Warren Wilson Lecture January 2011
Every now and then I go through a mild crisis regarding poetry. After months of uncertain toil at my own work and months of reading student poems that don’t quite rise to the standard of “poem,” I sometimes find myself wondering what is the point? What is poetry after all, and why must we always re-assess and redefine it? And what value is there in reading a poem, or writing one? My answer to such questions has nothing to do with any sort of Parnassian vision: poetry need not be grand. But is poetry merely one of life’s little pleasures? Surely it’s more than that. Excellence is nice, elegance is to be commended, wild extravagance is a treat, yet I am just as content with near excellence, faulty elegance, and less than compelling extravagance. What I am looking for in a poem is not artistic perfection; and while closely reading and discovering the intelligence of a poem’s craft and design is indeed necessary and rewarding, I know I am looking for something far more basic. What I really want from a poem has more to do with what I anticipate from the poet: I want to know that I have encountered another imagination, an alert and unique imagination, whose originality and vitality are sufficient enough to prompt my own imagination into motion.
And what are the chief components of an imagination? Feeling and thought are foremost in my estimate, and feeling and thought come from memory and desire and experience and the unknown, and I would add a kind of faith and the mind’s fidelity to that deep, inscrutable faith. But feeling and thought, and after them memory, always occur in a specific context, a circumstance with implied or known forces which influence the production of feeling and thought. Often, though certainly not always, the dramatic context of a poem comes tethered to a known location—Gray’s country churchyard or Larkin’s empty church, James Wright’s Ohio high school football stadium or Frank O’Hara’s busy avenue, each a specific and resonant site, which in recent years has come to be referred to as place. I am very interested in place, especially what I call the generative place, and I will have much more to say on the topic in a moment. But first, let me return to the imagination, specifically, the thing in a poem which articulates the presence of an imagination, the slippery eel of a thing we call “voice.” But voice must come from a discursive and adamant poetic self, that is, a self coming into the awareness of its own knowledge, a self with something to say caught in the process of finding the circuitous way to say it, a way which is partly analytical in its precision, and partly imaginative in the freedom and pleasure it takes in its expression.
Well, that sounds easy enough! I’m reminded now of young Ike McCaslin in Faulkner’s long story, The Bear, and the scene when Ike is in the deep woods, for the first time allowed by the elders to go on the hunt for Old Ben, the legendary bear, creature and symbol at once. Sometime in the afternoon Ike comes to a clearing and stops. He stops not because he sees Old Ben, but because he knows with sudden wisdom that Old Ben is seeing him—this great mystery of the Mississippi cosmos and maybe more, the object of the quest, sees the young boy first. And the boy is not merely seen, he is perceived: he is known and understood, before he fully knows himself. But the fact that he is now perceived and known by a force beyond him reveals part of his own self to himself—the force he encounters is not a mirror, for it shows him what he did not know was there. And now he knows the answer to the great modern question: Who am I?
It is significant that Ike’s revelation comes in the wilderness, in the last, ancient, untrammeled woods in Mississippi, in a place that is uniquely a place, a place of solitude, maybe a holy place. And what do we do when we arrive in a holy place? We become silent and suddenly reverent; we are taken out of ourselves and joined to that place, to its singular and unified mystery; we may attempt a prayer. Writing a poem, in my experience, is much like prayer, and is infused with the paradox of prayer, in that a poem is not a call; it is instead an answer, in which the forces of feeling and thought submit themselves to the yoke of the imagination to be organized and trained, like a work horse, so that those unlettered forces acquire a practical purpose, and the virtue of their primacy can be released to discover and pursue the work that they will do.
