Saturday, December 4, 2010

Robert Penn Warren embraces his limitations

I came across a poem by Robert Penn Warren today, a writer I've read very little of since college; I was missing the voice of a teffific American poet. The poem was "To A Face in the Crowd".


This is a good selection from the cogent Robert Penn Warren, who was always leagues ahead of his rhyming peers in having the disciplining techniques work under his lines; with many a twentieth century poet unwilling to give up the ghost of rhyme, the effect was more special effects than expression. It sounded unnatural, at odds with a contemporary sensibility  who's collective idea of  poetic value wasn't in the martial law organization of words and their sound alike twins, but instead found the music in a vernacular , looser limbed speech. This is the sensibility I developed since I swapped out Bob Dylan for TS Eliot decades ago.

Warren, though, has a verbal since,a "flow", that wants to deliver the idea from murky origin somewhere in the rapidly firing imagination and the final , crystalized expression. There is no padding in this poem; it has a lean quality that brings out the emotional quality, the weariness of the speaker who is dually giving warning of one's idea of what one may accomplish in the world and the the bemoaning of a personal history of lessons learned the hard way.

....That shore of your decision 
Awaits beyond this street where in the crowd
Your face is blown, an apparition, past.
Renounce the night as I, and we must meet
As weary nomads in this desert at last,
Borne in the lost procession of these feet.


Warren speaks of , I think, along the lines of a cliche often attributed to John Lennon, as in "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." This is the theme I find in much poetry that appeals to me, the major or minor revelation that the author's scheme of things, his abstractions as to how the world functions and how he or she was going to navigate the currents they thought predictable and manageable, are themselves a comfortable fiction imposed on a phenomenon that is hard, unyielding to individual expenditures of will power. Warren says here that at the end of it all we all meet not as brothers and sisters victorious in transforming  history (in significant but more often trivial matters) but rather as veterans of the daily grind who have endured and survived daily rigors for no reason other than they had to. At this point, speaking to the moment of waking up from one's dream, one might finally make use of their imagination as it engages the world as it reveals itself, moment to moment. This is the point when life gets interesting.