Due to typographical errors in Monday's editions, the title and publisher of a book by poet Reed Whittemore were given incorrectly. The correct title is "The Feel of Rock" and the publisher is Dryad Press, Takoma Park, Md.
He was at a party at a friend's house in December 1981 when a woman came over and said lightly that he must be bored being praised all the time for his poetry, but she had to say it anyway: She loved his inscription in granite at Western Plaza.
Ernest Kroll didn't bolt the party right then. But the next morning he was among the tourists along the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW that is Western Plaza to peer in amazement--and pride--at two lines from a poem he wrote 30 years ago:
How shall you act the natural man in this
Invented city, neither Rome nor home?
The line had been hand-chiseled into the amber-toned surface a full year before. Kroll hadn't known. The woman who told him never suspected she was announcing the major publishing event in Kroll's literary career. Nor did the 65-year-old poet, who worked 25 years in the State Department as a public information officer and five years as a naval intelligence officer in Washington during World War II, know then in whose company he had been immortalized. Quotations from 38 others--including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Henry James, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Daniel Webster and Mark Twain--have been inscribed. The statements, all stately, are about Washington.
As he walked over the floor of the acre-sized plaza reading the lines of his new-found colleagues, Kroll realized that among those whose words were embedded into time and beauty he was the only live author. "It was kind of spooky," Kroll recalls. "There were my words made permanent in stone after I had passed the spot for 30 years without leaving the trace of a footprint. Spooky but not unpleasant."
How Kroll came to be immortalized in the stone is as much a tale of literary excellence being honored as, this being Washington, bureacratic bungling. He was the sole living person represented in the plaza, but he didn't get invited to the opening ceremonies in November 1980.
It appears that the officials at the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. believed Kroll was dead. Actually, he was living only five miles away on Davenport Street in a northwest Washington neighborhood, with his name in the phone book and his poems appearing, in good years and dry, in more than 50 magazines and journals.
The official who headed the quotation committee for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. was Frances Ladd, the dean of students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She expressed regret last week that Kroll hadn't been invited to the ceremonies: "The researchers weren't involved in the public relations end of things and the communications weren't what they should have been."
Earlier this year, acting the natural man, Kroll wrote to Ladd to inquire how his words--the final lines from "Washington D.C." which appeared in "Cape Horn and Other Poems" (Dutton) in 1952--came to be chosen. Ladd, a thorough woman as well as a literary one, let Kroll know in a 1,000-word letter that chance was the last force at work in his selection. "The design element that I proposed for the Western Plaza," she replied, "was the inscription of quotations about the city of Washington on the surface of the plaza . . . The search included a review of political history, social history, folklore and oral history, architectural history, travel literature, planning for sociological and anthropological works, fiction, poetry, lyricals, periodicals and the popular press. The search yielded approximately 500 quotations. A review of the quotations reduced the list to a set of 196 statements."
As search committees are known to do--again, this being Washington--a subcommittee was formed for a final review. It was given the recommendations of 10 Washington-based connoisseurs of language, as well as the preferences of another panel of experts from across the country.
At this point, another slip-up, though not as major as not inviting Kroll to the opening day celebration, occurred. Among the 11 criteria for selection--such as "the quotation should be compatible with the monumentality of the plan," "quotations should not be mere slogans or statements of boosterism, nor should they have the quality of guidebook statements"--was the final one that ruled out "living authors."
Ladd doesn't remember if the committee made an exception with Kroll because his words were so strong, or whether it thought he, like Jefferson and Lincoln, was long gone: "It seems to me that someone whose name on the committee that I can't recall mentioned that he knew Mr. Kroll. I can't recall if it was present tense or past tense."
With no one checking the phone book or anyone wondering how a poet who gets into 50 poetry journals every year could have left behind so posthumously thriving a collection, Kroll's 15 words were given over to the stonecutters for immortalization. In his letter, Ladd told him that "the city and nation are honored by your poetry."
Two lines on granite out of several thousand on paper aren't the fairest return on a poet's daily combat with the blank page. The committee might have run the whole 14 lines of the poem. But considering the powerful competition--not from George Washington or Abraham Lincoln but from contemporary living poets who have looked unblinkingly at Washington--Kroll is syllables ahead of the pack.
In 1977, Francis Coleman Rosenberger, a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, published "Washington and the Poet," a collection of 50 poems about the city by 50 poets who had been here. They included Archibald MacLeish, Reed Whittemore, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Josephine Jacobsen, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur and Eugene McCarthy. It is plausible that the committee might have found space in Western Plaza for four lines from Maxine Kumin's poem on the Watergate hearings: And all the while in Washington worms fall out of the government pale as the parasites that drain from the scoured gut of my mare.
Next to it, for levity, could be the first lines from "Keeping Informed in D.C." by Howard Nemerov: Each morning when I break my buttered toast Across the columns of the Morning Post,
I am astounded by the ways in which Mankind has managed once again to bitch Things up to a degree that yesterday Had looked impossible . . .
There might also have been room for the city's best resident poet, Reed Whittmemore, who sees the whole of the place in the first lines of "The Destruction of Washington," from "The Feel of Rick," (Iryad Press): When Washington has been destroyed, And the pollutants have been silting up for an age, Then the old town will attract the world's Schliemanns. What, they will say, a dig! as they uncover The L'Enfant plan in the saxifrage, So many plaques, so many figures in marble With large shoulders and lawmen lips Will have to be pieced together and moved to the new Smithsonian That the mere logistic will delight vips.
Kroll, a citizen of breezy disposition, says that the selection committee was generous to include any poet in the plaza, let alone him. For years, he has been something of a committee himself to call attention to Washington as a literary city. "This is where Walt Whitman, our greatest American poet, spent a crucial part of his life," he says. "During the Civil War, Whitman was a nurse in Union army hospitals. He wrote some of his best poems here, such as the elegy to Lincoln, 'When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloomed.' Sinclair Lewis wrote 'Main Street' in Washington. Henry Adams wrote many of his works here, including 'The Education of Henry Adams' on the site where the Hay Adams hotel stands today. As for women writers, not many people know that 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' was written at 1219 Eye Street in 1886 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who lived in the house still standing at that address today. Louisa May Alcott wrote 'Hospital Sketches,' based on her work among the wounded here during the Civil War.
"In other words, Washington, at the same time it was making legislative and military history, was also making literary history, and continues to do so."
Kroll, who has published five books of poetry and once had his words immortalized in the next best thing after granite--a poem in the pages of The New Yorker--reports that his annual earnings from his verse are between $300 and $400. "It's just about enough for postage," he says of his manila envelope outflow.
It may be enough also for bus fare for the occasional trip down the hill from Davenport Street to Western Plaza to see how he is holding out against the weather. As the only living poet in the plaza, he is also the only living person in America who can come to Washington to see proof that he has gotten the jump on posterity. Washington, D.C. Hearing the twang among the porticoes Where one expected only noble Romans, You turn and keep a mild surprise, seeing The public man descend the marble stairs, Yourself, but for the grace of God, in the blue day Among the floating domes. He disappears, A little heady in that atmosphere, Trailing the air of power, a solemn figure Quick in the abstract landscape of the state. His passage leaves you baffled in the void, Looking out between two columns. The sun Burns in the silence of the white facades. How shall you act the natural man in this Invented city, neither Rome nor home?