In future biographies of Robert Penn Warren, what will be made of his appointment as the first poet laureate of the United States? Like the hound dogs of Warren's native Kentucky, we'll follow the scent.
The direction he took us following the announcement in late February is not along the path of Britain's poet laureates. Their verses -- on occasions from royal births to coronations -- have honored kings more than the King's English. Warren, whose laureateship was created by Congress, has pledged that the Britannic way won't be his way. He promised not to be "a hired applauder."
The unregal crack suggests that Warren has an ornery side. Believe it. Ten years ago when America was beginning its recovery from a lost interventionist war, Warren said: "We've got to quit lying to ourselves all the time . . . The lying about Vietnam was appalling . . . And this is the way half of our life is led in America. We have the right lies to tell ourselves."
Only an enduring truth-teller could talk that way and at the same time be America's most honored writer: three Pulitzers, the National Medal for Literature, the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a novel made into a film that won three Oscars and a cedar chest full of favorable reviews from the stingiest praisers of all, other writers. No educated shelf is without a Warren book.
Warren is 80, lives in Fairfield County, Conn., has traveled in every state in America, taught college students, raised a family and has written history, poetry, fiction, essays and criticism. In brief, he has omnicompetence.
The beauty of Warren's congressionally sanctioned appointment is that here is the one writer who has an intimate awareness of American politics. No other novel besides "All the King's Men" offers as total an examination of the forces of idealism battling those of political disorder. The 1946 book, written first as a play, is a story of a southern country politician -- Willie Stark -- whose rise to power is matched by the fall of a soul.
The purpose of power, politicians will always say, is to use power for a purpose -- a noble one, they feverishly insist. The failures lead to maneuvering and posturing. In "All the King's Men," Willie Stark's tragedy is believing that his public successes as a political leader can eliminate the pain of his private losses. His son Tom becomes paralyzed for life. When Stark proclaims that he will name a new hospital after the sick child, his wife shoots back: "These things don't matter. Having someone's name cut on a piece of stone. Getting it in the papers. All those things. Oh, Willie, he was my baby boy, he was our baby boy, and those things don't matter, they don't ever matter, don't you see."
Warren's political novel has lasted 40 years because, aside from the visceral strength of the prose, the story is also a treatment of American history. Warren was asked once, by Ralph Ellison, if he thought that certain themes are "basic to the American experience." He answered: The "first thing, without being systematic, that comes to mind without running off a week and praying about it, would be that America was based on a big promise -- a great big one: the Declaration of Independence . . . When you have to live with that in the house, that's quite a problem -- particularly when you've got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to do, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America -- you see, that saddle's going to jump now and then and it pricks."
With critics praising Warren for his "Miltonic profundity," he has not been known as a voice of dissent. It is in his work, though, like a seabed current. The malices he protests in his fiction spring from the line of Willie Stark that man is "conceived in sin and born in corruption." In rising from it, we find "a way by which the process of living can become Truth."
The power of dissent in Warren's work comes in waftings rather than blasts. He is not much for the apocalyptic. "Everybody wants a big solution to everything," he told an interviewer in 1974. "For a long time I would stop people in the street and explain to them what made the world change."
Warren wrote about personal change toward the end of his poem "Audubon: A Vision":
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.
As the nation's first poet laureate, Warren will advise the Library of Congress and give a lecture and a public reading. For his $36,000 stipend, America will get a bargain. And maybe, too, a burr under our saddle.