All poems, even the most lyrical utterances, convey something about their context—a dramatic moment, a precipitating event, a remembrance, a sudden observation—and in that regard the poem references its own genesis, as if the poet is simultaneously voicing the poem and also claiming, “This is where this unfolding poem comes from, this is why this poem is happening now.” Thus context lends immediacy to poetic expression. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” implies that Wallace Stevens has been lately pondering the actual and the symbolic significance of blackbirds, which leads to the broader consideration of the role the imagination plays in the construction of reality. “The Steeplejack” implies that Marianne Moore has been recently observing someone engaged in his skilled work, which has given her occasion to think more broadly about steeples and what they symbolize and how their straightness is bent with metaphor and irony. Yet I would say both of the poems I’ve just mentioned also indicate that their context is generative, that is, their context is not merely the stock setting of the poem, but has in fact been the impetus for the poetic self to find its voice and the unique form of its expression. Some poems, however, are engaged in going farther back, to first principles, to the first dawn and formation of poetic self, and the seminal context from which that self was born, a context which helped to determine the character of that poetic self, perhaps ever after, as some poems suggest. Such poems reference genesis and generation at once, the initial seed as well as the full flowering of the grown seed. Usually, as far as my reading tells me, the original taproot of the self in poetry is to be found not in generic context, but more powerfully in a particularized place. This is Wordsworth’s effort in The Prelude, and it is notable that I reference him, for I generally think it is the Romantics who first make a connection between place and the composition of poetic self, because it is the Romantics who first identify place as a profoundly generative force of poetic expression. In fact, I think the need to identify the ur-place of the poetic self has been a consistent literary endeavor since Romanticism: we find it in the Transcendentalists, in Whitman, in Eliot, in Auden, in Frost, in Lowell, in Heaney, and certainly in fiction writers including Dickens, Twain, Cather, Joyce, and Faulkner, to mention a few. This business with place and the composition of poetic self, it would seem, is more than a trend; indeed it seems to be a common feature of the broader process of modern poetry.
Thus, I have recently noticed I tend to pay closer attention to poems which reference an actual landscape, a landscape the reader is invited to understand as real. Because such poems are typically based on memory, their very composition is an act of return to the place for the purpose of conservation, to return, to restore and to preserve what once was personally and culturally; but because such poems are often land-based, they are also recalling and conserving the land from which they were born. Literature is fundamentally about relationships set in dynamic motion, about the rupture and the restoration of various relationships, including the human relationship to the land, to our Mother Earth, the one relationship we cannot avoid or end in divorce. As readers and writers we return again and again; we restore and we preserve through our words and imagery and metaphors; we participate in the continuity of Creation with a capital C. Given the myriad threats around the world to the health and well being of that Creation, restoring and preserving it is vital. Writing or closely reading a poem engages us in the acts of conservation and preservation, because such labor requires the imagination, and imagination, my friends, is the agent and arbiter of connection in all relationships. Therefore, these days especially, if writing or reading a poem requires us ultimately to conserve and to preserve, then our efforts are worthwhile and indeed necessary.
I should admit that much of my thinking on this issue comes from reading Wendell Berry, from his work and his friendship and the steadily growing influence of his clear thought on mine. Recently I was talking with Wendell and he referred to an idea he’s expressed before in writing, that human life has always depended on two things—land, that is, the earth itself, and culture. The land gives us food and shelter, air and water, physical sustenance; culture has been the force that causes us to organize ourselves into groups—tribes, clans, families, small communities, and metropolises. As our membership in a tribe or a clan or a family or a community has come under pressure, due partly to our prodigality and specialization, and more recently to our willingness to settle for very artificial and far-flung virtual communities, our understanding of real culture, particularly the history and traditions of one’s native culture, has clearly suffered. And within a diminished experience as a participant in a culture—as opposed to being a consumer of things called cultural goods—we have come to decline active membership in a particular community, and thus we are, generally, failing to nurture and sustain and extend our communities. And at our own peril, because without participation in a community, we are short-changing the value of culture—it’s as if culture itself is suffering from a version of climate change.
