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

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.

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.

His latest poems are new evidence of the fact that Warren still, with 54 years of words under his belt, writes with child-eyed freshness and originality. For other writers he opens the windows of possibility:

Above Arizona, ``. . . Stars quiver, twitch, in their infinite indigo.'' After twilight, ``High above the maples the moon presides.'' The first atomic bomb on the Enola Gay is ``a great rifle barrel packed with uranium.'' A little girl wakes early in ``The dawn-curdled house.'' In Oklahoma, ``the omelet of sunset vibrates in the great flat pan.''

He has of course written novels, the most famous ``All the King's Men,'' about a Southern governor named Willie Stark with an uncanny resemblance to Huey Long. Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for ``All the King's Men,'' his third Pulitzer, including two for poetry; he is the only writer ever to do that. ``All the King's Men'' later became a play and an Academy Award-winning movie, stamping the character of Gov. Willie Stark like pressed tin on the national memory.

Here is Robert Penn Warren etching Willie in the brilliantly written proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely: `` `A man don't have to be governor,' he repeated, and as I looked at his face now I didn't see the thin-skinned, boyish face, but another face under it, as though the first face were a mask of glass and now I could see through it to the other one. . . . I looked at the second face and saw, all of a sudden, the heavyish lips laid together to remind you of masonry and the knot of muscle on each cheek back where the jawbone hinges on.''

In ``All the King's Men'' Warren takes us on a fast, brilliant ride that starts on Highway 58 with Paragraph 1 and goes roaring through Willie Stark's life from hog-slopping farm boy to lawyer to governor and demagogue, hurtling fast into corruption. Critic Diana Trilling wrote of the novel: ``For sheer virtuosity, for the sustained drive of its prose, for the speed and evenness of its pacing, for its precision of language . . . I doubt indeed whether it can be matched in American Fiction.''

Mr. Warren was born in Guthrie, Ky., just after the turn of the century, his father a banker who had been a secret, published poet in his youth. Warren as a boy wanted to be a chemist or a military man. His first poem, ``Mess Kit,'' was published at 17 in a military magazine after he entered Vanderbilt University and the Citizen Military Training Corps, an ROTC-like organization. But he found Vanderbilt a yeasty place to be a young poet. His freshman English teacher was the poet John Crowe Ransom; Ransom, Allen Tate, and Warren were members of a group of poets and critics called ``The Fugitives.'' He graduated summa cum laude, went on for his master's at the University of California, did graduate work at Yale, then became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.

Although his life and writing are steeped in the South, Warren lives now as a semi-Yankee in Fairfield, Conn., with his wife, novelist Eleanor Clark (``The Bitter Box,'' ``Rome and a Villa,'' ``Gloria Mundi''). They have two children, Rosanna and Gabriel.

In the 54 years he has been writing (and carrying on a career as professor of English from Yale to LSU), Warren has created:

Sixteen volumes of poetry, 10 novels (including ``Band of Angels'' and ``World Enough and Time''), a book of short stories (``The Circus in the Attic''), the play of ``All the King's Men,'' a biography, three historical essays, two studies of race relations in America, and books on Dreiser and Melville.

He has said he gave up writing novels ``a thousand years ago. I ran out of stories to tell, I suppose.'' And yet, he also said later, in a U.S. News & World Report interview, that ``almost all poems are fragmentary autobiography,'' so you can catch glimmers of the stories in his life flickering like stars in his poetry, as he suggests in ``Muted Music'':

. . . And into that muted music you soon sink

To hear at last, at last, what you have strained for

All the long years, and sometimes at dream-verge thought

You heard -- the song the moth sings, the babble

Of falling snowflakes (in a language

No school has ever taught you), the scream

Of the reddening bud of the oak tree

As the bud bursts into the world's brightness.

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