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january 2009

kilmer2cr

by Kathi Wolfe

Dear Mr. Kilmer:

I don't want to disturb your eternal rest. But I'm sure you'd like to know that "Trees," published first in Poetry  in 1913 and again in your 1914 poetry collection Trees and Other Poems is, in the opinion of Heffalumps, the most influential poem in the past 100 years.

While you lived (from 1886 to 1918), you would have been, I bet, pleased, but not surprised by this designation.  During your lifetime you were a leading Catholic poet and lecturer in the United States, often compared in literary circles to G.K. Chesterton and Hiloire Belloc. 

You wrote for The New York Times Review of Books, The Nation, Smart Set and other prestigious publications.  You authored several books and edited Current Literature and other journals.  In 1917, after enlisting to serve in World War I, you were set to write Here and There with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, a book about the War.  "I have not written anything in prose or verse since I got here – except statistics – but I've stored up a lot of memories to turn into copies when I get a chance," you wrote.

Unfortunately, you never got to write this book.  You died in July 1918 in France during the Second Battle of Marne.  A sniper's bullet killed you.  "I'm doing work I love – and work you may be proud of," you wrote to your wife the April before your death.

But, "Trees," the most well-known of your prolific poetic outlook has lived on to this day.

Few other poems, with the exception of, say, The Night Before Christmas, are so well-known in American culture.

Its love of the natural world inspired conservation efforts.  Some believe that it helped to create Arbor Day.

kilmerforest2

Every American of a certain age was made, as a child in school, to memorize "Trees."  If I live to be 102 and have forgotten even my name, I'll still remember your poem's inimitable first stanza "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

This is a terrible image to mix in with your gentle metaphors and similes ("A tree that looks at God all day,/And lifts her leafy arms to pray;")....but influence is a double-edged and fickle sword.

In your day, and for some time after you left this earth for heaven's leafy abode, "Trees" was venerated.  Matrons, schoolteachers and nature lovers recited it (without irony) throughout the land.  Musicians set "Trees" to music.  Nelson Eddy and Paul Robeson were among those who performed the musical version of your work, composed by Oscar Rasbach in 1922. Last but not least, a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike (you were born in New Brunswick, N.J.) was named after you.  Having people see your moniker when they pee is the ultimate mark of fame.

At the same time, those of us with an ironic bent have, um, well, giggled or groaned when we've read or been forced to say your poem.  I mean what's with this "tree that may in summer wear/A nest of robins in her hair"?  What could be more sentimental than "Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree"?

Ogden Nash, spoke for all of us cynics in his parody of "Trees."  "I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree./Indeed, unless the billboards fall,/I'll never see a tree at all."

But, don't let this get you down.  Having to learn "Trees" by heart and recite it endlessly in third grade, has turned generations of people off poetry.

Yet, this loathing of verse, has compelled everyone from the Beats to rappers to creative teachers to National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia to make poetry interesting, exciting, dare I say, fun again.  As a result of these efforts, people from eight to eighty are actually clamoring to read and recite poetry.

So, thank you Mr. K.  May you continue to rest in peace....among the "Trees."

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©2009 Kathi Wolfe
©2009 Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a columnist for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

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