But the other side of what makes human life possible—the earth—is, in my view, in worse shape than culture and our communities, though our cultural and communal ignorance have clearly fueled our abuse of the earth. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that ran unabated from last April through sometime in August in the Gulf of Mexico is the only example I will bother to cite, of an occasion where the cultures of oil dependence and maximum profit combined to produce a tolerance for willful ecological destruction, and destruction of a degree and kind that cannot be repaired, not by any amount of money and not by any measure of corporate spin. But what happens to the poor old individual self in such collisions of forces? What happens to the imagination confronted either by nothingness or nightmare? If we have fallen for the ruse of virtual communities and the snake-oily, mass-marketed substitutes of culture; if we have divorced ourselves from any involvement at all with the earth and waived our right to oppose its abuse, then it’s a wonder we are living at all. And it’s no surprise that poetry is marginalized and somewhat puny, nor is it a surprise that despite valiant efforts by a few hold-outs, a lot of poems suffer from a dull homogeneity, a sameness of mood and style, a generic tone and phrase derived from detachment from place and a disembodied experience of culture. If, as Wendell Berry says, human civilization requires both land and culture in order to exist, isn’t that similar to the terms and components necessary for the composition of a poem? Doesn’t a poem require both a place to be and to be from, as well as the social impulse to organize its materials into a vital and resonant expression?
Yet, just as we can surely improve our membership in communities and our participation in culture; and just as we can certainly take measures to improve the health of our natural environment, we can also restore the agency of a genuine poetic self and the primacy of that self in the act of healthful and resonant imagination. We are, in fact, gathered in this very place to aid that very endeavor! My thinking about the relationship between generative place and poetic self is long-standing. It has been a factor in my own work, both as a poet and as a student of poetry; it has been rewarding thought. But my thoughts were greatly heightened last summer when I was traveling with some friends in the Hudson River Valley. On one of our excursions through that beautiful region, we visited Olana, the monument-like home of Fredrick Church, a member of the second generation of the Hudson Valley School of painters. Mr. Church was mostly a landscape painter and he perched his home on a high hill, with views of the surrounding hills and valley in all directions—the place around him was the subject as well as the shape of his work. After touring the home I walked outside to a patio and there stood two well-dressed, sophisticated women of a certain age and bearing. One woman looked out at the valley gleaming in summer abundance, uttered a little harrumph and said, “I just don’t get nature!” To which I could not help saying, “Well, you ought to! You’re in nature, all the time, everywhere you go!” Rarely do I accost anyone and my outburst surprised me. And so, I began thinking about the woman’s remark. It was two statements of ignorance at once, one of which was an admission, the other of which was a denial. She freely admitted she was ignorant of being able to regard the natural world as a place that had anything to do with her, but her dismissal that such ignorance might have any sort of personal consequence was a further ignorance. This, I think, is how people become overly confident and boastful, and boasting of one’s ignorance sadly betrays an absence in the self. Such a person should not sign-up for the writing of poems.
I realize now that my interest in this subject is not merely long-standing; it is, rather, life-long. When I was a very young boy I had the great freedom to visit the woods every day. I would usually have a dog and we’d leave my backyard through a break in an old farm fence and enter a woods, which led downhill to another woods and a creek and down in that valley the woods were immense and seemed endless. We’d follow the creek, sometimes walking in it, sometimes on a trail beside, for miles and miles. Eventually, the creek flowed through a culvert under a road and wandered on to bigger, more silent woods, and a ridge, at the top of which was a railroad track. So we’d climb the ridge and follow the railroad track over a stone bridge and then up to a higher ridge and a kind of look-out on a cliff. From there we could see the ruins of some nameless small community, a patch of fallen-down abandoned frame houses and sheds, a barn or two still standing, piles of junk and old farm machinery here and there. My friend Chris—who often accompanied me—and I named this place Paradise, certainly not catching the irony that we thought a place of ruin and debris should be given such a name. I think we must have been enchanted by its remoteness, by a mysterious presence of a past we could only imagine. It felt like we had walked backward in time, that we had found a secret and sacred place. But here’s the catch: we were not mere observers—we were participants, we felt the undulations of the land beneath our feet, we heard the simmer of the stream, we stood in the green gloom and felt the shadow, we came home with scrapes and scratches from the nameless place we named. And thus a very young poetic self was born, and that self began learning about the place and began to allow the place to form it. The place had a character and a quality, a mysterious, creative force, which created the me I first understood as me; ever since I’ve known the images and the symbols of that place which I remember and imagine, and which more recently, I remember imagining, and then imagine remembering what was first imagined, and on and on to the point at which reality seems a cloud.
