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Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
American novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Warren is an influential figure in twentieth-century American letters. One of the original members of the "Fugitive Group" of poets, the founding editor of The Southern Review , and one of the earliest innovators in the New...
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- Critical Essays
Warren, Robert Penn 1905–
American novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, Warren is an influential figure in twentieth-century American letters. One of the original members of the "Fugitive Group" of poets, the founding editor of The Southern Review, and one of the earliest innovators in the New Criticism, Warren has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry and the National Book Award for poetry. A central theme in his work is the moral imperative to exercise personal responsibility and the difficulty of this stance in a world of random justice. Although Warren is best known for his novels, he is generally better respected for his poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
It was a pity that the reviewers regarded All the King's Men as primarily another life of Huey Long to be compared with the other lives of Long and not with the other works of Warren. It must be obvious by now, if my account of the book is halfway accurate, that it is not a political treatise about Long or anything else. Like Proud Flesh, it is another study of Warren's constant theme: self-knowledge. Nevertheless, it has political implications—and we may understand them correctly if we see them within the broader frame. Indeed to say that we must see politics within a broader frame—the frame being morality and human life in general—is precisely Warren's thesis. Willie Stark, Adam Stanton, and Tiny Duffy are wrong politically because they are wrong humanly. (p. 265)
When Robert Penn Warren fails, as he sometimes does, it is not … because he is too naturalistic, but because he is not naturalistic enough. His symbolism is too often something superimposed. The vehicle which Warren devises to carry his meaning is not always as "natural," as "real," as it should be. (p. 270)
If the symbolist in Warren seems not to submerge himself in the naturalist, the thinker in him seems not to submerge himself in the artist. Trite as it is nowadays to stigmatize an author as a dual personality, I cannot help pointing to a duality in Warren that may well constitute his major problem: it is his combination of critical and creative power. I am far from suggesting that the critical and the creative are of their nature antithetic and I am fully ready to grant that what makes Warren remarkable among American writers is his double endowment. The problem lies precisely in his being so two-sidedly gifted; he evidently finds it endlessly difficult to combine his two sorts of awareness. (p. 271)
Warren is a faulty writer; but he is worth a dozen petty perfectionists. Though commonly associated with "formalists" and "classicists" in criticism, he is close to the type of romantic genius: robust, fluent, versatile, at his worst clever and clumsy, at his best brilliant and profound. On the other hand, he is remarkable for self-discipline…. [It] is very refreshing to find a good writer whom one may meaningfully call deeply American and genuinely regionalist. This means, paradoxically enough, that Warren is not too American and not too regionalist. (pp. 271-72)
Eric Bentley, "The Meaning of Robert Penn Warren's Novels," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1948 by Kenyon College; reprinted by permission of the author), Summer, 1948 (and reprinted in Forms of Modern Fiction, edited by William Van O'Connor, Indiana University Press, 1959, pp. 255-72).
What is new here [in Or Else] … is the arrangement of the volume as sequence, forming a kind of trajectory like a comet seen at evening, the old poet singing vespers in a time of general drought. Warren suggests both the image of evensong and of parched wilderness in his epigraph to the entire collection, a passage taken from Psalms: "He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths." There are wasteland images everywhere in this book: landscapes … the poet remembers or through which he is now passing. (p. 179)
One of the most powerfully realized of these landscapes is the image of a black sharecropper's hovel remembered from the Depression. Here Warren slows down the image, freezing it, rendering it immovable, implacable, one of those secret images we carry with us into death, an image stripped of sociological significance, even of philosophical "meaning," and presented instead as the hard thing itself…. ["Forever O'Clock"] reads like a zen study in composition, and in fact many such visual meditations are scattered throughout the volume, as though the poet were composing (in both senses of that word) his world as parts of an extended indwelling on the mystery of being…. (pp. 180-81)
It is this paradox, of a reality so much in flux that what is is always becoming was, that constitutes one of Penn Warren's most characteristic concerns, and which, for me at any rate, is both a strength and a weakness in the poetry, at least when I measure it up against the sense of immediacy, of present-action, that I find in long sections of Pound's Cantos or something like Williams' Desert Music or some of the younger poets working in that tradition (and even in some of the old Objectivists). You do not have to read very much of Warren's work in whatever genre to see that he has been preoccupied for most of his life with the nature of time and with one of its principal corollaries: history. (p. 181)
Warren's ability to reconstruct our past, to flesh it out into a meaning, is for him, as he says at the end of "Rattlesnake Country," "The compulsion to try to convert what now is was/Back into what was is." (p. 182)
Time is an obsession with Warren, here as in his other work: the sense of time running out, with its attempts, usually fumbled, to order one's priorities, to somehow grasp the mystery of its passing. Approaching his own end, though in no hurry to do so, Warren keeps swinging back to his own beginnings. Many of these poems are about his own youth, half a century and more gone…. [For example,] there is … the recollection of his father's terrible virtue, an old man with "blanket/Over knees, woolly gray bathrobe over shoulders, handkerchief/On great bald skull spread, glasses/Low on big nose" reading Hume's History of England, or Roosevelt's Winning of the West, or Freud on dreams, or Coke or Blackstone. How to explain his father's going, his disappearance into the past, that "unnameable and de-timed beast" which lifts its brachycephalic head with its dumb, "magisterial gaze" looking into the distance?
