Warren’s “Uncollected Poems 1922-1943”

Although at times I was tempted to skip through the opening section of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, sticking to my belief that you ultimately gain the best understanding of a poet by reading all of his works chronologically, I finally got through the section entitled “Uncollected Poems 1922-1943.”

Considering that Warren would have only been 17 in 1922, but 38 by ’43 it’s difficult to judge what one has a right to expect from these poems. I certainly wouldn’t expect the same quality of poems from a high school senior that you would expect from a college professor.

That said, in stark contrast to Warren’s later poems, there weren’t too many that I found particularly compelling. Far too many of them sounded like


Even tonight, I think, if you would ask,
I could remember what it was you said
When first you pierced beneath my spangled mask
To find the caverned eyes of one long dead.

Even tonight, when once again a spring
Storms gallantly the wintry bastion,
We might rehearse this tale; it will not bring
Tears to the sockets of a skeleton.

Forgive me, Madam, this metaphor macabre,
One scarce incarnate of those glories fled;
For ghost and ghost commune till dawn together,
Haunted by anguish of the lustful dead.

Now, I don’t know about you, but long ago when I was 17, or even 38, and was confronted by a lover I wasn’t thinking about death, no matter how blustery the weather outside, though I might not have been above quoting Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

That said, I am still fond of a simple poem called:


You see no beauty in the parched parade,
The quivering, heat-glazed highways mile one mile,
The fields where beauty holds a debt unpaid,
The gray, drab barracks in monotonous, grim file.

You take no joy when dust wraiths dimly curl
Above the winding column crawling on far hills.
You see but short beyond the present whirl
Of circumstances, your little wrongs and petty ills.

But when it is all passed and you have lost
The swinging rhythmic cadence of the marching feet,
Then you will reck as paltry small the cost,
And memory will purge the bitter from the sweet.

This simple poem reminds me of my days in the Army and the barracks that I lived in while going through R.O.T.C., later, officer’s training at Fort Knox Kentucky, and even serving at Fort Irwin, California. It was hard to imagine that you could ever look bad fondly at basic training and all the harassment we were enduring, and more than a few “petty ills.” There was, after all, good reason why “Get Smart” was a favorite among trainees, especially the line “Would you believe…”

Thankfully, I’ve long passed the time when I am unable to fully appreciate life’s challenges for what they are, precious moments that I’ll look fondly back on in the future.