Trees, a Poem, and Lessons about Life

A Commentary about "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer

    Personal experiences directly related to the "Trees" poem as expressed by James Carroll in the Boston Globe.

  • Like millions of schoolchildren, "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, was my first memorized poem.
  • Its brevity, couplet structure, swaying rhythm, punchy ending, all topped by moral uplift ("But only God can make a tree.") made it, in my time, a universal gateway to poetry.
  • When I went to high school, I discovered that one of my classmates was the poet's grandson and from him I learned that Joyce Kilmer was not a woman, and that he had been killed in military action during World War I; a fate that gave the poem an added poignancy.
  • To my anguish, I was witness to an act of cruel pedagogy when our freshman English teacher, a pedantsadist, taught us that "Trees" was as an example of bad poetry.
  • He wrote the poem out on the blackboard and my face burned red when the teacher mocked the blatant meter, the sappy rhymes, and especially, the denigration of the poetic imagination ("Poems are made by fools like me"), all compounded by the fuzzy religiousity of the last line.
  • The adjective with which the teacher dismissed the poem was "sentimental."
  • Am I now being "sentimental" this morning while holding a cup of coffee and looking at the tree in our yard?
  • A stalwart pine, it was infected with turpentine beetles and has been slowly dying all summer and now it is scorched with brown needles.
  • The branches are like a skeleton being skinned one bone at a time.
  • My free association moves from mortal sin to mortality, but I rebuke myself for what our teacher emphatically warned us of; pathetic fallacy, the urge to attribute to the inanimate phenomena of nature emotional significance that belongs only to human beings.
  • As for Joyce Kilmer, I am frankly pleased to discover that I still carry his sentimental poem in my heart, the words I needed today to speak of a tree that has been beautiful and true, and, even while dying, it still is.
A compilation based on excerpts from an editorial,
"Poems, trees and lessons about life" by James Carroll;
presented in the "Views, Editorial Opinion" page
of the International Herald Tribune,
August 25, 2009; page 6.

The "Trees" Poem is available on this page.

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