[How] to redeem the time, to understand the fact of being, to learn to live well so that one can at least die well? These are very old questions, shared by all, or at least most, of us…. One thing the poet can try to do is to keep the past—which annihilates but also preserves—from slipping away. And this Warren does by blooding that past with his words. The other thing, tied to this evocation, is to celebrate the redemptive presence of love. (pp. 185-87)
I could quarrel with certain things in Warren I find alien to my own sense of poetics: a sometimes loose, rambling line, a nostalgia verging on obsession, a veering towards philosophical attitudinizing, the mask of the redneck that out-rednecks the redneck. But I would rather leave such critical caveats for others. There is enough here in the space of a short review to praise, and I am thankful to have been given to drink, if not out of those too rare "great depths," then at least from a spring sufficiently deep, sufficiently clear. (p. 188)
Paul Mariani, "Vespers: Robert Penn Warren at Seventy," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © 1976 by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1975, pp. 176-88.
Sometimes it is the way the tone changes and sometimes the way the syntax explicates itself and often the way the figures follow—but throughout [Or Else-Poem/Poems 1968–1974] Robert Penn Warren keeps the reader just off balance…. [In the first poem, The Nature of a Mirror,] Warren slips from graphic image through what looks like surrealism to didactic abstraction. Yet it all happens as effortlessly as the light changes, so that one finds the incongruities growing superficial. (p. 349)
[In] Vision Under the October Mountain: A Love Poem,… overripe, Hopkinesque images give way to a dryasdust, professorial language…. Interjection #2: Caveat … begins in philosophical savvy and ends in mystical delight.
In News Photo, a poem about a Southerner who has killed a minister "Reported to Be Working Up the Niggers", Warren modulates his point of view continually and with a marvelous delicacy. The protagonist gets one long unmediated speech (a tour de force as irritatingly comic in its malicious prejudice as anything in Faulkner), and throughout the rest of the poem we move from an ironic detachment into the killer's confused self-righteousness and back again by passages as uncanny as those in Escher. The poem ends with a section in which Warren first imagines the acquitted killer fantasizing a congratulatory appearance by Robert E. Lee and then converts this benevolent revenant into the skeleton in the closet of the South…. [A] wry, even anti-sentimental tone is characteristic, as are the liking for the frisson and the line break that fragments the syntactical unit. Such recurrent factors notwithstanding, this sequence of poems, like many in it, is protean. Natural History, a small parable of the unbearable strangeness of pure understanding and love, is so different, not only from the other poems touched on above but from most poems, that it embarrasses the terms one would praise it in. If it were a sculpture, it would be made of some radiant otherworldly metal, seamless, obeying conventions clearly strict but obscure…. Then there is the perversely entitled I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision, the first seven sections of which read weirdly like a scenario of a silent underground film, the camera never panning but instead closing first on one object and then another in the house, as it turns out, of the poet's youth…. That odd and moving poem is followed by Interjection #3: I Know a Place Where All Is Real, a tame, hedging allegory that might have been written by—why, almost anyone…. Ballad of Mister Dutcher and the Last Lynching in Gupton, on the other hand, is a narrative that almost anyone would like to have written—or at least would like to have the skill to have written. Whatever made Warren think that he could adapt its idiomatic gait to a syllabic line is a mystery, but the result—the line breaks punctuating the narrative with the deliberateness of the shifting of a chaw or the stroke of the whittling knife—is a small triumph.
Warren also includes the fine Homage to Theodore Dreiser, several love poems drawn from two earlier works, a poem about Flaubert, and many others just as apparently diverse—and yet, we are told in a curiously phrased prefatory note à la Lowell, "This book is conceived as a single long poem composed of a number of shorter poems as sections or chapters". Indeed, what must be considered the central poems are numbered I through XXIV, while interspersed among them are "interjections", numbered 1 through 8. The latter term cannot but suggest the tentativeness of whatever unity exists here, but by the same token it is clear that one is meant to discern a main current. Well, one does, and its source is "The compulsion to try to convert what now is was/Back into what was is". Those lines come from Rattlesnake Country, which in spite of distracting echoes of Faulkner is one of the most powerful poems here. It consists of memories of time spent on a desert ranch in the company, among others, of a half Indian hand called Laughing Boy, whose early morning duty and pleasure it is to keep the ranch house lawn free of the rattlers that sleep there each night. Laughing Boy executes his charge with ingenuity, first dousing a snake with gasoline and then snapping a match alight:
If timing is good, should, just as he makes his rock-hole,
Once I get one myself. I see, actually, the stub-buttoned tail
Whip through pale flame down into earth-darkness.
