Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Worst Poem Ever?

Did this picture just give away the worst poem ever?
A lot like differentiating art from pornography you can tell good poetry from bad poetry when you see it. But more akin to music, the worst song, like the worst poem has to have been very popular at one point in time. And that brings us to Joyce Kilmer.

Specifically Joyce Kilmer's most famous poem. Trees.

Penned five years before he was killed by a sniper's bullet in the last months of World War I  the poem is included in the author's 1914 collection, Trees and Other Poems. Trees has been parodied, mocked, revered and most certainly immortalized. It's 12 rhyming lines — in strict iambic tetrameter — have now been recited for 100 years. Today, it's opening lines are some of the most searched for lines of poetry in online searches.

Kilmer was more than a poet and a soldier he was also a journalist who got his start as a student at Columbia University in New York where he served as an editor on the campus newspaper — the Columbia Spectator. Kilmer was also active in other campus groups serving a term as a vice president of the school's Philolexian Society.


Trees

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.


It is the Philolexian Society that keeps Kilmer's poem and spirit alive through it's annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest. A November tradition since 1986 where students gather to share the worst poem they can write while vieing for the title of  Poet Laureate of the Philolexian Society.

Drawing crowds approaching 300 in Havemeyer Hall, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest has become a loved and integral component of Columbia University culture. In 2012, the paper Kilmer once edited — the Columbia Spectator — voted the event #1 among the school's "Best Columbia Arts Traditions."

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest, Havemeyer Hall 2011.


While Kilmer was a prolific poet it is his Trees that have stood the test of time. Many towns, with many trees, have claimed to be the inspiration for the poem. Though none have been authenticated there is a Joyce Kilmer Tree in Central Park near several monuments that honor the fallen from the first World War. In North Carolina one can be inspired by the many trees in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.