Academic journal article Style

Warren's Poetics of Sequence: The Case of Island of Summer

Academic journal article Style

Warren's Poetics of Sequence: The Case of Island of Summer

Article excerpt

Dear Red,

I have put off writing to you about the fine suite of poems entitled "Ile de Port Cros" until I have time to do a little rereading and meditation. Anyway, though they can stand a great deal more reading and I am far from having digested them, I mustn't put off any longer telling you that I think they are magnificent. I have at the moment my favorites among the individual pieces, of course, but there is not a weak link in the chain, and what really bowls me over is the impact of the whole group taken as one beautifully interlaced and very rich, massive, long poem.

I have just said that the different parts are beautifully and intricately laced together, but the reader doesn't have any sense of studied design; the effect is that of natural growth, richness, and vitality [...]



--Cleanth Brooks to Robert Penn Warren, November 3, 1966

Rereading the poetry of John Crowe Ransom on the occasion of an article he was to write for the Kenyon Review in 1968 ("Notes on the Poetry of John Crowe Ransom at His Eightieth Birthday"), Robert Penn Warren had occasion to remark that in a poetry collection "[e]ven the placement of the poems is sometimes of importance" (New and Selected Essays 322). He is referring in this instance to Ransom's Two Gentlemen in Bonds, in which he finds numerous instances of poems placed in sequence for a reason. He points out, for example, that the speaker in one poem is bothered by noisy and argumentative birds, while in the immediately preceding poem the protagonist had left a quarrel with his wife for a walk outside, but there found birds who "talked/ With words too sad and strange to syllable" (322). Warren goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate these and other "cunning interlockings of the poems" (323) in Ransom's collection. Warren presents this as a new approach on his part to Ransom's poems, a fresh attempt to g et at a "deeper reality" (303) that he confesses he was unable to express in an essay he had published some thirty-five years earlier.

In 1968 Warren published Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968, his first freestanding volume of poetry since You, Emperors, and Others in 1960, although in 1966 he did publish forty-one new poems together with a selection of old ones in Selected Poems: New and Old 1923-1966. The poems of Incarnations are as cunningly interlocked as Warren found those of Ransom's to be; indeed, I contend they are more so, as I hope to demonstrate here, in a reading of its opening section, "Island of Summer." It would be interesting to know if there is a connection between Warren's apparent discovery of the significance of sequential structure for Ransom, one of his early teachers, and a renewed interest in adopting such a poetic practice himself. I say "renewed" because I believe Warren gave a strong sequential structure to his first volume of poetry, Thirty-six Poems, back in 1935 (as I argue in "Repeating the 'Implacable Monotone' in Thirty-six Poems"), and I do not yet see such a structure elsewhere in the years leading up to 1968 . It is, however, strongly characteristic of the sequences he published after that date (see my essay on Or Else in RPW: An Annual of Robert Penn Warren Studies, and, for the collections after that, The Braided Dream). Incarnations may be the first of his sequences to show a renewal of interest in sequential structure. Cleanth Brooks, as my epigraph attests, certainly recognized how tightly connected are the poems of "Island of Summer" (poems he knew at that time under the title "Ile de Port Cros"). As he wrote Warren that November in 1966, "there is not a weak link in the chain." The whole is "one beautifully interlaced and very rich, massive, long poem" (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence 276). I hope to show just how right he was.

1. "What Day Is"

Joseph Blotner records that in 1966 Warren and his family summered on the Ile de Port-Cros, off the coast of southeast France, near Toulon. …

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