Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, Robert Penn Warren!

Today is the birthday of Robert Penn Warren.  Now he seems like a figure from the distant past, a generation born not long after the Civil War, a generation of agrarians, a generation who would not recognize the modern South. 

Heck, some days, I don't really recognize it myself.

But in many ways, Robert Penn Warren's work is timeless.  I remember reading All the King's Men in undergraduate school and being blown away by the poetry that crept into the prose.  I suspect that the character of Willie Stark, the corrupt governor, would still feel relevant.

I must confess that I haven't spent much time with the poetry.  You can get to some of his poems from this page at  I read a few this morning when I realized I couldn't recall a single poem of his that I had ever read.  They are masterful pieces, but they remind me of a certain type of poem, popular at mid-20th-century:  somewhat distant, masterful in form, a bit like Greek philosophy. 

Let me try a different explanation.  These are poems made of stone, cold and carved and impressive.  But if I'm honest, I prefer poems made of colorful scraps of fabric or squirts of paint.  I prefer my poems to have bits of pie dough stuck to them and a whiff of decaying vegetable scraps.

Those of you who know about Robert Penn Warren's friendship with Cleanth Brooks will protest:  "Those aren't the kind of poems he was trying to write.  No fair."  That fact is true.  But those are the poems I want to read.

Those of you who are tired of doing literary criticism that is rooted in historical time periods or the biography of the author or feminist analysis or Marxist analysis or looking at what isn't in the work--and by now, maybe that's all of us to an extent--you might want to remember the New Criticism, which Brooks and Warren helped catapult into universities across the nation.  In the 80's, in undergraduate school, I was trained as a new critic.  My favorite professor let us look at only the work on the page.  We were not to bring in knowledge of biography or history or our personal feelings or anything else as we analyzed poetry from the past.

How heady to get to grad school and to discover feminist criticism.  How I delighted in applying knowledge of history to my analysis of the work.  How we debated what was most important in our understanding of poems--and it wasn't the form of the poem and rarely the subject matter.

And then, after teaching for a decade or so, I began to wish that students were a bit better at looking at the text that was right in front of them.  And now, my colleagues and I spend time thinking about all the different things that a text can be.  What would Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks make of a world of Twitter and Facebook updates and all of us writing such widely disparate kinds of work?

I imagine their ancient visages, wrinkled before they would wrinkle their faces in protest.  Or maybe death has granted them a completely different perspective.

I think of my favorite undergraduate professor.  She used to say that no one had written a good political poem.  Now I could intelligently disagree.  But now, I must confess that I do grow increasingly weary of strident political discourse.  When poems become strident, I look away.

What would Warren say?  Here's a quote from today's post at The Writer's Almanac site:  "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."

It makes me think about our historic time and how we dwell in it.  Some of us will write strident political poems and some of us will write meditative poems about current events.  And some of us will turn away, back to earlier times.  Some of us may dream of becoming agrarian farmers ourselves, quoting classical poetry as we tend the vegetables, just as Robert Penn Warren's grandfather did.

It's interesting to think which poetry stream we swim in, although it may be hard for us to know, given that we're often paddling too hard to understand the nature of the water and the rest of the environment.  I thought of this idea a bit more when I came across this Harold Bloom quote at the the site:  "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition."  That's high praise! 

When you need a daydreaming moment today, think about what Harold Bloom would say about your work, and where it fits into various literary traditions. 

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