Southern Comfort

Claude Rawson

  • Jefferson Davis gets his citizenship back by Robert Penn Warren
    Kentucky/Transatlantic Book Service, 114 pp, £4.85, December 1980, ISBN 0 8131 1445 4
  • Being here: Poetry 1977-1980 by Robert Penn Warren
    Secker, 109 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 36650 9
  • Ways of light: Poems 1972-1980 by Richard Eberhart
    Oxford, 68 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 19 502737 X

‘In 1979 Robert Penn Warren – novelist, critic, and dean of American poets – returned to his native Todd County, Kentucky, to attend ceremonies in honor of another native son – Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whose United States citizenship had just been restored, ninety years after his death, by a special act of Congress.’ The scene is set for a fine old feast of Southern Nostalgia, a versatile literary property whose manifestations range from memorable poignancies of anguished belonging, self-division and loss, to a vulgar stereotype of vaguely dyspeptic graciousness, all mint-julep and magnolia and nagging resentful memories of old gallantries downtrodden. From Warren at his best, as from Faulkner, and the Allen Tate of The Fathers, we expect the former. The blurb from which I quoted arouses apprehensions of the latter. Warren’s latest book falls somewhere in between, alas tilting somewhat to the blurb.

We begin with memories of the author’s grandfather, sitting under a cedar tree smoking his cob pipe, from whom the author imbibes lessons of gritty wisdom. Grandfather astonished him one day by remarking ‘musingly ... that he had been a Union man,’ opposed to secession and knowing that ‘slavery couldn’t last,’ though Warren ‘gathered from conversation that there must have been slaves in the family.’ He fought, however, for the Confederacy as a volunteer, despite his opposite sympathy, because ‘you went with your people’; and later he ‘even deplored segregation’, thus preserving his stubborn upright individualism to the end. His fidelity to the South, we infer, adorns the ostensibly un-Southern attitudes in a peculiarly Southern way, the gallantry of honourable principle parading its loyalty to the glamorously unprincipled by being sacrificed in the name of honour. Grandfather told Warren about Jefferson Davis, evidently seen as a similar sort of figure, who was preparing for the progress and education of the Negro but who accepted the Presidency of the Confederacy of slave-states. The case, like that of grandfather himself, is presented as a monument to that high-toned gradualism which requires the South to be allowed to take its gentle time over conceded wrongs: rather as Warren himself thought the Negro wasn’t ready for integration at the time of the celebrated Agrarian manifesto, I’ll take my stand (1930), and even told Ralph Ellison and Eugene Walter in 1957 that this unreadiness had been an ‘objective’ fact in 1929. The posture does Warren an injustice. The early statement is less crudely inhumane than it is made to seem, and the subsequent record is honourable. But the mental set remains. It is as though Augustine said that ‘objectively’ God hadn’t been ready for his chastity to begin with.

Jefferson Davis was apparently not a good military leader and not a politician, but was ‘a gentleman’ and brave, and stuck to the rights of the state he represented, Mississippi, as a ‘sacred honor’: ‘How odd it all seems now – when the sky hums with traffic, and eight-lane highways stinking of high-test rip across hypothetical state lines, and half the citizens don’t know or care where they were born just so they can get somewhere fast.’ These highways are a familiar feature in the landscape of Warren’s poems and novels (the most memorable is perhaps in the opening of All the King’s Men, and there are some in the new book of poems). They suggest a forcing or mutilation of the natural and vital. Here, the eloquent painfulness has curdled into a lordly stereotype of contempt for the rootless modern hordes.

So Davis led the Confederacy, with honour and a certain Quixotic failure. Meanwhile the North was getting richer, and preparing to build all those future highways, while the South, chivalrous and doomed, had to lose. ‘The modern men won,’ the new men like Sherman, advocate of ‘total war’ (the theme that the Civil War is the prototype of later global wars is also a favourite of Warren’s), so different from the gallant Southern generals who led their own troops in person. There is more than a whiff here of that traditional antithesis (of which every age since Homer seems to throw up a variant instance) between the gentlemanly valour of skilled personal fighting and the mean upstart butchery of the missile weapon, or whatever new refinement of it calls for revision of received notions of gallantry at any given time. The new missile is often despised, not because it is more efficiently murderous, but because it is further from the immediacy of bloodshed and the living feel of death. Thus we are told that Grant, who conducted war on a ‘balance sheet’ of killing, ‘flinched from the sight of blood and could eat only overdone meat’. It all has to do with the victory of the new men over the old honour, of money over class, of the machine over nature.

