Book Review: “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce” by Robert Penn Warren


“A strange land we wandered to eastern horizons
Where blueness of mountains swam in their blue–
In blue beyond name.” 


Robert Penn Warren is probably remembered more today as a novelist than as a poet. While it is true that he did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1946  for his famous novel All the King’s Men, he actually won twice as many Pulitzers as a poet (in 1958 and 1979). He remains the only writer to win Pulitzers as both a poet and novelist.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a 64-page, book-length poem, was published in 1983 when Warren was in his late 70s.  It is about  ”the last Indian war,” about the Nez Perce’s fighting flight from Idaho into Montana and Yellowstone and north toward Canada.

To write a 68-page poem about an one-hundred-year-old  historical event in the west is, by any definition, audacious. For that reason alone Warren should be admired. That he succeeds so often in what he attempts should make us consider Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce one of the essential, late-20th-century works of American literature.

Warren makes demands on his audience. But it is not the kind of demands that Modernists make. Warren is not in his heart a Continental poet but an American one… but an American poet of a more intellectual kind. He is not Frost or Sandburg. I have thought of him at times as an American Auden, with less musicality. In the American literary tradition he is more Melville than Whitman, more mind than spirit.

In the most successful parts of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce we see Warren at his poetic best. That is the greatest merit I think of the long poem. It reveals poetic character because it so challenges poetic skill. It is the ultimate poetic risk.

I like Warren, even when he fails… and he does fail at times in Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Failure though in a great undertaking is not the same as failure in a easy thing. Indeed, sometimes in poetry, failure is more admirable than success. It is certainly more interesting. And Chief Joseph of the Nez Perceis above all else an interesting poem and one of the best books written about Montana and the West.



Some favorite lines

What does our blood,
in arteries deep, heaving with pulse-thrust
In its eternal midnight, remember?
We stir in sleep. We, too, belong
To the world, and it is spread for our eyes.

* * * * * * * * * *

But could he forget
The bones of his of his fathers, and the Old Wisdom?
Nor eyes of the fathers that watch from the darkness?

* * * * * * * * * *

Into a dark place my father had gone.
You know how the hunter, at dawn, waits,
String notched, where the buck comes to drink. Waits,
While first light brightens highest spruce bough, eyes slitted
like knife wounds, breath with no motion. My father
Waits thus in his dark place. Waiting, sees all.

* * * * * * * * * *

Remember your dead now lonely under
High stars with no names. Snow comes soon. In darkness, awake,
In new mountains, you stare up to see, bright as steel,
Stars wheel in unfamiliar formations. You know not
That sky. Nor that land, nor where foot leads.

* * * * * * * * * *

He knew– could see afar, beyond all night–
Those ancient eyes, in which love and judgement
Hold equal glitter, and, with no blink,
Strove always toward him. And he–
He strove to think of things outside
of Time, in some
Great whirling sphere, like truth unnamable. Thus–
Standing there, he might well,
Already in such midnight, have foreknown
The end.




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