A Review of the Poems of Robert Penn Warren
by Matthew Buckley Smith
The central question to ask of any lyric poem, and perhaps of lyric poetry at large, is not ‘What does it mean?’ or ‘What is it about?’ or even ‘What does the author intend?’ but rather ‘What does the poem itself actually do?’ It’s very easy to name the very difficult thing the poems of Robert Penn Warren do. They invite the reader to become a person. When I say this is what the poems do, I’m not praising them, I’m offering a technical description. Some poems persuade, some confess, others simply mumble to themselves. Warren’s poems invite the reader to become a person. More specifically, they invite him to become a self. Even the bad ones do it. And this invitation does not have the character of an invitation to church or to a lecture or a club or any other kind of predetermined, comfortably settled affair. It more accurately resembles an invitation to a trek through unmapped and likely hostile territory to find a legendary city that may does not exist and which the guide himself possibly won’t live long enough to see. It’s a destination, selfhood, of which Warren offers a precise definition in his book Democracy and Poetry:
It may be useful, even at this date, to provide the reader with a guiding statement as to what I mean by the self: in individuation, the felt principle of significant unity.
The qualifiers felt and significant demand special comment. By felt I mean that I am here concerned, not with a theoretical analysis as such, but with what a more or less aware individual may experience as his own selfhood, and what he assumes about other individuals. By significant I mean two things: continuity—the self as a development in time, with a past and a future; and responsibility—the self as a moral identity, recognizing itself as capable of action worthy of praise or blame.
Selfhood is not, as he emphasizes later in the same book, a stable, preexisting artifact to be discovered and appreciated as an object comparable to other objects of a similar class. Selfhood, for Warren, is as much an event as an entity. His definition depends as much on the adjective ‘felt’ as on the noun ‘principle.’ And Warren’s poetry doesn’t offer the reader an answer, but rather a process, a search. As he frames the matter in another essay, written decades earlier, “a good poem involves the participation of the reader; it must, as Coleridge puts it, make the reader into ‘an active creative being.’”
This is not what many readers come to poetry today hoping to find, not that many readers come to poetry today at all. Unwelcome as it often is, the invitation Warren extends is seldom extended sweetly, tidily, or humbly. “This is the dragon’s country,” one poem begins, “and these his own streams. / The slime on the railroad rails is where he has crossed the track. / On a frosty morning, that field mist is where his great turd steams, / And there are those who have gone forth and not come back.” The poem, “Dragon Country,” only gets coarser and bloodier from there, leading the reader and the speaker toward a breed of moral focus that is achievable only in the shadow of openly acknowledged horror. As invitations go, it’s not a nice one, but this is not to say that it is mean.
Mean isn’t, after all, truly the opposite of nice. Nice comes from the Latin for not to know, and for us today ‘niceness’ functions as a sort of bland English je ne sais quois. Mean, however, is properly the opposite of gentle, another quality which Warren’s poems do not immediately seem to exemplify. Mean suggests, among other things, commonness, vulgarity, and in the context of ethics, pusillanimity. Gentle derives from names for family, clan, and race, with the implication of high birth. One who lives in mean conditions, those of poverty and alienation, tends to act out of fear, resentment, and petty self-interest, thus meanly. One who has lived under gentler conditions, conditions of plenty, has had the opportunity to learn the subtle pleasures of generosity, mercy, and restraint. Or so the old medieval thinking goes.
Warren’s own thinking on the subject is not medieval, but as with his notion of selfhood, it regards the past with great interest, the better to locate itself in the present. One can’t understand the present without knowledge of the past, but as Warren notes in the late essay, “The Use of the Past,” neither can one truly know the past without a genuine understanding of the present: “I have known more than one professor of Shakespeare whose self-complacent ignorance of modernity—of humanity, really—reduced all his learning to a dusty ‘about-ness.’ They really knew all ‘about’ Shakespeare, but that was all.” More often, though, in both poems and prose, Warren worries about the way small-mindedness, or meanness, can emerge from apparently benign conditions, even from conditions of plenty, such as those of our modern American age of seemingly straightforward technological progress. In his book, The Wary Fugitives, Louis D. Rubin tells us, “For Warren the historical past is depicted not as a golden age before the fall of public or private virtue, but as a rebuke to the present through its greater simplicity for us.” The question of concern for Warren is not whether we should honor the ideas and customs of the past, but whether the ideas and customs of the past accomplished things that were worth accomplishing, and if so, whether our own ideas and customs can accomplish them as well. If personhood consists of both identity and selfhood, then history matters most to the identity while philosophy, religion, and with these Warren’s poetry hold meaning chiefly for the self. The ancient world located both gentleness and meanness in the identity, believing they depended upon birth and bloodline and body. Warren implicitly locates gentleness and meanness in the self, and when his poems invite the reader to become a person, Warren knows that it’s not an identity that he and his reader must work so hard to develop, but rather a self. He acknowledges in Democracy and Poetry that his definition of self—“the felt principle of significant unity”—may be more aspirational than descriptive, but just as his prose claims that only a robustly determined self is compatible with a functional democracy, so his poetry suggests that only a morally reflective self, a self capable of selflessness, of gentleness, is really a self at all.
