Warren’s “Uncollected Poems 1943- 1989”

My favorite poem in Warren’s “Uncollected Poems 1943- 1989” is actually “Bicentennial,” a 12 page poem that ends with a celebration of the freedoms the founding fathers have given us: “Even so, we should not forget the virtues of the old ones who/ Backs to a dark continent, stood and set us free from tyranny” Of course, he follows these inspirational lines with the chilling reminder that we have not done much with this freedom: “They did not get around to setting us free from ourselves.” Unfortunately, at the moment I have neither the patience nor the determination needed to discuss that poem in any depth.

That said, though, I’m also quite fond of “Lord Jesus, I Wonder,” a sobering, ironic poem that manages to capture Warren’s spiritual ambivalence:


Lord Jesus, I wonder if I would recognize you
On the corner of Broadway and Forty-Second-

Just one more glaze-eyed, yammering bum, nobody to listen
But the halt and maimed. My legs are good.

Yet sometimes I’ve thought of you, sandaled on sand,
Or stub-toed in gravel, dried blood black on a toe-nail,

And you seemed to look beyond traffic, then back with an innocent
Smile, to ask a revealing question

To which I could find no answer. But I suddenly smell
The sweat-putrid mob crowding closer, in pain and emptiness, ready

To believe anything-ignorant bastards. I envy them. Except
Their diseases, of course. For my head roars

With information, true or false, till I feel like weeping
At the garish idiocy of a Sunday School card. At fourteen,

I was arrogantly wrapped up in Darwin, but felt, sometimes,
Despair because I could not love God, nor even know his address.

How about this? God, c/o Heaven-Special Delivery? Well,
The letter was returned: Addressee Unknown. So

I laughed till I vomited. Then laughed again, this time
At the wonder of the world, from dawn to dark, and all

Night long, while stars spoke wisdom in battalions of brilliance.
Sometimes, since then, I have, face up, walked a night road,

Still adolescent enough to seek words for what was in my heart,
Or gut. But words, I at last decided, are their own truth.

There is no use to continue this conversation. We all
Know that. But, for God’s sake, look the next blind man you meet

Straight in the eye. Do not flinch at prune-shriveled socket, or
Blurred eyeball. Not that you have

The gift of healing. You will not heal him, but
You may do something to heal something within yourself.

I, too, have sometimes wondered, like many people I suspect, if I would recognize a Savior if I saw him preaching on the streets. Or would I, like Warren, see him as just another charlatan telling ignorant people what they want to hear? Would I consider myself too “wise” to listen to some street-corner preacher and miss the opportunity for real salvation?

Perhaps it is a sense or intellectual superiority that makes it difficult to blindly believe everything your told in church. Certainly rational thought, in this case symbolized by Darwin, makes it difficult to accept the concept of God. Unfortunately, that rationality doesn’t prevent you from feeling a sense of despair at having to make all your own choices in life. Even those incapable of believing in a traditional God often find themselves wanting to believe in Him.

No matter how intelligent we think we are, though, it’s difficult to experience the wonders of the universe without believing in our heart that there is something there beyond us. That magical universe is represented by the stars in this poem as it is in several of Warren’s poems.

Doubter though he may be, Warren still seems to have absorbed and accepted Christ’s message to us, for his advice to “look the next blind man you meet/ Straight in the eye” seems to suggest the kind of Christian compassion, empathy, that one should expect from a Christian, not because it will help the blind person but because it may heal something within yourself.

There is something within us that needs a compassionate, forgiving God, even if, in the end, we must gain that compassion from truly looking each other in the eyes and seeing our condition for what it is.

Warren’s “Altitudes and Extensions: 1980 – 1984”

“Altitudes and Extensions: 1980 “1984” were the last poems published during Robert Penn Warren’s lifetime. Regretfully, I did not find as many poems I liked in this section as in those published during the 60’s and 70’s, but perhaps that is merely because I have been reading so much Warren lately, 584 pages so far, with another thirty to forty pages to go today and tomorrow. I’m afraid it’s difficult to read that many pages in a row without becoming somewhat jaded.

