Thoughts & Views: A poet for Memorial Day



Joyce Kilmer, New Jersey native and long-time Garden State resident, is most famous for his poem “Trees,” memorized by numberless schoolchildren and, unfortunately, mocked by latter-day writers who find it too precious.

Columbia University, his alma mater, had (maybe still does have) an annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.

For shame, Columbia. How about an Allen Ginsberg Memorial Bad Poetry Contest? Oh, I forgot. Ginsberg personified liberalism. Liberals can’t write bad poetry.

Despite his misguided literary critics, this week’s column is dedicated to Kilmer.

His poem “The House With Nobody In It” still makes me a bit weepy. I always wanted to see that house, located somewhere between Mahwah, where Kilmer lived, and Suffern, “along the Erie track.” Supposedly it was at 150 Franklin Turnpike, for years the site of a tavern cleverly named “Nobody’s Inn,” however there are conflicting reports that it was elsewhere on the road.

But I digress.

The point is, as overly sentimental as some lesser lights consider him, Kilmer had the ability to touch the heart. And “Trees” has become one of the most-quoted poems in America’s literary legacy.

But what some people might not know is that Kilmer was also a soldier. And as Memorial Day approaches, I wanted to share one of his lesser-known works.

Lesser-known to the general public, that is. It was written in 1918, and to this day, it is recited at gatherings of the Fighting 69th Regiment, including memorial services for deceased members.

Kilmer served with the Fighting 69th during World War I. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, he enlisted, even though, as the father of five, he would have been exempt from service. He requested assignment to the infantry and was deployed to France.

In the land of carnage called the Western Front, he rose to the rank of sergeant.

On March 7, 1918, the 69th was in the trenches at a place called Rouge Bouquet when it came under a German artillery barrage. One shell fell on a dugout where 22 soldiers were positioned.

As described on the 69th’s web site: “The men were buried under mud, dirt and beams. Major [William J.] Donovan rushed to the scene . . . and began digging. Two men were rescued and five bodies recovered. The voices of other survivors, including Lt. [John] Norman, could be heard . . . . After hours of intense rescue efforts, under heavy enemy artillery fire, efforts to reach the soldiers were halted. The bodies of 15 soldiers, including Lt. Norman’s, still remained in the dugout, but rescue was impossible due to mud-slides and enemy shelling.”

At a trenchside service afterwards, “Father Duffy [the regiment’s chaplain, Father Francis Patrick Duffy, whose statue stands in Times Square] conducted Last Rites, and the men placed a tablet at the dugout.”

Kilmer, a poet even on the battlefield, wrote “Rouge Bouquet” as a tribute to the dead, and it was read by Duffy on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918. What follows is part of the first stanza — and if some lines sound as if they might be set to music, they were. A bugler “played ‘Taps’ before the last lines of each verse [and] the notes were echoed by another bugle player who was stationed in the woods nearby.”

In a wood they call Rouge Bouquet 

There is a new-made grave today, 

Built by never a spade nor pick 

Yet covered with earth 10 meters thick. 

There lie many fighting men, 

Dead in their youthful prime . . . 

Now over the grave abrupt and clear

 Three volleys ring; 

And perhaps their brave young spirits hear 

The bugles sing: 

“Go to sleep! 

Go to sleep! 

Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell. 

Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor, 

You will not need them any more. 

Danger’s past; 

Now at last, 

Go to sleep!” 

Four months later, on July 30, during the Second Battle of the Marne, Kilmer volunteered to accompany Maj. Donovan’s battalion as it led an attack on enemy positions. During a scouting mission, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. He was 31.

For his courage under fire, Kilmer was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre. He is buried in the Oise- Aisne American Cemetery in Picardy, France.

–Karen Zautyk

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