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America's first poet laureate is no write-to-order man

By Louise Sweeneystaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1986


PEPPERY, blue-eyed Robert Penn Warren, the first poet laureate of the United States, was fielding questions with relish at a press conference in the Library of Congress. When a reporter asked if a national poet laureate would increase awareness of poetry in the US, Mr. Warren shot back in a whispery, bullet-fast Southern voice: ``I don't know. I can tell you it's not going to reduce it.'' And so it went for 45 minutes, with the TV lights blazing and the cameras clicking and the questions hurled like softballs or sometimes darts from the reporters jammed into the bright yellow Poetry Room overlooking the Capitol Dome. It was so crowded that some of the press sat at his feet, and he talked to them as if to a class consisting of some extremely bright and some extremely backward students.

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The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner has written 53 books, everything from poetry to novels to short stories. How does he tell which it will be when the idea comes? ``I guess you have to tell before you start it,'' he said. ``It's no abstraction, it's an event. . . . It happens to you. You don't do it.''

It is as he said later when asked how to read about poetry: ``You don't read about it, you read it.'' He spoke to the press about his sadness that poetry is no longer memorized in schools. ``Memorization is the only thing that counts,'' he said. ``If you have a lot of poetry by heart, you have a lot at hand.''

Will he be traveling to classrooms? one reporter asked. ``No, that's not my line of work.'' Would you recite from memory a few of your favorite poems? ``No,'' he snapped back to the radio guy who wanted a ``sound bite.'' Has he come to grips with his own mortality? ``How do I know? Have you? How do you know, yourself?'' the octogenarian said to the young reporter who asked the rather brutal question.

Part of the time, he was talking poetry and the reporters were talking prose. Warren is a distinguished-looking man with one of those faces that looks carved like stone, with high cheekbones, eyes of two uneven shades of blue, a head of silvery hair that still has some feathers of auburn in it from when he was called Red Warren. He sat uneasily in the yellow rose print love seat facing the battery of microphones and tape recorders. He was dressed professorially rather than poetically in a navy jacket, gray flannel trousers, white shirt, red foulard tie, black shoes and socks. When he was asked about his view of the poet laureate's job, whether it should be done in the British tradition, he replied, ``Writing to order is another question. I couldn't write to order. How could you?''

That night he appeared at the Library of Congress for a public reading of his poetry to a standing-room-only audience. They greeted him with a storm of applause for several minutes, until he finally stood up, opened his arms to take in the love, and blushingly thanked them. He was having problems with his voice and the abysmal sound system, so he read only a couple of his favorite poems, including the famous ``Sirocco.'' Then his friend, James Olney, Voorhies Professor of English at Louisiana State University and co-editor of the Southern Review, took over. He filled the night with Warren's words, from ``Have You Ever Eaten Stars?'' to ``Three Darknesses'' and ``Audubon,'' among others.

Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, in introducing Warren, said that when he asked him to undertake the role of first US poet laureate, Warren had misgivings: ``He would not take it if it required odes on the death of the President's cat.'' He did not, said Mr. Boorstin, want to be a ``hired applauder.''

In his newest collection of poems, ``Altitudes and Extensions'' (1980-84), he is something quite different. He is the poet laureate of moonlight, ice, starlight, and cliffs, of rain, snakes, snowfall and elk, of Minnesota recollections and Arizona midnight and Oklahoma winter wheat. Through these most recent poems runs the red thread of poignant questions about being, identity, mortality, and immortality. His poetry ``has its own necessary beauty,'' to quote a line from ``Arizona Midnight''; like the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, a beauty as spare as nature's.