Beyond the fast lane that is world-capital Washington the suburban poets nest. poets nest.
With verses as patterned and tradition-woven as Oriental rugs, these poets feather their lives with gracious things -- velvet drapes, aged cheeses and sonnets.
The Alexandria Penwomen, 35-year-old branch of the national association, demonstrated this anachronistic kind of charm recently when its members invited "the Kilmers" (a name spoken in hushed tones) to come and recite.
The Kilmers, it turns out, are Kenton and Frances Kilmer, a gray-haired, gray-suited, salt-and-pepper couple. Kenton Kilmer, the eldest child of World War I poet Joyce Kilmer, is a breaded and gentle man Frances Kilmer, who founded Vienna's Green Hedges School, is a twinkly-eyed, feminine version of her husband.
These are the kind of poets for whom sunlight dapples, geese weep and blackberries symbolize the horniness of life. Kenton Kilmer's verses drape the sights and sounds of nature with a slightly moralistic tone; he recites them with the soft cadences of a Gregorian chant.
"I prefer not to be held competitive with my father," Kilmer says, "though some critics have compared my works favorably with his." To him, Joyce Kilmer is a dim memory, since his father left for the war in Europe when he was 8. But the image f a soldierly, courages and vigorous poet rings true to the younger Kilmer.
It is through the elder Kilmer's poetry that Kenton receives paternal advice -- paticularly from his father's work, "Poets," which he quotes with ease.
Kenton and Frances Friseke Kilmer are the parents of 10 children, and Frances weaves maternal and housekeeping chores into her poetry. Her verses convey the orderliness of a patchwork quilt, and refer to children as "the flower, the song of our waiting."
The perky Frances Kilmer wears her sincerity with believable simplicity. Asked to explain why she started a school, she answers without guile, "We wanted to work against prejudice, because ridding the world of prejudice is our only real chance for peace."
One of the school's tools in this heady work was poetry. Each day began with a poem, she recalls. This may account for the proliferation of poetry by the Kilmers' children. Their parents are collecting the poems, which, with the works of Kenton, Frances and Joyce Kilmer, will go into a book to be titled, "an Inheritance of Poetry."
Poetry, Frances says, is "a sudden sight of something." It is a "realization," says Kenton; "which should shake you up," Frances adds. It may come a line at a time or all at once to the receptive thought, they both say, and it comes more dependentably "if you are strict with yourself."
Poetry has been there since the beginning of the Kilmers' relationship, when Frances' mother wrote her sister -- then editor of the poetry magazine Carillon -- "What can I do with a daughter who writes poems?"
The editor contacted a favorite contributor, Kenton Kilmer, then 21, and asked the young man to write to her 16-year-old niece. "It didn't seem a bad idea to me," he now recalls with reserved humor.
The relationship blossomed, and after three years of correspondence and critiques, he traveled to Switzerland to meet Frances for the first time. Was she what he expected? "She was better," he remembers with a smile.
He came back to the United States and a job in the Federal Housing Authority, and in 1937 married the young poet. As the children came along, Kenton Kilmer switched to a more poetry-oriented career.
During World War II, he says, he convinced Eugene Meyer, publisher of The Washington Post, that he (Kilmer could "get better poetry for the editorial page than The Washington Star." So, for $50 per month, Kilmer offered local poets a smashing 25 cents per line for their verses.
Finance has never been the chief reward of poets, and public acclaim comes more often to the Burma-Shave-skilled than to "real poets." This may explain Kilmer's statement that "poets usually write for other poets, which is a healthy idea."
Other poets, he points out, will offer criticism and support, and prevent the kind of "outpouring of emotions" that happens "when poets write only for themselves, as a kind of therapy."
Criticism was not the focal point of the evening with Alexandria's Penwomen, although all there were invited to read their poems. Polite applause followed recitations about gas stations, bunions and children.
The only sour note came from Virginia's imported poet laureate, Jean Elliott, a tartan-clad New Englander with iron-gray hair and a body as lean as her praise.
She suggested word changes in a few poems, and responded to another's recitation with a quotation from Robert Forst: "Writing in free verse is like playing tennis without a net."
No one else at the gathering, however, was less than enthusiastic, causing one penwoman to exclaim joyously, "Where else can you get a room full of people to listen to your poetry?"