Robert Penn Warren’s Selected Poems: 1923-1975 represent his retrospective and evaluative view of over a half-century of productivity as a poet. At the age of seventy-three, Warren can look back on an honorable and honored career as a poet and novelist. Promises (1957) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; eleven years earlier All the King’s Men won the Prize for fiction. In reviewing this book, therefore, we are reviewing Warren’s career as a poet and his critical judgment in selecting the poems he would like to preserve for posterity.
None of this is meant to imply that Warren’s career as a poet is over—far from it. In a recent New Yorker, he has published “Inevitable Frontier,” a poem which successfully employs a highly developed conversational style to help with a smooth transition from the details of a dreamlike frontier to broad statements of conclusion. We are in a world where “all tongues are sloppily cubical” and “food is, of course, forbidden.” It is also a world where
among others, the namesOf Plato, St. Paul, Spinoza, Pascal and Freud must not be spoken and when,Without warning, by day or night, the appallingWhite blaze of God’s Great Eye sweeps the sky, HistoryTurns tail and scuttles back to its burrow,Like a groundhog caught in a speeding sports car’s headlight.
The transition from detail to statement is beautifully managed and the poem is of typically high quality and typically Warren.
Warren’s is clearly traditional poetry. In the first place, it eschews artifice and ungrammaticality. When, as in the last sentence of “Inevitable Frontier,” a construction is not completed, we can be sure it is for dramatic effect. Second, the poems impose a personal rhythm on what is recognizably scanable verse. In “Inevitable Frontier” iambic pentameter is the matrix from which each of the poem’s couplets grow. Some lines are more clearly rule-bound: “The shadow of something—yourself, for instance—” Some are far less so:To the cafe terrace divans of ingeniously provocative design. Nevertheless all lines are the result of a fruitful marriage between traditional meter and personal rhythm.
In the third place, Warren’s poems are traditional in their thematic content. Throughout his corpus there is a recurrence of the themes of identity, love, the continuity of the generations, the search for wisdom, and the effects of time. In his exploration of these themes over the years, Warren clearly shows himself to be a poet of philosophical inclination in the romantic tradition of Keats and Wordsworth. He does not rhyme platitudes like Pope; nor does he contribute elegance and personality to traditional themes, like Herrick. His lifelong interest is in transforming traditional themes into personal statements which embody poetic truths, the sum of which is a kind of poetic wisdom, parallel to and as important as philosophical wisdom.
The nature of this task—Warren’s central task—makes his poetry initially obscure and forbidding. Despite the conversational, colloquial style evident especially in later years, the poems lack superficial charm and fail to ingratiate. They require repeated readings and long reflection to yield their meaning and power. Three later poems, “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home from Party in the Back Country,” “Rattlesnake Country,” and “Birth of Love,” demonstrate Warren’s method and success.
All three poems exhibit the characteristics already exemplified in the analysis of “Inevitable Journey.” They are written in a conversational manner and everywhere there is in their rhythm a tension between traditional meter and idiosyncratic speech. The first two have as their theme...
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