Poetry Advice from a Retired Schoolteacher: Robert Penn Warren’s Lost Letter

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Critics are divided on the role of Robert Penn Warren in American poetry. Many consider Warren a leading voice in the early twentieth century resurgence of Southern literature, an important member of the Vanderbilt Fugitives and early champion of New Criticism, and as a proponent of the “staunch conservative classicalism” of his Fugitive contemporaries. Others, however, see in him a sort of “reconstructed liberal southerner” (Boyne 189). Critics such as Michael Szalay see Warren as ever the “stiff, curmudgeon of a New Critic” (346). Clare Byrne, on the other hand, sees in Warren a conflicted writer with burgeoning progressive ideas who managed to infiltrate the conservative old guard of the Fugitive Agrarians. Still other critics point to the sharp differences between Warren’s early and late poems to posit that Warren’s views shifted over time away from the strict formalism of his mentors and came to embrace a more postmodern/Romantic view of poetry.


While Warren wrote critically on poetry throughout his life, two texts seem to be the most polarizing: Understanding Poetry, the textbook he co-wrote with Cleanth Brooks advocating the use of New Critical techniques to evaluate the quality of poems, and his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” which posits that good poetry requires some level of  “impurity,” which Warren defines as including “cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection” (5).  Advocates of the “staunch conservative classicalism” view see in Understanding Poetry’s rules for assessing a text, as well as in Brooks and Warren’s choices of poems for inclusion, clear evidence of their views. Derek Furr, for instance, while praising the editors for including folk ballads in their textbooks, criticizes what he sees as their disparaging the folk narrative as a low art while preferencing traditional poets (244). Similarly, those who argue Warren’s progressive views on verse point to “Pure and Impure Poetry” and its championing of impurities in poetry. “No poet resisted the models more stoutly than Warren,” writes James Justus before applying a passage from “Pure and Impure Poetry” to Warren’s work, describing Warren as a poet “who retained to the end his own truth that ‘the hand-me-down faith, the hand-me-down ideals’ could be not merely unhelpful, but vicious” (3).


Both of these positions seem to disregard the fact that both texts were written within four years of each other: Understanding Poetry was published in 1939 while “Pure and Impure Poetry” was released in 1942, suggesting that Warren’s views on poetry incorporated both these seemingly contradictory views simultaneously. Indeed, a recently discovered unpublished letter by Warren may further illustrate not only that Warren held both these views, but also that those who see the textbook as in lock-step with the formalist New Critics may benefit from taking a closer look.


Outside of his creative and critical endeavors, Warren was a teacher. He began his teaching career in the mid-1920s as a teaching assistant at the University of California while working on his master’s degree (Blotner 62). In 1930, he accepted a one-year lectureship, teaching composition and literature at Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee (107). He would later teach at his alma mater, Vanderbilt, before moving to Louisiana to teach at LSU as an assistant professor, later accepting a position teaching playwriting at Yale, from which he retired in 1973 (Grimshaw 5,7). Even after retirement, however, while he focused on his own creative output, Warren continued to teach writing, though informally through his correspondence.


In the mid-1980s, Rebecca Goldstein, née Jessup, Warren’s goddaughter and niece (through his marriage to Eleanor Clark), wrote to him and enclosed four of her recently written poems.1 Warren responded with the following letter:


Handwritten across the top: “Not corrected for spelling, typing, etc.”

2495 Redding Road, Fairfield CT October 23, 1986

Dear, dear Rebecca:

There should be some more “dears” here, but if I get started it might take the whole letter. And I am not the only person under this roof who feels the same way. So I’ll start again. 

Dear Rebecca:

Now you’ve got to listen to me, for I speak the truth. I love to have your letter and I love to have the poems. Let’s go to poems. 

First, I must say, and truly mean it, that you have a definite poetic sense, and inclination, gift. The question is now what you do with it. That depends on how much poetry means to you, and how much you feel the need of writing it. But one thing should be clear. The difference between what poetry means to you and how much of a need (I did not say “wish”) you have to write it. About need (I don’t mean in any vague romantic sense) you have to write it. A mere inclination can be the signal of a need, a need coming on as it were. 

