Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 18)
Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
Warren is an American novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and editor. His work is strongly regional in character, often drawing its inspiration from the land, the people, and the history of the South. The intensely metaphysical nature of his poetry and the experimental style of his fiction have brought him critical acclaim. While he often incorporates elements of the past into his work and frequently bases his themes on specific historical events, Warren successfully transcends the local to comment in universal terms on the human condition. Warren has also achieved considerable status as a critic, and is generally regarded as a major exponent of the New Criticism. He has received Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, and has won the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[John James] Audubon's art is muscular and avid: his birds and his rats alike inhabit a world of beak and claw and fang, of ripped-open bellies and planted talons. Violence caught in act, at the heart of Audubon's work, is at the heart too of [Audubon: A Vision] where Robert Penn Warren retells with his peculiar narrative Ancient-Mariner talent, a raw incident of craftiness, torture, and death, purportedly witnessed by Audubon.
The incident seems considerably milder as it appears in Audubon's recollections of the prairie; Warren's version has more sex, more murder, and more poetry. Warren's narrative, like the two stories of wretched death in his Incarnations (1968), is horribly memorable in plot, while the language tends very often to efface itself in pure transparency. Warren can make a climax out of five unremarkable words (as Audubon lies transfixed in a cabin, threatened with murder)—"He hears the jug slosh." But there occur, here and there, clotted descriptions on which the plot depends. (pp. 87-8)
Warren's elegy for Audubon succeeds in all but one respect: we believe the life (even so intensified and interpreted), we believe the death, one of the silences of the frontier, but the immortality … is perhaps unearned. Nevertheless, two of Warren's great questions—the nature of love and the meaning of life in time—are incarnate here in his fitting parable of the chosen hunter-artist-hero. Of...
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Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then … is about the possibility of joy…. Warren shows … romantic credulity,… and he writes in a genuinely expansive, passionate style. Look at its prose ease and rapidity oddly qualified by log-piling compounds, alliteration, successive stresses, and an occasional inversion—something rough and serviceable as a horse-blanket yet fancy too—and you wonder how he ever came up with it. It is excitingly massive and moulded and full of momentum. Echoes of Yeats and Auden still persist, but it is wonderfully peculiar, homemade. (pp. 302-03)
Warren usually makes the big words—God, destiny, love—awkwardly climb the shale of near-prose. Perhaps sublimity has not been so homely since Whitman…. Typically the writing is off-balance yet energized…. At first nipped phrasing, congested with repetition, then the characteristic long lines that seem to expand in an effort to take in as much of wonder as possible. How disarming is the lineal emphasis on "lonely," which would hardly be acceptable in any but its potentially awkward and flagrant spot. Such is Warren's ambiguous mammoth grace.
Two faults: he is sometimes truly awkward and sometimes pseudo-profound…. Often he seems bitten by the Enormity of it all. He will have mystery. Yet his willingness to risk folly prepares him for the monstrous and miraculous. Consider the close of "Heart of Autumn."… Warren's topic is...
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[In Now and Then] time is of the essence. One might think of these poems as a series of commentaries on two ideas that run through the book so steadily that they come to have thematic significance…. Time is running out; the world is a beautiful place. The two sections of Now and Then offer different ways of dealing with these related truths: Nostalgic delves into time past; Speculative moves mostly forward, touching on past, present, and an envisioned futuristic otherness. (Shouldn't the book's title be Then and Now?)
The tactic of Nostalgic, not surprisingly, is to dip into memory. The ten poems in this section, which range in tone from the backwoodsy to the lofty, mostly succeed to the degree that Warren manages to trim his rhetorical sails. The poet uses rhetoric to impressive effect (instead of its using him) in "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," a commanding poem that moves memories in an arc through time and space…. The ceremonial tone … is appropriate, for the poem records a series of rituals, not mere snatches of memory. Its generous scale of time and space allows room and confidence for wonderfully sharp glimpses of detail…. [The] poem is deeply moving.
But Warren can run into trouble with these memory poems. His appetite for sublimity damages the first poem in the book, "American Portrait: Old Style." This account of a double reunion—with a childhood friend...
