On the El not long ago, I met a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is now a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. We discussed what it means for a country to suffer from the deterioration of its ideals and infrastructure. I dedicate this post to him.
Every Veteran's Day, I feature the following story, told by Katy Evans-Bush on her outstanding blog, Baroque in Hackney; this year, I'm posting it with gratitude to my seatmate, and to countless others like him who are doing, have done, work that few of us can imagine - but all of us can appreciate.
In June 1918, a young poet called Eloise Robinson, touring the Front on behalf of the YMCA, was giving a poetry recital to an audience of American soldiers. Guy Davenport tells it: “Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems.”
I can’t find a picture of Eloise Robinson. But she was reciting poems, and in the middle of one poem, Davenport tells us, her memory flagged. “She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home.” A hand went up, and a young sergeant offered to recite the poem. Here is what (in, as Davenport reminds us, “the hideously ravaged orchards and strafed woods of the valley of the Ourcq, where the fields were cratered and strewn with coils of barbed wire, fields that reeked of cordite and carrion”) the soldier recited:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree...
Eloise Robinson was surprised and impressed that he should know it. “Well, ma’am,” he told her. “I guess I wrote it.”
Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper less than two months later, only three months before the Armistice. His most famous poem had been published in Poetry (Chicago) in 1913.
Eloise, for her part, continuing about her duties at the Front, wrote to Poetry that August: “I wish I might tell you of my visit to the French front, and how for two nights I slept in a ‘cave’ with seven Frenchmen and had a hundred bombs dropped on me. Not directly on top, of course. The nearest hit just in front of the house. And for five days and nights after that I was taking chocolate to advance batteries, to men who can never leave their guns.”
Davenport mentions how Kilmer’s Trees is in fact a self-reflective poem, about poetry itself. These days that’s a sort of no-no, a workshop cliché, but - even though the poem rates itself as second to a tree - the fact nevertheless gives us a clue to something ...
Please click here to read the rest of this wonderful post commemorating Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day, in which Katy moves forward to Tom Disch's reworking of the Kilmer poem (also published in Poetry magazine), complete with a comment from the legendary Samuel R. Delaney!
As Katy sums up:
"Disch’s poem [which is called "Poems"!] also gets at something else, something important, that Kilmer – however conventional and pious – knew very well, and knew while he was writing Trees: the reason why he would bother to write a poem about a thing like a tree in the first place – and the reason Eloise Robinson was reciting poems to soldiers."
In appreciation for those who have served.
Pictured above: The poet and solider, Joyce Kilmer.