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Teeth Set on Edge

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT PENN WARREN.\o7 By Robert Penn Warren\f7 .\o7 Edited by John Burt (Louisiana State University Press: 856 pp., $39.95)\f7

October 18, 1998|HAROLD BLOOM | Harold Bloom is author of numerous books, including "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," which will be published by Riverhead Books on Oct. 26. His essay will appear as the introduction to "The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren."

The publication of Robert Penn Warren's collected poems in an extraordinary volume, magnificently edited by John Burt, should establish the permanent place of Warren's poetry in America's literary achievement. From 1966 to 1986, Warren wrote much of the best poetry composed during those two decades in the United States. During the three years before he died on Sept. 15, 1989, Warren was too ill to continue his high quest for poetic sublimity. Yet between the ages of 61 and 81, he had enjoyed a poetic renascence fully comparable to the great final phases of Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens. John Burt's devoted edition gives us the definitive text of all of Warren's poetry and thus restores an American masterwork, one that will be read, studied and absorbed so long as the love for, and understanding of, great poetry survives among us.

The late William K. Wimsatt, formidable scholarly critic and friend of Warren at Yale University, once remarked to me that he found my passion for Warren's later poetry rather surprising because he thought of Warren as a "dramatic poet" rather than a lyrical one. As my former teacher, Wimsatt frequently had observed that in his judgment, I tended to undervalue the dramatic elements in modern American poetry. I replied that I recognized in Warren's poetry, from "Incarnations: Poems, 1966-1968" on, the agonistic spirit that always had marked the sublime ode from Pindar through the Romantics to Yeats. From the start, Warren's characteristic mode had been the dramatic lyric, but after the poet turned 60, he internalized drama in a great contest with time, with cultural and family history and, above all, with himself. In his long major phase, Warren wrestled with the angel of the poetic sublime and carried away the victory of a new name. "Robert Penn Warren" had meant primarily the novelist of "All the King's Men" (1946) and "World Enough and Time" (1950). Those major fictions endure, but I believe that Warren's name will be more associated with his "Collected Poems" because scores of them transcend even his finest narratives. This book is Warren's center and his lasting glory.

Warren had many precursors in American poetry: He paid particular homage to John Greenleaf Whittier and Herman Melville. Among modern British poets, Hardy meant most to him. But the dominant influence upon Warren's own poetry, from 1922 through 1966, was T.S. Eliot; the spell of "The Waste Land" was not broken before "Incarnations" began to be composed. Until I purchased and read "Incarnations" in 1968, I had thought of Warren's poetry as admirable but essentially derivative: Eliotic in mode, manner and argument. Hart Crane, though also strongly affected by Eliot's poetry, fought against it from the start, but Warren needed more than 40 years to get beyond Eliot.

Eliot's example both inspired and inhibited Warren. I remember my own surprise when, in January 1973, I received first a postcard and then an exuberant letter from Warren, reacting to a little book I had just published, "The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry." I scarcely expected Warren to like it, but I was mistaken, and the book, which cost me some old friends, gave me a new one. At our first lunch together, Warren emphasized his uncanny recognition of his own relation to his precursor, Eliot, in my descriptions of the agonistic relationship between strong poets and their inheritors. In the 15 years that followed, as our friendship developed, we rarely could discuss Eliot--or Ralph Waldo Emerson--without fierce (though amiable) lunchtime disagreements. Eliot and Emerson are profoundly antithetical to one another, and Warren's distaste for Emerson was lifelong and passionate. Strongly not a Christian believer, Warren nevertheless had Augustinian convictions as to sin, error, guilt and history. Himself a man of great humor, ironic tolerance and considerable wisdom, Warren was probably the most severe secular moralist I have ever known.

Though he stemmed from Eliot, as poet and as critic, Warren's temperament had little in common with Eliot's. The savage bite of Warren's best novels--"Night Rider" (1939), "At Heaven's Gate" (1943), "All the King's Men," and "World Enough and Time"--sometimes echoes Eliot's Jacobean diction. Nevertheless, Warren was a great storyteller whose narrative art had been schooled by Conrad and Faulkner, sensibilities more baroque than Eliotic. The full elaboration of Warren's poetic rhetoric does not enter his poetry until "Incarnations" and the subsequent "Audubon: A Vision" (1969).

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