Ernest Kroll (1913-1995)
by Merrill Leffler
|photo: W. Linden, from the back cover of The Pauses of the Eye
Ernest Kroll was and may still be one of Washington’s most published
poets nationally. From 1945, when he sold his first poem to The Washington Post, through the early 90s, hundreds of poems appeared in large and little magazines—59, in 1978 alone. His first-book Cape Horn and Other Poems (Dutton) was a runner-up for the National Book Award in 1952—The New York Times listed it among the 100 best books of the year. The Pause of the Eye (Dutton, 1955), his second, was also reviewed in The New York Times
and other big-time places. And yet, except among poet friends of his
generation and a few others, he was virtually unknown in Washington,
DC, his home since the middle 40s. Case in point: in 1982, two lines
from his poem “Washington, DC” were chiseled in foot-high letters into
what is now called Freedom Plaza, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between
13th and 14th streets: Ernie was one of thirty-nine literary and
historical eminences to be so honored, putting him in company with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln.
his fourteen-liner, the sonnet form less the traditional rhyme
scheme—the last two lines are those permanently at Freedom Plaza:
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?
only learned about his “hand-chiseled immortality” by accident a year
afterwards when he was at a friend’s house for a party—according to Colman McCarthy, who wrote a feature article about Kroll in The Washington Post,
“a woman came over and said he must be bored being praised, but she had
to say it anyway. She loved his lines.” Ernie was of course
stupefied—what lines? This was the first he had heard about it. He
wrote the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation to ask how this
all came about and why he wasn’t invited to the ceremony a year before,
when the wall of quotations was unveiled. He received a three-page
letter from the committee chair, Francis Ladd of Wellesley College,
explaining in numbing detail how the search committee went about its
selections. She was shocked to learn he wasn’t dead—of course he would
have been invited had they known he was still alive!
Over the last several months I have been immersed in Ernie’s poems,
many of which I first read in the mid-70s, with an appreciation now
that I don’t think I had when we first met and corresponded about American Panels, a manuscript of satiric poems, all of them four-lines, that had been appearing in many magazines, among them Harpers and Voyages, the sharply distinctive magazine Bill Claire founded and shepherded in Washington in the late 60s and 70s. I’ll have more to say of American Panels later but first this:
Ernest Kroll was born in Manhattan and grew up there—he put himself through Columbia University, in part by writing for The Brooklyn Eagle,
the newspaper Whitman once edited. His journalistic writing wasn’t
incidental to the kind of poems Kroll came to write—Colman McCarthy
quoted him in the 1979 Washington Post article:
I discovered that many others 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 creation imagination go where it listed.
had begun and Ernie left his journalistic career to enroll in the US
Navy Japanese Language School—he graduated from the Harvard program in
May 1942 and spent the war years as Commander Kroll supervising teams
working in translation, decryption, and interrogation—this is from David Hays,
archivist at the University of Colorado at Boulder where the papers of
the Language School are housed. (In 2009, the Naval Institute Press
published Roger Dingman’s Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators, and Interpreters in the Pacific War.)
With the war over, Ernie remained in Washington and for the next 25
years worked in the State Department as a Japanese Affairs
Specialist—he married, had a son, and wrote poems. Many poems. He got
them into the mails and while no doubt received many rejections, he had
one hell of a lot of acceptances. And not just from little magazines.
Poems in Cape Horn & Other Poems first appeared in: The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, The Yale Review, Furioso—this says nothing about first-rate publications like Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Yale Review et al. The same went for The Pauses of the Eye three years later, his books of Fraxions, his American Panel poems, and others that were never collected. Here is “The Missouri,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1961:
Never changed habits;
Still impure from the source,
It lives off the land,
Like a guerrilla force
Marauding, dragging away
Earth and the color earth,
Brandishing cottonwood snags
Snatched from assaulted banks,
Shambling in muddy rags
On the way, without ranks,
Its baggage stolen debris—
A guerrilla force on the way
To a war with the sea.
is it about this and the poems that attracted such wide-ranging poetry
editors? There’s no general explanation of course, though I’ll hazard
one anyway: his lines have a precision, an exactitude about them that
ride on the back of lyric rhythms. No stunting, no razzmatazz, no wild
locations but a deliberate pacing that keeps impelling you from one
line to the next. Reviewing his second book in The New York Times, along with John Logan’s first and William Carlos Williams’ Journey to Love, Wallace Fowlie
refers to Kroll’s “fine sense of rhythm” and “the graphic clarity of
this poet’s craft.” In notes I made while reading these books again,
over and over again I marked the pacing.
In so many
of the poems, Ernie’s modus operandi is the observer: he sees, he
stops, he ruminates about what is before him. The title of his second
book The Pauses of the Eye is
right-on—there’s no title poem of this name but it reflects what I
imagine was his own understanding of the kind of poetry he was writing.
