True Love --- 10 Poems of Robert Penn Warren

True Love

By Robert Penn Warren

In silence the heart raves. It utters words

Meaningless, that never had
A meaning. I was ten, skinny, red-headed,

Freckled. In a big black Buick,
Driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat
In front of the drugstore, sipping something

Through a straw. There is nothing like
Beauty. It stops your heart. It
Thickens your blood. It stops your breath. It

Makes you feel dirty. You need a hot bath.
I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched.
I thought I would die if she saw me.

How could I exist in the same world with that brightness?
Two years later she smiled at me. She
Named my name. I thought I would wake up dead.

Her grown brothers walked with the bent-knee
Swagger of horsemen. They were slick-faced.
Told jokes in the barbershop. Did no work.

Their father was what is called a drunkard.
Whatever he was he stayed on the third floor
Of the big white farmhouse under the maples for twenty-five years.

He never came down. They brought everything up to him.
I did not know what a mortgage was.
His wife was a good, Christian woman, and prayed.

When the daughter got married, the old man came down wearing
An old tail coat, the pleated shirt yellowing.
The sons propped him. I saw the wedding. There were

Engraved invitations, it was so fashionable. I thought
I would cry. I lay in bed that night
And wondered if she would cry when something was done to her.

The mortgage was foreclosed. That last word was whispered.
She never came back. The family
Sort of drifted off. Nobody wears shiny boots like that now.

But I know she is beautiful forever, and lives
In a beautiful house, far away.

She called my name once. I didn't even know she knew it.

Tale of Time

I What Happened

By Robert Penn Warren

It was October. It was the Depression. Money
Was tight. Hoover was not a bad
Man, and my mother
Died, and God
Kept on, and keeps on,
Trying to tie things together, but

It doesn't always work, and we put the body
Into the ground, dark
Fell soon, but not yet, and oh,
Have you seen the last oak leaf of autumn, high,
Not yet fallen, stung
By last sun to a gold
Painful beyond the pain one can ordinarily
Get? What

Was there in the interim
To do, the time being the time
Between the clod's chunk and
The full realization, which commonly comes only after
Midnight? That

Is when you will go to the bathroom for a drink of water.
You wash your face in cold water.
You stare at your face in the mirror, wondering
Why now no tears come, for
You had been proud of your tears, and so
You think of copulation, of
Fluid ejected, of
Water deeper than daylight, of
The sun-dappled dark of deep woods and
Blood on green fern frond, of
The shedding of blood, and you will doubt
The significance of your own experience. Oh,
Desolation --- oh, if
You were rich!
You try to think of a new position. Is this

Grief? You pray
To God that this be grief, for
You want to grieve.

This, you reflect, is no doubt the typical syndrome.

But all this will come later.
There will also be the dream of the eating of human flesh.

Bearded Oaks

By Robert Penn Warren

The oaks, how subtle and marine!

Bearded, and all the layered light

Above them swims; and thus the scene,

Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie

Beneath the langorous tread of light;

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy

The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,

Unmurmuring, of polyp made,

We rest; we are, as light withdraws,

Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,

Dim architecture, hour by hour;

And violence, forgot now, lent

The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,

Of light the fury, furious gold,

The long drag troubling us, the depth:

Unrocked is dark, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay

Descended, whispered grain by grain,

Silted down swaying streams, to lay

Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,

As all our rage is rage of stone;

If hopeless hope, fearless is fear,

And history is thus undone.

(Our feet once wrought the hollow street

With echo when the lamps were dead

At windows; once our headlight glare

Disturbed the doe that, leaping, fled.)

That caged hearts make iron stroke

I do not love you now the less,

Or less that all that light once gave

The graduate dark should now revoke

So little time we live in Time,

And we learn all so painfully,

That we may spare this hour's term

To practice for Eternity.


The Mad Druggist

By Robert Penn Warren

I came back to try to remember the faces she saw every day.
She saw them on the street, at school, in the stores, at church.
They are not here now, they have been withdrawn, are put away.
They are all gone now, and have left me in the lurch.

