He Killed
by Thomas Hardy
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
–The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
It’s Veteran’s Day, November 12, a day of red-orange poppies on lapels. My Grandfather served in both World War I and World War II, his skills as a civil engineer well regarded in wartime. There is an obvious ridiculous irony in that fact.
What did we learn from the war to end all wars? How do we honor our veterans, those that fought and those that sacrificed their lives? Do we honor them by making it legal to own in peace time the very munitions used to kill their enemies on the field of battle? Is gun ownership the hope of soldiers who come home? Or do they wish for the guns of war to fall silent?
We celebrate this Veteran’s Day in the shadow of another senseless mass shooting with 26 lost lives in Texas. Some politicians say it is not time to talk of gun control after Las Vegas, after Sutherland Springs. Instead, these politicians choose to serve the interests of weapons manufacturers and the shrinking minority that want assault rifles to remain legal. When will it be time to talk of sensible gun laws? Are we at an impasse where meaningful change in our gun culture is impossible? I don’t believe anything is impossible. I believe that honoring our veterans can co-exist with laws that make the guns of war illegal and inaccessible in our communities of peace. I say it’s possible to keep bolt action hunting rifles legal and make semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles illegal, along with the extended clips and bump stocks that can easily modify them into machine guns. I say that bringing home a war mongering culture of death after the armistice is not the cause for which soldiers fought and died. I say, bid them be patient, no more.
The poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from the poem In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae. McCrae was a battlefield doctor who did not see the end of the World War I. The Anxious Dead was the last poem he wrote before he died from a severe asthma attack.
The Anxious Dead
by John McCrae (1872-1918)
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.
Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.