Warren’s “Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978”

“Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978” is the first book of Warren’s poetry I ever read, and, perhaps luckily so, for it is by far my favorite section so far in the Collected Poems. In fact, I like so many poems in this section that I’m hard pressed to choose just one to represent the section.

These poems focus more on childhood and on making sense of the past than Warren’s earlier poems. And whether true or not, there is a greater sense of personal exploration, personal involvement, than in his earlier poems.

I’m not sure why I chose this poem, perhaps merely because it is one that I remember vividly from my first reading of this book:


When the tooth cracks-zing!-it
Is like falling in love, or like
Remembering your mother’s face when she-and you only
A child-smiled, or like
Falling into Truth. This,
Of course, before the pain
Begins. But even
The pain is something-is, you might say,
For lack of a better word,

Do you
Remember that Jacob Boehme saw
Sunlight flash on a pewter platter on
The table, and his life was totally changed?

Is the name of God nothing more than
The accidental flash on a platter? But what is accident?

I have waked in the dark with the heart-throbbing conviction
Of having just seen some masterly
Shape, but without name. The world
Is suddenly different, then
The pain begins. Sharp as a snapped tooth, it strikes.
And, again, I have waked knowing
That I have only been dreaming,
In classic and timeless precision, of
Winter moonlight flooding a large room where
No spark now winks on the hearth, a broken
Brandy snifter glitters in moonshine by the coffee table, a
Half-burned cigarette butt beside it. And
A woman’s slipper lies on its side
On the moon-bleached rug. In moonshine,
Silky as pastel, dust covers all.

It is only a dream, but it must have a name.
Must we totally forget a thing to know it?
Perhaps redemption is nothing more than the way
We learn to live with memories that are no longer remembered.

But it is hard to know the end of a story.

We often pray God to let us have Truth.
It is more important to pray God to help us to live with it.
Especially if your memory is not what it used to be.

Perhaps I merely liked the opening metaphor. Too often that’s exactly what discovering the “truth” seems like. There is the instant recognition of “truth,” of reality, but too often the discovery is accompanied by pain. Cerainly that’s the kind of truths that Warren often seems to discover in his poems. Although we all like to say that we want the “truth,” too often we end up hearing Jack Nicholson’s famous line, “The Truth. You Can’t Handle the Truth” echoing in our ears when we do discover it. Of course, that pain doesn’t mean that we don’t need to know the truth in order to avoid other forms of pain, now does it?

Like the mystic Jacob Boehme, most of us want to believe in God, and, because we want to believe, we’re afraid to examine our beliefs too closely, don’t want to believe that God is merely a “flash in the platter.”

Too many of us have dreamt of past loves only to awaken to the realization that those loves have slipped away, have left us, like Dickens ‘ Miss Havisham, with our dreams left in the dust.

Perhaps it’s merely the old man in me talking, but I particularly liked the llines “Perhaps redemption is nothing more than the way/ We learn to live with memories that are no longer remembered.” Life is often learning to live with the results of our mistakes, learning to find joy despite, not because of, our past actions.

It may well be that the most important thing in life is not merely to discover truth, but, rather, to learn to live with the truth. Poems like this almost make me agree with Harold Bloom that Warren’s poems “find a place with Melville’s best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant Emersonian tradition. Like Melville, Warren forces us to look at our dark side rather than glibly assume the best about ourselves.