I am in the lurch because they were part of her.
Not clearly remembering them, I have therefore lost that much
Of her, and if I do remember,
I remember the lineaments only beyond the ice-blur and soot-smutch

Of boyhood contempt, for I had not thought they were real.
The real began where the last concrete walk gave out
And the smart-weed crawled in the cracks, where the last privy canted to
Over flat in the rank-nourished burdock, and would soon, no doubt,

If nobody came to prop it, which nobdy would do.
The real began there: field and woods, stone and stream began
Their utterance, and the fox, in his earth, knew
Joy; and the hawk, like philosophy, hung without motion, high,
where the sun-blaze of wind ran.

Now, far from Kentucky, planes pass in the night, I hear them and all, all
is real.
Some men are mad, but I know that delusion may be one name for truth.
The faces I cannot remember lean at my bed-foot, and grin fit to kill,
For we now share a knowledge I did not have in my youth.

There's one I remember, the old druggist they carried away.
They put him in Hoptown, where he kept on making his list ---
The same list he had on the street when he stopped my mother to say:
"Here they are, Miss Ruth, the folks that wouldn't be missed,

"Or this God-durn town would be lucky to miss,
If when I fixed a prescription I just happened to pour
Something in by way of improvement." Then leaned in that gray way of
"But you --- you always say something nice when you come in my store."

In Hoptown he worked on his list, which now could have nothing to do
With the schedule of deaths continuing relentlessly,
To include, in the end, my mother, as well as that list-maker who
Had the wit to see that she was too precious to die:

A fact some in the street had not grasped --- nor the attending physician,
nor God, nor I.


Anser Yes or No

By Robert Penn Warren

Death is only a technical correction of the market.
Death is only the transfer of energy to a new form.
Death is only the fulfilment of a wish.

Whose wish?

Mortal Limit

By Robert Penn Warren
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 lazy 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?

A Way to Love God

By Robert Penn Warren

Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.

And the line where the incoming swell from the sunset Pacific
First leans and staggers to break will tell all you need to know
About submarine geography, and your father's death rattle
Provides all biographical data required for the Who's Who of the dead.

I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and
Heard mountains moan in their sleep. By daylight,
They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions
Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration. At night
They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.
So moan. Theirs is the perfected pain of conscience that
Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it. I have.

I do not recall what had burdened my tongue, but urge you
To think on the slug's white belly, how sick-slick and soft,
On the hairiness of stars, silver, silver, while the silence
Blows like wind by, and on the sea's virgin bosom unveiled
To give suck to the wavering serpent of the moon; and,
In the distance, in plaza, piazza, place, platz, and square,
Boot heels, like history being born, on cobbles bang.

Everything seems an echo of something else.

And when, by the hair, the headsman held up the head
Of Mary of Scots, the lips kept on moving,
But without sound. The lips,
They were trying to say something very important.

But I had forgotten to mention an upland
Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when
No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight,
I watched the sheep huddling. Their eyes
Stared into nothingness. In that mist-diffused light their eyes
Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water,
Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.

Their jaws did not move. Shreds
Of dry grass, gray in the gray mist-light, hung
From the side of a jaw, unmoving.

You would think that nothing would ever again happen.

That may be a way to love God.

Evening Hawk

By Robert Penn Warren
From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through

Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak's black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

Long now,
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.

If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.


San Francisco Night Windows

By Robert Penn Warren

So hangs the hour like fruit fullblown and sweet,

Our strict and desperate avatar,
Despite that antique westward gulls lament
Over enormous waters which retreat
Weary unto the white and sensual star.
Accept these images for what they are--
Out of the past a fragile element
Of substance into accident.
I would speak honestly and of a full heart;
I would speak surely for the tale is short,
And the soul's remorseless catalogue
Assumes its quick and piteous sum.
Think you, hungry is the city in the fog
Where now the darkened piles resume
Their framed and frozen prayer
Articulate and shafted in the stone
Against the void and absolute air.
If so the frantic breath could be forgiven,
And the deep blood subdued before it is gone
In a savage paternoster to the stone,
Then might we all be shriven.


