Birds of America; Or, Tell Me a Story About Farming, Haunted Houses, and Poetry in Motion: Down on the Farm

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Down on the Farm

One August a few years ago I was invited by my neighbor and friend Arthur Young to observe his farming operation. He raises sheep and cattle on about 250 acres of ridge-top land. Arthur is 83 and farming has been his life. He and his wife, Martha, run the show. Arthur once followed the guidelines of the USDA and the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, which recommend lots of chemicals to raise grain to feed his livestock. Somewhere along the way, Arthur had an epiphany. He saw that his land was not healthy and not productive. The various chemicals he’d been advised to use sterilized the soil. The chemicals, intended to kill certain bugs and unwanted plants, also killed microbes naturally present in the soil. These microbes actually feed the root systems of grass and other forage crops; healthy root systems keep the soil loose and aerated. Healthy root systems also hold soil in place and prevent erosion. The man-made and man-conceived chemical system, in short, was killing the natural system. And the chemicals were also costly—an annual cost Arthur figured he could eliminate. So he stopped using fertilizers and herbicides, and he stopped raising corn. His animals are ruminant creatures, intended to eat grass, not grain, so he set out to return his pastureland to its natural design and restore its health beginning with the roots and the microscopic creatures living in the soil. Arthur’s lifelong work has been grassroots all the way.

But I have just shared a bunch of information, and information alone does not explain this patch of farmland, nor does mere information explain Arthur’s work and its successful operation. On this rather cool morning, Arthur and I walked out into his pastures. He said the first thing he does of a morning is walk the farm and observe. If one pasture has grown up and looks a little shaggy, it’s time to bring in the animals to graze. His pastures are neatly fenced with gates between them. This way a pasture that has been thoroughly grazed will be left alone for a while in order for the grass renew itself. The animals have aerated the ground by walking on it; they have also deposited fertile manure. Air and nutrients now reach the roots of the grass in the pasture. This process of rotating the animals from pasture to pasture is repeated in a geometric and orchestral fashion all year. Arthur authors this process. The big revelation for me that day was to realize Arthur’s farm is in constant motion—it might be relatively slow motion, but the key features of his farm, from the pastures to his animals, from the creatures in the soil to the grass that grows out of it, are moving, always in an ancient dance with the weather. Standing in the field I realized I was not observing a static scene, but a living creation, filled with rhythm and breath. I also realized this: the form of Arthur’s farm is not fixed. It is flexible. His pastures change shape and size; he runs new fences and removes others, and the whole arrangement changes from year to year. And thus the form is also in motion, and the form invites other kinds of necessary motion. This is a way to operate a good farm against the grain of modern convention and the bad ecological and economic and political powers behind that convention. It is also a way to think about poetry. And so we begin.

Roots in Romanticism

American poetry has an interesting connection to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats. In the early 1790s, Coleridge and his friend, Robert Southey, had their infamous “Pantisocracy” scheme, a utopian day-dream in which they proposed leaving England to try their lot in the newly liberated USA, where they would live off the land and write poems. Their initial scheme was to settle in Kentucky, in the wilderness, on the frontier. The plan was a flop, of course. Keats’s connection to America was more involved and direct. His younger brother, George, had sailed to America with his wife, Georgiana, in 1818 and soon settled in Louisville. George Keats eventually invested in a riverboat scheme with none other than John James Audubon, the famous painter of birds, of whom we shall hear more. The boat sank and George Keats lost all of his investment. But while brother John was alive, he was sending some of his best-thought, task-of-the-artist letters to George and Georgiana, often also wondering about life in America. I have a pretty strong hunch that John Keats sent some of his best-known poems in letters to brother George in Louisville, well before the poems were published in England. One such poem I am certain about is “Ode to a Nightingale,” a bird that is European and doesn’t reside in North America.

