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Immersed in America

Selected Poems 1923-1975

by Robert Penn Warren
Random House, 325 pp., $6.95 (paper)

This collection shows Robert Penn Warren, now past seventy, to be still growing and developing as a poet and to be still at the height of his powers. It is hard to think of Warren as old. He was the youngest and most precocious of the Fugitive group, and the qualities one associates with him are youthful: prodigality of talent, versatility, copiousness, idealism coupled with a determination to know the world, willingness to learn from history and to change. But the dates on this volume remind us that his poetic career now spans more than fifty years, and in the portrait on the dust jacket he has something of the aquiline look of the elder Yeats. “Myself must I remake,” Yeats resolved once more in a poem written when he was past seventy, taking as his models Blake and Michelangelo, Timon and Lear: “An old man’s eagle mind.” Though Warren is in many ways a very different kind of poet from Yeats, he has the same dedication to remaking his poetic self and the same tenacity in continuing the process into old age.

Far from marking the end of Warren’s career as poet, this volume does not appear to signal even the end of a phase: since its publication more poems that seem clearly intended to form part of its first sequence have been turning up in magazines. The occasion of this third version of Selected Poems seems to have been mainly that ten productive years had passed since the second, in 1967.

In all three of his Selected Poems, Warren has arranged the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with the most recent. Thus the present volume begins with ten poems written in 1975 and not previously published in book form, then moves back through the three volumes published since the last Selected Poems in 1967: Or Else, Audubon, and Incarnations. Only two poems are dropped from Incarnations, and none from the other two volumes. On the other hand, fifteen poems are dropped from the 1967 volume, and seven more are transferred into Or Else; the Selected Poems of 1944 is now reduced to little more than half its original length.

Warren, in thus giving pride of place and preference in bulk to his later poetry, makes his sense of the shape of his own career very plain. More than five-sixths of this volume—268 of its 325 pages—dates from 1954 or later: it is work, then, of the poet’s middle and later years, from the age of forty-nine on. In making up his volume in this unusual way—and reverse chronological order is very rare indeed—has Warren fallen victim to the natural partiality every poet feels for his latest work (but most poets conclude sadly to be unjustified) or to an excessive concern for contemporary relevance? I do not think so. In the first place, he does not abandon the early work, but preserves and sometimes improves the best of it; in revising he tries “not to tamper with meanings, only to sharpen old meanings—for poems are, in one perspective at least, always a life record, and live their own life by that fact.” In the second place, few would deny that the kind of poetry Warren began writing after the ten-year interval in which he wrote none except for the long “play for verse and voices,” Brother to Dragons (1953), was more inclusive, richer in human and dramatic qualities, and far more accessible than the early verse.

In most of his early poetry, Warren was more open in texture and personal in tone than his fellow Fugitives Tate and Ransom; when he returned to poetry in 1954 these tendencies were much accentuated. No doubt partly in response to the same pressures that produced the “confessional” movement at about the same time, and partly as a result of private and internal developments, Warren’s poems have grown steadily more open, more unabashedly personal, more overtly psychological and religious, and more interdependent. Promises (1957) begins with a sequence dedicated to his daughter, born in 1953, and contains as title sequence a group dedicated to his son, born in 1955, the same year his father died. Promises suggests both the new hope and promise that children bring and the commitment to the future that they represent; and through them he relives his own childhood. The title also designates a theme new to Warren’s poetry: the promise of joy as a real possibility, if Time is accepted. To live fully in the present is to accept the world as real and to accept both past and future, for the present takes part of its reality from them. Hence the volume begins with the poet’s vision of his dead parents repeating their promises to him, and reaches one of its high points in the ballad about the grandmother who must submit to being eaten by the hogs (eating being a natural symbol for acceptance, communion, incorporation). It is not fanciful to see analogies between Promises and Yeats’s Responsibilities, each marking at about the same age the beginning of a new phase in the poet’s career.

You, Emperors, and Others (1960) is about the “you” who is both the reader and the poet, as well as the “Roman citizen of no historical importance, under the empire” whose epitaph is quoted with the first poem, which begins: “Whoever you are, this poem is clearly about you,” and the Roman emperors dealt with in other poems. Warren, seeking a direct and candid relation to the reader, is characteristically the poet of the second person, and this volume makes explicit that mode of address. Incarnations (1969) is religious but nontheological: the communion it celebrates is chiefly one of suffering, and the flesh most prominently that of an old convict dying of cancer in a Southern penitentiary and a Negro maid dying in a meaningless accident in New York.

