I think I’ve mentioned before that I have quite a tendency to think in poetry ~something that I inherited from my mother.
Every time I see an eye-catching tree, I immediately go this poem by Joyce Kilmer, in spite of the religious connotations.
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.
I saw that December 6th was Joyce Kilmer’s birthday and decided that after a lifetime of ‘being’ with this poem, the least I could do was to find out about the person behind the poem.
What emerged was quite a revelation to me. I had always assumed that Joyce Kilmer was a woman but it turns out that he was a man ~ Alfred Joyce Kilmer. He was born on December 6th, 1886 in New Jersey and his father, Frederick Kilmer, a physician and analytical chemist was the inventor of Johnson’s Baby Powder which has been part of so many lives, including mine and my son’s.
As well as being a poet, Alfred Joyce Kilmer was a journalist, editor and lecturer. He married Aline Murray (an Irish sounding name!) at the age of 22 in 1909 and they went on to have five children.
The poem Trees was written in February 1913 in the Kilmer Family home in New Jersey:
Kilmer enlisted in the US Army in April 1917, just a few days after America entered World War 1. Shortly before his deployment to Europe, his second child, Rose, died and just twelve days later Aline gave birth to their fifth child.
Kilmer was killed, aged just 31, at the Second Battle of the Marne in France on July 30th, 1918. He was buried in Picardy in France and a cenotaph was erected in his memory in New Jersey.
They say that poems should not need context to be read, but I’ve got to say that delving into Joyce Kilmer’s life will deepen my appreciation of his poem, Trees, every time it flashes into my mind from here on.
The trees are coming into leaf like something almost being said.
There’s so many sides to almostness and I seem to have been witnessing a good few of them lately. The trees coming into leaf are one of the blissful examples while spending time with a very dear friend who is breathing her last has been highlighting another side of this ubiquitous aspect of life.
Somehow, it seems to me, as I think about these opposite ends of the spectrum, that there are times when words don’t feel quite right. Rather, there is the shared knowing, the being at one, the companionable silence. The time for words will unfold in its own natural way and shouldn’t be forced.
Sunday was special like so many of the Sundays of my childhood. We used to go for walks on country roads, just like the road from Annestown to Dunhill Castle, here in Co. Waterford.
Childhood walks were always fun, but now that I look back on them, I can see that our parents, more subconsciously than anything else, brought us to places that would be educational in all sorts of ways.
Mother had a passion for nature, especially trees and wild wildflowers and Father was very keen on history as well as landscape photography.
I didn’t really mean to go for a walk on Sunday but found myself in the little village of Annestown with swimming on my mind. My eyes were drawn, as always to Dunhill Castle, which is about two miles up the Anne Valley from Annestown. The castle has a long, long history, which is well summarised here. In short, the site stretches back to pre-historic times but the first castle was built by the hugely influential la Poer (Power) family in the 1200s.
The ruin that stands guard over the Anne Valley today is very imposing and it is intriguing to think that the castle and the remains of an old church and graveyard were once centre pieces of a whole village. It is also quite amazing to think that the sea used to flow right up to the Castle whereas now there is but a narrow river.
My walk on Sunday had me thinking of the battles that raged between the Powers of Dunhill and the City of Waterford in the 14th century, but it also brought me back to Summer Sundays when Mother would delight in lifting us up to smell honeysuckle, pick juicy blackberries, play with buttercups and daisies, climb gates, run through bracken, listen to grasshoppers, watch fish jump in the river, blow dandelions, pick long grasses and gently press the seeds to sail in the breeze …..
That road from Annestown to Dunhill has hardly changed since I was a kid and here’s how it was as I walked from the beach at Annestown up to the Castle and the ruins of the old church and back again…..
Trees can have profound meaning in our lives. I know that the Monkey Puzzle in my garden is like an old friend as he gazes in the study window. There was also a tree on my grandmother’s farm in Co. Meath which served as the gathering point for us and our cousins. It could be anything from a hideout, boat, galloping horse, kitchen, chat-room or ‘base’ in all those chasing games …..
The other evening at the WORDS Writers Group event, one of the participants told us of how a willow tree that she had planted in her garden with her father many years back to mark a significant milestone had been blown down in the recent storms. It wasn’t just any tree, it was one that had been nurtured, loved and deeply appreciated.
She then produced a huge bag with cuttings from the Willow and asked us all to place them in water and hope that they would spring roots. It was one of those moments when the sharing of grief was palpable and it felt as if the collective heart in the room was baring itself to reveal an inner layer that’s seldom displayed among relative strangers.
I suspect that everyone who received a precious cutting thought long and hard about where they would put it and how they could give it the best chance of re-rooting. I put mine in a Waterford Glass vase that was the most precious vase belonging to my late mother who absolutely adored trees. For now, it’s getting some welcoming cuddles from ivy and dried Honesty and Pampas!
By sheer coincidence, I came across a poem this morning, by the great Waterford poet, Sean Dunne, which is driving my hopes even further that the broken willow will re-root between us all: