Just when the country had about run out of garlands to place on the wily, wise head of Robert Penn Warren, Congress has come up with a new one. The Library of Congress announced yesterday that it has named Warren the United States' first poet laureate.
"Oh, I think it's all just fine," said Warren, reached yesterday by phone at his home in Fairfield, Conn. "Of course, it's not the same thing as the English version. There they write stuff celebrating the throne. I don't expect you'll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Why should I?"
The appointment by Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin brings to a conclusion a longstanding debate, mainly between Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) and the library, over the nature of an American laureateship. First as a congressman, then as a senator, Matsunaga has tried for two decades to establish a position roughly equivalent to the British post, which has been held by William Wordsworth, John Dryden and Robert Bridges, among others, and now is held by Ted Hughes. The English laureate receives 100 pounds a year and a case of wine, writes occasional verse celebrating the births and marriages of princes and princesses and is considered part of the royal household. He customarily holds the position until death do him part.
The Library of Congress did not like that idea much, and neither did Warren for that matter. "It's a trapping for a royalist society, not a democratic one," Warren said. "It's fine for England, but not for us." The library also felt a separate, British-style laureateship would diminish the status of its consultant in poetry, a post now held by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Last year Matsunaga became a member of the subcommittee that controls appropriations for the Library of Congress and began to press his old idea. Finally, Matsunaga and Boorstin agreed to a compromise: Each new consultant in poetry would also be named poet laureate. The consultant, who is paid a salary of $35,000 and has a fairly loose job description, holds office for one or two years. A library spokesman said the added title of laureate would not affect that arrangement.
Matsunaga presented the compromise before the Senate in December, and the legislation passed easily. The bill also provided an annual appropriation of $10,000 for a conference of American poets at which the laureate would give a reading.
Boorstin chose Warren after meeting with past consultants and with John Broderick, the library's head of research services.
"To tell you the truth, the decision didn't take long," said Broderick, who made the official announcement last night at a reading given at the library by Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. "Robert Penn Warren was a pretty obvious choice. We're delighted with having him back. He was consultant here in 1944. About the laureateship itself, well, I'm not unhappy about it. But it's still a great unknown."
Matsunaga was not involved in the selection process. Reached at his office yesterday, he said, "It's Warren? That's news to me. I haven't looked in my 'In' basket yet. I thought they might have just promoted Gwendolyn Brooks right away, but I guess they're waiting till next year to start it up."
Warren, who assumes his post in September, said he thought a temporary laureateship that did not detract from the traditional library position was acceptable: "This way nobody will be permanent laureate. The following year another poet will come along and represent another way of writing and another way of looking at the job."
When he was consultant 42 years ago, Warren lived in Washington, but he said he will probably "do more visiting than living" in the capital. His duties will include writing an essay and giving a reading at the library, but, he said, "I'll try to do what they ask me to do."
Warren is best known as the author of a bestselling novel -- "All the King's Men" (1946) -- which described the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a Louisiana pol much like Huey P. Long. When he was teaching in Baton Rouge in the '30s, Warren observed Long's garrulous political career firsthand. Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for "All the King's Men" and later won it twice for poetry.
"Funny thing," Warren said. "I pretty much gave up writing novels a thousand years ago. I just ran out of stories to tell, I suppose."
Many critics, including Yale's Harold Bloom, believe Warren has written his best verse during the last 20 years. "As time went on," said Bloom, "Red Warren poetry became more personal, more powerfully subjective. He is our greatest living poet, the best since Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. It's a wonderful, moving choice."
Born in the hill country of southwestern Kentucky, Warren is a distinctly southern voice. Both of his grandfathers were Confederate soldiers; while spending his summers at a farm in Trigg County, he listened to story after story about the Civil War and the Old South. He was weaned on written literature, too -- "Horatius at the Bridge," "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix" and H.T. Buckle's "History of Civilization."
He set out intending to be a chemist but "just kept on reading and writing all my life. Never stopped."
Warren lives now with his wife, novelist Eleanor Clark, in Fairfield and spends summers in Wardsboro, Vt. His health, he said, has been "up and down" in recent years, but he continues to write essays and poems at a young man's pace.
"The last five or six poems are just no damn good," Warren said. "I wish they were, but they aren't."
Warren is the country's most honored poet. As a student at Vanderbilt he was summa cum laude and a member of the Fugitive Group, a collection of poets and critics including John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate who met periodically in Nashville for discussions and readings.
He was a Rhodes scholar, a professor at Yale and elsewhere, and a recipient of the Bollingen Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Book Award, the National Medal for Literature and a MacArthur "genius" Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
"I think Warren has received the highest honors anyone can receive in his lifetime," said poet Michael Ryan. "And he's deserved every one of them."
Warren's early verse was deeply influenced by the Metaphysical poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell. He also worked in more expansive, narrative forms in long poems such as "The Ballad of Billie Potts" and "Audubon: A Vision."
In recent years his poetry has beome intensely personal. In "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," he imagines his own dying "while hospital wheels creak beneath/ And the nurse's soles make their squeak-squeak like mice." He anticipates the moment when "I, a last time, must flinch/ From the regally feathered gasoline flare/ Of youth's poor, angry, slapdash, and ignorant pyre."
"Maybe you save the best poems for last," said Warren. "I hope I have." From 'Three Darknesses' poetry
There is some logic here to trace, and I
Will try hard to find it. But even as I begin, I
Remember one Sunday morning, festal with springtime, in
The zoo of Rome. In a natural, spacious, grassy area,
A bear, big as a grizzly, erect, indestructible,
Unforgiving as God, as rhythmic as
A pile-driver -- right-left, right-left --
Slugged at an iron door. The door,
Heavy, bolted, barred, must have been
The entrance to a dark enclosure, a cave,
Natural or artificial. Minute by minute, near, far,
Wheresoever we wandered, all Sunday morning,
With the air full of colored balloons trying to escape
From children, the ineluctable
Rhythm continues. You think of the
Great paws like iron on iron. Can iron bleed?
Since my idiot childhood the world has been
Trying to tell me something. There is something
Hidden in the dark. The bear
Was trying to enter into the darkness of wisdom.
Copyright (c) 1985 by Robert Penn Warren. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc.