Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Worst Poem Ever?

Here is a poem I was required to memorize in elementary school:

by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's 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.

Later, when I was in high school, one of my English teachers told me that "Trees" was not a particularly good poem.  I could see her point.  Too romantic, labored rhyming, trite.

Joyce Kilmer

In fact, "Trees" was published in 1913, a day when different tastes prevailed.  Its poet was highly regarded at the time.

Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to refine his technique and show his full potential in the modern era.  Joyce Kilmer enlisted in the military and was killed at 31 by a sniper's bullet in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918.

Art is a sort of hit-or-miss thing.  Some works outlive their sell-by date (see my post "American Gothic and a Painting I Like Better," March 27, 2014) and become objects of humor.  Certainly this has happened with "Trees."

Long before I encountered the poem, "Trees," had spawned many humorous imitations.   The most famous was the quatrain by Ogden Nash, below:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.

The jests went on and on.  Here is another:

I think that I shall never fail
to see with glee a froggy tale
more lovely than a poem which
most must with difficulty stitch.

The one above, by a person named J.R., runs another 36 stanzas, some of them six lines long.  Personally, I think that's carrying things a bit far.  The original "Trees" is only 12 lines.

Here's the best one I found:

I think that I shall never see
A woman lovely as a tree.

A tree with curvy, supple limbs
Against which other beauty dims,

A tree that dances in the breeze
With leaves that tickle like a tease;

A tree aglow in naked splendor
Awaiting me to love it tender;

A tree with majestic bole
Adorned with a convenient hole.

A fool can love a woman, see,
But it takes a man to love a tree.

Yes, it's silly.  It was designed to be silly and won a $72.95 prize for honorable mention for its poet, Greg Schwartz, in the 2007 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest in 2007.

Unless I have it wrong, Mr. Schwartz, is from New Jersey and features regularly on Youtube as the poetgreg schwartz and the Gregory Schwartz Poetry Team.  He has some chops and deserves a following.

LATER: Poetry for Children -- Trees

NOTE: Joyce Kilmer also was from New Jersey.  To salute its native son, the state named a service area off the New Jersey Turnpike after him.  Here is a photo:

Another Jersey-born poet, Walt Whitman, was honored similarly with a Turnpike Rest Area, shown below.

I'm betting both these poets, given the choice, would have declined the recognition New Jersey bestowed upon them.

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