A few weeks back, P&PC received the following letter from Ernest Hilbert— Phila- delphia- based poet, blogger, and editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review—which pleased us to no end. It's not often that the office gets mail, let alone fan mail, let alone fan mail with photos, let alone fan mail about Joyce Kilmer with photos of the Joyce Kilmer Service Area in New Jersey (pictured here). Talk about making us feel special! Here's that letter and our response.
I am up in Boston for a lecture and reading I gave last night. On the way up, we stopped at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop. I always intone "I do not think that I shall ever see / a poem as lovely as a tree" while swooping up the ramp. My wife said, "You should take a picture for Poetry & Popular Culture," and that is what we did. Yours is the only legitimate poetry blog around as far as I am concerned. All best,
We're sorry it's taken so long for P&PC to reply to your letter, but your note drove us deep into the office archives in search of some items that might help return your kindness. Rest stops named after poets are not entirely unheard of and, in their own artificially-lit ways, ask us to pull off of the standard literary-critical interstate, grab a Snickers bar, and think seriously about what it would mean to measure poetry as Walt Whitman proposed in the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass that it might be measured. "The proof of a poet," he wrote there, "is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
Take the "Hoosier Poet" James Whitcomb Riley, for example, who, if the P&PC office research team is not mistaken, has a rest stop named after him in Indiana. Riley has been left off of most maps of American poetry despite (or because of?) the way he's been absorbed by the rest of America. Did you know, for example, that Riley's 1885 poem "Little Orphant Annie" was not only made into a 1918 movie but then became the inspiration for naming Harold Gray's daily comic strip—itself the subject of more movies, plus radio and tv shows? Pursuing Whitman's standard of measurement, one might say that Riley was so absorbed by his country that he's nigh disappeared.
But what of your Joyce Kilmer (pictured in uniform here here)—the New Jersey poet of "Trees" who was 31 years old and considered the leading Catholic poet of his generation when he was killed at the Second Battle of the Marne in World War One? Like Riley, Kilmer is not remembered for being a strangely modern writer—Riley came after most of the Fireside poets and during the late 19th-century advertising boom, and Kilmer was included in all sorts of "modern" poetry anthologies—so much as the source of a small jingle or two, especially that 1913 ditty you yourself intone on the way to the rest stop that now bears Kilmer's name:
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.
There's not only a rest stop named after Kilmer, but schools, a forest, and even Camp Kilmer in New Jersey which, according to Wikipedia, was "activated" in 1942 and became the largest "processing center" for U.S. troops heading out to, and returning from, Europe during World War II. We here at P&PC find it especially despicable that, as the matchbook pictured to the left and above indicates," "Trees" was pressed into propagandistic service of these military activities. Here, via the arboreal imagery on the booklet's cover and the Kilmer poem printed inside, Camp Kilmer is not at all being presented as the site for massive military operations that it actually was, but as a sort of poetic summer camp instead.
Camp Kilmer's matchbook edition of "Trees" makes us think about the various complications of that 1855 Whitman quotation, "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Not all Americans used "Trees" as deceptively as the U.S. military did, however, as the poem was printed over and over in newspapers, magazines, school textbooks, anthologies, and church booklets. It was cut out and saved in poetry scrapbooks, like the one pictured here; "Trees" is at the bottom of the middle column. (If, by the way, you look at this page up close, you'll see that the album is not made out of a commercially-issued blank book but was, curiously enough, put together on the "blank" pages of a braille book. Go figure, right?)
Back in the day, though, lots of poets wrote poems praising trees, and poems were frequently read at Arbor Day or tree- planting celebrations all around the U.S. In 1927, for example, graduating high school student and future director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop Paul Engle would himself pen "Dedication Poem Read at the Planting of the Cedar by the Class of 1927." (A copy of that poem is included in Engle's papers at the University of Iowa Special Collections, so you can check it out for yourself the next time you're in Iowa City.) And, if you take a closer look at the upper left-hand corner of the braille-scrapbook page (pictured here), you'll find yet another tree poem—this one a translation of a poem first written in Norwegian by 1903 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Bjornstjerne Bjornson. Apparently, the market for tree poems was so robust around the turn of the century that the U.S. began importing them! If you want to be even more convinced of this tree-poem phenomenon, check out all the verse in the 1896 "Annual Program for the Observance of Arbor Day in the schools of Rhode Island" which includes—you better believe it!—the very Bjornson poem collected in this scrapbook alongside Kilmer's "Trees."
If these examples suggest how "Trees" was part of an entire genre of leafy poems—not unlike Whitman's "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," perhaps—that were fully and continually absorbed into U.S. culture, then the album page pictured here (taken from a different scrapbook altogether) indicates the singular importance of Kilmer's "Trees" to that genre. Take a look at the item pasted on the left-hand side of this scrapbook page, for instance, where the album's editor has placed an article about the "breath-takingly beautiful" royal poinciana tree. Not only does that article take its title from Kilmer's "Trees," but it then quotes the last two lines of the poem as the definitive word on metaphysical dendrology. "The royal poinciana," the author writes, "is so radiantly lovely and so flamingly vivid and gorgeous that one can scarcely bear to take one's eyes off it. The sight of this tree in its springtime robe brings to mind Joyce Kilmer's appreciative and immortal words: 'Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.'"
So, we've come a long way from that New Jersey rest stop, Ernie, but we hope it's been worth the ride and that we've convinced you that a school of criticism taking Whitman as its source is not only a viable, but also a valuable, way of tracking how our literary heritage speaks through our culture—just as Kilmer spoke through you between Interchanges 8 and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Make sure your lights are on, and drive safely.
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