Immersed in America

Selected Poems 1923-1975

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

Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren; drawing by David Levine

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…

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