From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes.
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.
The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.
Look! Look! he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error, and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
The last thrush is still, the last bat
Now cruises in his sharp hieroglyphics. His wisdom
Is ancient, too, and immense. The star
Is steady, like Plato, over the mountain.
If there were no wind we might, we think, hear
The earth grind on its axis, or history
Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.
– by Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren would be better known as a brilliant poet if he were not such a brilliant novelist. I first encountered his overwhelming genius when I read “All the King’s Men”, an historical novel based on the life of Huey Long. It seemed like every word on every page was placed with steady purpose – that every word choice was important and deeper than I could fathom. Reading Robert Penn Warren was the first time that I really “got” how much genius goes into great writing – that writing isn’t just a gushing of what you want to say, but a composition of reinforcing meanings and sounds that work like the lacy steel in a suspension bridge to carry bigger truths. It was the first time I had the awareness and sense to marvel at great writing.
In his poetry, Robert Penn Warren shows the same control and purpose. Unlike untrained poets, he is not content to gush forth with sentimental thoughts of death or love. Unlike academic poets, he is not content to use language to construct meaningless cathedrals of “experimental lyricism”. Instead, he works at his craft until the poem thrills with its language and provokes thought with its meaning.
The first few lines introduce a sight we can relate to – a hawk flying through shadows near the end of a day. In RPW’s hands, though, he transforms the shape of a hawk flying into a scythe, and I realize he’s describing something I’ve seen dozens of times, but never had the imagination to make that very plausible connection.
And then he carries the image a step further – what is this scythe cutting down? Another day – which brings us to the stalks Time, and then to the harvest of this scythe – “The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.”
BOOM! In a few words, RPW has taken me from a fresh description of a hawk flying to the gold of my error – my failings, flaws and mortality.
Then, to put me further in my place, he tells me I don’t matter. The hawk is unforgiving of my error, but only because the hawk doesn’t understand Time or error – indeed, the whole world is unforgiven. In the steady, immense, ancient turnings of the world, I amount to less than a bat, and all of history amounts to a leaking pipe in the cellar of the world.
Now, just think about that description of history! In utter silence, we think we might hear “history/Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” Wow! Have you ever lain awake at night because a tiny little drip in a remote part of the house is driving you nuts with its tiny but incessant rhythm? That drip takes over and dominates your mind. It’s tiny but powerful enough to ruin your night.
In the sense of ancient mountains and steady wisdom, the tribulations of our history are nothing. The crying out of tens of thousands dying in Haiti does not disturb the steady grinding of the earth on its axis. In the context of time, the heavy gold of my own errors and faults is no more than one stalk in a vast, immeasurable harvest.
But human history is like a dripping pipe in the cellar. It is what we hear, it grabs our focus and, for the time we lie awake, it is all we can think about.