October 22, 2010

Robert Penn Warren, Consultant in Poetry, 1944-'45

(Robert Penn Warren has the distinction of being on the list of U.S. Consultant/Laureates twice. In fact, he would become the first poet to occupy the station after the title was officially changed to “Laureate” in 1986. The following entry in my series on the U.S. Poet Laureates focuses primarily on the poetry that he wrote before he became the third Consultant in Poetry; I’ll write about his later works once I work my way to his second term. Warren’s career as a fiction writer and critic are equally estimable, but not discussed here.)

By 1944 when he became the Consultant in Poetry, Robert Penn Warren had established himself as a poet who wrote for an American audience as if it were culturally and historically distinct. Whereas previous Consultants, Auslander and Tate, seemed to be bridegrooms of the English poetic tradition, Robert Penn Warren shared a bloodline with Whitman and Stevens. Though Warren's early work lacked some of the yop, he carried on Whtiman’s investigation of American identity and culture, in all its metaphysical and moral weirdness. His use of Southern lore and landscape is more human and fraught than Tate’s often moral and bucolic portrayals. And though Warren’s poetry is at times inscrutable, the idiom that he wrote in was generally more popular than previous Consultants. If Auslaunder was an occasional poet, and Tate was an academic, then Warren was as an empathist fascinated by the inconsistencies of human nature. Though Tate and Warren both belonged the coterie of Southern poets called the Fugitives, Warren emerged as the greater outlaw.

Probably the most remarkable quality of Warren’s work, especially in the context of previous Consultants, is his choice of subjects. Warren writes about summer vacations, mass murderers, mama’s boys, Mexican border tourism, and doctor’s visits, describing each with an outsider’s sense of awe but with the astuteness of an insider. In his poem “End of Season,” Warren explores the American vacation, the national urge to tourism, and how these escapes are, at their base, a denial of mortality.
...the annual sacrament of sea and sun,
Which browns the face and heals the heart, will seem
Silence, expectant to the answer, which is Time
In his poem “Pursuit,” Warren revisits the American vacation, but to this he adds the modern doctor visit, depression and alienation. In this case, the vacation is a prescribed cure to feelings of malaise and anxiety, though one which cannot really solve the vacationer's underlying dread.
Till you sit alone-- which is the beginning of error--
Behind you the music and lights of the great hotel:
Solution, perhaps, is public, despair personal
While other poets were writing about grand abstractions, institutions, and landscapes, Warren was writing about individuals disoriented by their place in modernity. Warren often employed the universal “you” on the occasions that he wrote about common cultural experiences, but it is an inclusive gesture rather than a divisive one; Warren seems to include himself among the universal other.

One of the challenges one experiences while reading Warren’s work is that he is alternately sincere and ironic, which makes his tone sometimes ambiguous. This poetic choice doesn't seem to be the result of dishonesty or ambivalence but rather the honest sentiments of an empathetic man. The conflicted tone reflects the difficulty and integral contradictions of his subjects, which leaves readers, as often as not, without a tidy moral sum at the conclusions of poems.

In “Letter from a Coward to a Hero” Warren turns his talents to the prickly subject of war. He does not comment on war in the abstract, nor does he pound out another nationalistic ode to valor, rather the poem is styled as a personal address to an unidentified soldier. In that address, Warren confesses his own dislike of guns and violence, and describes the causes of war in diminutive and mundane terms. What is often painted as glorious, he describes her as fragmented and chaotic.

Later in the poem, Warren describes the heroic soldier, home from the war, adrift in a suburban life, sitting up late at night. That poem concludes with the soldier contemplating what may be a piece of shrapnel that nearly killed him or the medal awarded for his heroics:
You are what you are without our aid.
No doubt, when corridors are dumb
And the bed is made,
It is your custom to recline,
Clutching between the forefinger and thumb
Honor, for death shy valentine.
On reflection, a reader may understand that when earlier in the poem Warren writes “I think you deserve better;/Therefore I am writing you this letter,” he is speaking both of how a nation honors its soldiers and that tricky concept of “honor” itself, which seems here little better than a memento, a trinket, upon later reflection. The grandiosity of the hero is struck from the scene, and we are left to consider the residue of the man rather than the brief, heroic act.

Warren doesn’t create straw-men characters in his poems; if there’s ever an easy target, it seems to often be himself: he is the dupe, the coward, the bumbler. Though he is often self-conscious, he does not lose a sense of his proportion to the world. When he describes seeing an old beggar while touring Mexico in the poem “The World Comes Galloping: A True Story”, his sense of perspective is succinctly expressed:
We could not see his history, we saw
And he saw us, but could not see we stood
Huddled in our history and stuck out hand for alms.
This reveals one of Warren’s greatest qualities: his honesty. Exaggeration is both easy and common in the genre, and necessarily so: the condensed nature of the poem requires, on some occasions, a heightened delivery reminiscent of a stage actor’s. But Warren rarely exaggerates to swell a point, unless it be to comedic effect, and even when dealing with his favorite themes of mortality and time, he animates his ideas with simpler anecdotes and characters.

When Warren writes with some pomp or grandness, it is often to great effect. In his poem “History,” Warren addresses the imperviousness of time and a culture’s increasing indifference towards historical knowledge. The poem ends:
In the new land
Our seed shall prosper, and
In those unsifted times
Our sons shall cultivate
Peculiar crimes
Having not love, nor hate,
Nor memory.
Though “History” concludes with a clear moral, this is seldom the case with Warren’s early work. Warren’s work shows a preference for the aside, the wink, and the abrupt about-face: poetic moves which sometimes make his poems difficult to unravel. “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” a fourteen page poem, takes a sprawling family history of poverty and deviance and lands it on the pinhead of “luck” and a arresting implication of the reader. It is a baffling conclusion to what had been a relatively direct parable. “The Return: An Elegy” reads like a schizophrenic episode as two voices intrude upon each other and bicker with themselves, and never seems to entirely develop outside of the moody symbolism.

Warren’s obscureness seems a symptom not of his “genius,” that all too common excuse for oblique writing, but seems an outgrowth of the same empathy that makes his work so honest and compelling. Warren captures the empathetic experience in which there is no clear hierarchy of subjects, no unified perspective, and few conclusion are drawn. The sometimes confusing result asks the reader to sift through the equally emphasized (or understated) objects and symbols, to consider the idea or event from multiple perspectives, including the universal or historical lens, and to embrace the ambiguity of the experience. As a result, reading Warren can be exhausting.

Much of Warren’s early work is formal, with consistent patterns of meter and rhyme, and though his rhymes are inventive and his lyric pleasing, the music of his poems seem tertiary to the associations and the meaning. His poems churn as much as they turn, and while the poet’s biography, his mortality and tics, are never very far from the margins of the poems, the reader never feels the claustrophobia that came to characterize later confessional poets. Perhaps this is because of Warren’s charming honesty, his ability to converse without complaint, his habitual inclusion of the reader, and his skill for never letting the landscape, the immediate and present world, leave the reader’s mind for very long. Warren expresses his ability and limitations best in his later poem “The Letter About Money, Love, or Other Comfort, If Any” where he writes:
[I] discovered I had a small knack
for honesty, but only a passion, like a disease, for Truth
I take this as explanation for why his early poems sometimes baffle and why I still leave them with a sense of having had a sincere and meaningful experience.