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Warren's Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices was published in 1953. A quarter century later, he gives us a new version that is, as he says, "a new work."… Reading Brother to Dragons in this new version, side by side with the 1953 text, is an instructive experience, particularly in regard to the vexed problem of poetic revisionism. (p. 30)
Reading Brother to Dragons in 1953, I was made uneasy, acknowledged the poem's vigor, disliked its ideological tendentiousness, and gloomily admired the Jacobean intensity of its more violent passages. The poem seemed then a good enough extension of the tradition of T. S. Eliot…. Warren's quite explicit argument seemed to be another churchwardenly admonition that original sin was indeed the proper moral burden for our poetry. Thus, poor Jefferson received a massive drubbing, for being an Enlightened rationalist, and the drubber, a tough interlocutor named R.P.W., prodded the author of the Declaration of Independence into saying: "… I once tried to contrive / a form I thought fit to hold the purity of man's hope. / But I did not understand the nature of things." The nature of things was that Jefferson's nephew, wielding a meat-axe, had butchered a 16-year-old black slave, in December 1811, for having broken a pitcher belonging to his deceased mother, Jefferson's sister. In his "Foreword" Warren dismissed with polemical gusto the evident fact that Jefferson...
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As the title [to Robert Penn Warren's Now and Then] indicates, his priority in this … volume of verse lies with the present. The poems in the first and shorter section, though they fall under the heading of "Nostalgic," are no mere sentimental journey home. With humor and affection, he recounts early observations of nature, discerning as always metaphysical suggestions in the realm of birds, sky, and stars.
Revisiting scenes of childhood, the poet finds messages of lasting import. (p. 100)
Other vignettes recall adolescent turmoil at a tent meeting where "an ex-railroad engineer / Turned revivalist shouted the Threat and the Promise," until the twelve-year-old boy fled and found his own "Amazing Grace in the Back Country" watching one star reflected in a stream; the shock of running into a now unlovely "Old Flame"; the poignancy of the "Orphanage Boy" who had to shoot his dog. These are touching autobiographical poems. Touchy, too, but sharp details, tight narrative, and subtle use of natural symbols prevent sentiment from slipping into sentimentality, particularly in the most impressive poem of the first group, "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," wherein the man says farewell to the things of the child and hopes at the last to rediscover the early "paradox of unjoyful joyousness."
Joy, or at least "the possibility of joy in the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty," runs as the leitmotiv...
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Over the years Warren has, I believe, tended to refine a particularly "classical" vision. That is to say, he has eschewed most hasty views of contemporary culture, views that seem to depend on shibboleths like "dissociation," "dissolution," or "disorder," and has tended instead to see the directions of modern life based not so much on hysterical sociology as upon the unavoidable accidents of the human plot, the ironies of covert circumstances, the unravelings of cosmic drama. Hence, his earlier work insisted upon a dimension that has often enough been called "historical," but which might more accurately be thought of as the documentary-past that envelops the mysterious present. In Warren's work, whether fiction or poetry, we understand the reasons for a phenomenon much better than the phenomenon itself…. (pp. 136-37)
The poems in Warren's latest collection, Now and Then, while not exempt from Warren's preoccupation with obscure fatalities, nevertheless seem to stand less in a relationship of dependency upon these fatalities and more in their private space, very beautiful and very clear. They are limited on purpose in the way that only a grand master knows how to effect. It may be, however, that at times the poems seem to look around for support, to sue at the end for approbation, for acknowledgment of their lyrical wisdom. Or so it seems in such poems as "Amazing Grace in the Back Country" whose last line loiters all too...
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In 1953 Robert Penn Warren published Brother to Dragons, a narrative poem based on the crimes [of Lilburne Lewis, Thomas Jefferson's nephew]. He organized it as a dialogue of disembodied voices conversing long after the event, in an unspecified place. Instead of making the incidents themselves the substance of his poem, Warren treated those as starting a debate on "the human condition," particularly the extent of men's innate virtue or depravity. To suit his plan, he not only altered some of the facts; he not only added some fictitious characters; but he also planted himself and Thomas Jefferson in the poem, giving these outsiders many long speeches. Warren has now carefully revised and shortened Brother to Dragons for a new publication, altering many details, reassigning speeches, breaking up long lines, and giving the verse a dryer texture.