Tell Me a Story

By Robert Penn Warren

[ A ]

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood

By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

[ B ]

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

Poet's Brief Biography

Robert Penn Warren

(From Literary Encyclopedia:

Born on April 24th, 1905 in Guthrie, Kentucky to Robert Franklin and Anna Ruth Penn Warren, Robert Penn Warren distinguished himself over seven decades in multiple genres: full-length fiction, the short story, poetry, literary criticism, and the sociohistoric essay. As the oldest child of well-read parents, Robert Penn Warren excelled as an elementary and high school student, skipping three grades along the way. An accidental yet serious injury to his left eye forced the sixteen-year-old Robert to abandon hopes of attending the United States Naval Academy. Instead, he chose to major in chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and enrolled there for the fall 1921 term. Soon disillusioned with the curriculum in this subject, he flourished in freshman English, and attracted the attention of John Crowe Ransom, his composition instructor. Ransom, who would assume the role of mentor for this impressive undergraduate, was instrumental in Warren's joining a group of other young Southern male writers and students of literature who became known as “The Fugitives”; among its members was Allen Tate, who would become a lifelong friend of Warren.

Having inherited his father's appreciation of verse, Warren had published his first poem prior to attending college, but T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) had a major impact on the growth of Warren's poetic voice and desire to write in this genre. While Warren published verse in such publications as The Fugitive and The Double Dealer as an undergraduate, he would make his mark in more celebrated ways upon graduating summa cum laude from Vanderbilt. He entered the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate assistant in 1925; while there he published poems in The New Republic. After graduating with an M.A. from Berkeley two years later, he accepted a fellowship to Yale University. At this time he published poetry in The Nation and American Caravan, and, through the intercession of Allen Tate, was granted an opportunity to publish a full-length biography of John Brown for Payson and Clarke Ltd., a New York publishing firm unafraid to take a chance on an unknown but promising writer. John Brown: the Making of a Martyr was published in 1929, the same year he married Emma Cinina Brescia, whom he met while in California. A Rhodes scholar and recipient of a Bachelor of Literature, Warren displayed his versatility by writing and publishing in varied genres early in the 1930s. In 1930, he published a short story/novelette entitled “Prime Leaf”. A tale of Kentucky tobacco farmers and their crop wars, it was largely inspired by stories told to him by his maternal grandfather, and Warren would return to this subject matter for his first published novel, Night Rider (1939). By now a full-fledged member of the Vanderbilt-based Fugitives, Warren contributed an essay to their published compendium which was entitled I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1934). The essays in this collection applauded the farm-based Southern society which was rapidly becoming a part of history. Warren's contribution, “The Briar Patch”, addressed the role of African-Americans in the agriculture-based economy; in later years he would recant the stereotypical observations therein.

By the mid-1930s Warren had secured a position as Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University, and, alongside friend and colleague Cleanth Brooks, he was named co-editor of The Southern Review. In 1936 his first full-length book of poetry, entitled Thirty-Six Poems, was published. Two years later, he co-authored an influential critical text with Brooks. Understanding Poetry championed close reading of the text, examining poems as structures with unifying elements. This “New Criticism” marked a radical change from the prevailing tradition of analyzing poetry in terms of the author's life or the sociohistorical context in which the poem was created. Although the text lacks diversity in the authors represented, it remains in print to this day. The 1940s would be marked by travel, job changes, and additional literary success for Warren. Having received a Guggenheim fellowship, he traveled to Italy with Emma in 1939; they returned to the United States one year later and one step ahead of war's impact. In 1941 Warren found himself making a near equally rapid departure from Louisiana State University when it would not match an offer proffered to Warren by the University of Minnesota. LSU's decision to discontinue publishing The Southern Review only helped reinforce Warren's acceptance of the Minnesota position.

In 1943, Warren's second novel, At Heaven's Gate, was published; this novel, set in the 1920s, contained thematic material similar to that covered in Night Rider: the conflict between agrarianism and big business, and the “innocent”, Adamic-type male protagonist in search of the American Dream. One year later, Warren published another full-length book of poems entitled Selected Poems: 1923-43; this collection included such anthologized poems as “Kentucky Mountain Farm” and “Pondy Woods”. In 1946 Warren's third novel and the work for which he is best known was published. All the King's Men was originally conceived as a play entitled Proud Flesh, but it was ultimately fleshed out into a novel of more than four hundred pages with two parallel plot lines. While telling the story of the rise and fall of Southern politician Willy Stark (featuring events based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long), the novel simultaneously traces the search for identity and the meaning of life of the first-person narrator Jack Burden, a reporter who learns much about the world and himself when he becomes a Stark insider. All the King's Men was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1946, and was adapted (minus the Burden plot) for the big screen three years later. The film version of All the King's Men, which pleased Robert Penn Warren, was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture. In 2001 a revised and expanded edition of All the King's Men was published, based on Warren's original typescript and hence more reflective of his intentions. The omissions and changes that had been imposed by the first text's editor, the majority of which dealt with the conduct and perceptions of Jack Burden, were re-assessed, and much original material restored.