"The son-of-a-bitch," I am yelling, "did you see me, I got him!"
I have gotten that stub-tailed son-of-a-bitch.
Magnificently told, this incident brings together an initiation into the temporal world (for what else can that youthful crime on that "One little patch of cool lawn" in that "long-lost summer" suggest?) and the transcendence of it. In the next section, Warren will say "What was is is now was" and then ask "But/Is was but a word for wisdom, its price?" That was is at least that, and a fortiori that was is, are propositions underwritten by the synthesis, as it were, of the two verbs in the noun's first syllable. But the snake has ogygian associations with time as well as with wisdom, and here the snake seems to be destroyed. In other words, the raconteur's sense of "timing" is only one reason that this passage is in the present tense; another is that in it was becomes is. The flaming rattler embodies that conversion, just as its disappearance down the hole (a fine touch) insists on what we might call the immortality of time.
Implicit in many of these poems, the world of "no-Time" figures explicitly in Small White House, Sunset Walk in Thaw-Time in Vermont, and There's a Grandfather's Clock in the Hall. The latter opens with a miniature Whitmanesque catalogue of meticulously jumbled events:
There's a grandfather's clock in the hall, watch it closely. The
minute hand stands still, then it jumps, and
in between jumps there is no-Time,
And you are a child again watching the reflection of early
morning sunlight on the ceiling above your bed….
That "no-Time" is not simply an ironic term is guaranteed by the nature of the catenated incidents, which are as remarkable for their metaphorical relationships among themselves as for their relationship to the movement of the minute hand. Here Warren has hit upon the perfect device for establishing simultaneously the discreteness and continuity of events in the world and for representing in a linear, schematic fashion the weave of temporal and eternal that has its inevitably flawed analogue in the texture of this volume.
There are more burls than necessary in the fabric. Neither Flaubert in Egypt, which incidentally owes a lot to Francis Steegmuller's book of the same title, nor Interjection #4: Bad Year, Bad War: a New Year's Card, 1969, nor Little Boy and Lost Shoe contributes much to this "single long poem". But for the most part these poems do seed and ramify one another, so that although much of "the evidence/Is lost" …, we have a sense, as from mosaic bits still in place, of a whole, which is at once "the original dream which/I am now trying to discover the logic of" … and the book that Warren might have written had he already discovered that logic. (pp. 350-53)
The various relationships among the parts of Warren's world are not always clearly formulated, and for that we can be thankful, since we can rest assured that he will continue to be engaged in "the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness/May be converted into the future tense/Of joy"…. (p. 354)
Stephen Yenser, "Timepiece," in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1976, pp. 349-54.
In a literary culture like ours,… in which commercial success is often felt to be at odds with academic scruples, Mr. Warren has enjoyed the best of both worlds….
As a critic … he has exhibited a … versatility of interests…. In politics, also, he has traveled a long, hard road from the reactionary Southern orthodoxy of "I'll Take My Stand" (1930) to the liberalism of "Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South" (1956) and "Who Speaks for the Negro?" (1965). Few other writers in our history have labored with such consistent distinction and such unflagging energy in so many separate branches of the literary profession. He is a man-of-letters on the old-fashioned, outsize scale, and everything he writes is stamped with the passion and the embattled intelligence of a man for whom the art of literature is inseparable from the most fundamental imperatives of life.
Yet it is no idle paradox to suggest that this writer, so heaped with honors and awards, remains in some sense an obscure figure. Certainly as a poet he has not been accorded the readership he deserves. We are not used to finding our greatest poets among the authors of best-selling novels or best-selling textbooks. We prefer them to be a little more specialized in their vocation, a little more remote from the hurly-burly where we live our lives and pursue our worldly interests. For a poet to succeed in the marketplace of letters is—well, unexpected. It diverts attention from his seriousness, and generates suspicion about his quality.
For this reason, it will come as a surprise, perhaps, at least to readers who have not kept up with the large quantity of poetry Mr. Warren has written in recent years, to be told that he is one of our greatest living poets. His poetry is so unlike that of most other poets now claiming our attention, however, that it requires a certain adjustment of the eye and the ear, and of that other faculty—call it the moral imagination—to which Mr. Warren's verse speaks with so much urgency and that of so many other poets nowadays does not. We are a long way, in this poetry, from the verse snapshot and the campy valentine—a long way, too, from the verse diaries, raw confessions and dirty laundry lists that have come to occupy such a large place in our poetic literature.
