Robert Penn Warren After Audubon

Robert Penn Warren after Audubon
The Work of Aging and the Quest for Transcendence in His Later Poetry

Joseph R. Millichap

Southern Literary Studies
Fred Hobson, Series Editor
Louisiana State University Press

Baton Rouge 70808


Page Count:  




978-0-8071-3456-6 CLOTH


5.5 X 8.5


December 2009


►"Robert Penn Warren was a permanent poet, as future generations will demonstrate. Fashions rise and ebb but Warren's greatest dramatic lyrics stand with the best American poetry of the twentieth century, with Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and Hart Crane. Millichap's book is a poignant analysis of Warren's triumphant struggle to achieve a secular transcendence in the poems of his old age. As someone who continues to miss Red Warren, I believe he would have endorsed much in Millichap's book." Harold Bloom, author of The Best Poems of the English Language:From Chaucer through Robert Frost◄

►"The major critical studies of twentieth-century American poetry agree that Robert Penn Warren has taken his place among the giants and, moreover, that his greatest accomplishment began in Audubon: A Vision and continued in the six collections that followed. In that remarkable wake have also come terrific studies of what made Warren's poetry brilliantly and passionately introspective, simultaneously public and personal, but none is more intuitive, informed, or illuminating than Joseph R. Millichap's Robert Penn Warren after 'Audubon'. I thought I knew Warren's sequences, his antinomies, his orchestrations, his composition by parallelism that rivals Whitman, his allusions, echoes, and absorptions of the circles of poetry. But Millichap proves to be an invaluable guide, a reader of Warren no other reader can afford to miss. Hurrah for this splendid book!" Dave Smith, author of Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry◄

Despite nearly universal critical acclaim for Robert Penn Warren's later poetry, much about this large body of work remains unexplored, especially the psychological sources of these poems' remarkable energy. In this groundbreaking work, Warren scholar Joseph R. Millichap takes advantage of current research on developmental psychology, gerontology, and end-of-life studies to offer provocative new readings of Warren's later poems, which he defines as those published after Audubon: A Vision (1969). In these often intricate poems, Millichap sees something like an autobiographical epic focused on the process of aging, the inevitability of death, and the possibility of transcendence. Thus Warren's later poetry reviews an individual life seen whole, contemplates mortality and dissolution, and aspires to the literary sublime.

Millichap locates the beginning of Warren's late period in the extraordinary collection Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974, basing his contention on the book's complex, indeed obsessive sequencing of new, previously published, and previously collected poems unified by themes of time, memory, age, and death. Millichap offers innovative readings of Or Else and Warren's five other late gatherings of poemsCan I See Arcturus from Where I Stand?: Poems 1975; Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Being Here: Poetry 1977ñ1980; Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980; and Altitudes and Extensions 1980-1984.

Among the autobiographical elements Millichap brings into his careful readings are Warren's loneliness in these later years, especially after the deaths of family members and friends; his alternating feelings of personal satisfaction and emptiness toward his literary achievements; and his sense of the power, and at times the impotence, of memory. Millichap's analysis explores how Warren often returned to images and themes of his earlier poems, especially those involving youth and midlife, with the new perspective given by advancing age and time's passage. Millichap also relates Warren's work to that of other poets who have dealt profoundly with memory and age, including Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and, at times, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and the whole English and American nineteenth-century Romantic tradition.

► "The poetry of Robert Penn Warren's last years was the strongest work of his more than a half century of poetic achievement. Joseph Millichap's insight and scholarship, his philosophical power and psychological depth, have yielded an illuminating, and, more than that, a wise study of Warren's late work. Millichap renders with care and sensitivity how this late poetry seeks to do 'the work of aging,' seeking, first, to gain a reflective purchase on a life lived which comprehends both its bright and its dark moments in one whole, and, finally, in the presence of death, seeking to face with courage the most profound and least answerable questions of being." John Burt, editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren◄

Joseph R. Millichap is Professor Emeritus of English at Western Kentucky University. He is the author of five other books, including Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction and A Backward Glance: The Southern Renaissance, the Autobiographical Epic, and the Classical Legacy.