I think it’s worth noting these early inklings from two great English poets and to imagine their willingness to invest in American poetry, to imply its very possibility. Perhaps they imagined something poetic in America, in the very idea of such a country founded on ambitious principles. Something fruitful may have come from the mere long-distance process of imagination. Coleridge’s poems—meditational, conversational, fantastic, psychological, supernatural—both utilized conventions of poetic form, and also dispensed with such conventions altogether to find new approaches to form. Coleridge, before any other poet, realized that form must be a flexible, variable, and often irregular feature of poetic composition. It depends on the poem and what the poem is up to. Form defines the space within which the poem exists, and if the poem is going to go into “caverns measureless to man,” then the form of such a poem must be part of the downward plunge and provide the structure to enable the going down. And Keats, with his dependence on conventional poetic form and his neo-classical orientation, nevertheless applied the ancient conventions of form to new subjects, to the consciousness and anxieties of a mind we can easily recognize as modern, and therefore concerned with our own concerns.

But Coleridge and Keats uncovered something else. They noticed the surprising intimacy of a landscape, and they found a correspondence between landscape and the mind. This bond between the outer scene and the interior condition is inter-dependent—one realm clarifies the other, and deep understanding of one requires deep contemplation of the other. And poetry—or art in general—is the tool we have to go back and forth between these realms. Both Coleridge and Keats were easily seduced by the prospect of fusing together these two realms, but as their best-known poems admit, such a desire is impossible to fulfill. It’s the going back and forth, between the heard song of the nightingale and how that song is received by the mind, that interests me, because the back and forth is movement. And that means “poetry in motion” is not the cliché we always thought it was.

What makes motion in a poem? There are the obvious multiplying and resonance-making features of the craft, such as imagery, simile, and metaphor, among many other figures of thought. To hear in the sound of the sea a female voice singing, or to hear in the sound of a female voice singing the sound of the sea, and, therefore to draw together into meaning qualities of both sounds, to allow a deeper contemplation of sound itself, is a movement between Nature and the human that Wallace Stevens pinpoints in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” And this drawing together, this sense of movement, is what permits Stevens to observe: “But it was more than that, / More even than her voice, and ours, among / The meaningless plungings of water and the wind, / Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea. / It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing” (ll. 28-35). This is metaphor blown wide open, not merely in the realm of description—which it certainly is—but more importantly in the realm of widening meaning. Metaphor, when thoughtfully applied, offers this kind of motion, a leap, a bound into another dimension, and also proof that such a leap is entirely plausible. Metaphor comes to us from the Greek and means “to transfer,” and “to bear or carry.” Built into the root of the word are both abstract and concrete connotations, a perfect foundation for how we use metaphor in literature. My point is to demonstrate that key terms and tools we associate with literary composition fundamentally resist stasis, and are in fact intended to keep things in motion.

But the idea of movement embodied by the poem is even more fundamental, woven into the terms we use to discuss poetic composition. Consider these familiar terms: foot, meter, and verse. If you go back to the earliest meanings of these words in English, more or less one thousand years ago, these words overlap, referring both to concepts and physical objects or action. Thus a foot in prosody originally referred to tapping one’s foot to follow rhythm. A foot was a way to describe rhythm, but also length (a foot was considered the length of an actual human foot), and thus a poetic foot might be thought of as a step. A verse once referred to walking and then turning to resume the walk. Meter originally meant to measure, a physical action. The English language, at the level of vocabulary, was much more physical in its early stages, probably because people’s lives were much more involved with the physical world—that is, with Nature. So all of these features of prosody which we now grasp cognitively were originally bodily, and served the function of embodying the poetic line, and, the poem itself. One thesis I have is this: elements of a good poem are on the move, even when the poem appears to be sitting on the page. And the poems that really reach us do so because they have movement built-in to their design. They are moving and we are moved. The purpose of human experience is not to bring grief into the world, nor to exult in whatever our personal grief may be. Grief will find us soon enough. Our human effort is to find some meaning and some expression that transcends and transforms inevitable grief, so that we may try to live with hope. To that noble end we have art and literature. Thus we have the Latin prefix, trans, which means, “across, to or on the farther side of, beyond, over,” a notably poetic definition for a root associated with literal and metaphysical movement. Just as my neighbor Arthur Young assessed his farm beginning with the roots, we’re now considering poetic roots, our humble green thought in a green shade.

