In October 1945, the poetry editor of The Washington Post, Kenton Kilmer, the son of Joyce Kilmer, wrote a one-sentence acceptance letter for a poem sent in by a young writer, Ernest Kroll. In money, the payment was $2. In the currency that mattered to Kroll-the elation of having his first poem published-the payment totaled so large a sum of satisfaction that he knew then that he was bred to lead the life of a poet.
That he has done. A few bumps have slowed his progress these part 35 years - his toil for three decades as a middle-level State Department official, to mention one jarring reality, and the occasional invasions of raccoons in the chimney of his home on Davenport Street NW, to mention another.But for all of that, he has embraced life with the poet's vision and, in turn, remade life itself into as much a poem as possible.
I am as guilty as anyone about categorizing my poets; Robert Lowell is major, Ann Sexton is minor, Daniel Mark Epstein is coming on fast, Elizavietta Ritchie is dazzling. But I hesitate about getting a fix on Ernest Kroll. He has his major and minor moments, he comes on fast, he can dazzle. But he is known by many poetry editors throughout the land that he is famous because he is a poet who ought to be famous. That is the fate of many of the best of our artists, but Kroll's claim to our attention has some substance: in 1978 alone, his poems appeared in 59 magazines and journals, which averages out to a little more than one acceptance a week.
That's his diversity. For depth, his verse has been in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Saturday Review, Esquire, The New Republic, The Nation and The Antioch Review. For durability. he is in 16 anthologies: from The New York Times Book of Verse (Macmillan 1971) to Gentleman, Scholars and Scoundrels : the Best of Harper's Since 1850 (Harper and Brothers 1959). For excellence, Cape Horn and Other Poems (E. P. Dutton) was a runner-up in the 1952 National Book Award and earned a rating in the New York Times in its list of the "One Hundred Best Books of 1952."
With all these admirable and rock-stand parts, it is useless to categorize Kroll. As poets do to each other, we would be wiser to envy him. He thrives as writers should thrive: no worries about money-thanks to his government pension, which means to the public that at least here is one part of the budget being well spent. He has the freedom to work at home-in his library of rare books collected from world travels. He enjoys the adulation of a devoted son who never writes home for money-at least not big money - and he delights in the companionship of a wife who loves literature as much as he. As for the other crucial person in his life, the mailman is ever dropping through the doorslip another letter of acceptance.
I discovered Kroll's sense of the joyful before I knew of his poetry. Several years ago, the Safeway Corporation had its economic eye on a vacant field near Kroll's home in American University Park. He took on the unpoetic task of visiting families in the neighborhood to alert them. Vacant fields are important to the city, he argued one evening in my living room. That's how cities breathe, he said. Space is air. Then he recited a couple of lines about meadows from Wordsworth, referred to Whitman's Leaves of Grass and said that among those who thought that Rees by Joyce Kilmer was overrated was his own son, Kenton, the fellow who sent Kroll on his way, which brought Kroll full circle to his latest literary effort, his Safeway petition. Being a smiling man whose powers of the mind come forth gently, Kroll persuaded me to sign up. But, without trying, he led me to reading his poetry.
That was in 1974 when the University of Nebraska Press published Kroll's Fifty Fraxioms . This was an entertaining and sprightly collection of fractured axioms: using a foreign language axiom as an ironic or humorous background for a statement in English. Kroll invented the form.
One of his Latin-English fraxioms is "In the Napoleon Ward":
Can't be him.
One of us
The Latin is the exception proves the rule . Fraxioms are for the rare citizens who savor the delights not just of their own language but of others also. For those who have trouble enough with English, Kroll is at his sharpest when writing about what we look at everyday but never really see at all. Few have caught the essence of political Washington as he did in "Washington, D.C."
Hearing the twang among the porticoes
When 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 atmoshpere,
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?