Mr. Warren's language, reaching in long-breathed lines across the page or building to its revelations and climaxes in verse paragraphs as highly charged with emotions and events as any of his stories, is at once grave and earthy, an instrument of metaphysical discourse that lives on easy terms with the folklore of the past. This is a poetry haunted by the lusts and loves of the flesh, filled with dramatic incident, vivid landscapes and philosophical reflection—a poetry of passion recollected in the tragic mode. It teems with experience, and with the lessons and losses of experience. One would be tempted to call it elegiac if that did not suggest something too settled and too distant from the urgencies of appetite and aspiration that inform its every line.
In all of this poetry there are forceful reminders of the author's gifts as a novelist, for no matter how compressed or telescoped the fable may be, these are poems that often tell a story, or evoke the setting and characters for one. The language, too, with its flow of "regional" Southern speech tempered to the economies and elisions of the verse medium, is alive with narrative continuities and the atmosphere of fictional episode. (pp. 1, 26)
The impulse to narrative retrospection was there in the early poems—in the "Ballad of Billie Potts," based on a folk tale of his native Kentucky, and in the more metaphysical poems, "Bearded Oaks" and "Original Sin: A Short Story," which decades of anthologizing have done nothing to diminish—and it is there in the new poems, "Can I See Arcturus From Where I Stand?," which open the ["Selected Poems 1923–1975"]. The voice, the themes, the obsession with evil, with the transience and glitter and dreamlike quality of experience, are there too, strong and forthright, both in the early and in the late verse…. [It] is the actions of "mere men," in all their atavism and primitive ambition, that occupy the landscapes and dreamscapes of these poems, with their expert shifts of narrative detail and moral reflection….
[Its] power is cumulative, building on a shrewd structure of story, metaphor and outright statement, with each element in the sequence orchestrated to enlarge and amplify what precedes it….
[No] single poem can adequately "represent" this volume, either, which is a collection of many kinds of verse—but all of it so fluent, so vivid with experience and reflections on experience, that it does indeed grip us like a "novel" of the poet's innermost life.
If there is, even so, some fault to be found in Mr. Warren's poetry, it may be in this very fluency, in the very ease and flow of a verse style that threatens at times to slacken the tension and blur our perception. Or is it that our taste for this natural flow of speech in poetry—for a poetry that goes on and on, and says all that it has to say—has been spoiled by the short-breathed artifice we are used to? Criticism, in any case, has not yet caught up with Mr. Warren's poetry—which is pretty odd, when we consider the role that he once played in developing the criticism of poetry in this country. When it does, we shall no doubt understand his virtues as well as his failings better than we now do. But it will confirm his place, I think, among the finest poets of our time, and one who speaks to us with a moral intensity few others have even attempted. (p. 26)
Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 9, 1977.
In the vision of Robert Penn Warren, a vision overtly anti-Emersonian, something sublimely repressed in and by the poet longs to be what Wallace Stevens once termed "a hawk of life." Stevens said he wanted his poems "To meet that hawk's eye and to flinch/Not at the eye but at the joy of it"—still a Whitmanian ambition. Warren is as embedded in what he takes to be a hawk's Nature as he is in time and history, and his poems merge part of their joy with the hawk's state of being. To trace that merging is to start to appreciate Warren's supreme achievement in a lifetime's poetry.
Warren always was a strikingly good poet, as a reading of his Selected Poems: New And Old 1923–1966 revealed to many critics and lovers of American verse. Yet his indisputable greatness, his canonical strength, is demonstrated only by the work of the last decade—Incarnations, Audubon: A Vision, Or Else, and the 10 poems written in 1975 that open this new volume [Selected Poems: 1923–1975]. As he turned 60, Warren turned also into his true power as a poet, so that now, at 71, he alone among living writers ranks with the foremost American poets of the century: Frost, Stevens, Hart Crane, Williams, Pound, Eliot. Reading through this collection, arranged in reverse chronology, one discovers Warren is that rarest kind of major poet: He has never stopped developing from his origins up to his work-in-progress. (p. 19)
[The] sunset hawk, first seen in boyhood, keeps returning in Warren's poems. In the still relatively early "To A Friend Parting," the inadequacy of "the said, the unsaid" is juxtaposed to seeing: "The hawk tower, his wings the light take," an emblem of certainty in pride and honor. Perhaps it was the absence of such emblems in his confrontation of reality that stopped Warren's poetry in the decade 1943–1953, when he wrote his most ambitious novels, All the King's Men and World Enough and Time.
Whatever the cause of his silence in verse, it seems significant that Promises: Poems 1954–1956 opens with an address to the poet's infant daughter that culminates in a return of the hawk image…. In Tale of Time: Poems 1960–1966, he explicitly compares "hawk shadow" with "that fugitive thought which I can find no word for," the consummate poetry upon whose threshold he stands at last.
