Robert Penn Warren’s reputation as a novelist and critic has tended to overshadow his achievements and distinction as a poet. Like many of our best fiction writers, he was published as a poet before he gained recognition as a novelist; but, unlike most, he has continued to write poetry throughout his career. This fact would make him stand out even among the poets of his generation, most of whom, after achieving some measure of recognition, a niche in the pantheon of the establishment, have at best settled for the care and preservation of the “image” rather than the risky and perhaps unrewarding business of writing more poems. Both factors may help to explain the undeniable fact that Warren’s poetry is not as well known as it might be and ought to be. The divorce between the audience for poetry and the audience for fiction has not been settled. The poetry-reading public remains inconsequentially small compared to the larger public for fiction. And within the poetic establishment there remains a lingering suspicion of the poet who also writes fiction.
In Warren’s case this suspicion has without doubt been compounded by the fact that his novels have been extremely well received. Part of this suspicion can be written off as professional pride at best and, at worst, simple envy; but in a larger sense it is also the result of the specialization so characteristic of our culture as to be inevitably reflected by its artists and, indeed, strongly protected by them. Warren does not fit neatly and nicely. He is clearly, from the present point of view, not only out of date as a man of letters in the grand style, but a threat by his existence and creativity to the status quo.
Not that he has been ignored or unrecognized as a poet in the usual way. He has generally received excellent reviews and notices for his poetry and he has won many honors and awards. He has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he has served as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. Some of his poems, particularly the earlier ones, are widely anthologized. But ironically, in spite of his honors, his influence by criticism and example, in spite of his innovation and, above all, his sustained and genuine productivity, he is not often considered critically as a poet.
There is a kind of double irony at work here, for had he continued to write in the manner of his earliest and best-known poems, the manner of THIRTY-SIX POEMS and ELEVEN POEMS ON THE SAME THEME, he might have been more acceptable. The early poems, chiefly distinguished by an elegant combination of form and deliberate artifice, deeply influenced by the rules and guidelines of the first generation, the elders, of “The Fugitives,” are quite sharply distinct from his prose. At least at that state his prose and poetry seem to be separate concerns. But through the years of his own change and growth he has managed to bring the two into a closer kinship, to integrate his concerns and manners in prose and verse so that they are clearly part of the same body of work, clearly the voice of one man. Though most modern poets pay brief lip service to Ezra Pound’s fiat, that poetry should be as well written as prose, major energy has been spent in cultivating what is special and singular about poetry as if to segregate forever the prosaic from the lyric precincts. It is in this sense that Warren’s development as poet has gone against the grain.
In some of his early poems Warren showed that he could turn the modern “metaphysical” lyric to perfection. The final, familiar quatrain of “Bearded Oaks” is a marvelous example, the manner of Andrew Marvell gracefully translated into twentieth century English. And in the frequently anthologized “Love’s Parable” we see the influence of John Donne, its origins proudly shown in the syntax, in the archaisms and inversions, and even in the imagery.
Warren might have continued in that vein, and not without distinction; but he was at once a gifted storyteller and deeply involved in the living Southern tradition. Scattered among the early poems which were brought together in SELECTED POEMS, 1923-1943, there are various examples of poems which break the pattern and have a very different kind of grace, life, and vigor. “The Ballad of Billie Potts” is a real story, a sustained narrative poem which is at once particular and concrete, precisely local in color and allusion, and laced with homely imagery, some of it directly out of the folk tradition and some contrived to be a close approximation of the original and source. And in a small group of poems set in Mexico he demonstrated an ease and ability to handle concrete scene and action in verse which could rival his abilities in prose.
The effects are...
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