The Confederates lost, and Davis was captured in humiliating circumstances, which have themselves been mythologised by both sides. He was victimised by a variety of cruelties and chicaneries which reflect no credit on the victors, and was disenfranchised. Later a monument was erected to his memory on which, in 1923, when it was nearing completion, the Ku Klux Klan were allowed to burn a great cross. ‘In justice,’ Mr Warren feels compelled to add, ‘that was the only activity in Todd County of the Klan in my memory ... And I never knew of any Klan performances in my natal section, the two lynchings I can think of that took place there being of a more informal order.’

In 1978, Jefferson Davis had his citizenship restored posthumously by the Congress and President Carter, an event which rated brief back-page mention, except in Todd County, Kentucky, where Davis was born and where the media ran to front-page coverage.

The celebrations were somehow lacking in the finer graces. At this point the narrative turns from poignancies of proud defeat to wave upon wave of billowing bathos, orchestrated by a malignant fate. The attendance was often poor. One night was ruined by rain. President Carter did not attend, though a letter from him was read out. The whole business somehow bore the stamp of the Carter Presidency: well-intentioned, honourable, open to every mischance that poor timing, faltering tact and sheer haplessness could bring about.

It was rich, too, in the kind of gauchely well-meaning grotesquerie that is characteristic of some American reconciliation-rituals. A ‘historical parade’ was organised ‘by one of the most highly regarded citizens of the region, an efficient, handsome, witty man, married to a very attractive and very blond young woman’. Lest you should wonder why the colour of the lady’s hair should be made such a point of, the next sentence reveals that the respected citizen is ‘the great-grandson of a Comanche chief’.

To fill in the historical detail, and presumably further to highlight the multi-racial togetherness, the part-Comanche organiser wanted an old farm wagon, ‘with appropriate mules, to be driven by a certain grizzled old black of the outlying country’, who first said he was ‘too old to be bothered by such goings-on’ but then thought he might do it ‘if he had that stuff that used to come sealed up in a quart fruit jar and looked like water but wasn’t’. Asked if he would settle instead for ‘some of that store-bought stuff that comes in a big, flat bottle, brown, not white ... the kind of stuff white folks drinks’, he said yes, ‘If it held as much as a quart jar’, with mildly unpredictable (or, as Mr Warren alternatively suggests, perhaps predictable) consequences. What is a little disturbing in the account of all this charming folksiness is the author’s evident sense that this just reflects the warm common humanity of the old folks back home, with perhaps a hint of a feeling that the South (give or take the odd more or less informal lynching) had had things right all along, human-relations-wise. The Warren of Segregation and Who speaks for the Negro?, so alive to the raw unresolved complexity of the human facts, has here succumbed in a particularly heavy way to the sirens of nostalgia.

Warren’s book of poems is also nostalgic, and also begins with childhood memories, including a glimpse of old grandfather, slow with years, who ‘one night had roused to a blood-yell, dreaming Fort Pillow or Shiloh’. The mood oscillates between Southern Gothic and Southern Idyll. The opening poem is about an ‘October Picnic Long Ago’ when things still appeared unfallen in the old Kentucky home, ‘before the auto had come, or many’: a faithful retainer called Bumbo saying, ‘“Yassuh, here’tis” ... handing reins to the mister’ (the poem’s, and the volume’s, first line), and the doomed beauty and graciousness of the ‘old time’, with mother singing

          while the shadows, sly,
Leashed the Future up, like a hound with a slavering fang.

‘Before the auto had come, or many’ – that was to be the Future, those highways, as in ‘Trips to California’, or again:

Fifty-odd years ago if you
Were going to see Shoshone
Falls, the road was not, God knows, slicked
Up for the wheeled hordes of Nature-
Lovers gawking in flowered shirts
From Hawaii, and little bastards
strewing candy wrappers as
They come. No – rough roads then, gravel
Sometimes and, too, lonesomeness: no
Pervasive stink of burnt high-test.

The ‘Nature-/Lovers gawking’, reader, are ironic. Real Nature is scarred and crippled by the highways, not loved by them. And the poet seems to want to return the violence by breaking the gawkers in two, and their ‘little bas-/tards strewing candy wrappers’ as well. Seldom has a metrical ploy carried such animus.

