Anybody out there remember Joyce Kilmer? Not her. Him. You remember. The guy who had that thing for trees. And so potent a thing it was, he penned an immortal ode to them.

And that ode was eventually put to music, too, becoming a very popular ballad decades ago, when people sang exaltedly of such things.

You remember it. His poem “Trees” began, “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree/ A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed/ Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.”

Those mellifluous words still fill me with horror, although it’s been blunted after decades of concentrated self-therapy. Today, I can look at trees without even a breath of dread. And people with a first or last name of “Joyce” no longer cause me to bolt. It all has to do with that poem. 

I was l0 years old and in Miss Reynolds’ fifth-grade English class. Back in those ancient times, it was believed the memorization of poetry would enrich the lives of young people. And it did. I was so enriched that I can still bore anyone alive by reciting great patches of “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” “Gunga Din” and “Oh Captain! My Captain!” I’m able to block the exits in time.

But it was “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer which took Miss Reynolds’ fancy that year, and she forced all of us to learn it. Ever true to her cause, Miss R. one fall day demanded that each of us, seven days hence, stand and recite that poem from start to finish with no exceptions.

We were collectively horrified. All of us looked at each other, eyes rolling and wide with fear. Recite aloud? In front of everyone? Didn’t Miss Reynolds know about that word in there? What could she possibly be thinking?

Kilmer, however well-intentioned, had slipped us all a poetic mickey. This poem of his contained the most terrible of words, a part of a tree, he’d insisted, upon which snow has lain.

The bosom word. Oh, the embarrassment of it. Kilmer had opted to use that awful term when he could very well have picked another. How about good old bark, for example? And another thing — how did he know exactly where and what a tree’s bosom was anyway? When that snow had lain upon it, could he really be sure it wasn’t on the tree’s back or side, or backside, or even shoulders or arms? Who gave Kilmer the right to label what that lain snow was clinging to? Could’ve been anything, but not necessarily its you-know-what, if in fact trees even have you-know-whats. (To date, I’ve never seen mammaries on trees.)

Miss Alice Reynolds was going to force us to say it. The jittery, bleary-eyed — we had not slept the night before — fifth-grade gang assembled for English class that day. I will say proudly we were a brave lot; no one had stayed home sick. We were white-faced and nervously giggling. The girls didn’t dare to look at the boys. There was much banging desk lids, dropped books, getting drinks from the fountain in the hall and uneasy coughing.

“Settle down,” shouted the sadistic Miss R., but how could we? This was the day of reckoning, the day we’d each have to stand before a gathering of our peers and speak what was, for us, out-and-out pornography. Oh, how awful it would be. All of us were, by the time Miss R. had taken the roll, wretched and shaking and laughing with mounting hysteria.

The bell began its toll.

But not for me. I delightedly watched all of this misery and angst from the sanctity of Mrs. Merrick’s classroom, directly across the hall. I’d been sent there to await the arrival of my worried parents.

You see, I’d swallowed a large, pointy fish bone during lunch period and was choking on it so terribly, I was rendered speechless. I’d frantically mimed to the lunch room teacher that the pain was indescribable, and I was mercifully sent to the school nurse. 

She was perplexed, because lunch that day had been macaroni and cheese with chocolate pudding for dessert. But when she witnessed my gyrations, gaggings and frantic choking signals, she understood I was incapable of speech and was, in fact, suffering devastating agony. Then, that good and dear woman, most kindly told me I would not have to attend afternoon classes and that I could go home. 

I successfully hid my enormous, joyous exhale from her by turning my head sadly away.

When my concerned parents led me gently from Mrs. Merrick’s care and past the fifth-grade English classroom, my trembling hand pressed melodramatically to my throat, I glanced through the door at my less-clever fifth-grade classmates. I lowered my head and grinned with fiendish joy as I heard the wavering, near-to-sobbing voice of poor Mildred Oyston — I never did like her — the first to be sacrificed for the recitation of Kilmer’s indecent verse. She was stammering “…upon whose…upon whose…oh, how do you pronounce that word Miss Reynolds??” 

What a moment!

LC Van Savage is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She can be reached at:

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