FAIRFIELD, Conn. — It starts with a mumbling, a word muttered on a walk through the woods with the dog, a phrase that meanders across a blank-page mind. A poem may swell to the surface while swimming, perhaps.
"Swimming is a wonderful way of writing," said Robert Penn Warren, the poet, white-haired now and sitting in the former onion barn he turned into a home 30 years ago. "Your body is totally occupied, there's nothing else and your mind goes blank."
A few words, a phrase, is how it begins, and "even if you don't know where it's going, it has some thrust. You pick a rhythmic phrase, and you let the rhythmic phrase hunt something to tie to."
Now a novel is something quite different. "A novel has to come in a flash to begin with," Warren said. He leaned forward, idly scratching the neck of a small black dog, the lone survivor of five canines who once inhabited the Warren household.
"The basic idea comes in a flash, but then you have to build, you have to do a lot of construction. It takes years. It takes two or three years, but then there's an awful lot of trial and error and projected actions that get refused because they don't make sense, and one thing and another."
For example, "All the King's Men," the 1946 fictionalized portrait of Louisiana's Long dynasty, probably the most famous work of fiction by this soon-to-be-80-year-old dean of American letters. "I can tell you right where I was when I started it," Warren recalled. "I remember the very day, sitting under a tree in Italy, in Umbria, with a blank sheet of paper on my knee."
Warren was determined to undertake a play that day, a verse play, and the title he chose for the work that would one day be "All the King's Men" was "Proud Flesh."
The name was a pun, he explained, "because 'proud' flesh is swollen flesh with pus in it." Soon Warren decided "the pun would never do, because no one would get it except me"--Warren laughed, still relishing this private joke--"or some back countrymen.
"Anyway," he continued, "I wrote it as a verse play and I wasn't satisfied with it, and three years later I took it out and looked at it, and saw what was wrong with it. It should have been a novel, because my conception of it was really a novelistic conception. And having just that one thought started the whole thing over again with a novelistic conception. It changed the whole story."
It is mid-day, gray and still quite icy outside, nearly the time of day when Warren and his wife, writer Eleanor Clark, emerge from their separate writing rooms. Just now Warren is standing before a wide picture window, studying a volume that has arrived with the morning mail. These days, Warren finds himself drifting away from fiction, even in his reading.
History is what he leans to now, biography sometimes, and of course poetry: Warren is deluged still, always, with the works of all the new poets. "Fiction, I never thought fiction was," and he pauses, seeking just the right word, "sensible, somehow." As a writer, in any case, "There was a certain period in my life, I guess, when the poetry began to eat up the fiction."
In fact poetry nibbled at Warren from his earliest days. As a boy in the tobacco country of Guthrie, Ky.--"Oh, a young boy, about 9, I guess,"--he remembers his joyous discovery of an old book stuck behind the shelf. The book was called "Poets in America," and "I turned to a page that had my father's name across the top, and there were some poems under that name," verse his father had composed at maybe 22 years of age.
"I was so surprised and confused, I guess, that when he got home I showed it to him." Wordlessly, Warren's businessman father took the book from the boy and walked away with it. Was he embarrassed? Ashamed to expose this slice of his long-past youth? Warren shrugs: "It was part of his life he had put away."
Born at the dawn of Reconstruction, Robert Franklin Warren had, after all, been educated by tutors. He had studied the classics and, years later, his own young son, Robert Penn Warren, would watch as he shaved and listen as he recited, "say, 42 lines of Greek. 'That's Greek,' he'd say," his son remembered. " 'Now you hear how it sounds--I think.' "
The Warrens were old Southern stock, a family filled with great doses of war and history, "some of it quite funny," like the tale of the giant turnips spotted by Warren's maternal grandfather as he was leading a scouting party up the road in Mississippi. The turnips, as it happened, were not vegetables at all, but "a whole bunch of old women who had been caught by fellow scouts, and with their big skirts tied up over their heads, they looked just like turnips," Warren laughed, as if his Confederate cavalryman grandfather were sitting right there, as if he were just hearing the story for the very first time himself. "That was part of the war, too."