Or Else (1974) is in my opinion Warren’s best single volume. Certainly it is his most fully achieved structure in the mode he has been developing since 1954, for whereas earlier volumes have been made up of several sequences, this book is, as Warren said in the preface, “conceived as a single long poem composed of a number of shorter poems as sections or chapters.” The nature of time and of evil, the ambivalent and guilty relation to the parents (“In the rain the naked old father is dancing, he will get wet. / … They must learn to stay in their graves. That is what graves are for”), the unpleasant sources of creativity in Flaubert and Dreiser, the false visions produced by drink, passion, and stargazing, but the real embodiments of the “unsleeping principle of delight” and even love and joy, implausible as a floating mountain—all these and other themes are integrated into a complex unity made up of twenty-three sections and eight “Interjections.” Among them is what seems to me the best poem yet written about Vietnam: “Bad Year, Bad War: A New Year’s Card, 1969.” It is an ironic poem without any assumption of moral superiority on the part of the ironist, for Warren sees the liberal attitude toward the war as another example of that quest for a false innocence that betrays us all. It begins, “That was the year of the bad war. The others—/ Wars, that is—had been virtuous…” and ends: “Dear God, we pray / To be restored to that purity of heart / That sanctifies the shedding of blood.”

Let us look briefly at the ten new poems, dated 1975, with which the present volume opens. The last of these, “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home from Party in the Back Country,” is a vivid evocation of a long-ago incident in which the poet, drunk on booze, music, and the desires of the flesh, was driving through the Louisiana night and was almost killed when he suddenly encountered, “On the foolnigger, ass-hole wrong side of / The road, naturally,” an old Negro on a mule cart piled high with junk. The encounter haunts him through the years; he remembers the couplet of a sonnet he once tried to write about it:

One of those who gather junk and wire to use
For purposes that we cannot peruse.

As I said, Jesus Christ….

Now, looking at the whiteness of the snow-filled forest on the mountain, he imagines the Negro arriving home and going to bed after the incident; and this becomes an image of his own death. The poem ends:

And so I say:
Brother, Rebuker, my Philosopher past all
Casuistry, will you be with me when
I arrive and leave my own cart of junk
Unfended from the storm of star- light and
The howl, like wind, of the world’s monstrous blessedness,
To enter, by a bare field, a shack unlit?
Entering into that darkness to fumble
My way to a place to lie down, but holding,
I trust, in my hand, a name—
Like a shell, a dry flower, a worn stone, a toy—merely
A hard-won something that may, while Time
Backward unblooms out of time toward peace, utter
Its small, sober, and inestimable
Glow, trophy of truth.

Can I see Arcturus from where I stand?

This passage is a good example of the difference between Warren’s and “naked” or “confessional” poetry. Warren does not expose himself to reveal exceptional wickedness or misfortune; there is in him no touch of the poète maudit, suffering exceptionally for us all. Instead, he offers himself rather as Auden does in his later verse, as a representative man, accepting himself as part of accepting the flesh of common humanity; “A man ain’t nuthin but a man” is one of the epigraphs to Incarnations. The trophy he seeks is truth, the truth of the human condition primarily as found in himself. While the poem seems open and direct, much of its power comes from the symbolic interplay between whiteness (suggesting, as usually in Warren, emptiness, desolation, meaninglessness, death) and darkness, associated with sensual pleasure. For example, the beginning:

Flesh, of a sudden, gone nameless in music, flesh
Of the dancer, under your hand, flowing to music, girl-
Flesh sliding, flesh flowing, sweeter than
Honey, slicker than Essolube, over
The music-swayed, delicate trellis of bone
That is white in secret flesh- darkness….

Much of the poem is written in the second person, as is most of Warren’s later verse. “You” is most often both the reader and the poet; and this rhetorical device, which in other hands can seem offensive, is in Warren a declaration of fraternity and common ground. The shift in meaning of the vision from confronting the old Negro as death to identifying with him is the ultimate assertion of fraternity. It is also comic, in a grotesque and ironic way. I have not said enough about the element of humor in Warren, but it is very important, from the salty vulgarity of the folk ballads to the parody headlines and clichés of “Mortmain” and the wild surrealism of “Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace.”

The last line of the poem just discussed (“Can I see Arcturus from where I stand?”) forms the title for the group of new poems, and this suggests that the dominant theme of the sequence, when it is completed, will be religious. The first, “A Way to Love God,” embodies Warren’s recurrent vision of the worst evil as blankness, meaninglessness, “forgetting the crime,” symbolized by images of whiteness, and his view of nature as no more innocent than man. But “Answer to Prayer” states, as a fact of experience, that prayers are sometimes answered, and even for happiness, though how this can be the poet cannot explain:

Who does not know the savvy insanity and wit
Of history! and how its most savage peripeteia always
Has the shape of a joke—if you find the heart to laugh at it.
In such a world, then, one must be pretty careful how one prays.

Her prayer, yes, was answered, for in spite of my meager desert,
Of a sudden, life—it was bingo! was bells and all ringing like mad,
Lights flashing, fruit spinning, the machine spurting dollars like dirt—
Nevada dollars, that is—but all just a metaphor for the luck I now had.

