Kilroy Critical Overview
by Peter Viereck

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Viereck’s poetry was not initially as well received as his nonfiction books and essays. The poems, critics said, were lively and experimental for the time but that usually translated into overwritten and insignificant. Set against the erudite composition of his historical and political writings, the poetry seemed immature and unfinished. In spite of the negative comments, however, Viereck’s first fulllength collection of poems, Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940–1948, including “Kilroy,” was received well enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1949.

Reviewing Terror and Decorum, many critics still noted mixed feelings toward its content although the favorable outweighed the not so favorable. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Idris McElveen says the book shows Viereck’s “energetic control of language for purposes of wit and variety in tone and subject matter,” then goes on to note that “The volume presents a full view of his art at its best and worst.” Addressing “Kilroy” specifically, McElveen calls it “one of Viereck’s most daring poems” and “perhaps the best example among all his poems of the kind of circus act that he alone would risk.” In her book of biographical material and criticism simply titled Peter Viereck, critic Marie Henault is not as kind to the poem in question. She writes that

In the early 1940s, ‘Kilroy was here’ meant no more than that American soldiers had been at the place so labeled. This connotation, now partly lost, makes this robust and technically adept poem diminish with the passage of time.

Henault goes on to say that, “joyfully as it begins, ‘Kilroy’ also becomes a despairing and somewhat cliché-ridden poem.”

Over the years, Viereck has continued to write “robust” poetry that has been more widely appre- ciated by critics and scholars today than in the past. He has won additional awards for his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Poetry Award of the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. But most of Viereck’s career has been spent in academic history departments, and his name is not as recognizable to students and general readers as other more highly anthologized poets’ may be. Still, Viereck’s poems are often surprisingly fresh—even funny—and it is too bad that they frequently go unnoticed outside the circle of scholarly, academic works.