Academic journal article Style

Warren Reflects on the Discontinuities of His Poetic Career

Academic journal article Style

Warren Reflects on the Discontinuities of His Poetic Career

Article excerpt

Looking back on a poetic career is sometimes only a little different from looking back upon one's life, since both acts can turn on similar questions about one's take on life and the values by which one has sought to guide one's conduct. For one thing, nonpoetic things--the state of one's marriage, the state of one's political views--turn out to matter more than one might at first think when one considers the shape of a poetic career, since such things bear on how one views the world, and what one does about them bears on what one's values are and what they mean: poetry can't help but be itched into being by such things.

Critics are often tempted to tie a stylistic change in a poet's work to a political one. Think for instance about how Adrienne Rich's discovery of her political subject matter is tied to her repudiation of the style she had at first learned in emulation of Auden. One feels the temptation to do the same with Warren if one looks at the changes that happened to him during his ten years of poetic silence from 1943 to 1953, years during which his politics, his style, and his personal circumstances changed radically. But the differences may not simply be gross stylistic ones so much as fine ones about one's take on similar events. One might notice how from early in his career Warren sometimes replays poems in later volumes with a subtle but meaningful shift of stance, as, say, "Nameless Thing," of 1980, replays "Original Sin" of 1942, or "Sunset Hawk" (1974) replays the "Watershed" section of the sequence "Kentucky Mountain Farm" (1932).

The deepest issue one faces when one faces the shape of one's poetic career is how one stands towards those things that make poetry poetry. It is not merely a matter of how the poet makes stylistic discoveries or loses and regains certain kinds of poetic capacities--as Wordsworth does in The Prelude--so much as the understanding one uncovers of what poetry itself is. The always urgent and never answerable question is how poetry differs from ordinary discursive uses of language, what poetry's object is, and most of all, how it stands in the face of the ineffability of its ultimate objects and the incapacity of the instrument--language--with which it attempts to come to terms with what cannot be come to terms with in the first place. Poetry faces, but does not resolve, the great mystery of our finding ourselves in a world we didn't make and didn't choose to enter, a world in which we are bound by certain obligations and seek to discover a calling, a purpose worthy of enabling us to see our lives as more than me rely the outcome of brute happenstances and bare events.

Poetry stands in a unique relation to the question of the meaning of being. It doesn't seek a discursive answer to that question. But it does seek to shape, through language, a way of facing that question, as, say, love poetry does not seek to define or still less to manipulate the beloved but to shape a way of being with the beloved, to enable a more nuanced and more realized apprehension of the shared experience of loving. The poem is, as Wallace Stevens says, the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it. I understand Stevens's phrase to mean that the poetry of the poem is ultimately non-discursive, not a description of life but a mode of it. I also understand Stevens's phrase to mean that the poem is ultimately not merely expressive either, whether expressive of the poet's feelings or expressive of the poet's convictions. What Stevens means, I think, is that the work of the poem is to shape the place where life happens, where life goes on in the poem, as it is the function of prayer not to express religious feelings but to provide a space for the unfolding of a variegated and nuanced and articulate religious experience. Like prayer, poetry is articulated but not discursive, or at least not primarily or only discursive. Like prayer, poetry is not principally constative and not exactly performative either (although whatever it is is closer to performative language than to constative language). …

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