How to Build a Haunted House

Motion of various kinds is inherent to the English language, and motion is also a feature of the original idea of the poetic line. The next degree of consideration then is poetic form. Are motion and movement built-in features of poetic form? Certainly. To see how conventional form moves, let’s look briefly at two poems, Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” and Robert Penn Warren’s “Boy Wandering in Simms’ Valley.” I have written about both poems before for various reasons, but find I come back to them. They are both haunting and haunted; both feature a haunted house, and both poems, in terms of form, embody a haunted house and make such house a living presence in the poem. I happen to live in a haunted house, which always provides curious imaginative and real encounters, and my personal experience of poetry itself has always had a haunted-house effect—perhaps that is why I continue to be drawn to these poems bound to an earlier murky time. They are simply familiar. But they are much more than that for students of poetry, of which I am one.

Both poems utilize the always serviceable quatrain, a stanza that apparently accommodates bare-bones narrative, which is the set-up for the ambiguities probed by the much more involved lyricism of both poems. There’s a story behind both poems, the stories are quite similar; the stories are also over, long over, so each poem is a partial re-telling, by a narrator who had no direct involvement in the original story. What is it about these sketched-out stories that attracts a narrator? Both stories feature a farm where humans once lived. Both poems focus on the sudden end to a human presence in a place, and the place itself is on its way to diminishing the remnants of the human presence, returning to its original form. And yet the act of remembering at the heart of these poems is a kind of ceremony, a stately, decorous process enhanced by the presence of these stanzas—these rooms that define complicated space and provide the blueprint for a sufficiently haunted house.

What should we make of these stanzas, these poetic building blocks used to describe great un-building? And in both poems the stanzas include rhyme, a little in the background, but for what possible purpose? In Frost’s poem, the rhyme occurs only on the second and fourth lines, somewhat off-beat, and the sound of the rhyme is further obscured by Frost’s characteristically eccentric syntax. With Warren’s poem, the lines are so long, it’s hard to hear the rhyme, but it’s there. Warren’s line is also so emphatically spondaic it’s hard to know where it ends. Thus, both poets are hiding the music and the rhythm quietly playing in the background of thought and sketchy exposition. My question is why?

In many poems, particularly contemporary free verse, non-metrical poems, the stanza functions as a paragraph. In prose the paragraph typically marks linear thought, and follows a linear sense of development and progression. In these poems by Frost and Warren, however, linearity is not on the table. Narrative is at best a superficial feature of these poems. In both cases the real depth of the poem is lyrical, the underworld of the poem, and the under-song that quietly accompanies the journey into the deep dark below. The presence of rhyme, in fact, while it commonly plays into forward-moving narrative, also resists such forward motion. Upon the repetition of a rhyme, as much as we may move forward on one hand, we also jump back to the previous sound, to the original sound, and we are invited to wonder whether the relationship is merely sonic, or if it goes deeper. In both of these poems, the presence of rhyme asks the reader to hear rhyme as a means of going deeper. In both poems, the rhyme provides a backing-up, a stepping back in narrative time, which is indicated by “remembering” in musical time, a feature that runs counter to the surface-level forward motion of both poems. So, rhyme—as far as it is concerned in these two poems—invokes the emotional and metaphysical endeavor of remembering, and remembering, as an imaginative process, even if the effort to remember what cannot be completely known is what both of these poems are fully about. The music has a meaning; it is not a decoration or an ornament, though we cannot help but enjoy the fact that beauty is also a mesmerizing feature of these poems. This union of curiosity, compassion, grief, recognition, honesty, and hands-on craft adheres together to approach a serious description of art, as far as I encounter it.

