Academic journal article Style

Robert Penn Warren and the Poetics of (Im)purity

Academic journal article Style

Robert Penn Warren and the Poetics of (Im)purity

Article excerpt

Robert Penn Warren's attacks on the notion of pure poetry began in his earliest critical writings but came into focus during the 1940s when his major critical essays were written and his own poetic practice was in transition. "Pure and Impure Poetry," first delivered as a lecture entitled "Pure Poetry and the Structure of Poems" in 1942 and first published in the Kenyon Review in Spring 1943, sets forth the issue that was clearly uppermost in Warren's thinking during the decade of the 1940s. Along with his equally influential essay "A Poem of Pure Imagination," on Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Pure and Impure Poetry" defines Warren's belief, persisting throughout his creative life, in the necessary tension between the ideal and the real, the abstract and the relative--his belief in the poetics of (im)purity.

On September 6, 1936, Warren wrote to Seward Collins, editor of the American Review:

A poet always has the problem of making a resolution of the forces of, as it were, two poles of force, which we might call the absolute and the relative. The demand of the absolute is that his works embody the primary aesthetic fact that makes us call all sorts of different kinds of work poetry; the demand of the relative is that the machinery for the embodiment of this effect, the central artistic fact, be conditioned by the flux of his immediate time and environment. (Clark 73)

This statement was Warren's "starting point" for "Pure and Impure Poetry," the essay of Warren's William Bedford Clark has designated "seminal" (73-74). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines "pure poetry" as a prescriptive rather than a descriptive term," applying to "any theory of poetry which seeks to isolate one or more properties as essential and proceeds to exclude material considered to be nonessential." The entry gives Warren credit, in "Pure and Impure Poetry," for "demonstrat[ing] that the doctrine of pure poetry is hardly tenable in practice" (682-83).

In the essay and elsewhere, however, Warren's sense of "pure" is ambiguous. Webster's International Dictionary lists fourteen meanings of "pure," with synonyms including "untainted," "perfect," or "chaste," and antonyms including "adulterated," "impure," "mixed," "soiled," and "corrupt." As applied to poetry, "pure" may indicate not only "perfection" but also "abstraction"; and to a "contributor to I'll Take My Stand," which Warren later preferred to "Agrarian," abstraction was the bete noire, the very antithesis of artistic creativity, and was associated with science, which John Crowe Ransom and his Agrarian cohort had made the antithesis to poetry.

Hatred of abstraction was part of Warren's legacy from Ransom and the Agrarians. In 1935, Warren had published "John Crowe Ransom, A Study in Irony," an essay that related Ransom's essay "God Without Thunder" to his mature poetry. In it, Warren writes that Ransom "has merely been concerned to defend man against a revolution which, by a dogma of unadulterated reason, has endangered his sensibility." Warren contends that in Ransom's mature poetry, the admixture of such "impurities" as wit and irony effects "harmonious adjustment, or rather unified function, of thought and feeling" (100). In the numerous reviews and several essays Warren wrote in the 1930s, Warren took Ransom's position against the "pure" and abstract idea as his own, continually inveighing against the threat that all forms of abstract thought posed for the artist.

This note is most consistently sounded in those essays Warren published in The American Review, a publication, under the editorship of Seward Collins, that focused on the Agrarian point of view. In "T.S. Stribling, A Paragraph in American Realism," Warren positions Stribling, author of such novels as Teeftallow, The Forge, and The Store, as a factor in the "decline, of what is called critical realism in fiction" (I). Whereas, according to Warren, "the naturalistic novelist took science as the source of his method and his philosophy," wherein motivation of human conduct was to be understood in terms of 'biology, bio-chemistry, and such," Stribling and other self-professed realists base their novels on a "pseudoscience, sociology," with claims of objective truth that are "never purely realistic. …

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