Here’s “Homer with a Camera,” for example, a short poem that relates to
the Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady—metaphorically at least, it may characterize Kroll’s own work:
In his ramshackle wagon rattling after battles,
And down on the ground and under the black
Cloth, his eye in the makeshift dark alive
With love of the visual image,
His hand directing the light to cut
War’s configurations on the plate,
He saw the truth as terrible as myth,
And made for the eye its only Iliad
Of gods unbuttoned and the dead.
Not surprisingly, Ernie organized his first two books largely by subjects. In Cape Horn, the
first part brings together observations of people and landscapes; the
second is made up of city poems, several of which are narratives, e.g.,
“Crash, 1929,” “Unemployment,” “The Divided Man,” “The Salesman”; the
third, poems set in Washington and the surrounding area such as
“Washington, DC,” “In a Georgetown Garden,” “At the Adams Memorial,”
“Lafayette Square,” “In the Woods Near Cabin John,” “Antietam
Battlefield.”; and part four gathers poems on place—“New England: A
Vision,” “Rockingham,” “Marblehead,” “A Hampton Suite.”
I won’t summarize all six parts of The Pauses of the Eye,
which begins with a number of poems set in Washington and on American
figures, among them, “Washington, Astride” (on the sculpture of
the first president mounted on his horse), “Lines for the Sherman
Monument,” “Whitman,” “Emerson,” and “Three Painters” (Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder).
There’s a rich section of poems related to the natural world, birds
especially—“The Passenger Pigeon,” “Whooping Crane,” “Ivory-Billed
Woodpecker,” “The Bittern”—here are two:
The Snowy Owl
Eating the songbird, does it eat
The song, too? Relish it with the smack and
Tang of sauce, or wine, upon the tongue?
Little creatures, keep out of the wide purview
Of the hunting glance of the snowy owl,
Come soaring out of the north, half-starved, for you.
It is the particular own of
Your worst nightmare; most bright,
Most terrible eye of the air
To fall afoul of.
More flame than bird
At loose in the wood,
Though gone, still
Burning where it stood.
poems reflect at least two aspects of tone: in the first, a sense of
darkness in the world that Kroll’s poems don’t shrink from and in the
second, a sense of quiet rapture, almost visionary. The meditative,
reflective strain is common to both the lyrics and his urban narratives
I referred to above—here is the opening to “The Divided Man”:
He wakens to the day’s affairs,
Welcomed by birdsong from the stucco eaves.
The clock goes off to make a point:
It has his being in its care.
Staring through the upper panes,
Distractedly he cracks an egg.
The moon descending in the morning air
Looks like the sun’s discarded shell.
The divided man goes through the day in nearly 80 lines, the last of which brings him home from the long day’s work:
He hangs at evening from the thong
In the swaying trolley throng,
His pocket rich with transfers.
Returned, intact, ascends the stairs,
Preoccupied as he came down. He enters
To the dying cheers, only a rumor in his ears,
Of birds still active in the eaves.
He contemplates the scene. He sits.
After the day’s distraction,
Gathers in his wits,
But gradually nods.
Unfavored by the gods,
He twitches in his sleep,
His dreams demanding action.
Kroll writing about himself here? Maybe—only rarely does he write poem
framed by the first-person I. His poetry is both camera and mind.
“Expanding Universe,” the opening poem in Cape Horn, begins
with the visual thought that the planets are sailing into the dark and
“Have only their own light for mark.” This leads him to an analogy
about our own selves sailing into the dark: “How shall we manage our
one light / To navigate the perfect dark, / Lacking a mark upon the
light?” “How shall we manage our one light” – and his answers are in
the poems that follow: not the abstraction of “being in the world” but
being and seeing and hearing and touching the world in all its
These analogies bear the
quietly reflective, more logically associative mind – they don’t leap
like the so-called deep image poems by Robert Bly or, later, James Wright—take
“Kaibab Wood” in Arizona, where “the feeding deer / Reach up eat the
aspen browse.” They show no signs of fear, nor do they evade the human
presence, watching them, he imagines them meditating “on some slow file
/ Of cloud like sails upon the Nile / Drawing a slow felucca.”
“Flowers and Fever”: here the speaker/Kroll is lying ill in bed:
“Through the haze of fever the body’s bulk / Diminished” he thinks of
flowers: “I envy the vigor of the flowers / Erect in a glass upon the
table” and follows the analogy out. Just as their “death cannot be
cured,” he takes a tablet, an aspirin maybe, “to make a stay, / To do
the most one can to death, delay.”
Current poetic fashions that range from the first-person/tell-all poem
at one extreme to the Dadaistic/language poem at the other leave little
room for the ruminative voice such as these poems from the Fifties.
That is too bad – there is so much here to appreciate and admire (a
word that might be the kiss of death); but there’s much for poets to
learn from, especially the mindful precision.
