Commentary Magazine

Selected Poems, 1923-1975, by Robert Penn Warren

Poet of Clarity

Selected Poems, 1923-1975.
by Robert Penn Warren.
Random House. 324 pp. $15.00.

There is something anomalous in the poetic achievement of Robert Penn Warren, and it is not the anomaly of his being simultaneously a serious poet and a best-selling novelist (Band of Angels, All the King’s Men). Rather, the anomaly resides in the poetry itself, in its profound readability. There is little in the work of contemporary poets of Warren’s stature that prepares us for the positive will to communication that Warren brings to his work—a work which is nonetheless subtle, inward, and complex. It is disorienting, therefore, to discover how sincerely this poet wishes to be understood, and wishes, even, to give pleasure.

When my son is an old
  man, and I have not,
For some fifty years,
  seen his face, and, if
    seeing it,
Would not even be able
  to guess what name it
    wore, what
Blessing should I ask for

(“Sunset Walk in Thaw-Time in Vermont”)

So direct and unguarded and clear are lines like these that the reader needs time to observe how the risks Warren has taken in them have been happily overcome: the risk of melodrama and sentiment, overcome by an exact focusing of feeling in the question with which the lines end; the risk of too familiar a theme, overcome because Warren has managed a striking permutation of an exhausted subject; the risk of prose and platitude, because something surprising and ambiguous attends the word “Blessing.” “What Blessing should I ask for him?” Warren asks, with a disingenuous air of supposing that an answer is possible.

Nowadays it is almost considered deprecatory to speak of the accessibility of a poet. I am not suggesting that the meanings of Warren’s poems are simple, but rather that, instead of constructing barriers or contriving masks, his poems throw open their difficult subject matter. For all the intimacy with which Warren speaks of himself in his poems—many of the poems written in the last fifteen years seem “confessional” in tone—he remains one of comparatively few recent poets of high quality more concerned with what we share with each other than with the elaboration of an idiosyncratic language or vision.

The style of this poetry, as the later poems especially reveal, is rooted in spoken language. The poems are therefore almost necessarily “democratic.” Here are samples:

Sometimes he wept for the
  human condition,
But he was hell on women.

(“Homage to Dreiser”)

Driver, do you truly, truly,
Know what flesh is, and
  if it is, as some people
    say, really sacred?

(“Internal Injuries”)

The child next door is de-
  fective because the mother,
Seven brats already in
  that purlieu of dirt,
Took a pill, or did some-
  thing to herself she
    thought would not hurt,
But it did. . . .

(“To a Little Girl, One Year Old, In a Ruined Fortress”)

Context does not strain this language. Warren honors the ordinary usage of words in American speech, yet his manner is not simply colloquial, but simultaneously colloquial and tense. It is an arresting combination, defying the usual idea of the taut, spare modern poem—an idea formed to some extent by the influence of the school of New Criticism with which, ironically enough, Warren’s name is connected. The different quality of the tension in Warren’s poems reflects the confidence of his grip, a skill which can afford to relax the line, to let it out, with a certainty of its tightening fast at the crucial moment.

But even more than his style, it is his themes that truly display the generosity of Warren’s vision. The words “history” and “destiny” occur often; and Warren’s way with these dangerously large abstractions is deft. His almost constant purpose is to locate the near and personal particulars of our lives in some telling relation to the passing of time. Thus, in “Season Opens on Wild Boar in Chianti,” a group of men are hunting boar late on a particular day on a particular piece of ground in Northern Italy. But a wider significance breathes through their exertion:

In the twilight and silence,
  now passing
Our door, men pant with the
  heaviness of their destiny’s
Each wondering who will be able
To choose his own ground when
  the adversary
Encounters him, red eye to
  red eye.

The Italian setting is dramatic; in other poems the great abstractions—history, destiny—wink through the interstices of the ordinary, and the reader is encouraged to recognize the wink. “Answer to Prayer” tells of a woman who slips from the speaker’s side into a church and prays, she tells him, for “Nothing much, just for you to be happy.” Later they proceed to “the unlit room to enact what comfort body and heart needed.” As we are about to be told the punch-line—that in fact she herself made him happy that day, and answered her own prayer—the poet interrupts:

Who does not know the
  savvy insanity and wit
Of history! and how its
most savage peripeteia
Has the shape of a joke—
  if you find the heart to
      laugh at it.

There is an exhilarating presumption here—that the reader, too, has felt the shape of history moving through the anecdotes of his own private life. Even though Warren ends by doubting that the woman “ever remembers she ever prayed such a prayer,” or “if she remembers, she laughs into the emptiness of air,” he has in this poem permanently ennobled the little stories we tell about ourselves, sanctifying them as shared human ground.

In some ways, the project of Warren’s poetry is the project of classicism itself, which is the inspection of the concrete and particular for traces of the universal. The poems “Rattlesnake Country” and “Penological Studies” are among the most successful in this vein, along with the long poem “Audubon,” where the material is historical rather than personal. Events, whatever their source, are dragged out of the “was” into the “is,” to borrow Warren’s terms; a skilled and patient exactitude of description is forced upon them—no poet presently at work surpasses Warren’s capacity to render the visible—while at the same time a beautifully hesitant, self-conscious effort is made toward saying what they might mean. But the effort is never allowed to succeed, at least not entirely. “We must learn to live in the world,” Warren says. To that end, events grow under his hand until they “glitter” and “glow” in an “ecstasy of being,” and then the glow itself must avail as a kind of meaning.



Selected Poems, 1923-1975 is the work of a lifetime, and thus has a collective power that cannot be adequately captured by remarks on individual poems. The publication of this collection should bring full recognition of the warmth and directness which are Robert Penn Warren’s special contributions to recent American writing, as well as an acknowledgment of the fact that he has since the 50’s been producing some of the most beautiful poetry of our time.

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