One of the marks of the Kroll phenomenon is its fertility. Below are publications in which Kroll writings appeared in 1978:(TABLE) New York Quarterly(COLUMN)Southern Humanities(COLUMN)Panache Michigan Quarterly(COLUMN)Review(COLUMN)Ball State FORUM Arizona Quarterly(COLUMN)Great Lakes Review(COLUMN)Hollins Critic Kansas Quarterly(COLUMN)Carleton Miscellany(COLUMN)FOCUS/MIDWEST Colorado Quarterly(COLUMN)Mimnesota Review(COLUMN)Box 749 Texas Quarterly(COLUMN)Four Quarters(COLUMN)Boxspring Prairie Schooner(COLUMN)Davidson Miscellany(COLUMN)New Voices California Review(COLUMN)College English(COLUMN)North American Mentor Cimarron Review(COLUMN)Southern Poetry Review(COLUMN)Coe Review Roanoke Review(COLUMN)Webster Review(COLUMN)The Cape Rock Northwest Review(COLUMN)Chariton Review(COLUMN)Lake Superior Review Portland Oregonian(COLUMN)Hiram Poetry Review(COLUMN)The Chowder Review Pembroke Magazine(COLUMN)Icarus(COLUMN)The Christian Century Dark Horse(COLUMN)Wind/Literary Journal(COLUMN)Laurel Review Mississippi Review(COLUMN)The Lyric(COLUMN)Fairleigh Dickinson Descant(COLUMN)Quartet(COLUMN)Literary Review Southwest Review(COLUMN)Leviathan(COLUMN)Hartford Courant Free Lance(COLUMN)Nathaniel Hawthorne(COLUMN)Poet Lore Poetry NOW(COLUMN)Journal(COLUMN)Hyacinth and Biscuits Western Humanities(COLUMN)Satire Newsletter(COLUMN)Forecast Review(COLUMN)Northeast(COLUMN)Hearse(END TABLE)
As a high school student, Kroll wrote to Willa Cather for advice on the profession. "She wrote back to me," Kroll said the other evening in his living room, that 'no one can teach you anything about writing. You will have to learn it all by yourself.' She was right. In verse and prose, I work as a journalist reporting 'the news that stays news,' as Ezra Pound defined good writing. I came to understand this during the Depression when I earned my tuition as a Columbia undergraduate by working nights as a reporter for a metropolitan daily.
"While I was reading the 'great books' in class I was at the same time acquiring a criterion of brass-nosed experience to judge their observations by. Having worked for the very newspaper once edited by Walt Whitman - The Brooklyn Eagle - I discovered that many others like him before me - Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Hemingway - had learned from journalism to stick to the facts. I learned that having to write down immediately 'who, what, when, where and why' was the best preparation for letting the creative imagination go where it listed."
Sometimes Kroll has let his imagination follow around his family, as when he went to the Boston Marathon in April 1977 to watch his son Denis run. It led to a poem that has lines and rhythms that gracefully reflect the motion of the athletes he saw passing in front of him.
(18 April 1977)
The light beyond the noon gun that
Shot the pack across the
New-leaved land streamed low.
He was late, already hundreds having heeled him by and now in
Anguish, eyes to heaven, pounding up
Hereford Street, across the crown of
Boylston, down the roaring gamut of
The gutmost stretch into the
Retch of finishing
Late, the light was lying hours
Lower down the gap by Newbury
Crossed by hundreds of the slower
Dragging up the shade of Hereford
Toward the wretchedness of
He was late, the
Starter with the thousands shot
Striding the new-leaved land from
Hayden Row, delayed without a
Word conveyed by hundreds of the
Even slower writing in their tortoise
Torture toward the martyrdom of
Pheidippides, astray in
April, now irreparably
Late, lay somewhere in the new-leaved
Land beside the road without the
Strength to stretch the news of his
Endurance all the Attic length. . . .
Were he younger and more of a mingler, Kroll would take to the poetry circuit where a big night may be a reading with 20 people in the chairs. He accepts some invitations - just enough not to be snobbish while still being choosy.In his neighborhood, he is less known for his polished verse than his well-worded petition against Safeway's proposed takeover of the local field. After some spirited citizens protested, the corporation backed off, and much of the field has been preserved. Its spring growth is now honoring Wordsworths, Whitman, Kilmer - and Kroll. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Bill Snead