What has felt inadvertently wise through the years has been my inclination to seek the spirit of that place, to find it in memory and imagination and to find it in myself, for, in time, I have become a caretaker of that place. Such an endeavor, I’m happy to say, has precedent. Listen to Alexander Pope’s advice from his Moral Essays, this from “Epistle IV to the Earl of Burlington,” in 1731:
To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terrace, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,
Nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare;
Let not each beauty everywhere be spied,
Where half the skill is decently to hide.
He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprises, varies, and conceals the Bounds.
Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ambitious Hill the heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale;
Calls in the Country, catches op’ning glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades;
Now breaks, or now directs, th’intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs.”
………………………………………………..(Pope, ll. 47-64)
Just as the Garden of Eden in the Judeo-Christian tradition symbolizes the original place of Creation, and just as we got kicked out of the Garden and have ever since sought to return to it, some poets seek a similar return to the genesis of their own creativity, to the earliest awareness of what came to be known as poetic self. At this point I’m less interested in the so-called writing process than in the fertile conditions that lead one to be a writer in the first place and encourage one to continue; perhaps I am implying that one should make the effort to investigate the grounds and the terms of one’s imagination. Yes, I am certainly making such an implication! A poem, because it requires an imaginative transfer from plain facts or thoughts and details to a larger, more elaborate and intricate consideration, is begotten, a breath is blown into the handful of its raw dust. I am interested in the dust and in that invigorating breath.
Just as love is the most proper and powerful creator of life, in the best cases, the creation of a poem is like love. Love lets us know we have been recognized, fully perceived, understood, and known. Thus love has authority, it has been authored and it has the power to authorize—it knows what it knows. But to love, as a verb, is more than instinct: the action of love requires desire, desire to let the beloved be known, and desire of that order requires imagination and a self partly composed itself of imagination. And that leads me to the three poems I want to discuss and the order in which I’d like to cover them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement” recalls generative place in the most immediate terms—in the poem he has recently left a formative place, a site of original and sustaining generation. Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Fern Hill,” recalls the conditions of early memory and is an ode to the place that first loved him and recognized him and made him known to himself. Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts” recalls and revisits Warren’s own original place, but goes farther back, beyond his own biological time in that place, to the place’s first time. All three poems “consult the Genius of the Place” as Pope recommends, and in that consultation each poem discovers the means and the terms by which the poetic self must “design” its own expression, because the expression of poetic self is a voice singing in harmony with the voice of the place. And in all three, I think we have a sense of organic design, a recognition that the place has formed and shaped the poetic self and informs the saying of that self. To borrow Pope’s term and apply it to my present endeavor, we might say the Genius of a place is the presiding imaginative force that has made and organized that place, and the poet’s impulse is to acknowledge the inheritance of that force and how such an inheritance composes poetic self and therefore poetic expression.
Coleridge’s place is the village of Clevedon in Somersetshire, circa 1795. In that place he hears “’The inobtrusive song of happiness— / Unearthly minstrelsy! Then only heard / When the soul seeks to hear; when all is hushed / And the heart listens!” (ll. 22-25). And what beyond its sound has that song created? Everything: the human world lives in harmony with the natural, as if it is all one creation. A passing stranger says “it [is] a blessed place” (l. 17). “O what a goodly scene!” Coleridge tells us:
Here [he claims in italics] the bleak mount,
The bare bleak mountain speckled thin with sheep;
Gray clouds, that shadowing spot the sunny fields
And river, now with bushy rocks o’erbrowed,
Now winding bright and full, with naked banks;
And seats, and lawns, the abbey, and the wood,
And cots, and hamlets, and faint city-spire:
The Channel there, the islands and white sails,
Dim coasts, and cloud-like hills, and shoreless ocean—
It seemed like omnipresence! God, methought,
Had built him there a temple: the whole world
Seemed imaged in its vast circumference.