In Warren's telling, although the sickening episodes emerge gradually from the give and take of the speakers, the element of suspense seems weak; and a reader unfamiliar with the story would not gather it easily from the poet's presentation. Warren diversifies the main line of his narrative with other ingredients….
In the choral commentary of the poet's dialogues with Jefferson, Warren suggests that we are all responsible for the mischief done by any one of us; the victim of evil, however weak and vulnerable he may be, participates in the beastly motivations which...
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At its most self-indulgent Robert Penn Warren's sensibility may be mournfully flowery, rhetorically compassionate, windily speculative; but it's a big human thing, and it's good to have it on our side. Warren's arrows fly off in every direction, toward the good and bad, the sublime and turpid, and he thus overshadows [Donald] Justice and even [Anthony] Hecht, poets limited to the boomerang of their own pain. The new sharpened version of Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices outdoes even Hecht in finding "vanity, greed, and blood-lust" in our natures, but it is "R.P.W." who pipes up with the sweetly willed thought that a certain killer's "heart-deep need / To name his evil good is the final evidence / For the existence of good." (p. 477)
Reading Brother to Dragons is a startling experience in complexity: the bear's claws drip both honey and blood.
First published in 1953, this hybrid of the tale and the verse play hasn't dated, and it will probably survive as a lumbering near-masterpiece of human self-reckoning, very southern in kind. It is perhaps too horrid-sublime, withal, to be our great Confession. Warren is the most Yeatsian of our poets…. The romantic faith in passion, the buoyancy and grief of it, unites the two poets across every difference of manner and matter. It links Warren also with two other American poets with recent books, Dave Smith and Philip Levine, who share his raised note...
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The source of Warren's stunning power is angst, a kind of radiant metaphysical terror, projected outward into the natural world, particularly into its waiting waste expanses: open field, ocean, desert, mountain range, or the constellations as they feed into the eye a misshapen, baffling, and yearning mythology bred on nothingness. He is direct, scathingly honest, and totally serious about what he feels, and in approach is as far as can be imagined from, say, Mallarmé, who urged poets to "give the initiative to words." Warren gives the initiative to the experience, and renders himself wide open to it. He is not someone who "puts a pineapple together," as Wallace Stevens does, constructing its existence by multiple perceptions, by possibility and caprice rather than by felt necessity; he is not interested in the "ephemeras of the tangent," but in the unanswered sound of his heart, under the awesome winter presence of the hunter Orion.
He plunges as though compulsively into the largest of subjects: those that seem to cry out for capitalization and afflatus and, more often than not in the work of many poets, achieve only the former. To state things in this fashion may make it seem almost necessary to charge Warren with being rhetorical in some kind of wrong way, and indeed in his ongoing intensity he does not escape some of the implications of the charge. Balzac said to a friend bent on Art that the truth is emphatically...
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Monroe K. Spears
Robert Penn Warren has done it again: in the face of advancing years, he has produced another collection of poetry that is at least as good as any of its predecessors and that manifests continued growth and change. His progress is a joy to contemplate and an inspiration to us all….
[In Being Here: Poetry 1977–1980], he is still experimenting with different kinds of structure, playing off thematic arrangements against a "shadowy autobiography," and trying new meters and new kinds of poems. Of all Warren's volumes, this one is the most open and accessible to the reader: not only are the poems given descriptive titles and arranged in sequences so that they provide contexts for each other, both thematic and autobiographical, but even the dedication and the epigraphs are functional, and there is an "Afterthought" as further guide. The epigraphs indicate the central theme of the volume—the nature and meaning of Time—and the dedication, to Warren's maternal grandfather Gabriel Penn evokes the memory and situation that lies behind many poems.
"OLD MAN: You get old and you can't
do anybody any good any more.
"BOY: You do me some good, Grandpa.
You tell me things."…
Though this tableau characterizes the volume accurately, since most of the poems deal...
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