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Warren on Warren

Warren: His Criterion for Poetry (1956)

[In this conversation, Warren is amidst a reunion of "Fugitives" organized in 1956 at Vanderbilt where they had been professors and students in the 1920s. In the same company are Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and others, and the excerpt below is from a transcript of their wide-ranging commentary.]

… Greatness is not a criterion – a profitable criterion – of poetry; that what you are concerned with is a sense of a contact with reality. And it’s maybe a pinpoint touch or a whole palm of hand laid, or something; but the important thing is the shock of this contact: a lot of current can come through a small wire. And there you are up against, well, big subjects and little subjects. It’s just so it’s a real subject, and, of course, you’ve got this word to deal with; you’ve got to have something that will actually create human heat in that contact. Well, language can in certain ways, because language drags the bottom of somebody into being, in one way or another, directly or indirectly. But if I had to say what I would try to hunt for in a poem – would hunt for in a poem, or would expect from a poem that I would call a poem – it would be some kind of vital image, a vital and evaluating image, of vitality. That’s a different thing from the vitality you observe or experience. It’s an image of it, but it has the vital quality – it’s a reflection of that vital quality, rather than a passing reflection, but it has its own kind of assurance, own kind of life, by the way it’s built. …

from "Fugitives’ Reunion: Conversations at Vanderbilt," in Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, Mary Louise Weaks, Eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren (Athens: U Georgia P, 1990), 13-14.

Warren: On Writing and "Values" (1970)

[Warren has been asked, in the first question in a 1970 interview, if there are "some general assumptions about man that you feel are essential to an understanding of your works."]

[T]he process of writing the novel or the poem is a process of trying to find out what the writer thinks. He is not working deductively from a highly articulated image, a careful scheme of values; he is trying to find the values, find the ideas, by a process of trial and error, as it were. Life is a process of trial and error about our own values. We may have certain assumptions about our values. We do have them. But at a certain age, say twenty-one, we feel one way; by the time we reach thirty-one, we feel quite different. Our ideas have changed. They may be more firmly established by experience; they may be completely blown up by experience. Certainly, they won’t be the same; they can’t be the same. They will have gone through, to a greater or lesser degree, the test of experience. They can’t be the same after just a little bit of living.

And the writing is the process in which the imagination takes the place of literal living; by moving toward values and modifying, testing, and exfoliating older values. So, since I see the whole process as one of continuing experiment with values I don’t know how to answer that question about setting up a framework at any given moment. …

from "A Conversation with Robert Penn Warren" (on November 18, 1970 with Ruth Fisher), in Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, Mary Louise Weaks, Eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren (Athens: U Georgia P, 1990), 171-172.

Warren: On Hawks and On Being Self-Aware

[Warren has been asked how he composes his poems. He notes that "Some poems can start with a mood" and offers general examples, then recalls this incident, which reappears in the poem "Red-Tailed Hawk and the Pyre of Youth."]

Then my most recent poem – I think it is one of my best – is a poem that was set off by a review of my work. Harold Bloom of Yale is kind enough to like my poetry, and he wrote a review for The New Leader in which he talks about the place that hawks occupy in my poetry. When I read it, I realized that it is all true. You don’t know your own poetry; you know – working on it so closely, you see it differently. And so I thought about the fact that I had killed a hawk, a red-tail, in my woodland boyhood. I brought him down with what was a record shot for me. I was then a practicing taxidermist, among other things, and I stuffed the hawk and carried him with me for several years – I used to keep him over my bookshelf. This is the key to the poem, a factual event, a memory. It can be like that.

from "An Interview with Robert Penn Warren* (conducted by Peter Stitt in March 1977), in Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, Mary Louise Weaks, Eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren (Athens: U Georgia P, 1990), 239-240.

Warren: On Rhythm in Prose

[Warren has been asked about the particular "voice" he hears as he reads a strong prose-writer like Faulkner.]

Literature wants to be spoken. You fulfill that sometimes by actually reading it; you go along where nobody’s going to listen. But if you are an experienced reader, you can get a lot of it without ever making a noise. But any good poem wants to be read, out loud, and any good piece of fiction. One things that is a little different, it seems to me, is that in prose the rhythm is never as assertive, or rarely as assertive. It’s more like a conditioning element rather than something more positive. It’s an offstage music. It’s affecting you as deeply as the other will affect you, but it is spread out over a long period. You don’t dwell on it unless you come to certain special moments, when the author will open up the spigot, you know. One instance that just happens to pop into my mind is the death of George Osborne, Amelia’s husband in Vanity Fair. The account of the Battle of Waterloo ends: "No more firing was heard at Brussels – the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face., dead, with a bullet through his heart."

Now there you have a wondrous sense of panorama, pulling in to this single wound. And the rhythm of the passage enforces that; it gives you that. It’s a tricky little piece of narrative prose. A fiction writer is going to make his rhythms mean something, even though they are not very aggressive, even though they may be very, very withdrawn. But they are conditioning the whole response.

From "The Oral Roots of Literature" (a conversation with William C. Forrest and Cornellius Novelli on October 21, 1977) in Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, Mary Louise Weaks, Eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren (Athens: U Georgia P, 1990), 315-316.

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