The poems you send me show that you have a real sense of what you are doing. All the poems show that, even “Crazy Mothers”. (It does too, but wanders, etc. We’ll come to that again.) The other three have a definite over-all structure moving toward the point. The very last line of “Bonnie” is as an end splendid. The careful reservation of “not by much” suddenly makes that image, and all preceding statements come “true”. The implied carefulness and literalism of that phrase makes everything preceding “measurable” and therefore true. A splendid stroke as an “understatement.” Understatement can often be more persuasive than any over-statement. 

Some of your imagery is sudden, arresting, and fine. I have already touched on the end of “Bonnie”, where the image is implied in the act of measuring. The end of “Monologue” is based on the opening door — which is both a literal act involving the discovery of the children, but picks up and makes newly vivid the discovery of the both of “you”. The poem is splendidly built to that moment. In “Inland”, the images given or suggested in “squabbling decibels”, “the oceans gnawing on rocks” and the whole series of effects following, especially the sudden appearance of a literal piece of realism in buoy lines, then the “padded” howls and “cotton fog”. And the climax of the poem is wonderful — immediately shocking then wonderfully right. The phrase “heart’s eyes” set up the last image wonderfully. 

Darling, I could go on. For instance, the very realistic touches of factual details and language, realistic details, about oxygen, houses, leaves, etc. 

Let’s come to another point. As I’ve said I think that the poems are extraordinarily effective. The question is now about how much you make of poetry. I know perfectly well what the pressures of a mother’s life can be. I have seen it with my eyes. Going at your poetry seriously means taking time, consistently. It isn’t so much how how much time you take, but of consistency. What I may timidly suggest in the face of natural demands on you may seem foolish, and I don’t expect any kind of answer from you. I am mailing you one of the later versions of Understanding Poetry, which first appeared in 1939.2 I do not mean that you should think of reading every damned word, but I do think, if you read it at all, you should do so in the present sequence. In any case there is also an anthology. The poems are selected as raising certain questions in sequence, but if that isn’t interesting or useful to you, it is a sort of anthology. But remember that it is NOT intended as a collection of “great poems”. Though many are of that general nature. 

I must say again I really find your poems very impressive. 

I do wish that you might begin to use rhyme. It is not a bondage. It is a suggestive resource. The random word may bring a profound suggestion. AND IT KEEPS THE WRITER FROM JUST BABBLING ON. Also I think that you might give close attention to metrical and rhythmical effects. I don’t mean merely in writing but in reading. It is the only way to sharpen your ear for your own work.

I sound like a retired schoolteacher. Well, God damn it, I am. 

Dear Rebecca. We love you, all in this house love you. We hate the fact that we see you so infrequently.    

Ever yours, ever, ever Red

I must say that your friend Greta3 strikes me — strikes us — as very remarkable in all sorts of ways, even as a cow-puncher. It would be a privilege to see her often.


* * *


That Warren responded to the letter in such detail is itself remarkable considering his physical state at the time of writing. In his 80s, Warren’s voice was deteriorating: “Speaking is now a problem,” he explained to a friend in late 1985, citing periodic problems with “enunciation and voice-volume, etc.” (Blotner 475). More importantly, he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he continued to suffer from osteoarthritis (474), surely making even typing a painful exercise. Indeed, only three weeks earlier, on October 2, he wrote to Harriett Owsley, the widow of Warren’s friend and fellow Agrarian Frank Owsley, that “[a]t the moment I can scarcely write a letter” (488).


Creatively, too, Warren was experiencing a decline. Though he had been named the nation’s first Poet Laureate in February, much of the last two years had seen a steady loss of what his physician termed “the energy he needed to write” (487). Regardless of how he tried, he also found more and more that poems did not come to him (487). Indeed, by 1985, his critical prose was also behind him. His last book of criticism, Democracy and Poetry, was published ten years previously, and since then, most of his prose focused primarily on social issues and reminiscences. Though much of his writing was behind him in the 1980s, he was working on a memoir about his father, Portrait of a Father. Despite his poor health, this memoir and regular correspondence with friends and family became his chief writing activities.


