Academic journal article Style

Walking So His Feet Don't Touch the Ground: Robert Penn Warren, the Regional Motive, and "Kentucky Mountain Farm"

Academic journal article Style

Walking So His Feet Don't Touch the Ground: Robert Penn Warren, the Regional Motive, and "Kentucky Mountain Farm"

Article excerpt

"I have come to look upon poetry as a sort of escape from a good many things these days. I do not know whether it is due to my physical condition or not, but I find every other aspect of my existence intinitely wearying or worse."

Robert Penn Warren to Allen Tate, March 26, 1924

Popeye began to jerk his neck forward in little jerks. "Psssst!" he said., the sound cutting sharp into the drone of the minister's voice; "pssssst!" The sheriff looked at him; he quit jerking his neck and stood rigid, as though he had an egg balanced on his head. "Fix my hair, Jack," he said.

William Faulkner, Sanctuary

On the evening of May 20, 1924, Charlie Moss entered number 911 in Wesley Hall to find Robert Penn Warren unconscious. Though a chloroform-soaked towel lay nearby, by some accounts the towel was draped over his face or wrapped around his head. Moss immediately alerted Edwin Mims, and Mims's son, Puryear, drove the 19-year-old Warren to the nearby Woman's Hospital. When Warren regained consciousness the next morning, his father was at his bedside, and by that afternoon, Warren was taken home to Guthrie where he spent the summer (Blotner 47, 49). During his summer at Guthrie, Warren worked at the Litchfield Shuttle Company, and for a time, his parents refused to allow him access to pencil and paper. (1) His letters to Allen Tate reflect his frustration, his boredom, and his impatience with his surroundings (Clark 4 1-60, passim). But it was not a fallow period, for during this summer, Warren wrote three poems that suggest a dramatic change in his style. These poems, "Praises for Mrs. Dodd" and the two-sonnet se quence "Sonnets of Two Summers," utilize the people and places of Warren's native region and are among the first poems to do so. After this summer, Warren increasingly would use imagery and characters from his own region as vehicles for his thematic concerns.

This shift in settings and characterization is generally accounted for by three separate events. First, Warren himself tells of a picnic on July 4, 1924, in which John Crowe Ransom read aloud the poetry of Thomas Hardy. According to Warren, the event made him realize the potential of regional materials. (2) Second, Warren, in his own words "became a Southerner by going to California and to Connecticut and New England" (Connelly 383). Whatever emotional defenses were necessary when living near Guthrie became more permeable in Berkeley, New Haven, and Oxford, and Warren's first years away from the South enabled him to access the rich resources of his upbringing and culture in creating "Prime Leaf," his first fiction, and poetry that he would include in every volume of selected and collected poems he ever compiled. A final factor influencing Warren's turn to regional materials was the Agrarian controversy (see Ellison 35; Walker 184-85). Allegedly, as Warren became more involved in regionalist polemics, his poet ry began to reflect the concerns and difficulties of contemporary Southerners in poems like the "Kentucky Mountain Farm" sequence (1927-32), "Grandfather Gabriel" (1928), "Eidolon" (1934), and "The Return: an Elegy" (1934) (see Grimshaw 185-87). Certainly, all these factors played a significant role in Warren's recognition of the importance of using his own time and place as materials for his poetry and fiction. (3)

There is, however, a final factor influencing Warren's adaptation of regional materials that has never adequately been examined, and perhaps the best way to begin its consideration is to ask a very basic question: in the poems written after the suicide attempt, who dies? In the poems written before the May 20 incident, the answer is less complicated, for in every poem, it is the narrator who anticipates, dreams of, or is on the verge of death. (4) In those poems written after his suicide attempt, Warren consigns others to death, and the fated include characters disturbingly similar to family members and stock figures of his native region. …

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