A Poem Lovely
as a Tree
Listen [4:39]:

TRANSCRIPT:

SCHWARTZ: In deep thought, I return from the Laundromat of my soul/ Where I pick up the blazer of my spirit and the khakis of my heart/ And the afghan of despair / I realize: / I hardly knew my soul at all. / And he is Korean.

NARRATOR: That was Josh Schwartz reading his poem "Deep Thoughts on Laundry". He was reading at a bad poetry contest held by the Philolexian society at Columbia University in New York. This bad poetry competition is held every year in memory of a Columbia alum, Joyce Kilmer. Kilmer's most widely known poem is Trees. It's recited at Arbor Day celebrations, it's been set to music several times, and it has even been referenced in movies, like Superman II:

[SUPERMAN II: Crystal voice: Kryptonian memory bank. Education crystal number 308. Earth Culture, section B. "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, of the planet Earth. Lex Luthor: Whatís this? Crystal voice: I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a treeÖ Lex Luthor: He's not here. It's a voice from the past. That's cute! Crystal voice: A Tree that Looks at God all Da- [cuts off] Eve Teschmacher: I like "Trees". Lex Luthor: So does the average Cocker Spaniel.]

[MUSIC: Trees performed by Paul Robeson "I Think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a treeÖ"]

VINCIGUERA: A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

VINCIGUERA: Iím Tom Vinciguera. Iím the uh, avitar of the Philolexian society at Columbia. I wonder if Trees would win the Kilmer bad poetry contest today- I tend to think not because I think it was, sincere.

VINCIGUERA: A tree that looks at God all day, / And lifts her leafy arms to pray; / A tree that may in summer wear...

HADAS: 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.

HADAS: Iím Rachel Hadas, a poet and professor of English at the Newark campus of Rutgers. My take on this poem is itís rather slight. It is free of irony and self consciousness, except that little reference to fools like me at the end, which I find kind of charming.

KILMER: Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.

KILMER: My name is Hugh Kilmer. Iím the- oldest grandson of- Joyce Kilmer. I do like it. I like others better.

HADAS: Trees is a short little poem about a tree with that nice image about the mouth pressed against the earthís sweet flowing breast,

[MUSIC: Trees performed by Paul Robeson "Against the Earthsí sweet flowing breastÖ"]

HADAS: In a sense this is a very romantic poem. The tree is personified and full of emotion. So, just because- the year 1900 had come and gone, itís wrong to think that romanticism had died.

KILMER: Trees of course has been set to music several different times.

[MUSIC: Trees performed by Dave Apollon "Boys, should we play Trees?" "Yeah!" "Ladies and Gentlemen, here it is!"]

KILMER: The one thatís most famous is the Oscar Rasbach Trees--ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba.

VINCEGUERA: It has been translated into something like a dozen languages. And it has been sung by many people including Alfalfa of the Little Rascals.

[LITTLE RASCALS 'ARBOR DAY': Alfalfa singing: "I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree"]

VINCEGUERA: There are 13 service areas on the New Jersey Turnpike. And the Joyce Kilmer service area is one of them.

HADAS: The best memorial for poets is in Robert Frostsí words, to lodge some poems where theyíre hard to get rid of. Itís like a splinter under your fingernail. Itís not utterly comfortable, but itís there. If thatís what a good poet does, Kilmer has lodged that poem. He hit the jackpot!

[LITTLE RASCALS 'ARBOR DAY': Alfalfa singing: "Only God can make a tree!"]

Click here to write or read comments on this piece.

This piece was produced for Weekend America and aired Decmeber 3, 2005. It also aired on WKMS (4/6/06), WFIU (4/8/06) and New Hampshire Public Radio's Front Porch (1/7/07). The revised version aired on Prime Time Postscript the week of January 10, 2006.

Producer: Sarah Elzas, edited with Amanda Aronczyk and Jim Gates
Recorded in New York, NY and Union City, NJ
Recording assistance from Tina Pamintuan
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