That threshold is crossed in Incarnations: Poems 1966–1968, where Warren consciously takes on his full power over language and the world of the senses. The strongest poem in an extraordinary book, "The Leaf" stations its poet "near the nesting place of the hawk," and then grants him an absolute vision: "I saw/The hawk shudder in the high sky, he shudders/To hold position in the blazing wind,/in relation to/The firmament, he shudders and the world is a metaphor …" Warren's equal shudder is into a language finally his own, rather than Eliot's—away from "… my tongue/Was like a dry leaf in my mouth" and toward a precursor-overcoming sense that: "The world/Is fruitful, and I, too,/In that I am the father/Of my father's father's father. I,/Of my father, have set the teeth on edge."
Henceforward, in a great decade of poetry, Warren celebrates his being blessed by a new voice "for the only/Gift I have given: teeth set on edge." This prophetic trope governs the long poem Audubon: A Vision, where the painter who wrote "… in my sleep I continually dream of birds" becomes the surrogate for the boy, Warren, whose poetic incarnation came about as he stood in the dark, and heard "the great geese hoot northward."
The last poem in Warren's best volume, Or Else—Poem/Poems 1968–1974, ends with a different kind of hawk's vision, as a figuration for the poet's new style: "The hawk,/… glides,/In the pellucid ease of thought and at/His breathless angle,/Down." As the hawk breaks speed and hovers, he "makes contact," giving us a trope that stands, part for whole, for the tense power of Warren's mature art….
Emerson, says Warren's poem ["Homage to Emerson"], "had forgiven God everything," which is merely to say that Emerson had begun a truly American vision sensibly, by forgiving himself everything (something Nietzsche could not quite do). Warren goes on forgiving God, and himself, nothing, and implies that this is the only way to love either God or the self. I read Warren's poetry with a shudder that is at once spiritual revulsion and total esthetic satisfaction, for he has done for the School of Eliot what Eliot could not do: He has invented a poetry that fights free even of its own ideological ferocity by way of a sublime energy of language.
The second poem in these Selected Poems is "Evening Hawk," written in 1975. After 40 years, it completes "Watershed's" image of the "sunset hawk." With preternatural persistence and unsurpassed energy of invention, Warren has made himself one with his own astonishing vision of the bird…. (pp. 19-20)
Harold Bloom, "The Sunset Hawk," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 31, 1977, pp. 19-21.
Robert Penn Warren is a vigorous and rather inspiring exception to the rule that American writers burn themselves out early. Now in his seventy-second year, and close to completing a full half century as a published writer, Warren is as good a poet as he has ever been, and a novelist still trying to bring his fierce energies under control. A Place to Come To is Warren's tenth novel, his first since the disastrous Meet Me in the Green Glen; it is not going to satisfy those many readers who keep hoping that he will write another All the King's Men, but it is a work of considerable power, narrative drive and intellectual integrity.
Warren's problem as a novelist has always been that his strength of vision and theme is greater than his self-discipline. All of his novels sprawl. They are filled with ideas, arguments, questions, challenges—all of them thrown at the reader in a maelstrom of characters, incidents, explosions and digressions. Of late, in fact, it has become fashionable in some circles to say that Warren is a better poet than novelist, which may at least be true to the extent that he accepts the disciplines of poetry while granting himself full artistic license in the novel.
A Place to Come To, in both its strengths and its weaknesses, is quintessential Warren. It is concerned, as so much of his writing is, with the search for the meaning of the past and for an identity with a place. It moves right along with a forceful, interesting plot and a cast of reasonably believable, lively characters. It grabs onto ideas and wrestles handsomely with them. But on the negative side, it turns in a few places upon twists of invention that strain credulity; it wanders this way and that while Warren picks over an idea or a nuance that particularly pleases him; and it really does go on too long….
[The story of Tewksbury, the narrator,] is told with a knowledge and awareness of the South that have not faded in the many years since Warren moved North. His portrait of upper-class life in Nashville is especially acute, and he presents a delightful definition of what he calls "the art of the mystic promise," an art peculiar to Southern womanhood….
Warren is preoccupied as usual with the clash between free will and predestination, the search for self-knowledge, the implacable demands of old roots and loyalties, the persistent existence of the past. Warren may slip and slide around, and from time to time make a terrible mess of his plots, but he is always serious. He is always straining to answer the big questions, to take on the great concerns of human existence. If A Place to Come To is imperfect, its flaws are the grand ones made by a writer who has yet to flag in his quest for the words that contain the answers.
Jonathan Yardley, "A Writer to Come To," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 6, 1977, p. 1.
