Robert Penn Warren: an Appreciation

READING Robert Penn Warren, I often recall the end of his poem ``The Whole Question'' and often find ``some words that make the Truth come true.'' Warren, who passed on last month, wrote some of the most important books of this century.

``Understanding Poetry'' (1938), written with Cleanth Brooks, was for 40 years the most popular textbook of its kind and is still useful.

His 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ``All The King's Men,'' was later made into a play and a movie: It is a classic American treatment of what the politics of doing good with evil - or what looks like evil - means.

Much later, after winning Pulitzer Prizes for poetry in 1957 (``Promises: Poems 1954-1956'') and 1979 (``Then and Now: Poems 1976-1978''), Warren was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the Third Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Published as ``Democracy and Poetry,'' the lecture remains a resonant defense of art against the modern forces of anonymity.

In 1986, he was chosen to be the first United States poet laureate. His books offer a strong rebuttal to critics who claim that art is no match for modern life, that we must change society before men and women can gain self-fulfillment.

Warren never underestimated the obstacles to happiness. His 1953 verse novel, ``Brother Dragons,'' exposed (in Robert Lowell's words) the ``moronic violence'' of racial prejudice.

Furthermore, the cult of success, Warren argued in his essays, has no use for the idea of virtue; whereas in fact ``reality cannot be bought. It can only be had by love.''

Warren's whole life appears to have been a search for the reality that ``can only be had by love.'' Poetry was his way of courting this possible reality. His understanding of the natural basis of the order of art - the reinforcing rhythms of man and nature - made him a true philosopher. ``After all, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy'' he said in ``Interlude of Summer.'' In ``Democracy and Poetry'' Warren speaks of ``a glorious klang of being'' that issues from a work ``in which we can envisage a structure out of time as well as experience the sequential rhythms in time.''

Some complain of a ``hardness'' in Warren's diction. It's the hardness that comes from tempering his words against life, mental and emotional.

Some complain of the looseness of his diction. It's the looseness that comes from his awareness of the provisional nature of every attempt to state the truth.

His short poem, ``Milton: A Sonnet,'' says a lot about John Milton and even more about Warren. Milton could not have written it: The heart that ``may leap like a gleaming fish,'' the sheer revelation of the happy self - that's pure Robert Penn Warren, the momentary end of the search. And yet it would not be his if it didn't make us think.

In one of his last poems (the second stanza appears on this page), he says, ``Can it be that the world is but the great word/ That speaks the meaning of our joy?''

Warren was not religious in the conventional sense, but his life work was shaped by his strong belief in and openness toward whatever - whomever - it was that moved St. Augustine to write the passage Warren chose as the epigraph for his book ``Altitudes and Extensions'':

``Will ye not now after that life is descended down to you, will not you ascend up to it and live?''

That question remains for each reader to ponder, and if that reader is a reader of Warren, to ponder with hope and readiness to say yes.

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