April 14, 2011

21 Days/ 21 Poems: A Poem About Place

Boyhood in Tobacco Country

All I can dream tonight is an autumn sunset,
Red as a hayrick burning. The groves
Not yet leafless, are black against red, as though,
Leaf by leaf, they were hammered of bronze blackened
To timelessness. Far off, from the curing barns of tobacco
Blue smoke, in pale streaking, clings
To the world’s dim, undefinable bulge.

Far past slashed stubs, homeward or homeless, a black
Voice deeper and bluer than sea-heart, sweeter
Than sadness or sorghum, utters the namelessness
Of life to the birth of the first star,
And again, I am walking a dust-silent, dusky lane, and try
To forget my own name and be part of the world.

I move in timelessness. For the deep and premature midnight
Of woodland, I hear the first whip-o-will’s
Precious grief, and my young heart
As darkling I stand, yearns for a grief
To be worthy of that sound. Ah, fool! Meanwhile,
Arrogant, eastward, lifts the slow dawn of the harvest moon.

Enormous, smoky, smoldering, it stirs.
First visibly, then paling in retardation, it begins
The long climb zenithward to preside
There whitely on what the year has wrought.
What have the years wrought? I walk the house.
Oh, grief! Oh, joy! Tonight
The same season’s moon holds sky-height.

The dark roof hides the sky.

“Boyhood in Tobacco Country” by Robert Penn warren. Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980. Random House, 1980.

I first encountered Robert Penn Warren’s poetry in the Reading Room of the U.S. Consulate in Kingston, Jamaica. What drew me to the poems was the subtle intelligence behind the poems and the attempt to create community in a post-agrarian setting in which religious values were in decline.

I was moved then as I am now by the voice in “Boyhood in Tobacco Country” and the speaker’s yearning “To forget my own name and be part of the world,” in the face of a landscape that will that is oblivious to human passion.

And yet, the speaker despite his awareness of nature’s disregard, yearns to respond to  "the first whip-o-will’s/ Precious grief,” and to be “To be worthy of that sound.” The act of witnessing becomes the speaker’s answer to the “namelessness” of the landscape and is in a sense, heroic.

About Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King's Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.


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