One might be forgiven, however, for finding much of Warren’s poetry something less than gentle. The lines are shaggy and studded with anatomical descriptions of often bilious specificity. “The eel’s cold ganglia burn” in a parenthetical interlude of one poem, and “the testicles of the father hang down like old lace.” No thing is spared, and no one either. In addition to indulging in frequent visceral and scatological observations, Warren’s poems seldom pan away from any amorous couple to the fireplace, and when they leer, they don’t even have the courtesy to vaseline the lens. One poem about two old friends at a picnic shows Warren as his most decorous: “No resistance: seizure, penetration. / She sat in the rich, sap-bleeding, wild tangle of fern, and wept.” More characteristic are the indulgences of an earlier poem about Flaubert in Egypt: “Light / flickers on whitewash. He finds / the mons veneris shaven, arse noble. / That night three coups, and once / performs cunnilingus.” Warren’s speakers, though frequently removed from the scene in question, are seldom saintly or demure or even ironically detached themselves. And his characters, for their part, betray every prejudice known to man, or at least to American man. Even his narrative poems tend not to conclude with any comforting moral clarity. More than one ends in unresolved violence, the death of the guilty at the hands of the differently guilty.
But with all their apparent meanness, these poems are deeply concerned with gentleness. They are devoted to the possibility that, quite in contrast to ancient ideas of gentleness and meanness as aspects of identity, even the humblest man may through long, dedicated effort, elevate his own being to a gentleness of self. Not only can he, but he must. No other path to gentleness, one gleans in reading Warren, deserves the designation. “You remember that,” he concludes one poem, “remarkably, common men have done noble deeds,” and continues with his usual, exuberant ambivalence, “God / Has allowed man the grandeur of certain utterances. / True or not. But sometimes true.”
“After the Dinner Party,” from Warren’s late collection Altitudes and Extensions, demonstrates the practical execution of this vision. Written in lines of irregular length that wobble to either side of thirteen syllables, the poem comprises seven quatrains, each rhymed abab. This metrical jaggedness, periodically interrupted by chiming end-sounds, evokes the foggy presence of a tradition that has been left behind but never disavowed. The characters in the poem are sitting around after a dinner party when all the guests have departed, finishing the wine and silently running over in their minds the little pleasures and disappointments of the evening. The sound of the poem is the sound of recollected conversation lapsing intermittently into music. Warren’s deliberate, elegantly stuttering constructions softly echo here those of a good education mildly intoxicated, and the poem perseverates in that fashion on a cluster of concepts, terms, and images, so that even the word “last” appears seven times in as many stanzas. Yet the course of thought is neither sloppy nor repetitious.
Like many of Warren’s poems, “After the Dinner Party” speaks in the second person, which seems here to refer to the unnamed host couple, but which also calls to mind, in the elasticity of the lyric mode, at once ‘you’ (or ‘y’all’) and ‘I’ and ‘one.’ It can be an easy trick for opening up a poem to the reader’s imagination, but this flickering plurality works in Warren’s poetry toward a more charged and specific end. “After the Dinner Party” does what the best of his poems do. It creates by dramatic impulse and negative space the inhabitable silhouette of a living mind.
