Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren: The Art to Transfigure

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren: The Art to Transfigure

Article excerpt

The effort of Robert Penn Warren's poetry is to discover the way in which consciousness engages experience and makes it respond to human desire. In an interview of 1966, Warren describes the need for "a mental experience that gives a sense of moving from disorder to order, to a moment of poise ... It's a liberation. Not, I should emphasize, because of particular `solutions' offered, but because the process is an image of the possibility of meaning growing from experience." (1) Warren's poems enact the movements of a consciousness working to arrest the flow of events and to define experience. The growth of meaning depends on one's ability to construct bases of relationship between the present and the total scope of his mental experience. Until an experience is given definite bounds and is placed in a particular conscious context, it remains alien, chaotic and unintelligible. The acceptance of an experience into one's field of consciousness does not consist merely of matching it with a pre-determined category. For Warren, consciousness should not only be broadened and enriched by the present, it should be continually reformed by it. The meanings of past experiences are by no means fixed; and if the present is to have potential for more than the reiteration of the past, the past must remain volatile, responsive to new possibilities for understanding. Warren has described this as the way in which "cause flows backward from effect," the way in which the past is given form by the present.

The poems, then, show the poet's labor of incorporating experience into the life of his consciousness, of setting the past and the present in living dialogue. The end of this action, as Warren says, is the achievement of a moment of poise in which the process, momentarily suspended, reveals its meaning.

"Homage to Emerson," from Tale of Time: 1960-1966, (2) is a good representative of Warren's poetic method. In the last several lines of the poem there arises what appears to be an intrusion of the authorial voice:

   ... There is the city, the sky
   Glows, glows above it, there must be
   A way by which the process of living can become Truth.
   Let us move toward the city. Do you think you could
   tell me
   What constitutes the human bond?

If we see the "process of living" as presented in the uncertain progress of the poem, the outbreak of desire for "Truth" becomes a natural expression within the process of consciousness--the poem--which has been striving to transcend itself, that is, to achieve a definite order. The truth of the human bond as the conscious goal toward which the poem reaches is developed in the permutations of the poem's subject, and does not exist as such until it is articulated in the very last lines. The intention of the poem, in Warren's words, "is closer to the result than to the cause." The implications of the question are dependent upon the context from which they arise, but also achieve an independence in that they conceptualize what previously has been working in a multiplicity of perceptions. Is the human bond that which unifies man with nature, other men and himself; or is it that which holds man in bondage, that isolates him from nature and other men?

The first two stanzas of Part I, "His Smile," image the speaker's perceptions as his attention moves from without to within the "pressurized gloom" of the aircraft cabin. The perspective on the earth, "by snow like sputum smeared," as it moves into darkness is transposed onto the condition within the cabin, in which the "finger / Of light" shines down on the field of the page. The environments, however, are of opposite natures: the sliding earth is characterized by process and irregularity while the sealed cabin is a glowing, but gloomy, stasis--there is no change, "No sin. Not even error." Essentially the same movement of attention occurs between the third and fourth stanzas. The relationship of the plane to the night atmosphere is interiorized by the speaker. …

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