On its surface, Warren’s letter gives us insight into a more personal aspect of his life, as an example of an uncle’s genuine affection for his niece and a godfather’s love for his goddaughter. His first salutation is noteworthy, for instance, especially given that, rather than simply beginning anew on a fresh sheet of paper, Warren decides to leave it for her to read and begin again below. His closing, too, reinforces his affection for his niece and seems more a continuation of his original opening than his revised one, elaborating as it does on the love not only Warren but the rest of his household feel for her. It’s a genuinely heartfelt expression of affection.


More importantly for literary scholars and critics, however, this letter gives us insight into Warren’s personal views on poetry and their relationship to his academic writing on the art of poetics. His including a copy of Understanding Poetry is particularly of note. This text, what many consider “the single most influential poetry textbook of the twentieth century” (Golding 27), became one of the seminal textbooks using the New Criticism, with its clear and formalist explanations of poetry’s characteristics, to analyze verse. In a recent retrospective on Understanding Poetry, Garrick Davis, for example, focuses more on the New Critical, formalist aspects of the book as the most important aspect setting it apart from other textbooks of the time, citing Arthur Mizener’s idea that “the real revolution in critical theory was heralded by the publication . . . of Understanding Poetry” (qtd. in Davis 53). Davis points to the critical aspects of the textbook, evaluating the poems on their merits as aesthetic objects in themselves, as a revolutionary critique of the tendency in that era to treat literary studies like “a sub-department of history […], with an emphasis on biography (the author and his circle), and a penchant for fuzzy, emotional uplift in the responses to reading material” (24).4

However, Understanding Poetry was equally important to the democratization of literature, a fact often glossed over by literary critics. Written when Warren and Brooks taught at LSU, during Huey Long’s term as Louisiana’s governor and the increasing enrollment of lower income students who had heretofore not been exposed to literature outside the Bible, the text then served as a guide to help these students not only to analyze but also to enjoy poetry as well, even if they had never before been exposed to it. It is for this reason, Warren and Brooks begin their discussion of poetry with narrative verse, including folk ballads: “Folk poetry has one great pedagogical advantage,” Warren later explained. “It springs from a nonliterary world and some event that has some special appeal to the imagination of that world” (qtd. in Davis 24). Derek Furr, points out that Warren and Brooks’ use of folk ballads in the textbook was “an effort to make the discipline [of literary studies] more inclusive” for “the range of undergraduate students that they were encountering at large, land-grant universities” (10). While Furr ultimately criticizes Brooks and Warren for treating folk ballads as “low” art, Warren’s stated reason for including them, for their “special appeal to the imagination of [a nonliterary] world,” is particularly important to an examination of his letter to his niece. Given its discussion of poetry, both “high” and “low,” the textbook ultimately finds a balance between what Warren would later term “pure” and “impure” poetry.


“Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not,” Warren writes in his 1942 essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” (4). In this essay, arguably his most famous on the art of poetry, Warren claims that the most effective poetry contains both “pure” and “impure” elements, taking issue with other poets who claim that the best poetry must be as pure as possible, or, as Warren paraphrases: “Pure poetry is the pure effort to heighten consciousness, but the consciousness which is heightened must be a consciousness exclusively of agreeable or beautiful objects” (18). In other words, for most “pure” poets, poetry consists of heightened language, immaculate structure, and beautiful imagery, divorced as completely as possible from the mundane objects and concerns of everyday life. Impure poetry, on the other hand, incorporates as much of this mundanity as possible with little or no regard for such concerns as structure or heightened language.


For Warren, however, truly good poetry exists in neither one nor the other, since good poetry is neither wholly pure nor wholly impure, but inheres in the relationships and tensions between the two: “[P]oetry does not inhere in any particular element,” he argues, “but depends upon the set of relationships, the structure, which we call the poem” (24). As for the question of prohibited, or impure, elements in poetry, Warren asserts that “nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry” (24). Thus good poetry must involve a balance of both purity and impurity. As he writes in Understanding Poetry:5 “[P]oetry is not an isolated and eccentric thing, but springs from the most fundamental interests which human beings have” (lvi). This textbook illustrates that Warren’s ideas about pure and impure poetry are more than mere intellectual exercises, as he and Brooks incorporate them fully into the textbook, paying particular attention to them in the prefatory “Letter to the Teacher.”


