(Host) With the coming of fall, commentator Jay Parini is reminded of the work of Robert Penn Warren, an unlikely Vermonter.
(Parini) Among the many writers who chose to live in Vermont for at least part of their lives was Robert Penn Warren, who died in 1989 and is buried in a little graveyard on the back side of Mount Stratton near his home in West Wardsboro, deep in the Vermont woods.
This may seem odd to some, who think of Warren as a distinctly Southern writer. Born in Kentucky almost a hundred years ago, he wrote many novels and poems about the South, including ALL THE KING’S MEN, an American masterpiece, perhaps the finest novel about American political life ever written. It tells the story of Willie Stark, a populist demagogue, and is modeled closely on the flamboyant figure of Huey Long, the governor and senator from Louisiana who, like the character in Warren’s novel, was assassinated.
Warren may have been a strong novelist, but his heart was in poetry. I used to go for long walks with him in the woods, and he would recite his favorite poems from memory.
He published his first poems in the twenties, all written in strict rhyme and meter, as in The Garden, which begins:
How kind, how secret, now the sun
Will bless this garden frost has won,
And touch once more, as once it used,
The furled boughs by cold bemused.
Though summered brilliance had but room
In blossom, now the leaves will bloom
Their time, and take from milder sun
An unreviving benison.
This is lovely in its way, but a little stiff and unyielding. Warren continued as a poet through the many decades when he was also writing the ten novels that formed his reputation as a novelist.
But in his later years, much like William Butler Yeats, he came into his own as a poet, writing a string of books that dazzled readers. Many of these late, majestic poems – usually written in a muscular, image-laden, free verse – were composed in the little shack behind his house, overlooking an icy pond. The landscape and changing seasons of Vermont dominate these poems.
One of them, Heart of Autumn, is, I think, one of the great American poems. In it, the old poet looks out over mountain vistas, seeing the wild geese as they begin their long journey southward. He wonders if they know the story of their own lives any more than he knows the story of his own life.
At least, they know
When the hour comes for the great wing-beat, he writes.
The poem ends majestically, with the poet staring at the geese as they disappear over the horizon:
and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beats, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With fold feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce implulse
To unwordable utterance
Toward sunset, at a great height.
This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.
Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury College. He spoke from studios at Middlebury.