The 1950s brought as much change to Warren's private and personal life as the departing decade did. In 1950 Warren accepted a visiting professorship at Yale University which eventually materialized into a permanent Professorship in playwriting in the Yale School of Drama. In 1951 his turbulent, unhappy marriage to Emma Brescia came to an end when he was granted a divorce in June. He was to find lasting happiness with writer Eleanor Clark, whom he married in 1952. The following year brought the birth of their daughter Rosanna and the publication of a book-length verse entitled Brother to Dragons. This ambitious work dealt with historic fact: a heinous crime committed by nephews of Thomas Jefferson. The text of the poem pondered the statesman's awareness of the act. Actual Southern historic events provided the foci for Warren's next two novels as well: World Enough and Time, set in the early 1800s and Band of Angels, a narrative with the post-Civil War years as a backdrop. In 1955, the year of Band of Angels' publication, his son Gabriel was born, and the 50-year-old Warren retired from Yale to devote more time to writing. Over the next five years he would continue to publish in a spectrum of genres. In 1956 Life magazine published “Divided South Searches for its Soul”, an article based on extensive primary research on race relations at the mid-century. The article was expanded into a 66-page book entitled “Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South” which was published later that year. Before the decade concluded, he would publish another poetry collection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Promises: Poems, 1954-56; a children's book entitled Remember the Alamo (1958); and yet another novel, The Cave (1959). The Cave marked a change from prior full-length fiction by Warren. In lieu of the dominant protagonist in search of identity, meaning, and a parental figure, a staple of the previous novels, The Cave featured an ensemble of characters, male and female, many of whom were followed closely in their personal searches for significance.

By the 1960s Warren, residing in rural Vermont with wife Eleanor, saw more favorable notices for his nonfiction efforts than for his novels and poetry. He did return to the Yale campus in 1962, to teach courses on the novel and writing fiction on an adjunct basis. His next two novels, Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961), featuring yet another Adamic male lead character; and Flood (1964), an ensemble piece reminiscent of The Cave, did not get the recognition deserved or hoped for. You, Emperors, and Others: Poems, 1957-1960 was criticized for covering the familiar ground of the previous verse collections. Conversely, the nonfiction work The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (1961) proved a critical and commercial success, and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), a 454-page social and historical chronicle of the Civil Rights movement, was also well received. In 1969 Warren's book-length poem entitled Audubon: A Vision was unique for Warren in its use of free verse techniques, and praised for its insightful look at the title character.

In the 1970s, Warren wrote his two final novels: the melodramatic Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), about which critics either raved enthusiastically or condemned as a disappointment; and A Place to Come To (1977), which dealt with familiar Warren turf: the male Southern protagonist in search of meaning in the world, albeit in a more ribald fashion than in earlier works. Actor Robert Redford purchased the film rights to the latter book, but the project never came to fruition. This decade was also marked by Warren's writing of literary criticism on canonical American authors. A full-length work entitled Homage to Theodore Dreiser was published the same year as Meet Me in the Green Glen, and Warren wrote several essays for the 1973 text American Literature: The Makers and the Making. He penned introductions to the works of Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His analysis of the latter's masterwork, The Great Gatsby, received especial praise and recognition. At the conclusion of the decade, he received his third Pulitzer Prize for the poetry collection Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. In his eighth decade, Warren focused primarily on poetry and grandfatherhood, while receiving a multitude of achievement awards. Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980, and the full-length Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce were published in 1980, 1981, and 1983, respectively. He received the MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for poetry in 1985, and in 1986 was named the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Throughout this decade he battled prostate cancer, a battle made more difficult given the devoted Eleanor's loss of eyesight. He succumbed in his Vermont vacation home, wife and daughter at his side, on September 15, 1989.