Robert Penn Warren, as a writer viewed the world through two lenses: one was the lens of the perceptive — the wanderer in time who encounters phenomena and tends to make conclusions about their significance. The other was the lens of the stationary — the constant. Thus, RPW tended to gravitate towards hisorical narrative as a means of developing his characters. The following two poems exemplify RPW’s lens of the world:
Truth is what you cannot tell. Truth is for the grave Truth is only the flowing shadow cast By the wind-tossed elm When sun is bright and grass well groomed.
Truth is the downy feather You blow from your lips to shine in sunlight
Truth is the trick that history, Over and over again, plays on us. Its shape is unclear in shadow or brightness, And its utterance the whisper we strive to catch, Or the scream of a locomotive desperately Blowing for the tragic crossing. Truth Is the curse laid upon us in the garden.
Truth is the serpent’s joke,
And is the sun-stung dust-devil that swirls On the lee side of God when he drowses.
Truth is the long soliloquy Of the dead all their long night. Truth is what would be told by the dead If they could hold a conversation With the living and thus fulfill obligation to us.
Their accumulated wisdom must be immense.
The serpent’s joke that man can know truth. In the end we just tell narratives — stories of our perceptions. And perhaps the Dead might correct us if they could — oh how wise they would be. How history taunts us, tempting us that we might be immortal, or at least our presence immortal.
Angelic, lonely, autochthuonous, one white Cloud lolls, unmoving, on an azure which Is called the sky, and in gold drench of light, No leaf , However gold, may stir, nor a single blade twitch,
Though autumn-honed, of the cattail by the pond. No voice Speaks, since here no voice knows The language in which a tongue might now rejoice. So silence, a transparent flood, thus overflows.
In it, I drown, and from my depth my gaze Yearns, faithful, toward that cloud’s integrity, As though I’ve now forgotten all other nights and days, Anxiety born of the future’s snare, or the nag of history.
What if, to my back, thin-shirted, brown grasses yet bring The heat of the summer, or beyond the perimeter northward, wind, Snow-bellied lurks? I stare at the cloud, white, motionless. I cling. To our single existence, timeless twinned.
Poems by Robert Penn Warren, published in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Ed. John Burt).