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Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’ at NYTimes
Yes, before there was The Trees The Trees, or these trees, there was Joyce Kilmer’s poem: “Trees.” Published 100 years ago in Poetry, the poem is his best known work. To commemorate its publication, the New York Times published the poem online this week alongside an essay by Thomas Vinciguerra on the poem’s lasting legacy:
In the movie “Superman II,” when Valerie Perrine declares, “I like ‘Trees,’ ” Gene Hackman responds, “So does your average cocker spaniel.”
I have been a member of that critical chorus since 1985. That was when I revived an ancient Columbia University literary society called Philolexian, whose alumni include Jacques Barzun (class of 1927), Allen Ginsberg (1948), Merton (1938) and Kilmer himself (1908). One of my accomplices in this enterprise, Michael Kaufmann — now a respectable professor of English at Temple University — joked that we should conduct a wretched poetry competition in Kilmer’s honor.
And so we have. Every fall, up to 300 Columbia students pack Philolexian’s annual Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest to hear original doggerel composed by their classmates that is intended to produce laughter, cringes or sheer disbelief.
… Every year it falls to me as “Avatar” of Philolexian to kick off the Kilmer event by presenting a biographical sketch of the man. By now, I have my routine down pat. After outlining Kilmer’s life and enumerating his poetic sins, I ask, “But was he really bad?” Invariably the audience shouts, “Yes!” And I roar back, “You’re wrong!”
Kilmer, I inform the snarky undergrads, is what George Orwell in his essay on Kipling called a “good bad poet.” After dismissing most of Kipling’s verse as “horribly vulgar,” Orwell concedes it nonetheless is “capable of giving pleasure to people who know what poetry means.” Admit it, Orwell says. Unless you’re “merely a snob and a liar,” you get at least some enjoyment out of something like “Mandalay.” That’s because it’s a good bad poem, which Orwell defines as “a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form — for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things — some emotion which very nearly every human being can share.”
That’s a fair take on much of Kilmer. Yes, he was proof of Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” But he could still touch certain chords with crude, shameless offerings like “The House With Nobody in It”:
I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn’t haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.
If you insist on rejecting this admittedly hokey notion utterly, never musing that “only God can make a tree” upon beholding a particularly soaring oak . . . well, take your pick. Are you an Orwellian snob or an Orwellian liar?
I thought so. So here’s wishing you a happy 100th birthday, “Trees,” in all your inane glory. I just hope that when my spirit finally communes with that of your creator, he will evince the Christian charity by which he lived his short life and forgive some impious upstarts for making sport of him, assured that it is their own peculiar form of homage.