Robert Penn Warren Essay, Research Paper
Great American Poet
Poetry is a response to the world in which we live. Many poets are, and have been, convinced that the modern world is a terrifying place in which to live. American poetry has been dominated by negative voices. Warren’s voice is markedly different. At the heart of Warren s poetry is a celebration of man s intellect and imagination, his integral place within nature, and his relationship to time and the past; ultimately, joy coexists with the knowledge of life s many mysteries, including its tragedies. Beginning years ago with the traditional forms of poetry, Warren has evolved from the traditional forms of poetry to a style that is as beautiful as it is individual. His long devotion to the art of poetry has made him a great American poet.
At the center of Warren’s poetry are two concepts: man and self. Warren places man within nature as an integral part of it. And yet there is a crucial difference between man and the rest of the natural world. It is man’s mind, his intelligence, his imagination, and his creativity that Warren emphasizes in his poetry.
Also at the heart of Warren’s poetry is the concept of a well-rounded self. In his best poems, Warren collects memories, experiences and thoughts, which he writes, into a single personality, a single self. In Incarnations and Or Else, the self is the poet.
In Incarnations, as in Or Else, Warren asks and attempts to answer some of the biggest questions facing man. These are questions concerning the nature of the world, the nature of man, and the meaning of time and eternity. Incarnations is divided into three sections. Each of the first two sections has its own major theme, while the final section seems to be the attempted answers to the questions raised in the previous sequence.
Although predominantly a philosophical poet, Warren s thoughts are generally presented in terms of suggestive images drawn from reality. Section I of Incarnations there is a long sequence of poems titled Island of Summer. They ask questions about the natural world with a certain spirituality. The effect of such thoughts and questions attempts to get to the core of the physical world while brining meaning to life. It is an action repeated many times in the sequence. Involved in this action is a search, for certainty, for religious meaning in a chaotic world . Over and over in the sequence Warren asserts that we must accept the world for what it is and for what it brings us; despite his will and his imagination, man cannot control the direction of his life… (Stitt 264-65).
Time is the main concern. The way man conducts himself on earth, rather than with eternity and death although Warren also asks many questions of eternity in his works. Eternity in Warren’s work is generally associated with brightness, whiteness, the sun, the sky, the sea, the snow and even with the light of the moon. We are cautioned in the sequence’s first poem What Day Is. Do not / Look too long at the sea, for / That brightness will rinse out your eyeballs. Spiritual destiny will not be achieved through a preoccupation with eternity: for the sun has / Burned all white, for the sun, it would / Burn our bones to chalk. In that direction lies only the certainty of death (Stitt 265).
Though a concentration upon eternity leads only to a dead end, Warren suggests that a concentration on the world, instead, may lead us to the answers we seek: We must try / To love so well the world that we may believe, in the end, in God. The promise in this statement is given its fullest treatment in the remarkable poem which occupies precisely the center of the sequence: Myth on Mediterranean Beach: Aphrodite as Logos. The figure of Aphrodite here is an old hunchback in bikini an old Robot with pince-nez and hair dyed gold, whose breasts hang down like saddle-bags and whose belly sags to balance the hump. She walks along the edge of the beach. The text has a religious tone, for glory attends her as she goes. / In rapture she now heaves along, she is The miracle of the human fact. The promise is suggested in the word, which Warren attaches to her in the title, Logos the creative Word of God. Her progress has a destined end: “For she treads the track the blessed know / To a shore far lonelier than this / Where waits her apotheosis.” All eyes are drawn to her as she progresses. She seems to embody Warren’s ultimate hope from the poem before, Treasure Hunt: The terror is, all promises are kept. / Even happiness. We all hope that the promises made in our earthly world will be kept when we will go on to a better place.
Warren has been writing the kinds of poem sequences found in Or Else Poem / Poems 1968-1974 since the middle fifties and is the master of the form. The form is essentially a book of individual lyrics and a single long poem. Or Else is an attempt to explain the world and the life of the poet. Or Else is composed of memories, scenes and visions drawn from Warren s life. He writes these events down in an attempt to understand their significance in his world and how they relate to him and his world. The perspective of the work is that of an elderly man nearing the end of his life. His mind is filled with questions about time and eternity as the end of his life approaches.
In order to understand this process of question and answer through sequences of poems Warren has accumulated a wide variety of discontinuous elements and placed them together in hopes of finding continuity. He explains his method at the end of one of the longer poems entitled, I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision:
All items listed above belong in the world
In which all things are continuous,
And are parts of the original dream which
I am now trying to discover the logic of. This
Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense
Warren tries to move through pain from the past and present to a promise of joy in the future. The past is important in this sequence. There are elements drawn from Warren’s own experience. Each one exists only in time already past but questions eternity and the future. Often an image of time will be set against an image of eternity. Warren is most interested in finding his answer in nature. Then he presents his answer through the images found in nature.
The last poem in the sequence, titled “A Problem in Spatial Composition,” is another carefully designed piece in which the images, either alone or in combination, are suggestive of a final promise. The poet looks westward through a window, across a forest toward the setting sun, symbolizing his look to what the future holds for him. The time is late, late in the day, late in the year and late in the life. Although the promise of eternity is present in the distant sky, Warren brings the earth together with the sky and eternity in his description of the mountains: “Beyond the distance of forest, hangs that which is blue: / Which is, in knowledge, a tall scarp of stone, gray, but now is / In the truth of perception, stacked like a mass of blue cumulus.”
The central character in the scene is a hawk. The third part of the poem consists of a single line: “The hawk, in an eyeblink, is gone.” The hawk’s instantaneous disappearance from the scene is metaphor for man’s disappearance from the earth at death. One second we are here. The next we are gone. When he resumes his flight, the bird returns to the eternal sky, having only spent a relatively short amount of time on earth. The hawk in this poem is analogous to the spirit of man. “For what blessing may a man hope for but / An immortality in / The loving vigilance of death?” This is Warren s ultimate “definition of joy, immortality in death, which dominates Warren’s poetry.
While the individual poems here may be viewed as individual units, they have a much greater meaning and impact when viewed in context. Warren seems to recognize this principle as relevant to the world as a whole. The events in single poems emphasize the individual and have a local meaning within each poem or series. But when placed in a larger context these units show their greater meaning.
A diversified writer, Robert Penn Warren was the first poet laureate of the United States. Twice he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; once in 1958 for Promises and again in 1979 for Now and Then. His major works include fifteen volumes of poetry and ten novels, including All the King s Men, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947. Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, April 24, 1905 and died of cancer in Stratton, Vermont, September 15, 1989.
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