Selected Poems of
Robert Penn Warren

John Burt, Editor
(Louisiana State University Press)
Until they put us away --- honest injun --- until they lay us in the grave, we will never be able to fathom the bizarre choices of American poetasters.

Great and wonderful poets are relegated to tiny out-of-the-way presses, generally spat on and ignored. All while versifiers out of the East Coast Culture Poets' Bog get elected to assorted high-falutin' boards, win prizes, get named as Poets Laureate, and, in general, continue to buffalo the masses into thinking that their turgid words have import, if not life.

Such is the case with Robert Penn Warren, here being honored with yet another volume of his selected works --- some 200 poems in number.

    But lower was sinking the sun. I shook myself,
    Flung a last glance around, then suddenly
    Saw the old enameled bedpan, high on a shelf.
    Stood still again, as the last sun fell on me.
("Boy Wandering in Simms' Valley")

§     §     §

Running ahead beside the sea,
You turned and flung a smile, like spray.
It glittered like tossed spray in the sunlight.
Yes, well I remember, to this day,
That glittering ambiguity.

§     §     §

The sun of July beats down on the small white house.
The pasture is brown-bright as brass, and like brass, sings with heat.
Halt! And I stand here, hills shudder, withdraw into distance,
Leprous with light.
("Small White House")

§     §     §

Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense

Of joy.

("Or Else")

§     §     §

       My heart . . . Is as abstract as an empty
Coca-Cola bottle. It whistles with speed.
("Homage to Emerson")

§     §     §

If I really wanted to bedevil some of my poor Sophomore English Lit students, maybe even drive them to the brink, or to drink, I would have them study the lines above, and then give them a pop quiz with such questions as,
  • What poetic image does an "old enameled bedpan" create in your mind?
  • How does one fling "a smile, like spray?"
  • Describe "a pasture brown-bright as brass" and "leprous with light." How, like brass, might it "sing with heat?"
  • Explain "the past in its pastness."
  • See if you can envision your heart "as abstract as an empty Coca-Cola bottle." How would it "whistle with speed."
I would also specify that I would permit no sniggering during the course of the quiz.

§     §     §

The editor of this volume, John Burt, teaches at Brandeis, but certainly is no help in this mystery of this deification of the poetically challenged. He doesn't breathe a word of Warren's greatest narrative poem, All the King's Men, which contains one of the most riveting opening pages in American literature, a rich paean to the hot isolation of back-country southern life and ways from seventy years ago.

No, Burt flails away for a dozen or so pages in his Introduction, treating Warren's poetry as if it were serious, with meaning and import and wit and courage. I don't know --- maybe he's in on the joke too. He quotes some of the biggest howlers of them all, including

    I think of your goldness, of joy, but how empires grind, stars are hurled.
    I smile stiff, saying
    ciao, saying ciao, and think: This is the world.

He also includes Warren's ludicrous rip-off of Gerard Manley Hopkins,

    Lisping in shadow of sound, stone-lipping in languor of darkness,
    Bursting like bubbles into new syllables
    Of what new tongue, the brook
    Moves in the nighttide of cliff overhang --- long later longs
    To wander somewhere in tangled vastness of moonlight,
    Then hide in the prickle-edged shadow where
    No breath of air stirs sedge.

Hell, maybe we should forget torturing our students --- just forward the quiz to Burt, let him wrestle with it; add a few questions drawn from his own personal quotes, like

  • Explain how one should go about grinding empires.
  • Ciao is pronounced "chow." Is Warren here speaking of (a) army food? (b) little puppy dogs?
  • How can one best "lisp in shadow of sound stone-lipping in langour?"
  • What in god's name can we possibly do with lines like "long later longs / To wander somewhere in tangled vastness of moonlight"?

--- Lolita Lark

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