Although he wrote poetry throughout his career, Robert Penn Warren was, for much of the 20th century, better known as a successful novelist and literary critic. The textbook he wrote with Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Poetry (1938), was extremely influential in determining the way poems have been read in the academy from the late 1930s to the late 1970s. Its insistent focus on text per se encouraged the teaching of poems without reference to anything but what the poem itself says. His works of fiction, especially All the King's Men (1946), were well received. It was not until late in life that Warren's poetry became his central interest, and in his sixties, seventies, and eighties he produced several books of magnificent verse.
Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1925. At Vanderbilt he became involved with the fugitive/agrarian school of poets, including Allen tate and John Crowe ransom. The Fugitives identified themselves with the agrarian South and argued for tradition, regionalism, and particularity of imagery in poetry. In 1929 Warren married Emma Brescia, from whom he was divorced in 1951. In 1952 he married the writer Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children. During his long and active life, he won many awards and honors, including three Pulitzer Prizes—two for poetry (1958 and 1979) and one for fiction (1946)—the Bollingen Prize (1967), the National Medal for Literature (1970), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980).
Warren's early poetry was technically accomplished and demonstrated the tenets of New Criticism, an approach to reading poetry that emphasized close reading and literary analysis. His poetry was rhymed, metered, carefully wrought, often ironic, and understated. But Warren practiced more than he preached, and, as he grew older, his poetry became freer and more discursive without completely losing its formalist underpinnings. Although many of his later poems use rhyme, many are written in long free-verse lines, sometimes with six or seven stresses (see prosody and free verse).
The recurring subjects in Warren's poetry are time, memory, love, and loss. A common approach in his work is the quest for self-knowledge, though he often doubts whether such knowledge is possible. His poems frequently find metaphors in nature for states of consciousness: "Watch the great bough lashed by wind and rain. Is it / A metaphor for your soul?," he asks in "Ah, Anima" (1977). His work reveals a hunger for the glory he found in early poetry, such as Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), but his religious skepticism and doubt that consciousness continues after death make him ground his yearning in the experience of the present.
one of his best late collections, Now and Then (1978), is divided into two sections, "Nostalgic" and "Speculative." The nostalgia in the poems is complicated by an acute awareness of the elusiveness of identity, and the speculative poems are anchored in the fact of mortality each of us must confront. The division and the unity apply to most of Warren's later work. Warren's poems use language as the means for a visionary search for self-knowledge and metaphysical exploration and for the creation of the meaning to be found in beauty.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Penn Warren: Modern Critical
Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Strandberg, Victor A. The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977.
WARSH, LEWIS (1944- ) Lewis Warsh is a second-generation new york school poet most famous for his association with the poetry scene in and around St Mark's Poetry Project (see poetry institutions). He can be read as a diary poet, a chronicler of his generation, and, in the New York school tradition, a collaborator with fellow poets, including Chicago (1969) with Tom clark, which Warsh has called a "sweet burst of reciprocal energy" ("Memoirs" 606). As with poets who influenced him, such as Ted berrigan, Warsh's unconventional forms and subject matter do not fit well within academic tastes. He once suggested that being an "American poet" means "grooving on everything that's happening in the moment" (Part n.p.).
Warsh was born in the Bronx, New York. He and Anne waldman met at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference and married at St. Mark's Church in 1967. They cofounded Angel Hair magazine and books, which ran from 1966 until 1975. Upon his breakup with Waldman, Warsh moved to Bolinas, California, a location that figures prominently in Part of My History (1972), his travelogue written using poetry, prose, and photography. He and Bernadette mayer were married from 1975 to 1985, and together they ran United Artists, one of the last mimeograph magazines, from their home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Warsh also writes fiction and has published several novels that have won critical praise. Among a number of honors, Warsh has received the James Shestack Award from the American Poetry Review (1993) and the Poets Foundation Award (1994). He has taught at a number of schools, including the State University of New York, Albany, Fairleigh Dickinson University, the New School, Queens College of the City University of New York, the Naropa Institute, and Long Island University.