Reading a lyric poem is an act of both spectatorship and introspection. Something similar happens when one sees a sudden change in the facial expression of a friend. One observes the outward movement of the features and then imagines—and in a muted way experiences—the condition in which one would make the same expression. In doing so, one translates an outward sign of another person’s pain into an inward experience of homologous feeling. Likewise when reading a lyric poem, one hears the carefully selected, carefully ordered words of the speaker and then imagines the emotional condition under which one would make the same expression. Granted, a facial expression is a momentary impulse, while a poem is the sensible harmony of only seemingly impulsive utterances, but the operation of empathy in the two cases is parallel. In this way, the poem generates in the reader’s mind an echo of the pathos that led to its composition. “After the Dinner Party”—like much of Warren’s poetry—takes this process slightly deeper. It presents a deliberate arrangement of images, perspectives, impulses, actions, and ideas, and these elements—like the snowflakes that give away the outline of the invisible man—describe by negation the shape not just of a condition, but of a person—that is to say, an identity as well as the opportunity for a self.
The poem begins with a tightly framed, familiar scene.
You two sit at the table late, each, now and then,
Twirling a near-empty wine glass to watch the last red
Liquid climb up the crystalline spin to the last moment when
Centrifugality fails: with nothing now said.
Between the lateness of the hour and the dwindling reserves of wine, this couple has little more to say to one another, and the resulting silence turns their attention outward from themselves to the tangible presence of the wine, to the room at large, to the window looking out on the fading night, to the absent guests, and to the end even of winter.
What is left to say when the last logs sag and wink?
The dark outside is streaked with the casual snowflake
Of winter’s demise, all guests long gone home, and you think
Of others who never again can come to partake
Of food, wine, laughter, and philosophy—
Though tonight one guest has quoted a killing phrase we owe
To a lost one whose grin, in eternal atrophy
Now in dark celebrates some last unworded jest none can know.
All that’s audible so far, and nearly all that’s visible, is what’s not there, and who. The lonely living carry the dead around with them, but the dead remain as unknowable as they were in life. This is the voice of someone who can cherish companionship without forgetting that even in good company we are always alone.
Now a chair scrapes, sudden, on tiles, and one of you
Moves soundless, as in hypnotic certainty,
The length of the table. Stands there a moment or two,
Then sits, reaches out a hand, open and empty.
Despite the hard-mindedness of the speaker, his voice is not a bitter one, and this is not a bitter poem. That unknowableness, that loneliness the speaker owns up to not only doesn’t diminish his love of man, it doesn’t even diminish his manners. The first real, diegetic sound we hear in the present tense of the poem is the scraping of a chair against the floor as one member of the silent couple rises to offer a hand to the other. Anyone with experience knows that the easiest place to lose one’s sense of social generosity is the context of a marriage that’s no longer new. And yet the figure in the poem displays both generosity and grace.
How long it seems till a hand finds that hand there laid,
While ash, still glowing, crumbles, and silence is such
That the crumbling of ash is audible. Now naught’s left unsaid
Of the old heart-concerns, the last, tonight, which
Had been of the absent children, whose bright gaze
Over-arches the future’s horizon, in the mist of your prayers.
The last log is black, while ash beneath displays
No last glow. You snuff candles.
One spouse eventually takes the other’s offered hand, joining them—however briefly or trivially—in a physical bond that resists both the icy dark without and the collapse of warmth within. The more enduring bonds, embodied by the couple’s children, live elsewhere, crossing into a future the light of which is as inaccessible to the couple as the glow of the logs now dead in the fireplace and the wink of the candles just giving up their final smoke.
Soon the old stairs
Will creak with your grave and synchronized tread as each mounts
To a briefness of light, then true weight of darkness, and then
That heart-dimness in which neither joy nor sorrow counts.
Even so, one hand gropes out for another, again.
The talk is long finished and nothing is left but a slow trip upstairs to the shared bed and the separate sleep. Though each will retire into the dark of a solitary unconsciousness, where neither love nor loyalty can intrude, “even so”—as Warren says— there is the hand extended, the hand taken, pointlessly, gently, against the empty night ahead. One who sees all this, who says all this, who does all this, with hard-fought knowledge and lightly-worn grace, this is one whose identity—whose sheath of received being—has neither straitened nor attenuated his character. This is one whose self is, if only for the moment, neither nice nor mean, but truly gentle.
None of this is to say that the characters in “After the Dinner Party” or any other of Warren’s poems are paragons of virtue, or finished souls, or even model citizens. Warren’s poems are not morality tales. Nor are they comic books—either of the superheroic variety or of the cautionary sort distributed by Baptists in lieu of Halloween candy. The characters and voices who inhabit Warren’s poems are sinful, incomplete, and suffering, but they orient themselves in the world by their yearning for nobility. As standing invitations to our empathy, they challenge us to do the same.