Who does not know the savvy insanity and wit
Of history! and how its savage peripeteia always
Has the shape of a joke - if you find the heart to laugh at it.
In such a world, then, one must be pretty careful how one prays.
- from "Answers to Prayers, a short story that could be longer" by Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren has never told a short story in his life, although he has written a few pretty good ones. The telling is too important to stint, it seems, and when the aqueous pale blue eyes begin to glint under their prominent lids, so that the prize-laden Southern dean of American letters looks a little unsheathed, like a fighting cock when its hood is lifted, one can be sure that a story, a regular galloping raconteur's tale, is about to begin.
Warren was in Baltimore this week for the Johns Hopkins 101st anniversary Commenmoration Day exercises, to receive an honorary degree and to speak - no, not to speak. "I hate speaking," he says, "I love talking, but I hate speaking." He would "sing" for his "supper," he said, by delivering brief remarks at the commemoration on Tuesday and by giving what has become, for him, a rare performance - a poetry reading, on Wednesday afternoon.
This has been a good season for Warren, familiarly known as "Red" because of his (now somewhat thinned and subdued) red hair. His latest collection of poetry was well-received critically and his new novel, "A Place To Come To" is due out next month from Random House and already a Literary Guild selection. He has balanced writing poems and prose fiction successfully for years and is the only author to have received the Pulitzer Prize in both.
"Sometimes I will carry a novel around for 20 years before I write a line," the master storyteller says, "telling the story to any people who will listen. My wife wont, my children won't - not anymore. So the taxi driver hears it. And you revise as you go."
Kentucky-born 71 years ago, now a resident of Fairfield, Conn., Warren doesn't drawl; though his accent and intonation are Southern, he speaks so quickly one has to work to keep up.
"A Plact To Come To," he says, has replaced "Flood" and joined "All the King's Men" and "World Enough and Time" in the trilogy of novels with which he "is most nearly satisfied." It's the story of Jed Tewksbury, who, like Warren, leaves a rural Southern background for a life of scholarly and literary pursuits, but, who, unlike the author, migrates in bewildered frustration from Chicago to Italy to middle Tennessee to Europe and back, his possibilities for familial happiness never more than problematical. The writing took Warren 10 years, he says, though when it came, it "came with a rush."
In the summer of 1971 he was in France with his wife, distinguished travel-book author Eleanor Clark, and his son and daughter (now 21 and 23). "We were living in Stendhal's grandfather's house outside Grenoble, where Stendhal spent his summers," says Warren. "It was strange to live in Stendhal's house and try to write a novel."
Stranger still, the sotry he'd been carrying for nearly a decade announced itself, he says, and he "practically dreamed the whole god-damn thing, in color, with dialogue. The mornings work was damn near stenography, then I'd rework it. For six months, it was going like a breeze, totally abstracted from ordinary daily life, until April, when I fell ill with hepatitis, one of the few illnesses of my life." When he'd recovered, he was afraid to open the suitcase where he kept the manuscript, he says, afraid he'd lost "it." Not the manuscript - his fingers daub the air for a moment. He doesn't give a name to the power, the gift expressed in dreams.
The next year he spent writing the "Or Else" poems until in the late summer of 1973, in Vermont, he read the manuscript through "cold-bloodedly" three times. At first nothing happened, he says, but the "it" started again and the Warrens took off for Italy, to a house somebody had lent them in Tuscany, "a house on a dead-end road, cut off from everything," where he wrote the rest of the book.
The experience was "not quite mystical," says Warren. A similar revelation had occurred only once before in his life, when he caught typhus in Italy in 1939 and dreamed the story of "Heaven's Gate," although, says Warren, every poem requires at least a fragment of "it," at least a few lines or an image delivered by the poetic unconscious.
Poems, like dreams, cannot be willed into existence, they have to come in their own good time. But Warren says he swims or runs, does something "to blank the mind, but not wear you out" to help induce a creative state. "You don't write poems sitting at a typewriter,' he says, "you write them swimming or climbing a mountain or walking. And I must confess that I've found a slight hangover - not a real one, I've never had a real one, I've got inborn resistance - but a creative languor useful for wirting poems. I might say that it requires a high-quality whisky."
Though his writings speak strongly of place - the South - Warren has been a Southern expatriate for more than 20 years, living mainly in New England, with occasional Continental forays. The advantage of living abroad for a writer, he says, is increased isolation in language - "You and the page you're writing are the English language, except for wife or friend." But he didn't exactly choose to live up North, he says. His moving there was accidental, after he lost one teaching job at a Southern institution and ran into deaprtmental difficulties with another.
"The North appreciated me more than the South did," he says, though he felt he was living "among the literary retarded" while in graduate school in Berkeley. "They hadn't heard the news - they were still reading Baudelaire, while back home an all-Southern center was writing delicate little lyrics like Housman. Berkeley was full of Freud and Marx (I thought Karl Marx was a man who made suits), but they didn't know droppings from seagulls about the modern world of literature - and Yale" - where Warren found, eventually, a satisfactory berth - "was even worse."
"I fell thoroughly Southern," he says "though I have a Yankee wife - is she from New England? She invented it!" But he felf that for him to return to Kentucky at 40, buy a farm and try to recapture his past would be "artificial" - the South and the world had changed.
In "All the Kings's Men," perhaps ther finest American political novel yet written, Warren spun the saga of populist politician Willie Stark, "the myth of the man of power," based as much upon Machiavelli and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," he says as upon the life of the late Huey P. Long of Louisiana, though without Long, he "wouldn't have written it.
Someone has said that in some ways Jimmy Carter is "a polished Willie Stark," and Warren doesn't frown at the suggestion. "I voted for Carter, and I'm strongly for him," he says. "He has a wide experience of life, and he's got a will of his own, and that streak of populism in him. But this man is an educated man, which Willie Stark was not. He's got Brzezinski - not a man for casual reading - and other intelligent people around him. Instead of fooling around with lobbyists, he surrounds himself with people who have ideas."
A few years back, when Warren was asked for the millionth time how such a "backward" region as the South could have produced so many fine writers, he was heard to reply that it might have something to do with "hookworm inoculation."
Today, ruddy-faced and vigorous, author of more than 30 books, recipent of just about every prize but the Nobel, Warren still has more stories than he knows what to do with. "When we're talking about the South, we're talking about the past," he says. "I grew up in an old world, raised by old people. But my children don't know any old people, except our friends - and I'm not exactly an old gray-beard yet. But I did have one (a beard) once, after a canoe trip, eight hours a day, in Northern Canada. It was snow-white, and it made me look so wise and so good . . ."
He cut it off after two well-mannered Southern boys at the University of South Carolina tried to help him across the street.