Think About It

Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | February 03, 2012

"I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree."
Joyce Kilmer

Just the other day Evie and I were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and stopped at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Rest Stop. Out of the blue she asked this question, "I wonder what someone has to do to get a rest stop named after them." This article is the result of that question. 

Alfred Joyce Kilmer was an American journalist, poet, literary critic, lecturer and editor. Though a prolific poet whose works celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his religious faith, Kilmer is remembered most for a short poem entitled "Trees" which was published in the collection Trees and Other Poems in 1914. 

When he was deployed to Europe during World War I, Kilmer was considered the leading American Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation. In spite of his age, critics often compared him to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton and Kilaire Belloc. 

Here is his poem "Trees": 

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. 

Kilmer was born on December 6, 1886 in New Brunswick, NJ the youngest of four children. Even in grammar school he won prizes for public speaking and writing. He attended Rutgers College and later transferred to Columbia University where he graduated in 1908. Shortly after graduation he married Aline Murray, a fellow poet, and together they had five children. His final child to die was Clanton Kilmer, a Catholic nun, who died in 1999. 

After a brief stint of teaching high school Latin in Morristown, NJ, he moved to New York to focus on a career as a writer. He was hired by Funk and Wagnals which was preparing The Standard Dictionary and shortly after it was published in 1912, he became a special writer for the New York Times Review of Books Sunday Magazine. He quickly became a popular lecturer who was also known for his oratory as well as his writing. He produced a prolific corpus of material from his literary criticism and essays, writing and editing poetry as well as publishing several books. But it was "Trees" that catapulted him to national fame. 

Within a few days of the start of World War I, Kilmer enlisted. He sought the most hazardous duty and was soon on the front lines working in intelligence. A sergeant in the 165th U.S. Infantry Regiment better known as The Fighting Fifth, Kilmer was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918 at the age of 31. One of his companions later wrote, "He was worshipped by the men about him." 

No one really knows if his poem was inspired by any specific tree or just trees in general. Because of it, though, parks, schools, camps across the country and even a fireplace in the Como Park Zoo, St. Paul, MN as well as a rest stop in New Jersey have been named after him. And the next time we stop there, Evie and I will both remember this amazing young man. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu
You're Watching: My name is Michael Stetson and this is my story