For example, when criticizing a common exercise in other poetry textbooks (“What evidences of a love of beauty do you find in Keats’ poems?”), the authors essentially paraphrase Warren’s earlier essay: “Even if the exercise quoted is relevant,” they explain, “there is a real danger that the suggestion to the student to look for beautiful objects in the poem will tend to make him confuse with poetic excellence the mention of beautiful or agreeable objects” (xii). Describing this situation as one with “real danger” here, then, clearly illustrates that for Warren and Brooks, it is of the utmost importance to prevent students of poetry from considering the presence of beauty the sole arbiter of good poetry.


Later, in their general introduction, they more clearly challenge the ideas of pure poetry. Where pure poets privilege structure, heightened language, and beautiful imagery as the hallmarks of poetry, Warren and Brooks, in a near word-for-word echo of Warren’s essay, argue that “poetic effect depends not on the things themselves but on the kind of use the poet makes of them [… A] poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things which are ‘poetic’ in themselves. Nor is it to be thought of […] as a kind of box […] in which a ‘truth’ or a ‘fine sentiment’ is hidden” (xlix), For Warren and Brooks, a poem is simply “a piece of writing which gives us a certain effect in which, we discover, the ‘poetry’ inheres” (xlix). Poetry, then, is the effect of the words, pure or impure, and not the words themselves.


Which brings us to the ideas expressed in the letter. If “Pure and Impure Poetry” lays out Warren’s critical ideas about the nature of poetry and if Understanding Poetry applies these critical ideas to the more casual reader’s appreciation of poetry, Warren’s letter to his niece shows how his views on the nature of poetry can be applied directly to the creation of poetry. In short, Warren’s advice for writing poetry closely follows the ideas set down in both the essay and the textbook: namely that better poetry is produced by incorporating both pure and impure elements.


His description of her imagery as “sudden, arresting, and fine,” for example, all refer to Rebecca’s use of mundane aspects of everyday life as opposed to overly romanticized images: He is impressed by the metaphor of measuring in “Bonnie’s Solution” and the speaker’s attempts to find self-worth in improving her material possessions. He praises the ending of “Monologue with God and My Father” and its ability to utilize the image of an opening door for both literal and figurative purposes. He is particularly fond of the decidedly impure imagery in “Inland”:

In “Inland”, the images given or suggested in “squabbling decibels”, “the oceans gnawing on rocks” and the whole series of effects following, especially the sudden appearance of a literal piece of realism in buoy lines, then the “padded” howls and “cotton fog”. And the climax of the poem is wonderful — immediately shocking then wonderfully right. The phrase “heart’s eyes” set up the last image wonderfully. (emphasis mine)

The power of Rebecca’s poetry then lies less in her heightened language and more in her metaphorical use of mundane objects.

Warren does offer his niece advice on the “purer” aspects of her poetry, but here, rather than expressing how these aspects improve a poem itself, Warren focuses on the more practical benefits. He suggests she work more with rhyme, for instance, not because it will make her work more poetic, but because the constraint of rhyme will help sharpen the poem’s vocabulary: “The random word may bring a profound suggestion,” he explains before emphasizing that rhyme, more importantly “KEEPS THE WRITER FROM JUST BABBLING ON.” Similarly, he encourages her to work more with metrical and rhythmic effects, again not out of an effort to make her poems more “poetic” but because meter and rhythm are “the only way to sharpen your ear for your own work.”


In this letter to his niece, then, we can see how Warren’s views on pure and impure aspects of poetry affect not only his roles as critic and teacher, but also his role as a writer of poetry. Indeed, the letter implies something new about Warren’s thoughts on poetry: His focus on the practical benefits of the more pure poetical characteristics of rhyme, meter, and rhythm imply that these features are important more for the creative discipline they impose on a writer than for any inherent poetic aspect they may have in and of themselves. More significantly, Warren focuses three lengthy paragraphs of his discussion praising Rebecca’s impressive use of her impure imagery. He spends only a single eight-sentence paragraph addressing her lack of rhyme, meter, and rhythm, and this after praising her “definite poetic sense, and inclination” and evaluating her poems as “very impressive.” This may further suggest that for Warren, while both pure and impure features are necessary, it may be a preponderance of so-called impurities, much to the chagrin of poet/critics such as Edgar Allan Poe or Max Eastman, that make poetry possible.


We see these same sentiments in Warren’s letters to other poets as well. In a 1982 letter to Peter Davison, for example, Warren praises a set of poems Davison sent for Warren’s critique. While he praises the work, Warren also provides suggestions for revision that reinforce the need for more impurity. For example, Warren takes exception to the lines “Once again water trickles / Over scars and sorrow” in the poem “Remembering Eurydice.”: “The trouble,” he explains, “is the word sorrow, which cries out to be demolished, thrown away.” He then suggests using “murmurs” and “stones” instead:

Once again water murmurs
Over scars and stones

Or something like that. Trickles is too “abstract,” generalized. And “sorrows” too insistent. At least stones ties back to the world, and ties grief to the world. (156).

In short, Warren suggests Davison replace the “pure” wording with more sensually concrete and “impure” phrasing, creating a link between the pure emotions Davison wishes to evoke with more tangible imagery of the physical world. When Davison published the poem, while he did not use Warren’s wording, his revisions do employ the same kind of sensually concrete and worldly imagery:

Once again water irrigates
The scars, the gravel

Perhaps the best example of this type of advice is found in Warren’s many letters to his daughter, Rosanna. Throughout their correspondence collected in all six volumes of The Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Warren almost always discusses Rosanna’s poems. However, while his advice in most letters does seem to underscore his appreciation for more tangible, earthy, or impure elements, many of these letters do not include the original text he is critiquing, and his rationalizations for his suggestions are often implied more than stated. However, two letters in particular stand out for their in-depth discussions of Rosanna’s poetry.


In a letter dated mid-November, 1985, Warren discusses Rosanna’s “Girl by a Minoan Wall.”  Though his critique of the first three stanzas centers mostly on structural, more “pure” concerns, when he turns his eye to stanza five, Warren moves from the structural aspects of the piece and focuses on the contradictions implied by her tangible imagery, and his phrasing here becomes more emphatic:

The build here is splendid through the word “indigo.” But the marvelous business of light, is ruined after “indigo” by the word “glinting.” The paradox of going indigo and then the strange glinting. One thing very wrong is to put the glint in the water as “hovering.” It is damned well only in the water in contrast to gathering “indigo.” There is a “but” implied here. The reflection on the water against the encroaching indigo above. You are killing off the payoff in the poem. (291-292, emphasis mine)

Warren’s concerns here are less about the structure of the poem and more about the contradictions in her description of a tangible scene: reflections on water at dusk. Again, as with his discussion of both his niece’s and Davison’s poetry, Warren shows himself to be as concerned with the impure aspects of the earthy descriptions as with the more pure concerns of poetic structure and elevated sentiment, if not more concerned with the former.


In another letter, dated November 29, 1985, Warren critiques a draft of Rosanna’s “Eskimo Widow,” and here he barely mentions such “pure” concerns as meter or language, focusing almost exclusively on the worldly imagery.


He begins by pointing out inaccuracies such as the fact that “a kayak (or kyak) doesn’t have rowers” or that fjords are not found “in Eskimo country,” Warren adds that such errors serve only as “bad interruption[s]” (293).  He then suggests that such factual mistakes in presenting worldly details, even if necessary to preserve more “pure” considerations in poetry, must generally be avoided: “Poetry cannot fly in the face of [a general understanding of the real world] unless it has a point of some kind to be established in a poem” (293).


Following up on this idea, Warren discusses Rosanna’s imagery of the bleeding woman, a decidedly impure image in a poem, but adds that in order to maintain the reader’s attention, the source of the bleeding must be addressed:

What has caused it? The reader has to speculate, and this kind of speculation is ruinous. Here the reader gathers in the end that the Eskimos would not have a widow with them. But apparently the woman here is not only a widow. She is bleeding. This strikes me as important. Why? (293, emphasis mine)

Thus, in order for the impure elements in this poem to work, Warren implies, they must make logical, not simply poetic sense.