Another feature of these two poems worth observing has to do with perspective. Frost’s narrator is non-personal, and almost absent as a personality in the poem, other than to conclude that “one had to be versed in country things” to grasp the stark reality of the scene. “One” who encounters a lone chimney and the “awkward arm” of the water pump, must be acquainted with such scenes and must stoically see Nature going on, swallowing the human in its fold. Warren’s narrator, on the other hand, is Warren himself recalling a moment in his childhood when he encountered the proof that a local legend was true. The bedpan high on the shelf is the proof, just as the pump arm is a proof for Frost. Whereas Frost’s narrator brings knowledge to the plain scene of his poem to invest the poem with its meaning, Warren’s narrator suddenly acquires knowledge from the more Gothic scene of his poem. We have more or less the same form working to serve different ends, proof to my thinking, that form animates the otherwise static materials of the poem and sets them in dynamic motion.

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

But I want to add a further observation about Warren’s “Boy Wandering in Simms’ Valley.” The boy in the poem encounters knowledge, the sudden, life-forming recognition that love and despair are not far apart in the human world, and further recognition that Nature continues always its process of life—which includes death, though death is quietly reclaimed by a larger Life. This is a stance the poet must accept, if he or she is to do the work of lasting poetry. This stance was clearly on Warren’s mind in 1974 when he delivered his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, published as Democracy and Poetry. In that lecture—composed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War, and Watergate, not to mention the chaos and destruction that define the 20th century more generally—Warren’s thesis is to claim that the course of American literature has been to confront the “diminished self.” He observes that the protagonist in many works of American literature is wounded and alone, an outsider to the mainstream, yet someone committed to restoring the integrity of the individual. The integrity of the individual, Warren claims in his lecture, has been diminished because the principals of our celebrated democracy have been eroded, by populism, by racism, by chicanery, by deceit, hypocrisy, Puritanism, and, above all, by mind-numbingly mindless violence and environmental desecration. Capitalism has been happy to profit from all of this, but the lowly individual has suffered, and only literature—meaningful, humane art—has a chance of offering both a response and a solution, or, “the diagnosis and the antidote,” as Warren puts it. I have studied and greatly appreciated Warren’s Jefferson Lecture for 25 years. It is ultimately a message of hope, a belief that art—the humanities—always provides an alternative to violence, hatred, empty profit, fear-mongering, deception, isolation, and general meaninglessness. There is a point to being alive, Warren claims, and a good one, and we each must step up and get at it—and that’s the point. I have paraphrased 100 pages of Warren’s dense thought, but even in this condensed form I find it inspiring.

Although violence and empty profit and environmental desecration proceed unabated, I still find hope in Warren’s observations and carry it with me. What else is there to do? We have to live, and we have to live with integrity and individuality. And those of us inclined to poetry and the arts have to get on with the task. If we have a light leading us, so be it; if we are struggling in the dark, we must somehow go on. We may have to go beyond ourselves.

And knowing the self—however it may be composed or defined—and then going beyond it, beyond the composition and definition of self to find a reality that is greater and wholly human and yet connected to a greater reality—is Robert Penn Warren’s most important discovery in his long poem, Audubon: A Vision. This sense of self beyond itself, this vision of connection that supersedes all things human, is what Warren claims is the aim of art. I wholly agree, though freely confess the challenges of coming to terms with such a claim.

Birds of America

Let us try to get hold of this poem. It is a poem about our country, foremost, about our flawed origin and where things stand today, and the artistic impulse to reconcile human experience to something Else—we may call it wisdom or Nature or the Divine, or what Warren names it with a capital T, Time. John James Audubon ventured into the American frontier beginning in 1810 or so, and seriously commenced his life’s work, to paint Birds of America, around 1818. This book was in process of publication from 1827-1838, and encountered various setbacks along the way. The final publication included 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of at least 497 bird species. Audubon’s task was astounding and costly in all ways; that he achieved his desired outcome in his lifetime is miraculous, a feat not lost on Warren’s poetic treatment of this chapter of American history. Audubon brought art and knowledge from the wilderness to civilization. And he used tedious, traditional methods to produce an entirely modern expression—the paintings are photographically realistic and intimate, they are dramatic and intensely alive. I believe Robert Penn Warren had such facts in mind as he commenced his poem, and I believe he must have been wondering, “What are the birds of America?” Clearly, Warren sees Audubon’s project as a living metaphor.

