In his seventies, Robert Penn Warren has found a new poetic manner, releasing tremendous creative energy at an age when many poets are dead or written out. In the torrent of poems composed in the last five years, there are many fine ones, and whatever remains of Warren’s poetry will probably be drawn from this flowing of his old age.
Being Here consists of fifty poems, most of which are written in the “manner” Warren introduced in Now and Then (1978; awarded the Pulitzer Prize) and has continued to explore in his most recent poems, which will be collected in a forthcoming volume to be published in the fall of 1981. Three substantial collections in three years, such fluency suggests both the strengths and the weaknesses of Warren’s recent work.
Warren’s new manner is an elusive blend: tone of voice, subject matter, and formal characteristics all contribute. The typical poem in Being Here and its companion volumes has a strong narrative element. The poet recalls an event from the distant past or—less frequently—recounts an epiphany in the present. He addresses the reader quite directly: I speaking to you. Most of the poems in Being Here are dotted with questions—not rhetorical questions, but genuine questions directed to the reader: “and is this / The same world I stood in, / In the ditch, years ago, / And saw what I saw? / Or what did I see?” The themes are metaphysical: the nature of time, the meaning of guilt and responsibility. One of the first poems in Being Here, “Speleology,” asks: “Who am I? Is this all? What is...
(The entire section is 672 words.)