Robert Penn Warren has been publishing books with great regularity for nearly half a century. In that circumstance, critics may grow suspicious or tired, wishing that the man were not so prolific. True, there are poems and stories, perhaps even novels, which could be dropped from the Warren canon without diminishing its importance; but it may be the very momentum of constant production that makes Warren’s good work so very good. In any case, he has emerged in the last decade or so as one of our major poets, which is to say that his poetry has steadily improved since 1957, when he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Promises.
As a member of the Vanderbilt group of poets who learned their craft in the company of John Crowe Ransom, and as coauthor, with Cleanth Brooks, of the textbook which gave widest currency to the New Criticism, Warren has long understood how a poem can sometimes be more effective than other poems if it is noticeably an artifact. For a long time, his style has been easily recognized in a quatrain whose obtrusive rhymes and rugged meter somehow transcend mere obtrusiveness and ruggedness, and move toward rare authenticity, both as voice and as artifact. Here, for example, are the first eight lines of “Last Laugh,” from this new collection:
The little Sam Clemens, one night back in Hannibal,Peeped through the dining-room keyhole, to see, outspreadAnd naked, the father split open, lights, liver, and allSpilling out from that sack of mysterious pain, and the headSawed through, where his Word, like God’s, held its deepest den,And candlelight glimmered on blood-slick, post-mortem steel,And the two dead fish-eyes stared steadily ceilingward—well, then,If you yourself were, say, twelve, just how would you feel?
Though it might be difficult to say exactly what distinguishes these lines from the forced rhymes and rough rhythms of an incompetent versifier, it is clear that there is more than mere competence at work here. The perilous balance between success and failure as verse enables this poem’s subject, its theme, and its artifice to strike the reader simultaneously. In bad poetry, one usually notices first the inappropriate rhythms and rhymes, the verse-noise drowning out what is being said; or, conversely, one notices the subject matter as it overpowers the inadequate craft. But here, it is hard to say what one notices first. The subject matter is gripping enough, but the rhymes assert themselves vigorously; we are constantly reminded that we are in the presence of something made, something more than anecdote.
Much poetry that insists on its status is minor, because insistence on artifice as a good thing in itself can sometimes diminish the power of the poem’s theme, even when the theme is important. Warren avoids this trap most of the time by having developed a poetic instrument capable of including abstract statement, in an age when most of us heed Pound’s advice to “go in fear of abstractions.” The voice behind these poems is wide-ranging in its quest for answers to large questions about the nature of time, memory, love, and human endeavor. From anecdote to moral, from image to abstraction, these poems move with apparent ease.
This collection is divided into two sections, “Nostalgic” and “Speculative”; at first, these adjectives seem to modify or echo the Then and the Now of the book’s title; but the order is reversed, and it gradually becomes clear that the adjectives describe poems other than those in their own sections of the book. “Now and then” may mean “more or less constantly over the years,” and for Warren, the retrieval of distant memory is often a matter of speculation.
This openness to abstraction, and this unity of purpose, are both evident in the poem which opens this collection. “American Portrait: Old Style,” a long poem in eight parts, begins with the speaker returning to a place he knew in his childhood; in the next two parts, he recalls the games he played there with a friend, whom he now calls K; in the summers they played at being hunters, K already a talented handler of bird dogs and BB guns; and if the quarry was sometimes somebody’s hen, or if mothers seemed not to care about dangers from imaginary Indians or Yankees, the boys were learning something:
Yes, a day is merely...
(The entire section is 1924 words.)