The poem is called ‘Part of What Might Have Been a Short Story, Almost Forgotten (octosyllabics)’. It is a work of some power, in a characteristic Warren mode: evocations of violent or menacing incident, fragments of narrative shot through with a peculiar poetic intensity. Warren said in an interview in 1970 that he couldn’t write poems during a phase of short-story writing. Novels were no problem, because different in ‘scale’: ‘The original idea ... for a short story might lead to a poem, but as long as I was dabbling with stories the story would usually pre-empt it ... When I stopped writing stories ... I somehow felt free to regard the little things that had seemed made for stories as now appropriate for poems ...’ Several of the most vivid poems in Being here are, in a sense, potential short stories, transposed to a lyric medium: a sketched scene, a childhood incident, a remembered fait divers, usually charged with intimations of mortality or the harsh tang of a real death. One such poem, ‘Recollection in Upper Ontario, From Long Before’, is dedicated to that other Grand Old Man of American Letters, Richard Eberhart, almost exactly Warren’s coeval (Eberhart was born in 1904, Warren in 1905), who has also published a new book of poems.

Eberhart, unlike Warren, loves highways:

If I drive a thousand miles
I feel good.
All those cars none hitting the other,
What a sense of order ...

Who has not loved
To fling himself
Against the New Jersey Turnpike,
Find the Bridge that goes pure North!

Eberhart’s lines, like much of his writing, may come a little pat. But they have a generosity of spirit and an unforced pleasure in life to which it is a relief to turn after Warren’s book.

Warren has a poem called ‘Lesson in History’, a series of two-line sketches, or loaded questions, each hinting at some unexpected twist concealed beneath our customary reading of events. ‘Did the lips of Judas go dry and cold on our Lord’s cheek?’ The examples are tightly encapsulated – short stories in miniature, if you like:

Is it true that your friend was secretly happy when
The diagnostician admitted the growth was, in fact, malignant?

This particular paradoxical ‘happiness’ has become a theme in fiction. An older example from life, currently a subject of attention, is that of Henry James’s sister Alice. It is perhaps a counterpart to those creative elations once experienced by consumptives, and this form of the image is, incidentally, more common in our culture than Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor makes out. Warren’s lines are not ‘happy,’ and have of course every right not to be. Their haunting irrationality shocks us like a cry of pain. The ‘story’ they offer to open up into, like one or two other vignettes in the poem, might easily be imagined as of a brooding hothouse sort, like a Bette Davis movie.

Eberhart has long been interested in a similar paradox about cancer cells. The interest perhaps goes back to his mother’s death from cancer when he was 18, and to the strong influence we are told that this had on his poetic career. In a famous earlier poem called ‘The Cancer Cells’, he saw in the galloping cells a menacing but beautiful thing, ‘like art itself, like the artist’s mind ... Originals of imagination’. Along with its arresting equation between mutancy and making new, the poem also carries some old ideas: that poetry kills, that death is the mother of beauty, that ‘the stance of the artist’s make,/The fixed form’ issues from imagination’s riot, that this riot has its austerities and severities, ‘beautiful gestures/Quick and lean’, that nature is cruel and indifferent to our pain, that this is our condition and what the artist values, in his ‘disinterest’. In the new book, the paradox turns to a simpler affirmation:

When an hour is harmonious
    Destruction lurks
    Inside the ear.

When you think of good life
    Inside your body
    A wild cell ...

Lover to lover, eye to eye,
    Destruction lives, also,
    Inside the eye.

Walk across a swinging bridge,
    Make love in the afternoon.
    That’s it. And fit.

Such affirmations hardly deny that ‘horror of Truth’ which Warren, in another poem, describes as lying in wait, as ‘a tumor grows/Somewhere inside your brain’. But there is nothing of Warren’s sense of a silent cry in the Gothic dark, no luxuriating poignancy, no transference of personal expression to the outwardly more neutral ground of ‘story’. The lines are full of feeling for life, an untrumpeted but unbreakable grace. They are the true ‘gaiety of language’, product of malheur: Stevens would have honoured them, though he could not have written them.

It is incidentally a modest token of the difference between these two volumes that Warren speaks a great deal about Truth, almost always with a capital T, and always with a sense that momentous stirrings of the self are taking place. Eberhart’s truth is more sparingly invoked, usually more specific, and always lower case. A poem of reverence for the body, while ‘seeing the body fail’, earns its right to ‘state the truth/That truth is beyond the body’ by its unfussy literal acknowledgement of the ‘gross fact’ of bodily imperfection.