Most of these poems are in the colloquial, often prosaic language and open, loose forms that have dominated Warren’s verse since 1954. But Warren, who was in much of his early poetry a virtuoso of tight, complex lyric forms, seems to be moving back toward the more frequent employment of such fixed and traditional structures. Among the new poems, “Paradox” seems a deliberate return to the kind of Marvellian lyric that Warren wrote early in his career (“Bearded Oaks” being the most famous), and a very beautiful one. “Season Opens on Wild Boar in Chianti” has a complicated rhyming form based on the sestina.

Some years ago I heard several of Warren’s friends agree that the proper phrase to describe him was “a hardbitten saint,” and though they were speaking of him as man rather than poet, the phrase applies well to his verse. Warren’s poetry exhibits a toughminded awareness of what the world is like and what history is. He is perhaps more deeply immersed in American history and literature than any other contemporary poet; all his novels are in a sense historical, and he has dealt in prose with most of the major American writers. One of the tasks he undertakes in his verse is to reconcile the doctrines of American sages with the facts of American history and of human nature. Brother to Dragons forces Jefferson, believing in man’s natural goodness and perfectibility, to confront the hideous crime committed by his nephew; as “RPW” sums up at the end, “The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence. / The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom….” “There is,” he says in “The Day Dr. Knox Did It,” “no water to wash the world away”; “We are the world, and it is too late / to pretend we are children at dusk watching fireflies.” “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York” observes that Emerson thought “There is / No sin. Not even error,” and at 38,000 feet he is dead right, but only in the “womb-gloom” of the airplane, where the heart is “as abstract as an empty / Coca-Cola bottle.”

In contrast, the poem cites much earth-level evidence. Instead of taking refuge in such dreams of innocence, the solution is to “eat the dead,” to accept the past, including one’s own past self, however unpleasant it may be: “You must eat them completely, bone, blood, flesh, gristle, even / Such hair as can be forced.” This done, “Immortality is not impossible, / Even joy.” Unlike most visionary poets, Warren finds no revelation in drink or passion: “Drunk, drunk, drunk, amid the blaze of noon,” in New Orleans, he quoted Milton for magnificence: “But let / Bells ring in all the churches. / Let likker, like philosophy, roar / In the skull. Passion / Is all. Even / The sleaziest”:

A cop,

Of brachycephalic head and garlic breath,
Toothpick from side of mouth and pants ass-bagged and holster low,
From eyes the color of old coffee grounds,
Regarded with imperfect sympathy
La condition humaine—
Which was sure-God what we were.

But Warren also celebrates the capacity for idealism and sacrifice and the yearning for love and forgiveness that are equally part of the human condition. In his stubbornly skeptical way, he is a deeply religious poet. He holds hard to the facts. But, as he discovers repeatedly, prominent among the facts is the possibility of joy, even of blessedness and redemption. Once the guilty self and the past are accepted in the present—once the dead are eaten and incorporated, and communion thus affirmed—then joy becomes possible and the future real. To summarize this hard-won knowledge briefly is almost to parody it, for Warren rejects all abstract doctrines and dogmas and refuses to simplify. His view of life is essentially tragic, for he is vividly aware of how men’s best qualities are betrayed by their worst and how the two intertwine and shift; and of the prevalence of suffering and meaningless accident, as well as evil and malice, in the world. No one could be further removed from the bland formulas of the pop psychologists, though the themes as I describe them abstractly may sound similar. His poem to Theodore Dreiser begins, in very American terza rima:

Who is the ugly one slump-slopping down the street?
Who is the chinless wonder with the potato-nose?
Can’t you hear the soft plop of the pancake-shaped feet?

Born with one hand in his pants and one in the till, / He knows that the filth of self, to be loved, must be clad in glory, / …May I present Mr. Dreiser? He will write a great novel, someday.” It concludes:

He is no philosopher.
His only gift is to enact
All that his deepest self abhors,
And learn, in his self-contemplative distress,
The secret worth
Of all our human worthlessness.

Yeats wrote: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours, / The sentimentalist himself; while art / Is but a vision of reality.” Warren would emphatically agree, though his pursuit of this goal has taken him in a different direction from Yeats’s. His aim has been not to produce a Sacred Book of the Arts as Yeats did, above or outside of time, but a poetry closer to prose and to the novel, sacrificing the intensity of the individual lyric to larger dramatic effects; a poetry direct and open in its approach to the reader, candidly personal and truthful, both grounded in and remaining a part of history.

But Yeats is not the right poet with whom to compare Warren in conclusion. For Warren is the most American of poets. In contrast to James Dickey, who may be called a visionary poet whose aim is to transcend the human, Warren is a poet of history, whose aim is to accept the human, including the self. Both poets represent traditions originating with Whitman: on the one hand the transcendentalist and pantheist, on the other the good gray poet who is one of the roughs, and who is deeply concerned for the Republic. Finally, however, all these comparisons are misleading, for Warren, though the poet of common humanity, is not much like any other poet. Let us hope that his late flowering will last as long as those of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Chagall.

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