No wish profaned my overwhelmed heart.
Blest hour! it was a luxury—to be!
The “unearthly minstrel” has made the earthly place, which includes the poetic self whose task it is to name and to extol the virtues of that place, chief of which is the “luxury” of being. Thus Coleridge recognizes the place has been made but is also itself capable of making, of bringing a self into being, in particular, of bringing into being a poetic self, who then must also make, of which the poem on the page is evidence. As he does in many poems written during this fertile early period, Coleridge draws a parallel between the natural landscape and human morality. Geographically, the poem begins in a valley—“Low was our pretty cot!”— and rises to a “mount sublime!” (l. 1 and l. 42), thereby discovering the unranked all-in-all of creation. Culturally and socially, the poem recognizes that being, in the sense of freedom and individuality, is a natural human right, which must be declared and defended. Taking his cue from the natural world, Coleridge derides the hypocrisy of those “Who sigh for wretchedness, yet shun the wretched” (l. 56) and vows to “fight the bloodless fight / Of science, freedom, and the truth in Christ” (ll. 60-61), sounding a bit as if he wandered off the set of Godspell. But of course Coleridge is sincere: we might say he is offering a climbing, blank verse agrarian vision—a kind of poetic trellis with a morning glory vine ascending—in that the vision includes both the agri—that is, the land—as well as the cultural, the human society organized around its dependence on the land. In the proper moral scheme of things, according to this poem, the natural and the human are inseparable; or, to use the terms of my encounter last summer in the Hudson River Valley, the human world “gets” the natural world necessarily, because the human is begotten of the natural. Would that I could have been so eloquent upon my challenge with Madame Fuss-Budget back in July.
“Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement,” written when Coleridge was 23, is indeed a young poet’s poem, that is, it strains here and there. It exaggerates domestic bliss; it ties its threads too neatly together; its three-step rhetorical structure is too predictable and too easily resolved. But I still love this poem. Its music—un-retiringly spondaic in spots—is more complicated than its statement, which reveals the young poet’s potential. Its movement, which juxtaposes the wealthy Bristol “citizen” with the humble, isolated cottage, provides a wonderful chiasmic effect, underscoring the poem’s “social Gospel” leanings. And of course the second verse paragraph is simply gorgeous—a seamless rendering of the patchwork natural world, half-described and half-imagined, half a vision, half a map.
It is not surprising to learn that Citizen Coleridge reflected on this place and its compositional influence on his early poetic self in his rambling treatise on philosophy, aesthetics, and personal artistic history, Biographia Literaria. It is also not surprising to learn that Coleridge made such a reflection 20 years after the fact, based on a poem he never wrote. Here is his nevertheless compelling entry, based on his memory of living in the village of Nether Stowey, in the Quantock Hills of Somersetshire:
I sought for a subject, that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident, and impassioned reflections on men, nature, and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops become audible, and it begins to form a channel; then to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark squares as it sheltered; to the lonely cottage and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlet, the villages, the market-town, the manufactories, and the seaport. My walks therefore were almost daily on the top of Quantock, and among its sloping combes. With my pencil and memorandum book in my hand, I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery immediately before my senses. Many circumstances, evil and good, intervened to prevent the completion of the poem, which was to have been entitled ‘The Brook.’”
……………………………(Biographia Literaria, Chapter X. J. Shawcross, ed., page 128)
In some ways, I find the description of this never-written poem as potent and poetic as any of Coleridge’s works: it describes the ground of his being and therefore the ground of his imagination; it accommodates variety and continuity, and implicitly claims that the natural aesthetic naturally composes human community as well as human imaginative expression.
