Joyce Kilmer and War Poetry

If you’ve ever driven north to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve stopped for gas at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area:

I’ve probably been there a hundred times. As a kid, I assumed Joyce Kilmer was a woman. When I was tall enough to read the plaques, I learned the two main facts about Kilmer that most Americans know, if they know his gender — that he died in World War I, and that he wrote this stupid poem:

This time I decided to find out a little more about him:

Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc…
With the publication of “Trees” in the magazine Poetry in August 1913, Kilmer gained immense popularity as a poet across the United States…. Over the next few years, Kilmer was prolific in his output — managing an intense schedule of lectures, publishing a large number of essays and literary criticism, and writing poetry. In 1915, he became poetry editor of Current Literature and contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. In 1916 and 1917, before the American entry into World War I, Kilmer would publish four books…

I found a lot of his other poems online too. Some are better than the tree poem, but none are very good. Most have the same sappy Sunday School tone. And I’m not alone in that opinion; at Columbia University, Kilmer’s alma mater, they even have an annual Bad Poetry Contest in his honor.

Kilmer’s fans might argue that he just had bad timing; as one of the last prominent writers of formal, sentimental lyric poems at the advent of Modernism (J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1915) his work was bound to seem out of place.

It’s instructive, though, to compare him with Britain’s young poets who died in the war — Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen and various others — who are held in somewhat higher regard by modern readers. Their war poems are often considered in two groups: the “early war” poets like Brooke and Grenfell, both killed in 1915, were notably more patriotic, but also more sentimental and lyrical, than those who saw the war drag on. They mixed pastoral and other natural motifs, common in Georgian poetry, with celebrations of soldiers’ valor and glory. 1915 was also the year of In Flanders Fields, penned by the Canadian John McCrae, which is possibly the best-known poem of the war and exemplifies this style:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poets who died later in the war struck a very different tone — as in Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est, whose structure (a rhyming double sonnet) is a bitter mockery of those sing-songy fields-of-glory poems from just a couple years earlier:

…If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, — 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

…or Arthur West:

God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends — the fools — 
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality…

Kilmer outlived them both; he was killed in 1918, just a few months before the Armistice. But his last poem, Rouge Bouquet, was the same sort of pious elegy that Owen and West derided — it could just as easily have been written at the beginning of the war as at the end, given its complete lack of cynicism:

…There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band…

It’s odd to think of something like that being written after those classic anti-war poems, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only example. I wonder how much of it reflects a different American experience of the war as opposed to the European one — we obviously had a shorter war and many fewer casualties — and how much it’s just a matter of Kilmer’s own sentimentality and faith. It’s also a reminder that the whole early war / late war distinction may be partly a matter of cherry-picking the poems that fit it, something imposed by anthologists and critics to fit the later “Lost Generation” narrative of postwar disillusionment.

In any case, was Kilmer really the best American poet we lost in the war? Another candidate is Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a New Yorker who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 and was killed in 1916, before the US entered the conflict. His best-known poem is A Rendezvous with Death:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air — 
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair…

It definitely fits in that early-war category — natural beauty, battlefield glory and a quick trip to heaven — but considered on those terms, I like it better than Kilmer’s treacle. The first line evokes Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death, maybe deliberately, and it’s an interesting parallel to that poem. Admittedly I found some of his other war poems to be a little overwrought or preachy … well, anyway, as a New Yorker, Seeger is presumably not up for a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike.

In fact, as New Jersey poets go, Kilmer’s chief virtue seems to be that he came from an area (New Brunswick) that made a good place for a rest stop. Robert Pinsky is from Long Beach, too far away from the turnpike. William Carlos Williams was from Rutherford, which you’d think would be close enough, but the two nearest rest stops are named for New Yorkers Vince Lombardi and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s fatal duel was fought on the nearby Palisades cliffs, and Lombardi …well, he started as an assistant coach with the Giants, who now play in East Rutherford, so I’m assuming that’s the connection — but when he was with the team, they were still playing in New York, so it seems a little tenuous. Maybe Seeger has a shot after all…