Robert Penn Warren Still a Yearner Still a Wonderer
Fairfield, Conn. — It had threatened to snow all weekend, and the blank winter sky hung low over the Connecticut hills. Some 50 miles north, crows swirled over snow-pocked winter fields. But here to the south, Monday dawned bright and cold. The stone fences and yellow Volvos remained remarkably free of snow. Wood smoke was just beginning to crawl into the air. The horses locked in their pastures made early morning steam with their breaths.
In one of the rambling farmhouses - each is just as big and fine as the next - a man with wispy hair no longer red stands lost in thought, gazing out at his back fields. He is formally dressed in an aging blue blazer, although hiking boots encase his small feet. It seems to suit this man, raised in Southern gentility and now transported to rougher New England climes. He is Robert Penn Warren, perhaps the premier American poet living. And he is as in love with the land here in Connecticut as he was with his native Kentucky. His affection and wonderment seem to go on forever.
''Well, I'm really mad about this country,'' he growls in a voice still tinged with a Kentucky drawl. The country, it seems, is just as mad about him. The laurels bestowed upon this favorite son of letters include three Pulitzer prizes, a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, the National Medal for Literature, and the Presidential Medal for Freedom, among many others. Last year he received one of the no-strings-attached MacArthur Foundation Prize fellowships. His decades of work - he has been writing ever since he went to college at 17 - have not gone unrecognized.
Born in Guthrie, Ky., in 1905, Mr. Warren earned his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University and did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley and at Yale University, where he later taught. He also attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar in the late 1920s. His prodigious body of work, assembled over five decades, includes 10 novels, 14 volumes of poetry, a volume of short stories, a play, a collection of critical essays, a biography, three historical essays, critical books on Theodore Dreiser and Herman Melville, and two studies of race relations in America. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ''All the King's Men,'' was made into the Academy Award-winning film.
Now seated in his study - a small room in the stable, wallpapered with books and carpeted with scraps and sheaves of paper - he seems oddly barren of honors and prestige. In his own words, he is ''a yearner.'' ''Restless wonderer'' may describe him even more accurately. It is a posture he continues to maintain.
Gently steering his vistor toward the main house - ''It's too darn cold out here,'' he says - poet and guest enter a house that seems more kennel than anything else at first. Two dogs of undistinguishable breed yelp and pounce on each other with glee. Mr. Warren wades obliviously through their antics. Another , more ancient dog, ''the father,'' seems to live in the coat closet. He is inadvertently caught in the doorjamb as Warren, oblivious also to this pet, absently closes the closet and turns toward the living room. Mrs. Warren (or, more correctly, the writer Eleanor Clark) has just bounded down the stairs and waves her husband into the next room. ''Go on in there,'' she hollers over the roaring dogs. ''It's quieter.''
Once out of dog range, several minutes are spent silently studying the fields and the pool out back. ''I love pools,'' he muses, his shoulders burly from years of early morning swims. ''I love swimming.''
Seated on the blue sofa, his head framed by massive bookcases holding many of his and his wife's works, the poet launches into another favorite topic - land. Having just returned from several week's trekking in the north of Africa, Red, as he is known to his friends, is full of enthusiasm for the hardy landscape he and his wife viewed from two weeks on camel-back.
''It's not at all like you think, you know, rolling hills and dunes,'' he expounds. ''They are real desert mountains, very high volcanic mountains, 18,000 feet and totally uninhabitated. It was very rough camping.'' Did the septuagenarian really ride a camel for two weeks? ''Well it was too far to walk, '' he shoots back. Ah, no ordinary grandfather this man. And no ordinary eye and imagination either. ''Those volcanic mountains - they look like an enormous garden of the best works, or the better works, of (sculptor) Henry Moore. Incredible kinds of shapes everywhere.''
Nature and land have played prominent parts in his work over the years. Not only the land itself, but also man as part of that natural world. ''I suppose it's been accidental. I spent most of my childhood in a lonely way; spending most of my summers on a remote farm with an aging grandfather was a very big asset. He was full of poetry and history and had fought wars and things like that. He was made for a young boy to talk with.''
Robert Penn Warren lived in the South until he was 20 years old, and for many readers he remains a Southern writer, having begun his writing career while a member of a Southern writers group, the Fugitives. Too, his leap into prominence came with ''All the King's Men,'' a novel with a decidedly Southern setting. But as he describes himself, ''I never thought in terms of (being) Southern or not Southern. Just like fish don't think about water.''
Of greater importance was the rural nature of his childhood - a cache of images that crops up in his work more strongly now than ever. His latest book, ''Rumor Verified,'' is filled with childhood recollections that are inextricably bound up with nature and rural rhythmns. ''Man's place in nature is a constant concern, an unconscious concern of mine and it can become conscious,'' he reflects. ''I suppose that is partly again a fact of having a boyhood tied to nature and being interested in natural objects and collecting things - birds and snakes and things like that. . . . But also, I think you might say - I'm in no sense a religious man, you see - but I do have a sense of man in nature.''
That sense of man in nature is the bedrock for his writing. In his novels and poems, the search is for identity, to discover man's individual and collective destiny. The answer, says the writer, lies most often in the community - in physical nature as well as in a common history that binds people together.