In the beginning I referred to other modes that Ernie began writing in
the later 50s and continued with well into the 80s, namely Fraxioms and the American Panel
poems. The first is his neologism made from the words “fracture . . .
fragment . . . axiom.” In 1974, Abattoir Editions at the University of
Nebraska published a beautiful letterpress edition of them, Fifty Fraxioms
– each fraxiom is nine lines: lines 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9 are in English;
lines 2, 5, 8 are in either French, German or Latin and serve as a
complement or counterpoint. The book’s subtitle is Verbum Sat Sapienti [trans. Enough for a Wise Word]. These are poems pared to the bare minimum, for instance, “Dr. Williams’ Prescription”:
[German trans: The thing in itself]
As if my
Shoe were not
[Latin trans: Nature abhors a vacuum]
get the idea. They’re fast aperçus—clever, playful, satiric, and each
would fit on Twitter! These are poems that should be reprinted—all
three Fraxiom books were all published in limited editions.
I’ll close with remarks about my own connection to
Ernie, which lasted a brief time in the mid-1970s. We had met passingly
in 1971 when my wife Ann Slayton and I were living in England—Ann Darr
and her husband George were traveling the inland waterways and they
stopped in Oxford to visit; this was after I went with Ann D for a
poetry reading in London that she did with Theodore Weiss—and Ernie happened to be there at the same time.
Several years later, back in the US, Neil Lehrman and I were still publishing Dryad
magazine, though we were in the process of transforming the magazine
into what became Dryad Press. I had published a couple of issues of the
magazine as books—the first, Rod Jellema’s Something Tugging the Line, and the second, A Tumult for John Berryman, an anthology of poetic tributes, edited by Marguerite Harris. One of the tributes was by Kroll. He later wrote me that John Berryman was a classmate and friend at Columbia—both were protégés of Mark Van Doren, along with Robert Giroux who was in the same class.
In 1975, with Dryad Press in (relatively) full spring—publishing John Logan’s Poem in Progress, reprinting Roland Flint’s And Morning, and readying Myra Sklarew’s From the Backyard of the Diaspora—I
had a letter from Ernie about our publishing a book of satiric
verses—four-line epigrammatic-like poems—on life in the US. He wrote
they were being widely published, e.g., in Harper’s, The Nation, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Carleton Miscellany, Voyages
and elsewhere. “Nobody I am aware of is writing satire with this
deep-cutting edge today,” he wrote. Here are a few of these poems, the
first from Voyages, the second two from Harper’s:
The Radio in the Manhole
Those infernal measures rising pure
Orpheus up from hell ascending?
No. Just some men with music mending
Broken pipes within a sewer.
The cabin cruiser
To congregate below the street
And dine from plates upon the knees
Is secretly believed to ease
The soul beyond the pearly gates.
“A reader of Harper’s,” Kroll wrote, “accused me of being a ‘cynic’ for having written ‘Church Supper.’ Vive l’espirit!”
I read the manuscript—I read it several times at single sittings. I
wanted to care for the book but didn’t feel strongly about it. There
were poems that seemed “superb” then but the 123 poems that made up the
manuscript, which he had cut down from the original 150, just didn’t
sustain my interest. “Now I know there has to be a rise and fall,” I
wrote him, “but it seems to me there are more poems wandering around
rather than heading in a coherent direction.” I referred to ones that I
would stand by, saying that I felt I could do a chapbook-length
collection because too long a book would dilute the strength of those
like “Church Supper” and others I mentioned. I never heard back from
Ernie and don’t know that I saw him in the years following. Such are
the pangs of being an editor-publisher.
I would love to be able to read those poems now, to see if I feel
differently than I did then – maybe they were “ahead” of me and I
hadn’t yet caught up to them. The best could be put together with the
Fraxioms and a solid selection from Cape Horn and Other Poems, The Pauses of the Eye, and published but uncollected poems. This would be a book of poetry I could stand up for and publish.
Books by Ernest Kroll
Cape Horn and Other Poems (E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc. 1952)
The Pauses of the Eye (E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc., 1955)
Fifty Fraxioms, Verbum Sat Sapienti (Abattoir Editions, The University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1973)
15 Fraxions (Doe Press, 1977)
Tattoo Parlor & Other Fraxioms (Press at Colorado College, 1982)
Six Letters to an Apprentice. (Thaumatrope Press, University of California, Riverside 1994). To Ernest Kroll from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, George Ade, Ellen Glasgow, Don Marquis, Ring Lardner
Merrill Leffler is the author of three books of poems: Mark the Music (2012), Take Hold (1997), and Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love (1984).
Leffler is editor of Dryad Press. He has taught literature at the
University of Maryland and US Naval Academy, and was a senior science
writer at the University of Maryland Sea Grant Program.
in Volume 13:4, Fall 2012.
To read more by this author:
Merrill Leffler's Introduction to Vol. 1:4 (Fall 2000)
Merrill Leffler on O.B. Hardison, Jr.: Memorial Issue
Three DC Editors: Richard Peabody on Merrill Leffler: Profiles Issue
Merrill Leffler on Gabrielle Edgcomb: Profiles Issue
Merrill Leffler: Tenth Anniversary Issue