Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reason for Warren

It is somewhat strange when you hold onto what at an earlier time in your life you took to be something great, but that in later life has not been ratified. In fact later life has told you--in accordance with the fashion of the day--that what you used to hold onto was stupid. Nonetheless, you hold on for some reason. There is a certain recalcitrance.

Quoting a Robert Penn Warren poem could be such a case. His poem "Speleology" may be of some historical interest, but everyone knows that Warren was a New Critic, and such formalism we are told is the driest of the dry reading of poetry. Who needs it? And if one wants to get more specific, then one could say that Warren was one of the Southern Agrarians, and everyone knows that those guys were reactionaries--or at the least--they were dreamers who had no idea of where history was leading. Not only were the Agrarians reactionaries, but they were probably racists to boot--so, the argument goes. In this view, Warren's poetry is bad from the point of view of justice.

In spite of it all, one might say that the Agrarians were holding onto something that was born to die, and the newborn has obviously superseded it. Who reads the Agrarians today other than a certain sort of Russell Kirk conservative? Holding onto what they considered dear--as well as what they thought important for human flourishing--is evidence of a reactionary utopianism. Life is found in what is newborn--or so it is said. You cannot stop change. As Nietzsche said, you may as well be a crab.

In this view, the Fugitive poets--as Warren and his crew were known--were simply an interesting historical phenomenon. Since their time there have been too many interesting literary movements--movements that reflect the real historical struggles of people of color, post-colonial liberation, and sexual expression. This is now the postmodern world where there is no longer any authority other than the imperative to reject all all authority--one must assert authority itself. One must realize that there is nothing other than the sheer audacity of one's own poetic making. In this way, the southern renascence writers were just as much as any other group of writers an attempt at identity formation--except that they were white males with elitist tendencies (even if they didn't emphasize this fact). The justice of democracy cannot tolerate such elitism, and consequently they are forgotten.

Today the Agrarian's narrative has been shown (according to some) to be the racist and reactionary tale that it is. Nowadays one must look to a more considered genius like Junot Diaz. He speaks the argot of the street from an excluded other, but nonetheless has a fondness for Tolkien, comic books, and video games. This is where the new Arion's leap must find its dolphin's back in multicultural America. Strangely in this postmodern world, one must be the ultimate modern--as Machiavelli had it in The Prince--in that one must have the agility to change with the changing times, and in such change one should still be able to direct the matter in the way one wants it to go. This is what is called freedom. There is no end other than what one directs it to be. For instance, hip hip poetry which takes prose and breaks it into lines which rhyme. This must be the future, but it is entirely in keeping with Tocqueville's claim that democrats are generally lazy, and as a rule, seek after abstraction. In this way, contemporary hip hop poetry--slam poetry--seems not to be able to reflect on its own condition.

It is ironic how modern postmodernism is. The modes of the day will pass too--like the various modes of production of which Marx speaks. One must learn how to read the new, but unlike Marxism one damn well better have a good science to be able to stay hip. This science needs real predictive powers--a science based on one's own creativity, as it were. Yes, one must have one foot in the door of the past, but even more important one needs a foot in the door of the future--a door that one can alone choose or even construct. This sounds like the typical modern liberal ideology in that it is the choice for what best brings about the desired end for oneself, but in poetry it is often contrary to the to desire that one has chosen. Nonetheless, all that is ordered is based on my choice--or at least it is based on "our" choice in the present here and now insofar as I can read myself into the general will. "Yes we can!" says the poet of the present who claims to read the motions of history and time as he (or she or we) makes it real.

To the contrary of all this, Warren's poem "Speleology" speaks of an inescapable question. Who am I? This question cannot cease to exist regardless of the various historical forms one places upon it. One can run from it, but this question always sneaks back in. Yes you can do what you want--you even have a right to do what you want--but who the hell are you? If I don't recognize your authority, this lack of recognition calls into question the basis of your so-called creativity in the first place. You think you are an individual in in your idiosyncrasy--I think you're full of shit.

So poetry should look to someone like Robert Penn Warren instead of so-called postmodern poetry. Warren was a poet who at least understood the discipline of form, and even as he changed, he was one who held on to what he knew, and that was what was handed down to him from his teachers. What did he hold onto? Warren was no rigid doctrinaire. He acknowledged mistakes, and at times he suggested improvements. His forms changed, but throughout all this change he remained constant to the truth. Truth was an everlasting concern. He was no slave to fashion, as even Harold Bloom came to realize. In Bloom's attempts to make a place of surety for himself in the midst of the anxiety of influence and against Warren's modernism a la Eliot, he came to lionize Warren's poetry--perhaps in acknowledgment that one cannot escape a fundamental question like that found in "Speleology"--who am I?

Warren never lied in the way of fashion, but like all god poets he lied. As a poet--a maker of images--whose concern is truth, he told it "slant" as Emily Dickinson would have it. To be sure, Warren was not a philosopher, but he shared the same philosophical question and issue. If one takes the Platonic quarrel between philosophy and poetry seriously, then one must look at Plato's own poetry in the form of dialogues. This is poetry after all. Contrariwise one might come to see the philosophy in Warren's poetry.

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