Monday, April 11, 2011

Tell Me a Story by Robert Penn Warren

April is National Poetry Month, and it is also the month in which the first Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Penn Warren, was born. Warren was a novelist and poet and an early proponent of New Criticism--the method of close reading of text with emphasis on literary devices such as simile and metaphor. (If you don't know what New Criticism is, read about it. It's the way most of us read poetry now.)

Here is one of his most well-known poems, "Tell Me a Story." I chose it because it provides great discussion about the New Criticism, or objectivist, method of reading a poem (ignoring author biography, etc. and keeping strictly to the text) and other methods of analysis.

Tell Me a Story


Long ago, in Kentucky, I a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.


Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

Robert Penn Warren

In a close reading of this text--using New Criticism--it's difficult not to notice the emphasis the speaker places on "north" and "northward." The speaker hears, rather than sees, the geese noisily making their way across the sky, and knows they are flying north, but needs to confirm this fact by stating that it was "the season before the elderberry blooms." Then the speaker repeats the direction twice, not wanting to admit or not quite believing that they are leaving.

In this context I would read this as a poem about time and longing for the past. The flying geese symbolize time passing; the direction of their flight is away from the speaker, which to me is a poignant representation of loss of something past--childhood? Loved ones? Home? All of these? The second section is a longing for an escape from the present "moment" and "mania." The speaker desires a story, like a child would, something "of deep delight." Here, the speaker puts the subject right out there--"Time"--but asks the storyteller not to "pronounce its name." Perhaps what the speaker wishes to escape from is change.

But what about author biography? Although I am the first to suggest that poetry can be fully read and and enjoyed without knowledge of the author, it can nonetheless be fascinating to consider how a poet's history affects his work. In this case, Warren was from Kentucky and felt deeply rooted in his southern heritage. He grew up hearing stories about the Civil War from his grandfather, and he did not like the way the South changed in the early twentieth century. This adds a more literal layer of understanding to the speaker's sadness at the geese flying north and away from him. Now, the passing of time symbolized by the geese can be read as the passing away of the old southern culture, the past flying "northward" as the south is "northernized." The story for which the speaker longs may harken to the stories Warren heard as a child about the Civil War, when the South believed it was indomitable and would last forever.

How does Warren's biography change your perception of this poem? Do you prefer to know or not to know about an author's history when you read a poem? What about authorial intent? If an author says, "My poem means this," must the reader agree?

P.S. Just remembered--Warren was blind in one eye since his childhood. How does that affect the speaker's insistence on "hearing" the geese?

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