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Joyce: a man, poet and hero

I always enjoy reading commentaries written by local writers. Richard Westlund’s, “A simple, but masterful poem,” OBSERVER (May 26) brought back good memories of my high school American Literature class, circa 1962, when I first read “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.

Westlund ponders over the fact that, born a man, Kilmer was named Joyce, a name more widely associated with a woman. Richard also notes that Kilmer died at a very early age but doesn’t indicate why. Although I am no fount of wisdom on literature or writers, I happened to have been listening at the right time on Memorial Day to a radio show, which was paying tribute to the same poet, Joyce Kilmer.

Kilmer was actually named after two prominent figures from his family’s church, the curate Alfred R. Taylor and the Rev. Dr. Elisha Brooks Joyce, the rector. Alfred Joyce Kilmer – from early age – Joyce, was a teacher and writer. “Trees” established him as a popular poet and established lecturer. He was married and became the father of five children.

Remarkably, in April 1917, a few days after the United States entered World War I, Kilmer, at the age of 30, enlisted in the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard and quickly rose to the rank of sergeant. Though he was eligible for commission as an officer and often recommended for such posts during the course of the war, Kilmer refused, stating that he would rather be a sergeant in the Fighting 69th than an officer in any other regiment.

Deployed to Europe and assigned as a statistician, Kilmer sought more hazardous duty and was transferred to the military intelligence section of his regiment.

Apparently, he was revered by the men about him, who spoke with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in no man’s land. This coolness and his habit of choosing, with typical enthusiasm, the most dangerous and difficult missions, led to his death.

During the Second Battle of Marne there was heavy fighting throughout the last days of July 1918. On July 30, 1918, Kilmer volunteered to accompany Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (later, in World War II, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency when Donovan’s battalion was sent to lead the day’s attack.

Kilmer led a scouting party to find the position of a German machine gun. When his comrades found him, sometime later, they thought at first that he was peering over the edge of a little hill, where he had crawled for a better view. When he did not answer their call, they ran to him and found him dead. For his valor, Kilmer was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic. Kilmer was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial near Fere-en-Tardenois, Aisne, Picardy, France, just across the road and stream from the farm where he was killed.

Much like Richard Westlund, I’ve always enjoyed the simplicity and beauty of “Trees.” But until Richard remarked on Kilmer’s unusual first name and his death at an early age, I had never dwelt on those two issues. It was just the coincidence of my listening to a radio show’s Memorial Day tribute to Kilmer that I can attest Richard assumes correctly that Joyce Kilmer only lived for 32 years. He was actually killed in action in World War I before attaining the age of 32 and regrettably before writing more poems that we cherish. I certainly don’t know for sure, but I wonder whether Kilmer’s late age enlistment to fight in a war and to volunteer for the most hazardous duties available, may have been to prove that “Joyce” was indeed, a real man.

Dennis Roach is a Fredonia resident.

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