Poetry in a Time of Crack-Up

The following was given as a speech at the Library of Congress after Mr. Warren received the 1970 National Medal for Literature on December 2.

This is the moment of crisis we are constantly being told—the crack-up of the Western world, of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, of the American success story. In such a moment, what are we doing here on this—or any other—literary occasion? Are we, to use the sacred word, relevant?

When I first entered this building, in the summer of 1944, I didn’t come in feeling relevant. A couple of years earlier, in that time of crisis, I had offered my services to the United States Navy, and they had politely declined the offer. Defective vision, they said. So as time passed I got irrelevanter and irrelevanter until I reached the nadir of relevance—which was being the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.

But one morning my phone rang and a Captain X introduced himself and asked if I was the Consultant in Poetry. Yes, I said. Well, he said, General Y was writing the lyric for a song to inspirit our boys—that was the word he used, “inspirit”—and the General wanted to consult the Consultant in Poetry on a matter of meter. So at one end of the line the General read his lyric and tapped out the meter, and at my end, while he read, I tapped it out with my finger. We did this several times, and I told him it was a fine meter. Meanwhile I had memorized most of his lyric, but now all I can remember is two lines, which I want to share with you:

We are the boys who don’t like to brag,
But we sure are proud of our grand old flag.

The episode was a great comfort to me. If, in the middle of World War II, a general could be writing a poem, then maybe I was not so irrelevant after all. Maybe the general was doing more for victory by writing a poem than he would be by commanding an army. At least, he might be doing less harm. By applying the same logic to my own condition, I decided that I might be relevant in what I called a negative way. I have clung to this concept ever since—negative relevance. In moments of vain-glory I even entertain the possibility that if my concept were more widely accepted, the world might be a better place to live in. There are a lot of people who would make better citizens if they were content to be just negatively relevant.

But, in general, this brand of comfort isn’t quite comforting enough. The awareness of crisis has penetrated to the furthest reaches of society. The most illiterate and pot-ridden of dropouts mumble about their identity crisis, along with the poets. Stick-up men on heroin plead alienation. Time was when the bad news of Spengler’s Decline of the West was restricted to the more…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.