Upon a first reading of Warren’s confrontation with this national history, we find the poem has some of the structure of narrative—there is a tale to tell inside it, and parts of it indeed get told. But the standard features of narrative unravel as soon as they are presented. The “beginning” begins by denying John James Audubon’s rumored beginning: he was not “the lost Dauphin,” not at all the son of the “feckless” Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. That myth sprung up soon after Audubon’s death in 1851. In fact, as Warren provides in a head-note to the poem, Audubon was the child of a French slave trader and his mistress. We therefore begin with the negation of beginning, which we are invited to believe is more honestly American. And then, promptly, we are in the wilderness, the primal American wilderness, some years after the Revolution when early European settlers are scrabbling to take root in a place that has no definition. And this place is presented as the first place of American civilization, our true national origin—raw, untamed, unvarnished, violent, ignorant, desperate—settled by people “Too sloven / That is, to even set axe to clean wood,” by which the artful Audubon, in Warren’s words, means: these pioneers are living without talent or intelligence or practical skill, yet are nevertheless unleashed to found a nation. And Audubon is there, too—with his “passion.” Warren imagines Audubon’s blooming vision as he encounters Ardea occidentalis, the great white heron.

The tale within the tale now commences. In the long second section, “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” we learn that Audubon has commenced pursuing his passion—painting the birds of America. The birds are majestic in their native place, wholly belonging to Nature, to the primal wilderness, and of it and singing of it. The birds live wholly integrated with Creation, untrammeled by human presence until recently, and Audubon is there to capture the purity of this art as it exists, though with the dark knowledge this state of bliss will not last long. Everything is loaded, poised for irrevocable change. John James Audubon was there to see such a moment and live it—that is what Robert Penn Warren powerfully imagines in this poem. The poet has pinpointed a hinge in American history, when, briefly we believed we found ourselves in the Garden, and just as soon found ourselves cast out, yet forever yearning to return.

The scene in the rude cabin is proof of this. It is evening and Audubon needs a place to sleep for the night. He hesitates knocking on the door of the smoky cabin, but he does. Inside he finds a large woman, older than her years, not particularly hospitable, unable to hide her cunning and the menace behind it. “Kin ye pay?” she asks. She informs Audubon she already has one lodger for the evening, an Indian, and adds in a line of Warren’s pentameter: “And leastwise, ye don’t stink like no Injun.” Then Audubon notices the silent Indian who has a grotesquely injured eye, sitting by the fire. Audubon settles his dog—whose name was Plato, by the way (though this is not mentioned in the poem)—and his belongings, and commences to wind his pocket watch. The woman is drawn to the watch as a moth to flame. She is delighted with the watch and hangs it around her neck. A pitiful ray of innocence emerges from the woman, rousing Audubon’s sympathy. But almost immediately it is clear the woman is plotting how to steal the watch, though, ironically, time doesn’t matter to the woman—she is timeless, existing in a misery and ignominy time cannot measure. And she probably can’t even tell time. The Indian, we are told, “Draws a finger, in delicious retardation, across his own throat.” Soon her big brutish sons come through the door to eat, and the whole enterprise of this family comes into view. Travelers pay to stay with them for the night in their outpost, only to be robbed, or worse. Audubon lies down with his dog and his gun as mother and her benighted sons “slosh” a jug amongst themselves. He believes he has entered a story—a dark tale, a living nightmare, where all the world around is haunted and possessed by menacing spirits. As all of this unfolds, the reader is quietly invited to grasp one of Warren’s larger points: this rude place is where we come from, and these rough people represent the roots of our national character, like it or not.