Coleridge is a great poet of immediacy and suddenness. He is interested in the influence of immediate time and place. Dylan Thomas, however, in his pastoral ode “Fern Hill,” goes farther back to recall his earliest memory of time in his earliest sense of place, the farm in Wales where he visited his relatives as a young child. If Coleridge infuses his description with imagination, Thomas performs a nearly opposite effect, allowing a few grains of reality to function as salt to temper the syrup of imagination and memory. “Fern Hill” is synaesthetic in its imagery, driven by a willfully over-stimulated syntax and a system of grammar which transforms the direct object of the active world into its principal subject, namely, the young Dylan Thomas at the moment of his poetic birth. Here is the first stanza, composed of a single sentence:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
……………………….The night above the dingle starry,
………………………………………Time let me hail and climb
……………………….Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
………………………………………Trail with daisies and barley
……………………….Down the rivers of the windfall light.
I’d be glad to stumble on “the rivers of the windfall light” one of these days! Clearly, part of Thomas’s intention in this poem is to render what cannot be known according to the standard inputs of reality. However, despite the wildness of the description, the intoxication of the phrasing, and the lexical liberties of the poem, “Fern Hill” nevertheless manages to be stately and serene, implied by Thomas’s obvious regard for form. Indeed, I would say the formality required by the ode grounds the poem and organizes the wilderness of its expression, anticipating Thomas’s observation in the fourth stanza that such a boozy state of innocence must have been the condition of the first gardener when he woke up in the Garden: “So it must have been after the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm / Out of the whinnying green stable / On to the fields of praise” (ll. 33-36). Now we know this farm, whose hayfields are as high as the house, is the poet’s first spinning place, the place from which his being was spun. Because of the metaphor of Eden, however, we also know that state of innocence was doomed from the start, and because such innocence is irretrievable, we must agree that the other-worldliness of the poem’s place is a just creation, or re-creation, that can only exist again in the poet’s imagination.
What saves “Fern Hill” from being self-indulgent and nostalgic is its form. Here, the ode functions as a kind of monument: the carefully bounded wildness is not freedom itself, but a re-created symbol of it. The youth was ignorant of his own freedom, ignorant of himself. Implicitly, it has been the intervening years and the fall from that freedom that have fenced-off the boy in that time and place to allow the mature poetic self to see where it came from and to recognize that the Genius of that original place—however damaged or diminished—continues in the memory and the imagination of the poet. Perhaps Thomas is further suggesting that poetic composition itself is always a symbolic act of re-composing the self in the moment of its primacy, in the moment of its birth in the place of its first being. But shouldn’t we see the place as eternal, without beginning or end? Isn’t Creation continuous? Isn’t our task simply to recognize the continuity and to participate in it, to join the chorus? I cannot answer such questions with any certainty, but I enjoy pondering them.
A different bird from either Coleridge or Thomas is Robert Penn Warren’s sprawling, thirteen-page poem “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” which is something of a ballad, but is much more an inquiry of history and self, based on a sense of cursed place, and a perverse American version of The Prodigal Son. I know no better way to introduce this poem than to read a few early sections.
Big Billie Potts was big and stout
In the land between the rivers
His shoulders were wide and his gut stuck out
Like a croker of nubbins and his holler and shout
Made the bob-cat shiver and the black-jack leaves quake
In the section between the rivers.
He would slap you on your back and laugh.
Big Billie had a wife, she was dark and little
In the land between the rivers,
And clever with her wheel and clever with her kettle,
But she never said a word and when she sat
By the fire her eyes worked slow and narrow like a cat.
Nobody knew what was in her head.
They had a big boy with fuzz on his chin
So tall he ducked the door when he came in,
A clabber-headed bastard with snot in his nose
And big red wrists hanging out of his clothes
And a whicker when he laughed where his father had a bellow
In the section between the rivers.
They called him Little Billie.
He was their darling.
Once Warren sets the grotesque wheel rolling he pauses in his own voice for a parenthetical moment, to ponder the world of the ballad, to wonder where this story comes from, and to consider whether the land itself produced the violent story he is about to continue:
(It is not hard to see the land, what it was.