For all the vivid sensuous detail in his work, Warren has a synthesizing, almost allegorizing imagination; it is not so much that he deliberately imposes mythic patterns upon his work as that his characters struggle against the modern condition of alienation that their habit of relentless self-analysis creates. For that reason Warren's fiction works best when it has comic overtones—nobody ever talks about how funny "All the King's Men" is. Jack Burden's sardonic self-deprecation makes the book a triumph of tone. When Warren's books lack that saving humor, as many since then have, many critics and ordinary readers have found them somewhat tedious and preachy; an all-too-visible intellectual scaffolding lends an air of contrivance to long sections of "Band of Angels" (1955), "Wilderness" (1961), "Flood" (1964), and "Meet Me at the Green Glen" (1971), and renders the amplitude and the digressive nature of Warren's prose style more an annoyance than a glory.
Such harsh judgments, of course, are only relative. Were it not for the very high order of Warren's gifts and his achievements in other forms—especially poetry—no one would ever have been disappointed with his novels. But the brilliance and the power of "All the King's Men" have tended to diminish its successors by comparison, and readers who have kept up with Warren's more recent novels have savored their fine moments while hoping that he would find it within himself to write another almost perfect book. "A Place To Come To," Warren's tenth novel since 1939, is not that book. (p. 4)
Warren's many admirers will find isolated passages and striking images scattered throughout that are the equal of anybody now writing in English. But taken separately they cannot overcome the contrivance of the whole. (p. 24)
Gene Lyons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1977.
As poet, novelist, critic, and teacher, Robert Penn Warren has been for 40 years a powerful presence in American letters. And his characters—Billy Potts, Jerry Beaumont, Perse Munn, Jack Burden, and perhaps most memorably Willie Stark—share a quality Warren found in Thomas Wolfe's portraits of the Gant family: They are "permanent properties of the reader's imagination." All the more disappointing, then, that in his latest novel, A Place to Come To …, we are given a series of absences, a gallery of missing persons.
This is true in an almost literal way throughout most of the adult adventure of the hero and narrator, Jed Tewksbury—by birth a poor-white Alabaman, by profession a distinguished Dante scholar at the University of Chicago. (p. 15)
Many of the novel's episodes, be it said, are dramatic and moving—after all, the writer is Robert Penn Warren—and even at its worst the plot has a lively soap-opera appeal. Indeed, those who like narratives crowded with sex, conversation, changes of scene, and coincidence will enjoy the part of A Place to Come To (more than two thirds of it) that describes Jed Tewksbury's 40-year absence from Dugton, Alabama.
It is Jed's status as a Southerner away from home, however, that accounts for some of the novel's most troublesome technical problems and, possibly, for the odd insubstantiality of the characters. On the one hand, Jed carries the region with him all his life…. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly Southern about his experiences outside Alabama; they could be those of any "alienated" American.
Warren has, I think, made this doubleness a part of his point. In an interview given just before the book came out, he said he was writing about "a Southerner who hates (or is ashamed of) the South … and it is my observation that such a Southerner, even if a great success in the world, is always a 'placeless' man." Unfortunately, having this kind of figure narrate the novel makes Warren's task a more difficult one. He must contrive to provide the memories that Jed, in his hatred and shame, has blocked or blotted out. Moreover, if Jed is to be kept wandering for 40 years, his horror at his past must be satisfactorily established; if he is to be brought back at the very end, reconciled and forgiving, his change of heart must be convincingly accounted for. Had Warren achieved this design, A Place to Come To would have been a tour de force; I do not believe he has.
He could have followed a different, more gradual course, showing in Jed's mind the slow unfolding of real memories behind the screen he has constructed. That Warren lets the screen stand is evidence that the novel is not really "about" the South. The region has become an abstraction for Jed and hence for the reader: Individuals become types, myths become clichés. This process is not unrelated to the South's homogenization with the rest of the country, but Warren has not summoned up from his great resources the patience to make this connection effectively.
Still, the novel begins with a brilliant promise of experience closely rendered. The opening sentence states Warren's theme—Jed's patrimony, real and symbolic—with a poet's economy and force, and conveys immediately Jed's combination of classical locution and the vernacular….
Jed has certainly come back to the mythologized South, lost cause and all. Yet he never makes it back to [his home]. Looking at a little church where the people "used to sweat and moan and anguish for their salvation," which has been abandoned to wind and weather, he says the scene "was the same as that of one of the more famous photographs by Walker Evans, but a generation of damage later." Jed's association, even now, is not with an actual place, but with a picture of it. We remain, with the hero, at a second remove from his home. (pp. 15-16)
Ruth Mathewson, "A Placeless Southerner," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 11, 1977, pp. 15-16.
Warren's novels read like essays about themselves. His fictions continually resolve into apologues. It is scarcely possible while reading them to have the experience but miss the meaning. Where commentary does not preempt drama, it quickly intrudes to explicate it. While in "Pure and Impure Poetry" he argues that ideas "participate more fully, intensely, and immediately" in poetry by being implicit, his own work typically incorporates ideas "in an explicit and argued form." Such a habit of mind stations Warren on the border between two modes of imagination, between the artist who works from experience and the critic who works toward meaning.