Warsh's writing emphasizes the fullness of daily experience through gritty immediacy, the rush of urban details, and the wonder at travel and interpersonal exchange. Along with Part of My History (1972), which records his interaction with fellow poets, Warsh has also written the autobiographical The Maharajah's Son (1978), composed from actual letters to his parents. Warsh's poetry often reflects on its means of composition, such as by typewriter, under a particular state of consciousness, or in conversation with others. Although much of his writing is built on what Daniel Kane calls "a characteristically flat, reportage-like tone" (156), in select moments, such as "Get the News" (1970), Warsh's poetry discovers a heightened emotional urgency just beneath the quotidian: "Pay attention: / get the New York News." The verbal influx of news about friends and loved ones reveals "the great drama / of our destinies" as newsworthy poetic material in itself. In such moments his poetry offers an attentive approach to the world.
Clay, Steven, and Rodney Phillips, eds. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Warsh, Lewis. "Memoirs." In Angel hair sleeps with a boy in my head: The Angel Hair Anthology, edited by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh. New York: Granary Books, 2001, pp. 573-607.
-. Part of My History. Toronto: Coach House Press,
Kane, Daniel. All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Kaplan Page Harris
First published almost simultaneously in the Dial, then in the Criterion in 1922 (see poetry journals), The Waste Land is often called the most influential poem of the 20th century. Ezra pound edited the manuscript, and between his and T. S. eliot's excisions, the length of the poem was reduced considerably. The result is the premier poem of modernism, which in many ways was a reaction to romantic and Victorian poetic and creative sensibilities. The Waste Land redefined poetry in the way Eliot's contemporary James Joyce redefined fiction. Many poets, such as Wallace stevens, Robert lowell, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos WILLIAMS, as well as subsequent poetic movements, such as beat poetry, were forced to react to the fragmentary method and impersonal poetic aesthetic employed in The Waste Land.
The Waste Land is populated by both a myriad of voices and a variety of sources, including Shakespeare, Dante, St. Augustine, the Bible, the Upanishads, a tarot deck, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, John Milton, Ovid, Richard Wagner, nursery rhymes, historical events, and even popular contemporary music. The poem is, however, more than a cultural and literary scavenger hunt. one need not comprehend all of Eliot's references in order to intuit the subtle historical and cultural accents each new narrative voice presents. Any reader can ascertain the chaos and hopelessness generated by the competing voices and barrage of fragments; as a speaker in part v asserts, as if in defense of Eliot's poetic method, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." Indeed, as the word ruins suggests, Eliot believed that society was steadily deteriorating.
The poem manifests Eliot's critical method of aligning artistic talent with historical and artistic tradition, and it also reflects a second of Eliot's aesthetic rules: Separate the personal life of the poet from the poem, or, as he puts it in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates" (54). This separation is one reason for the poem's unpredictable narrative voice.
First-time readers may find the poem's many allusions, languages, and images challenging, yet these fragments serve multiple purposes. The fragmentation in The Waste Land not only to evokes broken society and relationships, but also fosters a sense of disconnection between the reader and the familiar world and its history. The fragments also suggest earlier, larger wholes from which each of the fragments is derived; for this reason, Eliot's notes to the poem mention James Frazier's Golden Bough (1890)—famous for investigating fragments of myth in an effort to discover an ancient protomyth from which all myths derive.
Eliot's poem is comprised of five sections: I. "The Burial of the Dead," II. "A Game of Chess," III. "The Fire Sermon," IV "Death by Water," and V "What the Thunder Said." Even so, when read aloud the poem presents a series of disparate voices not coincidental with the sections. Eliot's working title was "He Do the Police in Different Voices," a reference to Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1865), in which a character named Sloppy is Mrs. Higden's preferred reader of the newspaper because he invents voices. Consequently the poem is appreciable not merely for its varied and esoteric allusions, but for its dramatic value.