Low hills and oak. The fetid bottoms where
The slough uncoiled and in the tangled cane,
Where no sun comes, the muskrat’s astute face
Was lifted to the yammering jay; then dropped.
A cabin where the shagbark stood and the
Magnificent tulip-tree; both now are gone.
But the land is there, and as you top a rise,
Beyond you all the landscape steams and simmers
—The hills, now gutted, red, cane-brake and black-jack yet.
The oak leaf steams under the powerful sun.
“Mister, is this the right road to Paducah?”
The red face, seamed and gutted like the hill,
Slow under time, and with the innocent savagery
Of Time, the bleared eyes rolling, answers from
Your dream: “They names it so, but I ain’t bin.”)
If I can see the story in my own mind now, Warren wonders; if that story was planted like a seed in the brain of my young poetic self; and if my memory and my telling of that story makes me part of it; if I come from that same simmering place, am I not just as cursed, am I not born into the same sin? The short answer is, yes, but now what? In this ranging, ambitious poem, Warren is enacting a kind of penitence, similar to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, in that he cannot not tell the story, but by telling the story the poetic imagination might find a way out of the curse. Unlike Coleridge and Thomas, Warren sees the composition of poetic self as inherently violent; we are conceived in sin and born into it, but that knowledge is the beginning of our redemption—maybe. In order to pursue this possibility—this hope?—Warren resorts to rhyme and pentameter, a less analytical and more imaginative approach to the dilemma, which opens the poem and expands its context to consider the genesis of the entire American experiment. In the next parenthetical section Warren observes:
(Leaning and slow, you see them move
In massive passion colder than any love:
Their lips move but you do not hear the words,
Nor trodden twig nor fluted irony of birds,
Nor hear the rustle of the heart
That, heave and settle, gasp and start,
Heaves like a fish in the ribs’ dark basket borne
West from the great water’s depth whence it was torn.
Their names are like the leaves, but are forgot
—The slush and swill of the world’s great pot
That foamed at the Appalachian lip, and spilled
Like quicksilver across green baize, the unfulfilled
Disparate glitter, gleam, wild symptom, seed
Flung in the long wind: silent, they proceed
Past meadow, salt-lick, and the lyric swale;
Enter the arbor, shadow of trees, fade, fail.) (ll. 47-62)
This is a vision of the first Americans, the first settlers coming West, who brought with them an amoral, glandular instinct for violence and greed, a prideful, self-serving independence, those who presumed to enter the Garden on their own terms. In this vision, the place is not the source of life and culture, but merely the scene for human ignorance, a greasy, slick spot the human presence merely slides across—an inclination and a habit which Warren develops into an indictment of the American character. To deny his own involvement in the story, however, to pretend these roots are not his own, is, for Warren, a betrayal of the self, yea, even a betrayal of his poetic self. And so, from his own wanderings in the seductive West, Warren realizes he must return to his home and therefore to himself, to his full poetic self. “The hour is late,” he says in the final section:
The scene familiar even in shadow,
The transaction brief,
And you, wanderer, back,
After the striving and the wind’s word,
Here in the evening empty of the wind or bird,
To kneel in the sacramental silence of evening
At the feet of the old man
Who is evil and ignorant and old,
With the little black mark under your heart,
Which is your name,
Which is shaped for luck,
Which is your luck.)
Now home, Warren offers something like a prayer, or at least the attitude of prayer; he also offers this dark and bloody poem set in the section between the rivers. One final bit of information regarding that place. The section of Kentucky between the Cumberland River and the Tennessee River was flooded beginning in 1938 by the Tennessee Valley Authority to establish a hydro-electric dam and bring electricity to those rural parts. The enormous government-sponsored project, which entailed the forced relocation of several thousand people to create a 160,000-acre lake, was completed in 1944; Warren published “The Ballad of Billie Potts” in 1943. The land of which Warren writes was already under water and his poem was written when the place of that poem was mired in the modern industrial process of becoming a place no more. I don’t know what to say about that.