Warren's double career in the creative and critical establishments seems to be the central fact here. There is nothing remarkable about a divided allegiance in a man who set out to devote himself to both worlds. But had Warren never written his major articles on Frost, Faulkner, Conrad, and Coleridge, or his textbooks on understanding poetry and fiction, we would still need some term for a writer so concerned to usurp, within the body of his own fictions, the critic's task. Warren has revived interest in Wilde's claim that "it is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it." His works constantly "talk about" themselves. In the midst of overwhelming adolescent arousal, a Warren narrator can suddenly step out of himself to tell us: "I was lost in the flood of sensations." How can one both feel and say this? Through the curious doubleness of this sentence, at once both in and out of time, Warren tries to convert self-consciousness into ecstasy. His characters are placed out of themselves, the bemused or obsessive spectators of their own wayward acts…. We abstract; we embody. Warren has dedicated his career to proving the indivisibility of the critical and the creative imaginations. He thus joins that central American tradition of speakers—Emerson, Thoreau, Henry Adams, Norman Mailer—who are not only the builders but the interpreters of their own designs.
The stance of a critic is the stance of a son. Both are fundamentally indebted as both take up their positions in response to prior achievement which surrounds and defines them…. Warren's central character is a son (or daughter) whose only hope lies in not rebelling against father, tradition, home. In 1960 Leonard Casper nominated "exploration of unbroken years of homesickness" as Warren's central theme. Warren has not been coy about proving him right. A Place To Come To depends upon a place one has come from. Warren's most recent novel explores once again the psychology of exile and return.
Adam's first word to Eve in Paradise Lost is "Return," and it is upon her reluctant but ultimately obedient response to this command that Warren models his plots…. Warren the critic always shepherds us toward the destination the artist knowingly withholds. The best way out is always back.
In the character of Jed Tewksbury, Warren has found his perfect hero. As if in passing a last judgment upon himself, Warren writes a novel about a critic writing a novel…. Warren goes far beyond his earlier judgment in World Enough and Time that the world must redeem the idea. It is no longer a question of working from the concrete toward the abstract; there seems little hope here that the two can be brought into any relationship whatsoever. The author of this novel seems to have rejected Wilde's boast and embraced Faulkner's dismissal: "those who can do, those who cannot and suffer enough because they can't, write about it." All writing comes under indictment here as an evasive sublimation, a criticism of rather than a participation in life…. Jed suffers an alienation of word from world which he is never fully allowed to resolve. (pp. 475-78)
The best writing in the book is reserved for the return to Rozelle, Jed's rejected high school prom date who becomes his middle-aged adulteress…. Sex proves, however, less a way to redeem time than to stay it. The critic who would return gives way to the artist who will escape. Sex becomes an anti-metaphysic. Making love leads to "the death in life-beyond-Time without which life-in-Time might not be endurable, or even possible." (p. 478)
A Place To Come To is Warren's most ambitious attempt to study "the relation of the concept of Love to that of Time." Love finally proves subordinate to time; the only abiding love is a repetition, not a revolution. (p. 479)
A reviewer of this novel may well feel cheated in having nothing climactic to give away. Surprise endings are impossible in a book which knows from the beginning that there is finally only one place to come to. Home hovers over Warren's novels like the threat of death—it will get you in the end. What one may come to resent about Warren's work is not its end but its means. The necessity for return no one will question, but where it emerges as inevitability rather than option, we are deprived of the very chance to wander and even lose our way, which makes arrival seem an achievement rather than a gift.
The end of Warren's Selected Poems: 1923–1975 entirely defies prediction. One usually reads such a volume with a gathering sense of a poet's hard-earned maturity. But this selection begins with the poems of 1975 and ends with those of 1923–1943. As one reads into the book, the past looms up as if it were the future.
Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense
This inverted presentation of his poetic development is Warren's most profound act of criticism. It is also his biggest lie against time.