Warren’s next piece of advice touches on the overlap between pure and impure aspects of poetry. He takes issue with the word “stitchery” but not with the image Rosanna’s lines evoke: “It is a very unusual word,” he writes, “and almost all readers, including me, stop for a half second, and this kills the wonderful image” (293, emphasis mine). He then suggests ways to keep the image without harming the meter of the lines, all the while warning her not to “impair” the “magnificent” image.


While we do not have the drafts that Warren critiqued, a look at the published poems reveals that Rosanna took her father’s advice to heart, and as result created even more stunning imagery. In “Girl by Minoan Wall,” for example, she replaces “glinting” with “promise” and creates a much more poignant scene:

………….by evening her very frame
will melt, as mountain-hulk,
marketstalls, kiosks, Cyclopean
masonry melt
into indigo, into the promise
hovering above (ll. 17-22)

Similarly, in “Eskimo Widow,” rather than describing “rowers” in kayaks, Rosanna shows the reader “the surprised mouth each paddle scoops / in water” creating a more realistic image and suggesting a naturalistic world more appropriate for a scene portraying a widow abandoned to the elements (ll. 7-8, emphasis mine).  Rather than simply bleeding, Rosanna explains the widow’s wounds as “blood oozing out all down the path / where she crawled, begging” not to be abandoned, thus adding horrifying pathos to an otherwise dispassionate narration (ll. 10-11). Clearly, then Warren’s critiques focusing on the more impure elements of poetry, both here and in Goldstein/Jessup’s and Davison’s work, result in much more effective poetry.


More than anything, though, Warren’s advice to his niece, his friend, and his daughter, shows that his work in Understanding Poetry is not simply intended for the classroom to be memorized by uninterested students and then forgotten, and his ideas in “Pure and Impure Poetry” are not simply abstract thoughts to be debated among academics. For Warren, his published ideas on poetry are meant just as much, if not primarily, for those who create poetry, who have “a need” to write it, as opposed to those who merely “wish” to. Warren may claim that “God damn it I am [a retired schoolteacher],” but he is so much more than that. He is also a passionate creator of verse impelled to share his craft with those who are willing to ask. The ideas Warren expresses in the textbook about the teaching of poetry and in his essay about the nature of poetry are essentially the same ideas he shares with a young writer trying to hone her skills. They are not merely academic concerns but an integral part of who he was as a poet himself, as a reader of poetry, and as a mentor.


Appendix: Rebecca Jessup’s Poems6

Bonnie’s Solution 

If my clothes were real silk, bright and new and rich,
Then I’d be well.
If I re-did my kitchen – muted, modern, subtle –
Then I’d be well.
If I tidied my rooms, and hung black and white photographs –
Tastefully chosen, artistically framed –
Then I’d be fine. I’d really be fine.
If I lined up brand-name bottles in the bathroom
And folded the fat, clean towels neatly,
Scrubbed everything, fixed the screens,
Then I could stride out and take command.
If I got expensive haircuts and sexy little shoes,
Then all the world would love me,
And I’d love me, too.
Then my heart would stop leaking out of my gluey ribs.
Then my slithery bones would re-gel into immobility
(Icy toughness, like hers)
And no one could hurt me anymore. I’d be as crimson and
Memorable as a staple through your thumb.
I’d be smarter than a speeding bullet.
But not by very much.

Monologue with God and My Father

You’ve been silent too long now, both of you.
It’s peaceful, yes – even restful. But my inner timepiece
tells me it’s gone on too long. It means
you’re cooking up something rough,
exactly as small children do, when they are
neither seen nor heard. Mothers know that to be
the worst of signs, portending costly property damage,
or else some frightening fever.
You, without bodies, can’t be sick
so I know you’re brewing trouble together.
Or so I hope. Scheming children
are almost always apprehended
before the roof falls in, and
they have such shining eyes
in that instant when I open the door
and they see my shock.

