Poet, journalist, essayist and lecturer
Born: December 7, 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey
Died: July 30, 1918, near Marne, France
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Arts & Letters
The poem “Trees” is only 12 lines long but it has developed deep roots as one of America’s best-remembered and often-taught pieces of rhyme. When published in August 1913, it made a literary star of its author, Joyce Kilmer, then a 26-year-old resident of Mahwah.
Kilmer’s mother was a writer and composer; his father, a Johnson & Johnson physician/analytical chemist, invented the company’s baby powder, Alfred Joyce Kilmer began his higher education at Rutgers College (now University), where he was associate editor of the Targum, the campus newspaper. He transferred to Columbia University and received his bachelor or arts degree in 1908.
After graduation, Kilmer taught Latin at Morristown High School and wrote book reviews for several publications, including The New York Times. He left teaching and took a job in New York City as a dictionary editor. He later worked as a special writer for The New York Times Review of Books and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
In 1912, Kilmer and his wife, Aline, settled in Mahwah in a small white house on Airmount Road. Here, Kilmer could write in an upstairs room looking out on a grove of trees, “from mature trees to thin saplings,” his eldest son, Kenton, later recalled.
On February 2, 1913, inspired by his upstairs view, Kilmer wrote the 12 lines that would make him famous, beginning,
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Published in a poetry collection later that year, “Trees” took Kilmer by surprise, as it “caught fire around the world,” Kilmer expert Alex Michelini, founder of the Joyce Kilmer Society of Mahwah, told New Jersey Monthly in 2013.
Newly famous, Kilmer continued to write and edit and maintained a busy schedule as a lecturer. Immensely popular, he published numerous collections of essays and poems, including another widely heralded poem, “The House With Nobody in It.”
At the height of Kilmer’s fame, the United States entered World War I and Kilmer enlisted as a private in the National Guard. Assigned to the 69th Infantry Regiment (known as the Fighting 69th), he rose to the rank of sergeant. Before heading overseas, he signed with a publisher to write a chronicle of his wartime experiences. The book was never written, but one memorable Kilmer poem, “Rouge Bouquet,” emerged from Kilmer’s time in combat in Europe.
In July 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne, Kilmer, by then a member of the military intelligence section of his regiment, undertook a scouting mission in search of a German machine gun position. Advancing to the top of a hill he was struck in the head and killed by a sniper’s bullet.
Today, Joyce Kilmer’s name adorns numerous schools and parks around the country, including a memorial forest in North Carolina and Joyce Kilmer Park in New Brunswick.