Joyce: soldier, poet ... and man. (Thanks, readers)
Thursday 31 October 1996
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
This poem, I reported, was written by Joyce Kilmer, about whom I knew nothing except that she had died young, at 30, in the year 1918. Well, I know better now. At least three readers have written in to say that Joyce Kilmer was not a woman at all, but an American male soldier, a sergeant in the 165th Infantry, who was killed in action on 30 July l9l8; in other words, agonisingly close to the end of the war.
Perhaps I should have suspected that I had got something wrong. After all, I knew that Joyce Cary was a man, so I knew that male Joyces occur. And I knew that male Kilmers do sometimes adopt apparently female names, as in the case of the film star Val Kilmer.
To complete my education, the Rev Ritchie Gillon of Paisley took the trouble to send me the complete text, which goes as follows:
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
"Not quite Wilfred Owen, perhaps," he comments, "but then, who are we to judge?" I'll second both halves of that.
This is one of the ways one learns things as a newspaper writer, from one's readers, and having got this far riding a surfboard on waves made by readers, I shall see if I can keep afloat to the end of this column on their energy.
For instance, I had a letter a month ago that offered me a topic ready- made for the issue of 16 October. It was from Dr Adrian Padfield, a consultant anaesthetist, who wrote to say that this was the 150th anniversary of the first use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, thus marking the birth of modern surgery. Dr Padfield was going to be in Boston on that day for the celebrations, so he probably doesn't know that I hadn't the faintest idea how to use the information, and that therefore I didn't. Moreover, I happen to know Alan Coren is married to an anaesthetist, so if he didn't write about it, it certainly isn't my place to do so. I'm just happy to know of the anniversary.
I have also had some suggestions from readers in answer to my proposal that various loathed current buzzwords would make good titles for autobiographies. Justin Potts suggests three interesting ones: Synergy by the Bishop of Argyll; Mind Set by Andre Agassi; and Judgemental by Judge Pickles.
Geoffrey Sherlock suggests Obnubilation by Michael Fish, which I am passing on to you even though I have a horrible feeling that the word (which I can't find in my dictionary) is either non-existent or obscene. Henry van Wyk suggests Preterition by Tony Blair, and John Greensmith suggests Archetypal by Robert Runcie and Stressed Out by Stephen Fry, as well as Substantive (before the diet) by Nigel Lawson.
"Substantive" is actually a word that brings James Goodchild of Glasgow out in a nasty rash. He says that in the series of meetings about Northern Ireland's future the word has, very oddly, been used from the start to mean "substantial", even though he has never come across the word elsewhere.
Bishop Rodger of Edinburgh has a shortlist of words he has it in for: "Simplistic", which nine times out of 10 just means "simple"; "fortuitous" when used to mean "fortunate", which it doesn't, and "unacceptable", the bishop's pet hate, a typically prissy word for people who can't or won't bring themselves to say "bad", "wrong", "evil", "dirty" etc.
I quite agree, except that even more than that I dislike the word "inappropriate", which is used by people who cannot bring themselves to use the word "unacceptable".
And finally, apropos of nothing, a heartfelt plea from Michael Yudkin of Oxford.
"Can you suggest a word or phrase that one can use at the end of a speech to let the audience know one has finished? In Roman times speakers used to say Dixi, so the audience would know it was time to applaud the speaker or make a dash for the bar. Lacking any English equivalent, people at scientific meetings say things like `That's it'. Sometimes they say `I think I'll leave it there', as if to imply they have another couple of hours' worth of material but have made a snap decision to finish. I myself, being irredeemably stuck in a pre-war age, say `Thank you for your attention', but we badly need a modern equivalent to Dixi. Can you think of anything?" No, I can't. Can anyone?
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