Rumor Verified

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The existence of some of these poems is briefly mentioned in Robert Penn Warren’s “Afterthought” to Being Here (1980), in which he makes a few remarks concerning the structure of that book, and the necessity of leaving out of it “certain poems composed during the general period.” The structure of this new book is not quite as unified, perhaps, as that of Being Here; and the subtitles of the two books contain a subtle acknowledgment of that fact. Being Here is subtitled “Poetry 1977-1980,” and Rumor Verified is subtitled “Poems 1979-1980.” The first suggests something less miscellaneous; and one need only recall Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974 to be reassured that Warren is aware of such small distinctions.

As it turns out, this book is not as strong as its immediate predecessors. It was possible to say of Warren’s 1978 collection, Now and Then, that it contained more of the year’s best poems than any other single collection. Rumor Verified contains several very fine poems, and the book as a whole might arouse the envy of many a lesser poet; but by the standards which Warren has established for himself, this book is somewhat disappointing.

As it happens, a more recent poem than any of these is powerfully suggestive of the reasons for this book’s failure to come up to the extremely high standard of Now and Then. It is called “Rumor at Twilight,” and it appeared in The New Yorker (July 19, 1982). In three stanzas of nine lines each, it recounts a few moments of after-dinner meditation, or rumination, on what seems to be a well-kept lawn. As is so often the case in Warren’s recent poems, the speaker uses the second person:

In a dark cave

Back on your land, like dark fruits, bats hang. Droppings

Of generations, soft underfoot, would carpet the gravel—

That is, if you came there. As you never do. Have you ever

Felt, between thumb and forefinger, the texture

Of the bat’s wing? Their hour soon comes.

The mastery of this passage is undeniable: there is not a moment’s confusion between the you who is intended to stand for the speaker, and the you who is asked the question about feeling the texture of a bat’s wing; the second you is the reader, addressed directly in a manner familiar to readers of Warren’s recent poetry. The dual meaning of the final sentence above is also under firm control: the bats will soon be out, and they, like everything else alive, will die.

The second stanza describes a person who has, apparently, a good life—respectful children, a kind wife, no financial worries—“just nags.” Fireflies suggest those moments of memory “when, in darkness, your head/ Dents the dark pillow, eyes wide, ceilingward./ Can you really reconstruct your mother’s smile?” Again, this is splendidly realized. Its only weakness is that it begins to sound like language which Warren has previously used. The image of the man staring ceilingward, in search of the past and its meaning, recurs often in Warren’s poems.

The final stanza, however, contains most of this poem’s evidence that perhaps too many of Warren’s poems are made in the same way:

You stand in the dark, heart even now filling, and think of

A boy who, drunk with the perfume of hedge blossoms

And massive moonrise, stood

In a long lane and cried out,

In a rage of joy, to seize, and squeeze significance

From whatever life is—whatever. Above,

High over your maples, the moon now presides. The first bat

Mathematically zigzags the stars. You fling down

The cigarette butt. Set heel on it. It is time to go in.

Considered in isolation, this is moving and...

(The entire section is 1596 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, December, 1981, p. 88.

Book World. XI, October 4, 1981, p. 4.

Christian Century. XCVIII, October 28, 1981, p. 1106.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIV, December 14, 1981, p. B2.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1548.

New Leader. LXIV, December 14, 1981, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 8, 1981, p. 13.

Southern Living. XVI, December, 1981, p. 120.