Kristina Baumli

Know what is happening in your heart

Here is a poem by Robert Penn Warren called “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.

This poem, which was required reading somewhere along the line, always irked me and I never bothered to think about why. (By the way, I saw and heard Warren read in person in maybe 1979 or 1980, at the University of Virginia, although I don't think he read the irksome poem. He did read “Bearded Oaks” as an encore and received a prolonged standing ovation.)

Why am I irked? I listened to a discussion of the evolution of Warren's racism (see below) and then I knew a little more about why.  It’s the absolute way in which northward movement is naturalized. It happens, the young southerner doesn’t see it, can’t see it, won’t see it, and the logic (it’s a certain season and “therefore” they go north) is fixed. Sure, in the poem he's a young boy and so “I do not know what was happening in my heart” we ascribe to innocence and inexperience. And yet this is not the kind of northern migration that one will ever actually come to know by experience; it’s a priori true. There's a dishonesty here in the slight implication that later one will know what is in one's heart.

Later Robert Penn Warren, who had been a racist, thought of himself as a reformed racist.

Syndicate content