Just as Audubon expects the worst, however, three well-armed men burst into the cabin. They gag the mother and tie up the whole family and somehow the night passes. These men, of course, do not represent law and order, or justice. They are simply better-armed, better-organized, and perhaps more intelligent, competition. This is the frontier economy, after all; there are no rules, no laws, and certainly no honor. The next morning the family is hustled outside to be hanged from a low branch of an oak tree. When the woman is offered the opportunity to pray, she bursts into mad laughter and says in another line of creepy pentameter, “If’n it’s God made folks, then who’s to pray to?” And in the next line she adds, “Or fer?” The point is to clarify her fundamental nihilism. What is the purpose of praying to a God who would make people like us, people driven by base appetite, greed, and violence, whose only ideology or creed is day-to-day mindless survival? This is a woman who has never known compassion or forgiveness or tenderness, and has therefore never been inclined to offer any of such virtues or expect them or to value them. Her life has occurred and now ended in a wholly amoral fog, surrounded by a wilderness that contains beauty and order, when properly observed, and is the first source of art. The wilderness is also the most obvious sign of Creation, to which the woman and her kind are indifferent. As Audubon studies the woman just before she is hanged, he observes some beauty in her, suggesting that regardless of her mean existence and her low character, there is something redeeming or redeemable about her. Yet just as soon as he allows such a thought, he “becomes aware that he is in the manly state,” the most disturbing and unexpected image in the poem.

The moment is intentionally shocking, and we must ask what Warren means by it. Surely adding such a detail has value beyond the shock of it. It makes the reader uncomfortable—this reader, at least—and it tells us something we don’t particularly want to know. And yet, I can concede that this disturbing moment merely allows Eros to become part of the mix Warren is stirring together. That mix includes more expected ingredients of the alchemy: the dark Garden of Eden setting, the flawed promise of America, violence, ignorance, greed, deceit, poverty, and mere appetite, commingled with a desire for order and an attraction to the force of pure beauty Audubon finds in his birds. This is the rudimentary and raw coagulation of art. Adding Eros to such a complicated mix further complicates Warren’s vision and therefore makes it more natural, and more American. It also makes the vision more psychological, and thus gives this expansive vision an interior dimension. We are encountering, after all, an allegory, a literary mode and structure that operates like a pop-up children’s book: the structure expands geometrically, in all dimensions at once, and a moral dimension is part of the consideration. Audubon’s “manly state” before the hanging of the woman indicates the allegory is on the move—outward, downward, beyond. We see now that every feature of the poem is at once what it is, and also symbolic, the literal and the figurative are fusing together to become a single expansive expression, and the “vision” Warren claims in his title is one that penetrates the boundaries of conventional reality. I have in private moments thought of Robert Penn Warren as one of our most serious philosophical poets; that is, he viewed poetry as a philosophical endeavor, and this disturbing moment in Audubon, I read as a step in Warren’s combined poetic and philosophical process, a step that crosses one line in order to add another dimension to the thought the poem is plumbing.

Literature deals in intimacy, whether up close or broadly considered, and I think it’s worth noting that violence, although we abhor it, may, perversely, bring with it a kind of intimacy. Think of the violence of a burning house in Frost’s poem, and the intimacy of grief the poem implies. Think of old man Simms getting into bed with his shotgun beside his dead wife. But violence as intimacy is part of our national record, indeed, racial violence and violence toward Nature are among our national original sins, and the consequences continue to unfold and expand. What does this moral nightmare, this jarring sense of intimacy, have to do with poetic form? A lot, is the short answer.

Audubon is organized like a grade-school outline for a paper, like an old-fashioned theme. Each section has a Roman numeral and a main title and is then divided into sub-sections indicated by letters. Some of the sub-sections feel complete, as if a paragraph, whereas others trickle off and feel more fragmentary. The recurring pentameter line is also notable throughout the poem, as if Warren doesn’t want us to forget we are encountering a poem. What kind of poem? A poem whose purpose is what? What is this dense poem attempting to discover, or should we say, uncover?

After the narrative-heavy second section, Warren steps back. He imagines not only Audubon’s artistic vision—the passion, but also Audubon’s hands-on process, which required killing the birds he painted in order to pose them and make them look more “natural.” This is an irony symbolic of a more general irony that any thinking human must encounter. It is, Warren observes, a reality we cannot escape, and one we had better acknowledge. Passion drives us through what seems to be moral contradiction, and yet to become a proper self, we must pass through this valley of the shadow. Coming to terms with the real truth is a human process and an artistic process, according to Warren; it is also the process through which the self is authenticated and revealed. In the fourth section, “The Sign Whereby He Knew,” Warren claims the real self is found outside itself, and only such a self can make something meaningful from its passion:

To wake in some dawn and see, As though down a rifle barrel, lined up Like sights, the self that was, and the self that is, and there, Far off but in range, completing that alignment, your fate. (Section IV, ll. 6-10)

It’s not the warmest vision of how one transforms passion into wisdom and, therefore, art, but it feels rather honest. It certainly erases any illusions one may have about the process. Life and art occur in an environment. For Audubon that environment was the backcountry, nascent America in its wild place and human circumstances. Such an environment can inspire the artist’s passion, but, as Warren reflects, the artist must remain somehow independent. Later in the fourth section Warren returns to Audubon’s biographical record of his day-to-day work in the woods painting the birds of America. Warren notes, “After sunset // Alone, he played his flute in the forest” (Section IV, C., ll. 11-12). With such music, with such a call in the wilderness, Warren now sees Audubon’s way of being himself a bird. The literal facts are now in the process of being transferred to the symbolic and the allegorical. This is very subtle motion, the mind of the poet is moving.

In section VI, “Love and Knowledge,” Warren turns his thoughts to the actual birds Audubon painted, some of which are now extinct. I will quote this entire section because it is beautiful verse.

Their footless dance Is of the beautiful liability of their nature. Their eyes are round, boldly convex, bright as a jewel, And merciless. They do not know Compassion, and if they did, We should not be worthy of it. They fly In air that glitters like fluent crystal And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it With no effort. They cry In a tongue multitudinous, often like music.

He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.
Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low,
But not in grief.

He put them where they are, and there we see them: In our imagination.

What is love?

One name for it is knowledge.

Now Warren has stepped farther back to imply the question: Just what are these birds of America? What do they mean and what do they symbolize? And how do they capture the artist who would make art of them? A further implication Warren delivers is this reminder: the artist is not a different sort of self. She or he is always a human being, capable of the same heights that allow any human to seem transcendent, but thwarted by the same human tendencies that keep us on the ground. We love, we fail.

Let’s go back to Section V, “The Sound of that Wind.” Here, Warren goes back to the last years of Audubon’s life. He’s finished his life’s work, Birds of America. He’s convinced wealthy patrons to finance his project, he’s sold expensive volumes of his large-scale book of paintings and has come out on top. He’s finally returned from the wilderness to his family life and toured Europe, where his primary audience resides. These folks were eager to have a glimpse of the New World. By the end of his life Audubon lived in material comfort, and in the comfort of stable civilization, following his extended stay in a realm that had little concern for civilization. And in this state of being, his passion exhausted and spent, yet given life, Audubon died, rather ingloriously, by Warren’s rendering. And then, in this section, Warren returns his thoughts and his reader to the 20th century present:

So he died in his bed, and Night leaned, and now leans, Off the Atlantic, and is on schedule. (Section V, B., ll. 1-3)

Now, perhaps suddenly, though perhaps not, Warren, from his present perspective, observes airplanes flying high above the original ground of his poem, “The Northwest Orient plane, New York to Seattle, has passed, winking westward” (Section V, B., l. 16). Here is another, a new bird of America, industrial, the vehicle of modern commerce, apparently immune to its more natural origins. But Warren wants his reader not to forget those roots. And what comes from those roots? A complicated story, an American story. And that is the title of the final section of Warren’s poem, Section VII, “Tell Me a Story.” This is the one, famous section of Warren’s long poem about our nation that makes it into the anthologies. That’s a shame, because the entire poem represents the real inquiry Warren has considered, as an artist, as a thinker, and as a human being. Warren begins this section of Audubon, a poem about the painter of the birds of America, by recalling his own young involvement with such creatures:

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard The great geese hoot northward.

