In my mid-twenties, I moved from Scotland to New Hampshire, taking up a teaching job at Dartmouth. I recall that I missed Scotland very badly, especially as I had established a close relationship with several poets there – Alastair Reid, Norman MacCaig, and Anne Stevenson. Each of these had exercised a very strong influence on me, shaping my understanding of what poetry was and why it mattered.
I didn’t have a terribly well-developed awareness of contemporary poetry in the U.S. at this time, although I had some favorites: Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur. But I didn’t really know their work well, not yet.
But I lucked out. Just across the border, in the village of West Wardsboro in Vermont, lived Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark. I met them through a mutual friend, and their openness to young people – especially young writers – was palpable. I took to Warren at once, and we became friends. Their house, near Mount Stratton, was a modern affair, open-plan, woodsy, unpretentious. There were several “shacks” on the property, and guests would occupy one or two of them. Warren and Clark each had their own writing shed.
I liked how they lived their lives: writing in the morning, breaking (in summer) for a swim in the cold pond on their property, where we would drink sherry on a small raft before lunch. Red – that was how he was known -- always took a nap after lunch, and then he went for a long walk in the woods. I loved joining him on those walks, and we talked mostly about poetry.
Warren was in his seventies when I met him. I only knew him for the last decade or so of his life. But he had come into his own as a poet after a long life of writing that included ten novels, including All the King’s Men, and lots of essays, even a play or two. He taught classes at Yale and elsewhere. In many ways he put before me a kind of model of how to assemble a literary life, a life in teaching, a life in poetry and prose. He told me never to bother about genre. “Write whatever you like, and pay no attention to critics.”
That was good advice, and I’ve ever since not worried about crossing the boundaries of genre. Although I’ve kept poetry at the center of my life, I’ve never fretted about whether I wrote poetry, fiction, criticism, or whatever. I worry about the quality of writing – not its genre.
Warren had, late in life, really found a deep poetic vein, and this inspired me then, much as it inspired me now. I often reread, for instance, a late poem of his called “Heart of Autumn.” It’s a poem written by an older man who sees the birds flying south. He wonders where they go, and where he will go. The poem rises to an amazing finale:
I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,
With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance--
Toward sunset, at a great height.
I can quite literally see Red Warren – with his craggy face -- standing in the woods, looking up at wild geese on their journey to god-knows-where. He asks himself: “Do I know my own story?”
There was a granular, off-kilter quality to his verse. The style looked back to Hardy, with its oddities of diction, its awkwardness, its sudden glories of expression. Warren didn’t mind asking big questions. He thought it was the poet’s job to reach for comprehension, to discover his or her place in the universe, to state boldly whatever could be stated.
I remember once coming to Warren with a sense of emptiness, saying that I hadn’t been able to write, or write well, for months. He looked at me sternly and said, “Cultivate leisure.”
He was right. I had been rushing about, trying too many things, wasting my energies. What I needed was long walks in the woods, time with friends, quiet reading. I dug into Hardy and Auden at Red’s insistence, and we talked about these poets. Warren would take my poems and comment frankly, urging me to ask large questions. “Don’t go small on me,” he once said.
I don’t want to go small on Warren. I want my own poems, as I move toward the next phase, to ask large questions. I want to see what can be seen.
It’s an astonishing gift, this life, the language that we find ourselves speaking and spoken by. We absorb the voices of the past and present and, if we’re lucky, we add a few lines, maybe a few poems. The important thing is that we participate in this great conversation.