Inland for RPW

Yes, in the night she has heard
the massive, patient Rockies moan low in their sleep
but here on once-great plains to their east
the squabbling decibels of traffic and Amtrak,
jets and Jo-Jo’s café
drown the sound, obscure the message.

Or else her ears are not attuned,
having grown up through health-giving summers
to the sound of ocean gnawing on rocks,
gulls’ lullabies, barnacles crackling,
the creaking of buoy lines and the padded howls
of foghorns through the cotton fog.

Yes, she has loved God and known the shock
of an instant that uncreates itself and stops time
signaling the end of the universe, until
you force yourself to forget, and the
second hand of the cosmos is jerked back to motion
quick, before the firmament cracks.

So why should it matter to her
whether the air is salty? Why matter
the quantity of oxygen, the ages of houses,
the colors of leaves, the absence of dew
so long as she can see sky?

She has less right than a whirling star
to make these bootless cries,
she who was born to privilege and fine company,
now finds that their absence grates, and stifles.

Seaside solitude, though, is calming, enlivening.
She wants the shine and comfort of water near.
She wants to hear the whales sloshing and whinnying
only a mile away.  In her heart’s eye, a dry plain
is not God’s land. In her heat’s eyes

God is a wild, dancing dolphin
far away out and near to hand
in an endless, next-door sea.

The Crazy Mothers’ Club
(On reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton)

In fantasy I form a club for mothers who are crazy,
for Anne and Sylvia and me. We’re whacko,  schizo, psycho, nuts.
We aren’t prissy. We know what we are. We call ugly shots.
We call things by their names – vile, foul terms.
We sing with shuddering protest at this world and its decorum.
We shriek with laughter like opening-scene witches. We know
that the picnic twinkies are made with human blood.
Our children will bound around us, in fantasy they are timelessly small,
bound around, squeaking and all.
We’ll have an outdoor midmorning meal,
springtime with coffee and tranqs and robins redbreast.
They can tell me what it was like to be inside
the crackerbox, the spin bin, the crazy house of years ago,
and I can tell them what it’s like to run one now.

I hear my heels clackety-clacking efficiently in this hall
rushing not to be late for a session.  I make it.
Someone looks at me with welcome, with hope,
with everything in both eyes all at once.
I ask,  “How have you been doing since the last session?”
No one is anonymous to me,  I meet them hope for hope,
nightmare for nightmare, eye to eye.
Sometimes they say “fine” and I have to wait
until the realer answer wades through.
Sometimes that is the real answer. But today
maybe the real answer is “the pits.”
We can fix it. Tell me. Tell.
And they do. With voices and eyes and squirms and skin,
and with their shoulders. Slumped or shrugged
or sodden or straight, their shoulders answers and start to shift.
It all unravels. I watch it all unfolding
soothing its own hiccups.
I ask the next questions and it dissolves itself like alka-seltzer.
Plop, fizz, giggles and spurts, that’s a wonderful place to stop
for today.  Go let that settle.
I want to dive out of the world with my Crazy Mothers’ Club.

What can we tell each other? Even when it’s calm inside your head,
even when the voices quiet down, you were not wrong
to look around this maniacal world and choose Bedlam for home.
Womanhood, motherhood – these are mad things,
Hard and thankless even at good times.
Hearts don’t cooperate, inside the walls or out.

We take notes on dreams and odd words. We record
those voices which wrote the ancient of myths,
Leda and Circe and Hera. We of the Crazy Mothers’ Club
are not Pallas Athene types, nor Helenic. Our eyes
are wild and shot with red, no navies launch for us.
We have already been ravaged, and conceived
a fiercesome vengeance; madness and motherhood.
A scourge without malice, insensate, innocent.

For us, Crazy Mothers, words and minds are too compelling.
The history of meanings is more urgent
even than our babies night breath, more magnetic
thank slippery infant skins in tiny knee folds
paper white and delicate and so much beloved
that it’s worship we feel. Their infant eyes are like
magic relics, they can almost cure us —
except for these overriding, urgent reams of words,
carnivals of words, lines that demand to be written,
phrases that buzz and hum and dance around, words
like pop bottle rockets, bright colored arson
in our heads.

