THIS FASCINATING BOOK, transcriptions of the talk of the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, owes its existence to electronic technology. Until very recently no such volume could have been put together.
It was only after the Second World War that the portable tape recorder was made generally available. Before then, when you wanted to interview an author about his work, it had to be done in a studio, using costly equipment and unwieldy phonograph discs. The arrangement was clumsy and inhibiting and was seldom used. Now, however, it has become possible for anyone who can push a button and reverse a cassette to catechize a well-known writer and transcribe the responses.
"Red" Warren has been on the literary scene for more than a half a century, and is a natural subject for such interviewing, the more so because his conversational talents are admirably suited to it. For not only has he been poet and novelist, but historian, journalist, critic and teacher as well, and is uncommonly able to articulate the ideas implicit in his writings and in the context in which he lives and writes.
We have here, therefore, the open responses of an important writer to questions about his craft, put to him by a variety of interviewers over the course of 30 years -- years when he was also writing most of his best poetry, a half-dozen novels and other books about literature, history, the South, American society and its problems, the state of the planet in general.
We have long learned not to place implicit faith in what any writer tells us about his books. Not only does an author not always know, on any conscious, abstract level, what really goes on in the works that his creative imagination produces, but the writer is also quite likely to disguise and dissemble in public. The late William Faulkner, for example, took a positive joy in twitting questioners.
Warren is not of that temperament, however, and is also a very modest man, and to every question put to him by an interviewer in this volume he has done his best to give an honest answer. Usually he has entered thoroughly into the spirit of the enterprise, made it into a genuine conversation, and we are likely to get him thinking out loud and articulating his thoughts. He refuses to skip about; not until he has said what he thinks about one topic will he move on to another.
Few writers can handle this sort of thing well. Not to be thus gifted, of course, is no commentary on the worth or even the nature of an author's work. But it is true that Warren's particular kind of writing is generally that of a person who can talk sensibly about what he has done. It is philosophical, meditative, and he thinks in terms of ideas, problems, contexts. To Benjamin DeMott, for example, he declares that "everything starts from an observed fact of life and then the search begins for the issue -- the ethical or dramatic issue -- in the fact." This is no doubt what most good writers do, but not all of them think of what they are doing in just that way.
Warren's work has sometimes been censured for an alleged over-dependence upon ideas, and it is not surprising that a recurring question in these interviews is, to quote Ralph Ellison's version of it, "it is sometimes said that the practice of criticism is harmful to [poetry, fiction, and drama]. Do you find it so?" To which Warren replies that there are many different kinds of criticism, and that a great deal of very good imaginative writing has been done by persons who were also excellent critics.
He is frequently at some pains to point out that for him, writing poems and stories doesn't begin with an idea. "I think you've got to forget all the things you know abstractly when you start writing," he tells Peter Stitt. "Of course, you never forget what you know about novel structure or about the construction of a poem, but you put those aside and just do it. You may use material that is intellectual, but you are using it in another spirit entirely."
He is quick to note, however, that so-called "inspiration" comes "from all of you, all of the things you have learned, the kind of man you have made yourself by the time you are 25 or 50. You have lived into the moment of inspiration." The celebrated laudanum dream that produced "Kubla Khan" arrived, Warren tells Ruth Fisher, only because Coleridge had prepared himself for it: "The dream can only come out of the person who owns the dream already. The dream work is done on the material that is already available in the man."
Another question often put to him is how he decides to write a poem instead of a story, or vice versa. His response is that "they have the same germ; they are very different in the way they manifest themselves, but they spring from the same source." His own preference is always for the poem: "If a poem falls across a novel, I will take the poem first. I will stop the novel and go whoring after the poem."
Crowded with provocative ideas and observations, these interviews have much to say about the writer, his writing and how he views himself as author and citizen. There is necessarily much repetition, but scarcely a page without something worth knowing on it. I am not at all sure that a book like this would work for many writers, but with Robert Penn Warren it works beautifully. CAPTION: Picture, Robert Penn Warren; Copyright (c) by Robert A. Ballard Jr.;