Like many American writers, Warren often tells a violent and terrible story; murder and death are not unknown. But again and again the solution lies not in a sense of man's compounded guilt, but in the discovery and affirmation of a more transcendent self.
Growing up in the South, where a sense of fatalism so often abounded, Warren struggled to reach a sense of individual moral responsibilty. The result: a constant interaction between the individual and the larger community and nature. Some critics have called it the ''osmosis of being.'' As the poet himself puts it in one of his recent poems, ''Mediterranean Basin,'' in which he describes two swimmers: At arch-height of every stroke, at each fingertip, hangs One drop, and the drops - one by one - are About to fall, each a perfect universe defined By its single, minuscule, radiant, enshrined star.m
This blending, this osmosis, is natural and normal. Or should be, he says. But more and more, the poet sees this relationship eroding.
In his days as a Fugitive, Warren and his mentor and fellow poet, John Crowe Ransom, had the ''big notion'' of ''more and more the pulling away of man from nature.'' The years have only confirmed that perception. Not only is man pulling away from nature, but he is also detaching himself from art, Warren says. Man is less rural - even the farming occupation has become a ''business'' rather than a way of life - and he is also less literate. Warren mentions his experience as a teacher at Yale: ''I tried this in class actually with some senior seminars. How many had read Hardy, and how many read Melville, and could they quote any of them. And they couldn't. Could they quote a Shakespeare sonnet? Well, practically nobody.
''Warren speaks also of a little literary society in Clarksville, Tenn., back in the 1800s, which he discovered while doing some research into the life of Herman Melville. After avidly reading and studying the author's works, the society's members had written Melville asking him to come and speak to their group. Says Warren, ''These people were farmers, were planters, and lived in a town of 500 people. You couldn't find a person within a hundred miles now who had read a single line of Melville.'' Back then, America was ''spotted with culture,'' he says.
''There were no movies, no TVs. It was a verbal world.''What has taken the place of art in society today? ''Reading People magazine or something like that. Watching television.'' But he turns the question around: ''What can take the place of art in life? (Poetry) is one of the arts. Why does it survive? Because there are people who make their profession at it, or want to.'' Why? ''Because it's the only thing that makes life comprehensible.''
He leans forward in his chair and attempts to explain: ''If you read a decent poem by someone you've never heard of, you're establishing a relationship with him through the medium. It's part of the human community, it reaffirms the human community. . . . Human beings, it seems to me - now this is hip-shooting - are trying to make sense of the world. But the whole business of any art is to put order, to express an order on the world of some kind. Everybody yearns (for order). How stupid, you could almost say, to find somebody who doesn't want order in the world.''
A writer is simply someone ''trying to order his world . . . make it comprehensible to himself in an emotional way, as well as in a philosophical way.'' Warren says he writes poems only for himself, no audience in mind. Perhaps it is his method that is so conducive to that simplicity.
''I try to write every morning. I go out yonder and spend five hours out there and I try every day to see what happens.'' Swimming, or walking, or simply sitting in the rocking chair with closed eyes, any activity to ''get your mind empty and see what happens to it,'' he says. ''The secret for me is to be thinking about nothing and see what falls into your head, some phrase, some idea.'' Does he ever have days when nothing comes to him? ''Oh yes, yes sure. But then you have to learn to waste time and not grieve about it.''
Of late what has been coming to this writer so accomplished in poetry, fiction, criticism, and essay writing, is the poetry. ''I haven't written a novel in five or six years. I've started to write one. I owe my publisher one. . . . I tried for more than a month to try and write this new novel. I had it all in my head. I could have told you the whole story. But I couldn't write a line and at some point I would scribble a few lines of verse down at the bottom of the page. And I said, 'God's trying to tell me something and I better listen to him.' So . . . I put it aside again.'' Since then, the poetry has flowed smoothly and apparently uninterruptedly. One book came out last fall, another is scheduled for later this year. Between, literary magazines keep up with the latest Warren poems.
In the years that he has been writing, recording life as he sees it, has the poet perceived an increasingly ordered world? ''Well, it's more ordered in certain ways and less ordered in other ways. It's more ordered in terms of organizing big organizations, corporations, big nations, the postal service . . . sending satellites up. We're knowing more about our physical world than we did. But how much more we know about the human world I don't know.'' The ''big guess,'' now, he says, ''is what technology is going to do to civilization.''
The increasingly technological nature of the world ''tends to stamp people out in a mold. Rather than allowing for variety - throwing people back on their own resources to make sense of the world - you see it handed to you on a platter.'' Take today's idea of success, he says. ''Success is big and having lots of money. You have a purely practical success. Now, raising a child or writing a poem . . . those things are not success unless you get paid or get a prize for them.
''The ethic of the community has taken a beating, as man becomes more and more specialized in his efforts to keep up with the changing world. ''What constitutes an education now? (Man) studies pre-law, or pre-dentistry, or something like that. He doesn't learn about what a human being is in total life. . . . The old education, the humane education, you studied the literature and history of your own people and you studied the history of other nations. . . . It was as simple a thing as that.
''The value of history, ''in its broadest sense,'' is that it affirms the human community. ''It does bring people closer together and also (helps) to understand the complexity of human beings.''
It is a pleasant irony that the works of Robert Penn -Warren have woven themselves into the American literary history. The poet is more self-effacing: ''Oh, I don't know. Time will tell, a hundred years from now will tell, but I will never know.''