Truthfully, though, I’m looking forward to starting Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Poems next week. Hopefully it won’t drag out nearly as long as it took me to finish Warren’s poems. Luckily, I’m not planning another move in the midst of this book.

That caveat delivered, my favorite poem in this section was:

Mortal Limit

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the last purity of snow-snags.

There ” west — were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?

Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore

The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch?

Perhaps I like this poem because the hawk is a reoccurring image in Warren’s poems, perhaps because the poem in many ways serves as a summary of Warren’s vision.

Even in these last poems there are images of transcendence, of hope:

Since my idiot childhood the world has been
Trying to tell me something. There is something
Hidden in the dark. The bear
Was trying to enter the darkness of wisdom.

and in describing a sighting of a bull elk:

” I had never seen
A bull wapiti, wild before ” the
Great head lifted in philosophic
Arrogance against
God’s own sky.

Invariably, though, these images are balanced against images of despair and doubt.

“Mortal Limit” with its image of the hawk appearing to soar higher than the Tetons themselves seems to describe Warren’s aspirations. The human soul must have such aspirations if it is to truly soar. In the end, though, the poet cannot escape the conclusion that even the hawk must accept “the mortal limit,” that in end we must all accept the “downwardness” that inevitably brings “rot,” and “the darkness of whatever dream we clutch.”

Warren’s “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce”

I must admit I was not particularly looking forward to reading Warren’s “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce” because, as I’ve admitted before, I’m not particularly fond of long, extended poems where all too often it seems to me that the poetic form gets in the way of the story. (Of course, it might be argued that I have a limited attention span.) Neither am I overly fond of fictional “historical” works where modern authors find ways of putting their ideas into the mouths of historical personages. (Pretty soon you have a hard time telling the difference between truth and fiction, don’t you? And it’s already too damn hard to tell the difference, as far as I’m concerned.)

Perhaps it speaks to the merit of this long poem, then, that I found it particularly compelling, though, admitedly, that may be because my prejudices in this case so neatly dovetailed with Warren’s own views of Chief Joseph.

Living in the Northwest, I’ve long been acquainted with the story of Chief Joseph, and it has long struck me as one of those great injustices, like the Trail of Tears, that Americans, at best, gloss over, or, at worst, distort into some kind of great Army victory rather than admit that it is proof that even America great injustices have often been done to minorities.

The poem is prefaced by a page-long note which briefly summarizes the story of Chief Joseph, ending with the line, “The physician of Colville, somewhat unscientifically, filed the report that the chief had died of a broken heart.” That hook, caught me, and I was on Warren’s side the rest of the way.

I am particularly fond of the way Warren works actual quotations into his poem, adding perspective to both his poem and the historical events. Warren’s portrayal of Joseph’s thoughts:

My father held my hand, and he died.
Dying, said: ‘Think always of your country.
Your father has never sold your country.

Has never touched white-man money that they
Should say they have bought the land you now stand on.
You must never sell the bones of your fathers-
For selling that, you sell your Heart-Being.’

Is followed by:

I think it a great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perces Indians that valley [Wallowa].
General 0. 0. Howard

A historical way of affirming Warren’s interpretation of history and Joseph’s thoughts.

Often a particularly poetic interpretation of Joseph’s inner thoughts:

“But then, my heart, it heard
My father’s voice, like a great sky-cry
From snow-peaks in sunlight, and my voice
Was saying the Truth that no
White man can know, how the Great Spirit
Had made the earth but had drawn no lines
Of separation upon it, and all
Must remain as He made, for to each man
Earth is the Mother and Nurse, and to that spot
Where he was nursed, he must,
In love, cling.”

