Once, many years ago, on introducing myself to the Irish poet, John Montague, I mentioned that I was from Kentucky. Immediately, he asked for my favorite poems by Robert Penn Warren. I had to admit that I had not paid much attention to Warren’s poetry. Montague was visibly dismayed. I had probably read a few Warren poems and I know that I had read All the King’s Men, but I was more fond of Kentucky prose (Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport) at the time.
I am trying to remember why I had passed over Warren so quickly. Perhaps it was the association with “New Criticism” (which was politically incorrect in my graduate school), but I also recall a frustration with both the subjects and the pace of Warren’s verse. For example, on re-reading a few of the anthologized poems today, I am struck by his penchant for hyphenated nouns and the use of the spondee. On this account, see a few samples from his Coleridgean poem “Gold Glade“: wet-black, gorge-depth, leaf-lacing, leaf-fall, heart-hurt, grief-fall, Gold-massy, light-fall, gold-falling, tooth-stitch, gray-shagged. And these are merely the hyphenated words, add the spondees and one has a recipe for some slow chewing. But this is a recent revelation. I’m certain that I relied on my less self-conscious ear in the 90s. As for the subjects, I was (and perhaps I still am) afraid of the nostalgia of self-identifying Southerners. I could (or have been) one of these, a nostalgic “son of the South” … particularly when I tire of the well-intentioned contextual emptiness of the Midwest. (Southern nostalgia may be made from equal parts of molasses and rat poison.) To this day, I am wary of it.
On the other hand, I am reaching an age in which nostalgia fuels memory. Thus, I have been fascinated lately with Warren’s “American Portrait: Old Style” from the volume Now and then: poems 1976-1978. This very nostalgic poem relies on Warren’s narrative skills. The poem keeps some of the internal rhyming, alliteration and spondees which sometimes clot his verse, but these are masked (a bit) by the story line. I think of Coleridge, again (in so far as it recalls childhood as a privileged place for the imagination), but Warren’s Coleridgean bent is tempered by the focus on the relationship between the poet and his childhood friend. The ageing ex-pitcher and bird dog trainer, tends to humanize Warren in a way that his own thoughts (out of context) do not. While the poetry strives for a false immortality, the body does not. K, as he is named in the poem, ages Warren by giving us a reference point that is a bit more approachable and less authorial. And so, when the poet lies down in the ditch he once played in as a child, and watches the sky pass over, it’s easier to join him; it’s easier to love this life and this world that we share.
The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren stretches to an overwhelming 830 pages. I think I will begin, instead, with Now and then.