There it is, the shrieking punchline. We’re mothers all right,
But we’re nuts.


Works Cited

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. Random House, 1997.

Boyne, Joseph. Romanticism’s Influence on the Southern Renaissance. 2019. The Catholic University of America, PhD dissertation.

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry, 2nd ed., Henry Holt and Company, 1950.

Byrne, Clare. “When Is an Agrarian Not an Agrarian? A Reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ‘The Briar Patch.’” Robert Penn Warren Studies: An Annual of Robert Penn Warren Studies, vol. 10, 2017. EBSCOhost,,shib&db=mzh&AN=2018381068&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Davis, Garrick. “The Well-Wrought Textbook.” Humanities, vol. 32, no. 4, July 2011, pp. 22–25. EBSCOhost,,shib&db=fth&AN=62984558&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Davison, Peter. “Remembering Eurydice.” Poetry, June 1984, p. 141.

Furr, Derek. “Re-Sounding Folk Voice, Remaking the Ballad: Alan Lomax, Margaret Walker, and the New Criticism.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 59, no. 2, 2013, pp. 232–259. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1215/0041462x-2013-3010.

Golding, Alan. “Louis Zukofsky and the Avant-Garde Textbook.” Chicago Review, vol. 55, no. 3–4, 2010, pp. 27–36. EBSCOhost,,shib&db=mzh&AN=2013306568&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. U of SC P, 2001.

Hendricks, Randy. Personal Communication. February 16, 2021.

Justus, James H. “Warren as Mentor: Pure and Impure Wisdom.” The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren, LSUP, 2000, pp. 1-13.

Ransom, John Crowe. The New Criticism. Praeger, 1979.

Szalay, Michael. “All the King’s Men; or, the Primal Crime.” The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 15 no. 2, 2002, pp. 345-370.

Warren, Robert Penn. “Pure and Impure Poetry.” New and Selected Essays, Random House, 1989, pp. 3-28.

—–. “To Peter Davison.” 15 Nov. 1982. Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, vol 6, LSUP, 2013, pp. 155-157.

—–. “To Rosanna Warren.” Nov. 1985. Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, vol 6, LSUP, 2013, pp. 291-292.

Warren, Rosanna. “Eskimo Widow.” Stained Glass, Norton, 1993, p. 8.

—–. “Girl by Minoan Wall.” Stained Glass, Norton, 1993, p. 19.

Wilson, Ryan. Personal Communication. February 11, 2021.


1 See Appendix
2 The first edition of Understanding Poetry is actually copyrighted 1939.
3 Greta Hansen, a friend of Rebecca’s from Colorado who had spent a weekend in Connecticut and had met the Warrens. She grew up on a farm in Colorado, and had been riding in local rodeos since childhood (hence the reference to “cow-punching”).
4 It is important to note, here, that much of the criticism of the New Critical method derives from an oversimplification or misunderstanding of the theory’s precepts. As Randy Hendricks, author of Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile, notes: in many ways, “the New Critics were created by their detractors.” New Criticism was not, in fact, the monolithic structure its disparagers have claimed. In fact, John Crowe Ransom’s seminal book on the theory, The New Criticism, discusses several divergent critical approaches. For example, Richards and Empson are classified as “Psychological Critics,” Eliot as an “Historical Critic,” and Winters as a “Logical Critic.” Warren himself employed biographical and historical criticism alongside New Criticism. Furthermore, as Ryan Wilson points out, “Fiery disagreements between so-called ‘New Critics’ were not uncommon: as between Tate & Ransom, or Tate & Winters.”
5 Though Warren sent Rebecca the third edition of Understanding Poetry (1960), my commentary draws from the 1950 second edition due its expanded discussions on the study of poetry. The 1960 third edition and the 1975 fourth edition, while not changing the substance of the authors’ ideas, substitute the second edition’s “Letter to the Teacher” with a much shorter Preface primarily outlining the changes from the previous editions. The introductions, though, are effectively abridgements of the introductions found in the first and second editions.
6 Poems re-printed with the permission of the author.