Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Can Mahwah Claim Kilmer's 'Trees'?

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Can Mahwah Claim Kilmer's 'Trees'?

Article excerpt

Towns cope with all kinds of challenges, from balancing the budget to deciding whether to repave Main Street or spruce up a soccer field.

But Mahwah faces an unusual dilemma: How do you say "happy birthday" to 12 lines of verse?

This week, "Trees," the world-famous poem by Joyce Kilmer, will celebrate its 100th birthday.

Kilmer supposedly penned it in Mahwah -- or so the legend goes.

"We will do what we can," said Barbara Shanley, the chairwoman of Mahwah's Historic Preservation Commission, when asked about the township's plans for the birthday. "But it's a work in progress."

This "work in progress" is not Kilmer's poem itself, which is considered one of the world's most popular and begins with the familiar line, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."

Shanley is talking about the surprisingly nagging historical question of whether Mahwah has the sort of beyond-a-reasonable- doubt evidence to claim ownership of the poem. This is no small issue.

"We have no proof where he wrote it," Shanley said.

Kilmer reportedly completed the poem on Feb. 2, 1913, as he sat at his desk on the second floor of his Mahwah home, gazing out a window toward the Ramapo Mountains. Today, a brass plaque sits on a large boulder outside the house on Airmont Road identifying it as Kilmer's former home. But the plaque, which was dedicated in 1952, does not mention that "Trees" was written there.

Kilmer's son Kenton, who died in 1995, nonetheless believed that the Mahwah home was the spot where "Trees" was completed. Kilmer's daughter Deborah, a Roman Catholic nun who died in 1999, reached the same conclusion.

Kilmer's granddaughter, Miriam Kilmer, also shares that belief. But like Barbara Shanley of Mahwah's Historic Preservation Commission, Miriam voices an important caveat:

"We don't know that for sure," she said.

Reached at her home in Alexandria, Va., Miriam Kilmer, 61, said her father -- Kenton -- often talked of a notebook in which Joyce Kilmer first scratched out the lines of "Trees" and added the date, "Feb. 2, 1913." Indeed, Kenton Kilmer repeated the notebook story to the author Dorothy V. Corson when she wrote an article about whether the University of Notre Dame could claim ownership as the spot where the poem was written.

But the notebook has disappeared, perhaps a casualty of time and our imperfect ability to save and catalog items that may one day turn out to be important. It didn't help that Joyce Kilmer died before he could write his own memoirs. He volunteered for service in the Army during World War I and was killed in northern France during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, less than four months before the war ended. He was only 31.

The time of year "Trees" was supposedly completed -- winter -- poses another problem. The poem mentions a tree "upon whose bosom snow has lain." But it devotes more lines to warm-weather themes -- describing a tree's "leafy arms" that "in Summer wear a nest of robins in her hair."

Why would a poet find inspiration to complete such a poem in February?

Where's the notebook?

Normally, the lack of conclusive proof about the origin of "Trees" would not be such a complicated issue. But Mahwah is not the only community that claims a connection to the poem.

Notre Dame has long believed that Kilmer's inspiration was a large tree that shaded a campus statue of the Virgin Mary. Rutgers University, which he attended before moving on to Columbia University, says it was a 300-year-old white oak on its campus. …

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