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Topic: Alfred G. Bailey

On Alfred G. Bailey's "Elm"

In one of the most famous pieces of poetic shlock ever penned, Joyce Kilmer muses that he “shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” “Tree” is not merely the first syllable of treacle, however, and trees–despite poets’ best efforts to abet deforestation through publication–are almost always positive emblems when they appear in a poem–even while forests are often dark and terrible zones.
A.G. Bailey seems to suggest that if all Kilmer and others can see is arboreal loveliness, then they probably can’t see the forest for the trees. “Look well,” this poet says, and he means it. Bailey inverts the old chestnut about the innocent beauty of trees by the bold device of comparing the elm’s “wittol” (witless; also, a knowing but tolerant cuckold) root to a rat–a neat consonantal rhyme–a trick which has the dual effect of making us question our usual assumptions about trees and of exonerating, or at least complicating, the voracious lusts and appetites of the oft-benighted rodent.