The most obvious motive for such reversal is to present the best work first. Warren has had the luck to live a long life. It took 60 years for his poetic voice to mature into his great volume, Or Else. Naturally he might wish to begin with his triumph. More compelling, however, must have been the impulse to revolt against a career dedicated to the awful responsibility of Time. This is a book in which poem after poem defines man as a creature caught up in irreversible history. Yet all these propositions inhabit a structure which belies chronology. The arrangement of the Selected Poems constitutes a rebellion against the priority of an earlier self, and, by extension, earlier selves. Through an illusion of presentation, early Warren becomes indebted to late Warren. In throwing off the yoke of time, the critic/son finally becomes the artist/father. (pp. 479-80)
Not until Promises [written 1954–56] does Warren achieve a fully personal voice over the length of an entire book. The birth of his son and daughter suddenly converts the abstractions of Time and History into a continuity of blood in which he has chosen to participate. In the moment of watching his son asleep, we can begin to hear all the voices of his past absorbed into the poet's own…. [In Or Else] Warren heals the past by blessing the future. He realizes the great possibility of reversal, and in so doing recovers a sense of rhythm more sure than anything he has previously known. Or Else is a triumph of rhythm, in the line, and in the self…. In "Birth of Love" Warren develops into what is perhaps most difficult, because least determined: a faithful lover. (pp. 480-82)
["Birth of Love"] is … poetry of the verb rather than the noun. Warren rediscovers the power of words which enact over those which abstract. Our fate in the poem depends upon its verbs. Stationed at the beginnings and ends of lines, granted a full and measured breath of their own, these carefully positioned action words reach forward to create an anticipation which carries us through the poem. They draw us, like enduring love, into time. (pp. 482-83)
What then shall we further be able to see?
This moment is non-sequentila and absolute, and admits
Of no definition, for it
Subsumes all other, and sequential, moments, by which
Definition might be possible.
"This" closes the growing gap between the man and his vision, the reader and the poem. "This" testifies to the presence of a thing and our familiarity with it. We have had our moment; now we savor it through commentary. An immediacy becomes an example. Yet the poet speaks of this moment as still happening. It "is." We again question whether one can speak of a moment and still experience it. The poet's way of saying contradicts the force of his statement. He advances a definition about the inadmissibility of definition. He denies sequence in a poem dependent on it. The moment, we are told, subsumes and dissolves history. And yet the poem, as we have seen, involves us in a necessary sequence of seeings. Our movement through it is as much like walking as stationary looking. In its own words, it is "stair-steep." It is torn between asserting its moment as "non-sequential and absolute," and the necessity of entrusting any such experience to the mediation of language and emotion working in time.
The genius of Warren's poem is to locate this lapse from unconscious grace not after but within the swelling present moment. The abstraction interrupts rather than completes the poem's movement. So it is with relief that the reader returns to the unfolding of the actual sense. (pp. 484-85)
"Birth of Love" confirms the love between men and women which makes generation possible. Any enduring love is profoundly historical, growing through change, confirmed through repetition. Yet poetry represents love less in its confirmation through repetition than in its freshness through transformation. Warren's poem is a repetition experienced as a beginning. It fuses, as fully as one might ever wish, the imagination which conserves and the imagination which creates. This birth is really a re-birth. The man has again fallen in love with this woman, as he will, with grace, again. He falls in love again, however, as if for the first time, as if he were free to choose, apart from all the historical obligations determining such a choice. The whole poem is structured to be experienced as "the non-sequential" moment of which it speaks. It is given greater force than a poem of actual beginning by virtue of the very history it excludes, and yet which surrounds this moment to define and give value to it. We know that the body has been marked by time's use; we know that the day is late. Yet we are left with another image of beginning:
Height of the spruce-night and heave of the far mountain, he sees
The first star pulse into being. It gleams there.
Of course the star of Venus: of course the poem is a repetition in modern time of the myth of her birth. But Warren's mode of indirect allusion frees us from a mere rehearsal of the archetypical—the poem was originally titled "The Birth of Love"—and preserves the illusion of an original event. What is lost for mythic inevitability is gained for imaginative freeplay. (p. 486)
[The] star's pulsing forth every night, not what it might symbolically promise, is the promise. It too marks a pattern of repetition, yet it, too, in its nightly pulsing forth, is always ready to be seen and felt as if for the first time. In this quiet refusal to interpret his own imagery, Warren acknowledges the critic's desire to know while protecting the poet's will to present, a resolution worthy of his most mature and beautiful poem. (p. 487)
David M. Wyatt, "Robert Penn Warren: The Critic As Artist," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 475-87.
Like so many Southern writers, [Warren] is obsessed by the shortcomings of the South; but he writes about them with an eloquence and an elemental rage worlds apart from the sordid bitterness of some of his literary colleagues. The subject matter of his principal books is the moral significance of particular political and social behavior.
And to their composition he has applied uncommon talents: a headlong narrative pace which makes his novels intensely readable, a fierce emotion which charges his pages with contagious tension and an exuberant delight in poetic imagery. (pp. 24-5)
The faults of Mr. Warren's novels seem complementary to their virtues. Often one feels that their author has become so fascinated with verbal effects that he overdoes them; that he is so interested in some of his characters, often minor ones, that he neglects to make the others as convincingly motivated and persuasive as they should be; that he spends too much time in irrelevant digressions. And in his best and most important novel, All the King's Men, there is a disturbing refusal to face the most important political significance of the central character. (p. 25)
Orville Prescott, in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel (copyright © 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, by The New York Times; copyright, © 1952 by Orville Prescott; reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc.), Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.