Here are a few thoughts on Penn Warren that factor into an assessment of his work:
First, I think RPW is currently underestimated as your professor observes.
That may be due in part to the very long time it has taken for a standard "collected"
or "complete" edition of his work to appear. I've had conversations with a buddy
of mine on this issue, and both of us were surprised his "Collected Poems" had not
appeared, since we both knew it was "in the making"--my buddy knows John Burt
(the editor of the project), and we waited and waited and waited for the
published volume to come out. Now that the book has appeared (LSU Press, 1998),
it illustrates both why Burt had such a hard time bringing the book out and perhaps
one reason RPW's undervalued--there are at times as many as five or six different
published versions of a given Warren poem! He may be undervalued because he's
a "moving target," always revising and frequently making substantive revisions.
It's tough to know a given Warren poem. I've had the experience myself of reading
a poem in an anthology, only to find it a very different poem in the volume where it
originally appeared and/or in the New and Selected 1923-43 and/or the New&S.
1923-85. A look at the two published versions of Brothers to Dragons can
serve as an example. You may have heard some or all of this, so pardon me
if I'm repeating things your prof. said in championing him or teaching his work.
A second reason why he may have received less attention than he deserves is,
like many poets, his work has gone out of print quickly. He was published by
some pretty big name presses (Random House et al), but that, strangely enough, means a quick run and
no reprints. His work was not long and consistently
before the eyes of readers, critics, and other poets. I am not sure of this, but I
think at one time around 1985-90, I tried to get a large sampling of his work
and only New and Selected 1923-85 was available, and that's a drop in the
bucket when compared to the 16 volumes he produced. I am fortunate that the
University of Cincinnati has one of the biggest collections of modern and
contemporary poetry in the country--The Elliston Poetry Room--and I was able
to read a great deal of his work in the original published volumes through that
source. A third reason he may not be as highly regarded at this moment is his
membership in or association with the Fugitives and the Agrarians, two
"movements" that were short lived, and I think folks thought of Penn Warren
as "twice dead" in some strange way by association.
Those may be some of the reasons he has suffered in the last three decades.
However, RPW has some major-league work. His new edition (1979) of
Brothers to Dragons is a fantastic book-length poem, and so is Audubon: A
Vision, and it wasn't so long ago that Penn Warren was a powerhouse man-of-
letters. He is probably the most highly awarded, and credentialed poet in
American literary history, and still the only writer to win a Pulitzer in both
fiction and poetry. He garnered 3 Pulitzers, 2 National Book Awards,
a Bollingen Prize, a Rhodes Scholarship, the first ever Poet Laureate ship
of the US, a MacArthur foundation fellowship, 2 Guggenheim fellowships,
was on both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he wrote perhaps the most influential
"textbook" on poetry in the 20th century. None of these things makes him a
great poet; prizes and titles aren't poems, but I think they do show he was
very highly regarded throughout his career, and that some reevaluation of him
is warranted, since he has gone from a position of high regard to nearly off
the radar screen. I think his works Promises, 1957; Audubon: A Vision, 1969;
and Brothers to Dragons (the revised 1979 edition by LSU Press) are great
volumes, and it should be the core of any reassessment of his work, and the
"variorum" of Burt's Collected Poems should also be carefully examined
because (and I know this is a bold statement, so take it with a grain of salt
or a brace of Penn Warren) not since Emily Dickinson has a poet had such an
impressive "shifting" or improvisational body of work. Like Dickinson,
RAW can take the core of a poem and rework it several times to come up
with two or more distinct and equally wonderful versions, instead of a linear
improvement from version to version. Well worth looking into in my opinion.
Now, while my opinion of Warren has certainly
been raised thanks to a careful reading of his work,
I'm not sure I agree with the professor's assessment
of him as the unsung hero of 20th century poetry.
Any thoughts? What do you folks think of Warren?
Does he stand a chance?