Commentary Magazine

New and Selected Poems 1923-1985, by Robert Penn Warren


New and Selected Poems 1923-1985.
by Robert Penn Warren.
Random House. 322 pp. $19.95.

Rumor Verified, the volume of Robert Penn Warren's poetry that preceded the present one, constituted a human document of no small interest. For it presented us with the phenomenon of a man who was older than most of us, considering with remarkable poise and dignity the extremity of undoing that might overtake him at any moment. These poems were nothing like Keats's “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” in which a young man waxes poetical in the unspoken confidence that he will live forever, nor like those poems of earlier times in which a poet could take comfort in the promise of immortality. Here rather was a man recording precisely what it felt like to stand on the brink of the abyss with full powers of consciousness unimpaired. To his defiance in the face of the absolute there was joined a sense of virile horror, and even in his moments of melodious resignation there was a suggestion of secretively feverish curiosity. And there was something of a touching and unmistakable valediction in this image of the belaureled bard taking his stately leave of us.

But of course Warren was not gathered up like the aged Oedipus amid the violence of forked lightning, but remains, one is happy to report, very much of this world, where he has just celebrated his eightieth birthday. To judge by this latest collection of poems, the failure of the expected coup de théâtre to materialize actually seems slightly to have chagrined Warren, for since his calling is to write poetry, he cannot remain silent, and though death remains very much on his mind he is too self-conscious to be caught repeating himself.


Thus it is with a bit of a sense of anticlimax that he now returns to the sort of poetry that he has always written, a poetry very much of the here-and-now, though not without the occasional flight into transcendence. In this, the fourth version of his selected poems, where yet again he has honed down and added to the package he wishes to commit to eternity, Warren invites us to consider the vicissitudes of a career that has spanned over sixty years. The most remarkable discovery this exercise reveals is that, once allowances are made for a few purely formal modifications over the years, the tone of his poetry has remained strikingly constant.

There has always been something decidedly bearish in Warren's habitual poetic voice; indeed, in a review of this volume in the New York Times Book Review, William Pritchard remarked, surely correctly, that there seem to be more actual and imaginary bears in these poems than in the work of any other American poet. This bearishness takes the verbal form of a direct and almost brutal forcefulness. The reader at once recognizes here a quintessentially modern attitude, one seeking veracity at all costs and making bold to tear away the superficial veneer of civilization (which, curiously enough, is one of the things that contemporary civilization most enjoys having done to it) in order to reveal the turbid undercurrents supposedly seething beneath the surface.

Then there are the mountainous crags and furiously violent storms that occur with equal frequency in Warren's poetry through the years, and which record themselves in the very syllables of his distinctively tempestuous and mountainous poetic persona. Though Warren is at times quite capable of mellifluous and flowery turns of phrase, he chooses most often to strain and torture his language through emphatic spondees that defy fluent utterance: “What years did the crowbar of ice take/ To pry from the crag-face/ That mass?” In virtually every poem in this collection one finds almost as much strife, opposition, and violence as in the storm scene in King Lear, the expulsion from heaven of Milton's Satan, and books seven through twelve of the Aeneid combined. Warren presents no convincing reason why this should be, undoubtedly because he knows that the vast majority of his readers, being, like himself, so thoroughly of their age, will tamely accept this as the ultimate reality of the world in which they live.


But there is also an element of sweetness and even of mannered elegance that grows out of Warren's habitually volcanic violence, like the flowers that eventually germinate on smoldering lava. In this we may perhaps identify a trace of the Southern temperament that is Warren's by birth, and which would seem to ally an exaggerated gentility to backwoods rustication. Though a great many poems in this collection are written without any recognizable form, and without a very compelling logic to the word that begins or ends a line, there is also a pronounced inclination toward formalism, often going as far as carefully rhymed quatrains in iambic pentameter and the use of arcane or archaic-sounding words. In this respect Warren reveals his rootedness in the generation of the Fugitive poets, like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who applied a similarly “literary” style and an impeccable propriety of meter to the romanticizing of their distinctive Southern past.