In part I, the most prominent voice is that of Countess Marie Larisch. She speaks of her youth, a time tense with privilege and suggestive of a precocious sexual awakening. Later in part I, the speaker—who may or may not still be Larisch—recalls an event in a hyacinth garden that left her (or him) speechless and hopeless of salvation, which is evoked by a line from Tristan and Isolde (1865), "Oed' und leer das Meer" ("desolate and empty the sea").
Part I then undergoes a radical change in topic and voice, becoming almost playful in its rhythm and language. An anonymous speaker visits a Madame Sosostris, who speaks while providing a tarot reading. The section closes with a more somber, unidentified voice contemplating death and the flow of humanity across London Bridge, likening it to the parade of souls bound for hell in Dante's Inferno (ca. 1320).
Part II starts with detailed setting that invokes the story of Philomela, from Ovid's Metamorphoses (a.d. 1), in which Philomela is raped by Tereus, who then cuts Philomela's tongue out so that she cannot report his cruelty. There are also new voices in this section, this time in dialogue: a beleaguered, melancholy man and a jittery, questioning woman. Critics interested in biographical readings of the poem have said that this passage might suggest Eliot's tumultuous relationship with his first wife, a woman of uncertain psychological stability. Part II then introduces a second dialogue: two women at a pub discuss the actions of a third woman, Lil, who is absent. The topic is the impending return of Lil's husband from the war and his certain expecta tion of sex. Lil is apparently unreceptive to his return, at least, in part, because of an abortion that left her drained and aged. The section ends as the conversation is increasingly interrupted by the English bartender's call "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME," the equivalent of "last call" for drinks.
Part III opens in the somber speaker's voice, this time invoking an older, poetic language of Alfred Lord Tennyson in the description of the river Thames flowing but strangely devoid of the former detritus—empty bottles, cigarette ends, silk handkerchiefs—because "the nymphs have departed." Critics have pointed out that the objects formerly carried by the river are the leavings of a romantic rendezvous between lovers. Indeed many amorous pairings can be found in this section—both willing and unwilling: Actaeon and Diana (hunter and goddess/huntress of Roman mythology), Sweeney and Mrs. Porter (Sweeney is a recurring character in Eliot's poetry), Tereus and Philomela, Eugenides and his companion (Eugenides is apparently unique to the poem, but the name means "born of a well," strongly suggesting his connection to cisterns later in the poem), and a young carbuncular man and his dispassionate lover, perhaps a prostitute. The voice changes a final time as the poem concludes in another description of the river and of voyages, punctuated by another couple—Queen Elizabeth I and her preferred suitor the Earl of Leicester—and by Augustine's voyage of conversion presented in his Confessions (ca. 397).
Part IV is an adaptation of an early Eliot poem, "Dans le Restaurant" (1918), and returns to the drowned man foretold by Madame Sosostris, continuing themes of drowning and death. A character named "Phlebas" is suggestive of Philebus (360 B.C.), Plato's dialogue on pleasure.
Part V is laden with biblical images, frequently of Christ's Passion; it opens with images from the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ's arrest. Later description evokes the story of the road to Emmaus. Throughout rain is sought by an unidentified beseeching voice. Another anonymous voice delivers a sermon on three commandments of the Thunder—"Datta," "Dayad-hvam," "Damyata"—drawing from the Hindu Upan-ishads. The poem collapses in a cacophony of voices, from the Fisher King (a Celtic myth of generation) to a nursery rhyme to poets old and new, until all is quieted by a repetition of the commandments and a hushing prayer for peace. The poem ends thus, exhausted by the collective weight of its own method. In its innovative technique and representative expression of chaos felt by many during the period between world wars, The Waste Land deserves its critical reputation as being one of the most influential poems of the 20th century.
Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methuen, 1920, pp. 47-59. Gardner, Helen. The Art of T.S. Eliot. New York: Dutton, 1950. Reeves, Gareth. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Hertfordshire,
U.K.: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. Southam, B.C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. San Diego: Harcourt, 1994.
Justin L. Blessinger
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