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Promises: Poems, 1954-1956

Robert Penn Warren 

Original Publisher: Random House Books
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Kiki Petrosino writes:

The poetry of Robert Penn Warren isn’t routinely studied or discussed in contemporary poetry circles, and after spending time with his Collected Poems, I think I know why. These are ponderous poems. The kind that refuse to conclude, politely, at the end of a page. The kind whose intricate syntax demands multiple readings, and whose insistence on mixing elevated and colloquial language keeps the reader endlessly pirouetting just to keep up with the poet’s own turns.  Cards on the table? You’ve got to be light and fast on your feet to appreciate this work as it deserves.  Think: climbing to the moon on a rope ladder spun entirely from spiders’ webs.

The pieces themselves are dastardly unfashionable. Warren’s a master of the dramatic poem, a form that emphasizes the occasion of poetic utterance over the character of the poet. This is highly at odds with our own moment, which often privileges the politics of authorial voice/identity and tends to look askance at overt narrative. As demanding as the experience of reading Warren is, however, there’s something marvelous about immersing yourself in this other mode. In Warren’s poems, it’s clear that the world—in all its glory, sin, and jaggedness—has inspired him to write. Properly documenting those specific moments of collision—the impact of world against imagination—is his primary project. Warren’s is poetry of insistent vision, of eyesight. As he notes in “Court-Martial”:

The horseman does not look back.
Blank-eyed, he continues his track,
Riding toward me there,
Through the darkening air.

The world is real.  It is there.  

To read Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (the volume for which he won the National Book Award) is to trace the lineaments of a long-sunk galleon through the lens of an underwater camera. Here is the whole wrecked treasure box of the 20th century: the problematic legacies of civil and foreign wars; the rise of the luminous fragment; the increasing distance between mechanized and agrarian modes of living; the cadences of “high” and “low” poetic speech. Warren’s eye is so encompassing, his engagement with “the knot of History” so intense, that the book practically creates its own strange terrain as it proceeds. This is both pleasing and challenging. As in: how are we supposed to metabolize a collection with titles ranging from the lyrical/sublime (“Walk by Moonlight in Small Town”) to the scary/zany (“Go It, Granny—Go It, Hog!”)?  

Well, you might trace a path through the thickets of images that Warren conjures in Promises. This is a poet capable of constructing evocative atmospheric images at a heartbeat’s pace, thanks to his penchant for striking words against each other like flints. This procedure makes possible endless variations: “beast-black,” “gleam-height,” and “moon-rinse” are just three examples of how Warren describes the interplay of light and dark in a landscape. Something about this method of image-making should feel familiar to readers and writers of contemporary poetry. Warren’s a virtuoso of the associative leap, a maestro of the DIY school of idiosyncratic utterance. When the English language fails to provide words for certain kinds of darkness, Warren draws from his own lexicon of spliced terms. This maneuver does two important things: it expands the reader’s definition of darkness, while preserving the mystery contained in the moment of lyric utterance.  Here’s an example from “Dogwood”:

            But not before you had seen it, sudden at path-turn,
White-floating in darkness, the dogwood, white bloom in dark air.
Like an ice-break, broke joy; then you felt a strange wrath burn
To strike it, and strike, had a stick been handy in the dark there.

Granted: Warren’s not performing any fancy tricks here. The overt meanings of words like “path-turn,” “white-floating,” and “ice-break” are accessible to us in this stanza because the words are built from simpler terms we already know. The magic exists in the fact that we’re being immersed in Warren’s personal shorthand, that we’ve come with him into the woods to stand at the “path-turn” and watch the dogwood tree come into view. That Warren splices nouns with verbs in each of these three instances lends an exciting, kinetic quality to the scene. We are seeing and moving along with Warren: “Like an ice-break, broke joy.” And indeed, there is some joy to be felt in this.

In short, Promises is a magnetic collection that shows us what can happen when a poet is minutely, joyfully attentive to subject. Indeed, Warren teaches that issues of what can be just as crucial as whom. The world offers both mystery and consolation to the enquiring poet, and telling that story—in all its heartbrokenness and difficulty—is vital work for the poetry of our time. As Warren observes in “The Necessity for Belief”:

The sun is red, and the sky does not scream.
The sun is red, and the sky does not scream.

There is much that is scarcely to be believed.

The moon is in the sky, and there is no weeping.
The moon is in the sky, and there is no weeping.

Much is told that is scarcely to be believed.

Kiki Petrosino
 is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCEGulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville.  (Photo credit: Philip Miller) 

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Daniel Berrigan for Time Without Number
  • Philip Booth for Letter from a Distant Land
  • Edwin G. Burrows for The Arctic Tern
  • H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) for Selected Poems of H.D.
  • Richard Eberhart for Great Praises
  • Richmond Lattimore for Poems
  • Howard Moss for Swimmer in the Air
  • May Sarton for In Time Like Air
  • Eli Siegel for Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana
  • William Jay Smith for Poems: 1947-1957
  • Wallace Stevens for Opus Posthumous
  • James Wright for The Green Wall

Poetry Judges that Year: John Ciardi, William Meredith, Marianne Moore,
Adrienne Rich, Louis Untermeyer

The Year in Literature:

  • Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 by Robert Penn Warren also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Frost was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was born in Guthrie, KY.
  • Warren is the only person to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry.
  • In 1986, when Congress voted to change the title from Consultant in Poetry to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Warren became the first Poet Laureate of the United States.
  • Wallace Stevens was a Finalist in 1958, three years after his death. Currently, only books by living authors may be considered for the National Book Award. 

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