Joyce Kilmer, the New Jersey born poet, died by German sniper fire on July 30, 1918 during the Second Battle of Marne in World War I. Kilmer is best known for his poem, “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree….”). He was killed while leading a scout party for Major “Wild Bill” Donovan when he was shot in the head.

He was born Alfred Joyce Kilmer in New Brunswick in 1886. His father worked for Johnson & Johnson and was involved in the invention of their baby powder. Kilmer attended Rutgers for two years before transferring to Columbia where he got a bachelor’s degree. He taught at Morristown High School for awhile before moving to New York to take a job writing dictionaries. He later moved to Mahwah and it was there, in 1913, that he wrote “Trees”, the poem that made him famous.

The inspiration for the poem isn’t known. At various times, both Rutgers and Notre Dame both claimed to have the tree the poem was about, but Kilmer’s son is on record saying that no one tree inspired the poem, although his father is reported to have said it was a backyard tree at his house in Mahwah.

At the height of his fame, he enlisted in the National Guard just after the US joined World War I. Kilmer rose to the rank of sergeant and was eventually assigned to military intelligence; he was leading a mission to find a German machine gun when he was killed. Kilmer was buried in France near where he died; there is also a marker at the Kilmer family plot in a cemetery in North Brunswick.

While he is known for his poetry, his name probably comes up most often in New Jersey when referring to the rest stop on the Turnpike. Here is the poem in its entirety:

"Trees" (1913)
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

The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.

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