Will be followed by an actual translation of Chief Joseph’s speech:

The earth, my mother and nurse, is very sacred to me: too sacred to be valued, or sold for gold or for silver … and my bands have suffered wrong rather than done wrong.

Chief Joseph to the Commissioners of 1876

Which allows the reader to simultaneously experience the poet’s interpretation and the translator’s interpretation of Chief Joseph’s thoughts.

This same technique alllows us to see the subtle, and not-so-subtle, lies that creep into historical “intrepetation” as Warren’s interpretation of the battle:

Like the buffalo herd stampeded at cliff-edge
The sands redder go. Like old women, some soldiers
Lose mounts. Flee on foot.
In blind corners die.
All flee. Miles we chase them. Coats, weapons, we take.
Scalps never. We touch not the locks of the honored dead.
Now rifles we have, sixty-three by our count.
Now braves-hide their bows. Now rifles they have!
And pistols. Ai, the white friend is kind!”

is followed by “historical” markers at the site of the actual battle:

Before you … lies the historic battle ground of the Nez Perce Indian War in which 34 men gave their lives in service for their country.
Marker on White Bird Battlefield

Of course, retelling the story from the poet’s perspective rather than just from historical documents gives him the freedom to set the reader up by offering one perspective of the battle:

“Near dawn they struck us, new horse-soldiers. Shot
Into tepees. Women, children, old died.
Some mothers might stand in the river’s cold coil
And hold up the infant and weep, and cry mercy.
What heart beneath blue coat has fruited in mercy?
When the slug plugged her bosom, unfooting her
To the current’s swirl and last darkness, what last
Did she hear? It was laughter.

followed by a later insight when the Nez Perce regroup and revenge their loses:

“Few laughed as naked they lay there. Our own hearts
Were swollen with rage, but rage like great joy.
And gratefulness. The Chief-in-the-Sky-
He had seen our need. He smiled on us.
He said: ‘Know now you are men. Be men!’

Of course, readers who limit themselves to traditional history textbooks, or apparently historical markers, would never see the battle from this perspective.

Warren is also able to point out some truly historical ironies in his narrative retelling of history. After focusing on Miles’ egotistical attempts to gain fame in his battle with Chief Joseph, it is he who ends up defending him:

Only one man, with an uneasy conscience, might
Speak out the truth, and the truth be heard,
And was it integrity, or some
Sad division of self, torn in ambition
And ambition’s price, that at last made Miles
The only staunch friend of Joseph for all
The years? In his rising success, did something make Miles
Wonder what was the price of a star?

Of course, it was Miles that made the promises, promises that were never kept to Chief Joseph that finally convinced Joseph to surrender rather than to fight on against hopeless odds.

The greatest irony of all, though, came much later in Joseph’s life after he had been honored, though the pledges to him had never been so honored:

Great honor came, for it came to pass
That to praise the red man was the way
Best adapted to expunge all, all, in the mist
Of bloodless myth. And in the predictably obscene
Procession to dedicate Grant’s Tomb, which grandeur
Was now to hold the poor, noble dust of Appomattox,
Joseph, whose people had never taken
A scalp, rode beside Buffalo Bill-

Who had once sent his wife a yet-warm scalp
He himself had sliced from the pate
Of a red man who’d missed him. Joseph rode
Beside Buffalo Bill, who broke clay pigeons-
One-two-three-four-five—just like that.

Joseph rode by the clown, the magician who could transform
For howling patriots, or royalty,
The blood of history into red ketchup,
A favorite American condiment. By his side
Joseph rode. Did Joseph know
Of the bloody scalp in love’s envelope, know
That the dead Grant had once, in the White House,
In his own hand, certified the land
Of the Winding Waters to Joseph’s people-
“Forever”-until some western politico, or such,
Jerked him by the nose, like a bull with a brass
Ring there for control?

Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Shows somehow symbolize the West that never was, stands as a startling contrast to Chief Joseph, who symbolizes the price that’s always been paid for conquest. Warren, of course, sees Chief Joseph as a real hero while Buffalo Bill is nothing more than a “clown” who could transform the blood of tragedy into “red ketchup/ A favorite American condiment”

A final perspective is shone on these events when the poet and his friends visit the famous battle grounds:

I turned to my friend Quammen, the nearer. Called:
“It’s getting night, and a hell of a way
To go.” We went,
And did not talk much on the way.

Indeed, it was a hell of a way to go, but the final irony is that the poet who makes his living through words has nothing left to say at the end of his own poem.

There are a number of intersting sites on the web devoted to Chief Joseph that shine further light on this powerful poem:

P.B.S’s Chief Joseph, with multiple links

Chief Joseph, Nez Perce (Nimiputimt) at Indians.org

Chief Joseph at Indianquides.com

Warren’s “Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980”

If I hadn’t liked so many of the poems in “Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980” when I first read them nearly twenty years ago, I would be tempted to suspect that these are the kinds of poems that only us old folks would love. Many of the poems seem to reflect the kind of wisdom that comes from looking back on life.

Part I of “Paradox of Time” is one of the first poems in the section, which may be the main reason I chose to include it over several other poems in this section that I love:


I. Gravity of Stone and Ecstasy of Wind

Each day now more precious will dawn,
And loved faces turn dearer still,
And when sunlight is withdrawn,
There, over the mountain’s black profile,

The western star reigns
In splendor, benign, arrogant,
And the fact that it disdains
You, and your tenement

Of flesh, should instruct you in
The paradox of Time,
And the doubleness wherein
The fleshly glory may gleam.

Sit on the floor with a child.
Hear laugh that creature so young.
See loom its life-arch, and wild
With rage, speak wild words sprung

From vision, and thus atone
For all folly now left behind.
Learn the gravity of stone.
Learn the ecstasy of wind.

The title alone is nearly enough to make this poem memorable. But when you’ve gone through a near life-ending event, the opening two lines, clich”d though they may be, take on particular significance. I also like the way Warren transforms the distant star into a symbol of “disdain” because it, unlike this “tenement of flesh,” seems infinite.

Instead of causing despair, though, this disdain causes the poet to revel in “fleshly glory,” to celebrate the sheer joy of a young child. If we cannot endure like stone, than we must learn the “ecstasy of wind.”

I probably chose “English Cocker: Old and Blind” for personal reasons, too, since my first dog as a child was an English Cocker and I was as devoted to him as he was to me and our family. Unfortunately, that also means I’ve experienced the “heart-stab” of this poem:


With what painful deliberation he comes down the stair,
At the edge of each step one paw suspended in air,
And distrust, Does he thus stand on a final edge
Of the world? Sometimes he stands thus, and will not budge,

With a choking soft whimper, while monstrous blackness is whirled
Inside his head, and outside too, the world
Whirling in blind vertigo. But if your hand
Merely touches his head, old faith comes flooding back-and

The paw descends. His trust is infinite
In you, who are, in his eternal night,
Only a frail scent subject to the whim
Of wind, or only a hand held close to him

With a dog biscuit, or, in a sudden burst
Of temper, the force that jerks that goddamned, accurst
Little brute off your bed. But remember how you last saw
Him hesitate in his whirling dark, one paw

Suspended above the abyss at the edge of the stair,
And remember that musical whimper, and how, then aware
Of a sudden sweet heart-stab, you knew in him
The kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm

Of course, the poem isn’t really about a dog, is it? It’s really about all of us who share “the kinship of all flesh defined by a halting paradigm.” Although we may get angry at those we touch in our lives, there is a bond of trust that transcends all anger.

Still, when we finally stand at that final abyss we will put our final trust in those who have touched us, just as we have touched them.

Though perhaps the reason we bond so with a dog is that they, unlike most people, seem to place “infinite” trust in their master, deserved or not.