The poem, ‘Offering to the Body’, assumes some slightly faded grandeurs, and one or two dandy gestures which no longer sit easily. They belonged to a rich Romantic tradition of poems about the passing of youth and the approach of death, and to a secondary self-mocking or ironic variation on these themes (as in Laforgue or Stevens). If, as Stevens put it, they ‘repeated what/Was in the script’, it was not a bad script, which Stevens himself was not above repeating. Eberhart does not match the grandeurs of ‘Sunday Morning’, or the richly orchestrated ironies of ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’, but he is seldom mannered, and his entirely knowing yet unself-conscious appropriation of the script has a humble straightforwardness which I salute. The ironic note undercuts without cutting down, values and reveres experience without cherishing or preening itself, though it takes in the poet’s youthful self-preening.

Thus the poem opens:

I give up to my body the gross fact
That it is not perfect, as I expected
When in youth I preened myself in my excess,
Believing that nothing of it was suspect.

What long day-shine of ramifying revery
I enjoyed in the apple orchard and jungle
Of extreme vegetation when I was replete
With an ardor so powerful it was exact.

Eberhart elsewhere pays tribute to Dylan Thomas, and comparisons with ‘Fern Hill’ may suggest themselves. But they only show the distance from Thomas’s self-intoxicated heavings. The lines instead retain what few poets in the tradition have affected to retain, when speaking of those lost intensities of childhood. The ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’, as Wordsworth called them, are usually shown, in praise or rejection or a combination of both, as tending to the frantic, and not as ‘an ardor so powerful it was exact’. This is the poem’s true honour, I think, a readiness to value in turbulent energies, not an orgiastic vigour which age can glamorise or patronise, but an exactitude denied to the poet after their loss. So several decades earlier the maenadic ‘cancer cells’, mutant agents of misrule, had been described as exactitudes, ‘just phenomena to the calculating eye’, with ‘racy, beautiful gestures/Quick and lean’.

Like all of Eberhart’s work, this volume is extremely uneven. There is a guileless facility and a tolerance of the banal which are the obverse of an unpretentious honesty off its guard or uninterested in guards. The ardour so powerful that it was exact seldom got into his attempts at Whitmanian rhapsodising, though his attractive modesty has checked potential excesses of self-indulgence in that mode. More insidious is this sort of thing:

What stirs imagination is the impossibility
Of honesty because of complexity,
You would think there was an honesty –

a loping garrulous sub-lecturese which sometimes befalls American poets when they put their wiseacre thinking caps on, and of which some of Stevens’s later poems are a metrically more fastidious variant, with pretensions to philosophic rigour which Eberhart would probably blush to make.

But there are many rewards, large and small: ‘Under the Hill’, a delicately meditative anticipation of death, rich with tenderness for the earth and for life; a delightful piece of literary whimsy called ‘The Bones of Coleridge’; two elegies for Robert Lowell; ‘The Play’, an attractive variation on the theme of the Aeolian Harp. Some deft Stevens pastiche, too:

The crows do not know what they are doing
When they are cawing. A caw god says caw.
They caw, you take it for granted.

Stevens and Eberhart were friends near the end of Stevens’s life, and some energetic insistence seems to have taken place between them to the effect that Stevens’s work had not been an influence on Eberhart’s, despite anything critics might say. Reading between the lines of Stevens’s published letters, I suspect that it was Stevens who needed convincing. But one poem in this new book is both an imitation and a kind of answer to the Florida poems of Stevens’s early volumes, which set up their own special kind of mythical South. Florida was there presented as a musky and torrid land, ultimately barren and to be rejected for the more wintry imagination of the North, as in ‘Farewell to Florida’, that poem which was a kind of farewell also to the ‘Venereal Soil’ of his first volume, Harmonium. Here is Eberhart’s ‘Opposition’, the same opposites perhaps, differently and more richly apprehended at each end, and valued differently:

Wildness of nature is in Florida,
Where senses open to the enveloping heat,
Where no Puritan lives, persons respond to excess,
The lust of the idea of Paradise ...

Tameness of nature holds back the North,
Desolations of the past eroding the present,
The long, heavy shadow of the Puritans
Teaches the severe. They thought life could be better,
Prayed to God not to do anything wrong,
Held back their passion, aimed to kill,
Burned as witches free life-loving girls.

Stevens, lovingly preoccupied with his poetic imagination, did not always take in such human particulars, and the greater master may be felt to have been the smaller for it.