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

I did not know what was happening in my heart. (Section VII, A., ll. 1-6)

Here Warren acknowledges that the geese he heard on their way northward, gave him knowledge. The heart’s passion to give voice to that particular kind of knowledge—which sees all things in blessed unity—is the beginning of love, and for someone of Warren’s inclination, the beginning of poetry, because it is the first intimation of self, the first sense of authentic and distinct identity.

Here are the final lines of the poem. Warren considers the value of this roots-feeding knowledge as it pertains to the forming self:

Tell me a story.

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

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight. The name of the story will be Time, But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight. (Section VII, B., ll. 1-7)

It’s worth noting that the final image of the poem, a hooting V of geese flying north, is invisible, a subtle nod to the word vision in the poem’s title. The sound of the geese is a kind of passion, and the boy’s mind is invited to imagine the V, which is the geese in unison, rowing through the dark heavens.

Warren published Audubon in 1969. In August of that year an American spacecraft called, The Eagle, landed on the moon. Also at that time, military birds of America had been bombing North Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia for a few years, and such bombing was secretly increased for several more. Five years after publishing Audubon, Warren delivered his Jefferson Lecture, Democracy and Poetry. Here is a section from that lecture:

[I]n the colleges and universities there is a reaction against the arts and humanities as impractical and ‘elitist.’ But let us turn to a straw in the more general wind, a passage from the White House tapes. Here the former President and his closest adviser are discussing how the President’s daughters should spend their time before the opening of the Republican Convention of 1972:

President: For example—now the worse thing (unintelligible) is to go to anything that has to do with the Arts.

Haldeman: Ya, see that—it was (unintelligible) Julie giving [given?] that time in the Museum in Jacksonville.

President: The Arts you know—they’re Jews, they’re left wing—in other words, stay away.

The passage is, clearly, the utterance of a paranoid, power-bit Philistine of no generosity of spirit, little imagination, and an education of the most limited technical sort—the blind striking out against whole dimensions of life which, because incomprehensible to him, seem to be, not only an affront to his vanity, but a sinister attack on his very being. (Democracy and Poetry, pp. 35-36)

That sounds rather like our present moment of mania, which appears to be great. Perhaps the delight of telling stories, the knowledge and love and the skills required to make our passions live, will help us out of this mess. We have to be willing to try, and we have to do it with wisdom and good cheer. Audubon captures the poet’s mind in motion, moving through time and contemplation, imagination and memory. The form of the poem, at once, isolates and unifies the graceful movements of the mind that made it, as if that mind were flying. And the form of this poem is the form of continuity, following Nature, whose form is continuous, just as the form of Time, and the form of Love.

My connection to Robert Penn Warren, I should confess, has long been personal. I have been drawn to him more than any other American writer, for various reasons. And just when I think I can give my study of Warren’s poetry a rest, it somehow comes looking for me. I realize my thoughts in this discussion have been years in gestation, and months now in an effort to find something useful to say. It so happens that right in the middle of writing this essay, I was contacted by a relative who wanted to know details about my father’s service in the Korean War. My father died two years ago, not long after our daughter was born. I had not had time to go through the old photos and papers Dad left behind. On finally going through these boxes I came upon a photograph of the ship my father was on, the Missouri, as it plunges into forbidding seas off the coast of North Korea, sometime in December, 1950. I’ve learned a little history about this particular mission, but I think the note my father wrote on the back of the photograph will allow me to conclude my thoughts for the moment. Here is the photo of the Missouri:

And here is the caption my Dad wrote on the back of the photo:

Five birds went down in that sea back in 1950 and the living pilots were miraculously saved, a moment of poetic grace in the midst of war and human desperation. Does such poetry have a form? Yes, I think Warren would say: we call it history, especially irony-saddled American history. It is raw and dark and sometimes beautiful. From it we learn our passion, and how to live in the world.