Vital Signs

Robert Penn Warren Remembered

Reading Joseph Blotner's biography revives my memories of Robert Penn Warren. I was summoned to his rooms at Silliman College on September 5, 1969. I was a freckled, red-haired 18-year-old in whom he may have seen an apparition from his past. "Show me the poems you wrote this summer," he demanded. I produced a sheaf of ragged verse horribly derivative of Dylan Thomas. Glancing through them he pronounced, "Boy, these poems don't scan." "Scan?" I asked, mystified. "You don't know how to scan? What are they teaching you boys these days?" He strode to the blackboard and wrote Donne's sonnet "If poysonous minerals." He then scanned and recited the poem, so overstressing every sibilant that he sprayed spittle on the chalk. John Donne made Red Warren salivate.

Over the course of the next hour I received the only formal training in poetics I ever got. I asked him why he didn't teach courses in poetry. "Can't be taught. Either you've got it or you don't. You do, but you need to be immersed in verse; and the only way is memorization. Next week you'll recite me the first 109 lines of Paradise Lost and show me your new poems."

The second week he listened to mv recitation, then leafed through the poems and said, "These are good, boy, but what I really want to see are the poems you write during examination week. Next Wednesday...

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