The Immolation of Influence: Aesthetic Conflict in Robert Penn Warren's Poetry
Szczesiul, Anthony E., The Mississippi Quarterly
There comes a time for us all when we want to begin a new life. All mythologies recognize that fact.(1)
ROBERT PENN WARREN'S CAREER AS A POET COVERED more than sixty years and produced some fifteen volumes of verse; clearly, a career so long must be richly complex and varied. Yet critics of Warren's poetry for the most part have attempted to portray his canon as an organically unified whole. While critics generally agree that there are different "phases" in Warren's career, they account for any differences in these phases through frameworks of organic development. In other words, they depict Warren's canon as one which evolved gradually and naturally as the poet simply matured from one phase to the next. For instance, Victor Strandberg--in the most complete study of Warren's poetry--asserts, "A fundamental coherence unifies Warren's whole body of poetry, as though it constituted a single poem drawn out in a fugal pattern--somewhat like Pound's Cantos or Eliot's poetry, but more like Eliot's because its total design was not preplanned but simply `exfoliated' ... according to some deep rhythm of development in the artist's temperament."(2) According to such formulations of continuous development, each new phase becomes the natural outgrowth or extension of earlier works; consequently, Warren's early texts are often deemed apprentice works, and his later texts are described as his mature achievement. While such critical appraisals have proven extremely useful to our initial understanding of Warren's extensive canon of poetry, there is nonetheless a danger that they may obscure from our vision other--perhaps equally fruitful--avenues of inquiry.
The recent publication of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, edited by John Burt,(3) provides a convenient moment to re-evaluate the scope and shape of Warren's poetic career, and instead of looking for consistent, unifying aspects of his canon, perhaps it is time to expose and investigate the cracks and fissures within its seemingly smooth surface. Another look reveals that, rather than being consistent and unified in its "development," Warren's poetic career is marked by a severe rupture which resulted in conflicting poetic theories. More specifically, following the ten-year hiatus of 1943-1953 during which he published no new poems, Warren essentially recreated himself as a poet with the publication of Brother to Dragons in 1953; here, he self-consciously repudiated the high-modernist aesthetic of his earlier poetry by adopting what may be viewed as a more romantic aesthetic, an aesthetic which is in many ways antithetical to his early verse. It is important to emphasize that these later poetic theories were not the natural outgrowth or "development" of his early views of poetry; rather, his more romantic theories of poetry and the poet came about through a conscious effort by Warren to suppress his poetic past. Critics in the past have suggested that Warren's decade-long break from poetry was simply the result of his turning his attention to fiction, but Warren on a number of occasions explained that over this ten-year period he was still attempting to write many short poems--he simply could not finish them. In his own words, he "lost the capacity for finishing the short poem."(4) It seems quite probable, then, that Warren's break from poetry was the result of some form of aesthetic crisis or conflict over the very nature and purpose of poetry.
In his 1977 poem "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," Warren himself provides an interesting retrospective interpretation of this aesthetic conflict which occurred at the mid-point of his career. My purpose here is not to offer another explication of the poem; rather, I would like to examine an aspect of the poem which has heretofore been overlooked yet which I believe illuminates the nature of this poetic transformation which occurred at the mid-point of Warren's career. "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth" is in many ways the locus classicus for understanding Warren's changing poetic alignments, for it figuratively plays out the conflict between Warren's early allegiance to a high-modernist aesthetic and the more romantic theories which guided his poetry from the 1950s onward. …