This quality is most evident in Warren's earlier work, as in “To a Face in the Crowd,” which in its untroubled fluency is certainly one of the better poems in this volume:

Brother, my brother, whither do
    you pass?
Unto what hill at dawn, unto
    what glen,
Where among rocks the faint lascivious
Fingers in lust the arrogant bones
    of men?

It is interesting that Warren has done the unusual thing here of inverting the first metrical foot of each of the four lines, perhaps to demonstrate that he is not a slave to iambic pentameter. But aside from this variation, in itself intensely conventional, the lines flow along virtually unimpeded by any inflection, and demonstrate the more dulcet turn that Warren's poetry can take at any moment. Though the influence of Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead” can be heard in the final two lines, Tate is not the only poet Warren is willing to echo; like Tate himself, if a little less frequently, he is not above an occasional nod to the glamorous T.S. Eliot, as in these closing lines from “Another Dimension” which suggest not a little of the ending of “Prufrock”:

I have felt earth breathe beneath
    my shoulder blades.
I have strained to hear, sun-high,
    that Platonic song.
It may be some men, dying, have
    heard it.

In the same poem, lip-service is also paid to that modern invention known as unmediated experience, here informed by a little bit of Wallace Stevens, a little of Eliot again, and maybe Heidegger:

That world which had no meaning
    but itself,
As I lying there had only the present,
    no future or past.

One of the more curious outgrowths of Warren's insistent modernity is a willfully artificial and not always artistically successful use of syntactical inversion. In an age that has seen the almost universal elimination of the limitless syntactical possibilities available to earlier poets, and the replacement of that variety with the generally monotonous standards of conversational English, it is not immediately apparent why Warren should elect, especially in his later poems, to mangle the language to the extent of “Long before sun had toward the mountain dipped,” or “Cities beneath sea sank.” (Warren also seems to believe that something important is proved by a frequent omission of the definite article.) Perhaps such linguistic mannerisms were suggested to Warren in the work of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but even these poets were not always successful in applying them, and Warren's work would be not one bit the worse without them.


But the principal weakness in Warren's poetry stems from its wildly excessive concatenation of mixed and mismatched metaphors. Even the most sympathetic reader will have trouble knowing what to make of such lines as: “. . . and all they long to hear/ Is the gull's high cry/ Of mercilessly joyful veracity/ To fill the hollow sky.” Of course, some meaning can always be found in verse of this kind, at least if the reader is at all practiced in modern poetry, but it does not speak well for any poem when the reader's indulgence is required to help it along. In a discipline in which so much is dependent upon exactitude of expression, even at a metaphorical level, it sometimes seems that Warren's highest ambition is to come only within the general vicinity of the thing in question.

The truth of the matter is that at some point in the early years of this century, the force of internal logic which, like some gravitational pull in the realms of language, attracted all things inexorably toward a common center of meaning, gave way to a much freer form of expression in which meaning could be generated through disconnected spasms of imagery. At times Robert Penn Warren comes close to being the reductio ad absurdum of this semantic free-for-all; unlike poets of the caliber of Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot, who managed to subsume a wild profusion of images under a single idea, with each syllable and each image contributing like tesserae in a mosaic, Warren throughout his career has demonstrated neither the inclination nor the power to consolidate his many images and surplus syllables within the framework of a coherent symbolic system.

And yet for all his faults, Warren in his overbearing exuberance is often a far more enjoyable poet than many abler practitioners of the art. He is perhaps the only contemporary poet who can yield pleasure without being truly first-rate. In this regard he might be compared with the Italian Gabriele D'Annunzio, who is often as riotously exuberant as he but who will ultimately prove, as I think Warren will, weak and undisciplined in form as well as in substance. There is, however, surely something to be said for the fervor with which both pursue their artistic principles, especially since in their hands those principles possess an undeniable color and conviction.

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