BOOKS AND THE CULTURE ROBERT PENN WARREN was chosen last month to become the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Now Anglophiles in this country can congratulate themselves and the nation on having achieved a new parity with Britain. Or can they? The British tradition of the laureate dates from the seventeenth century, and the duties laid upon the poet included the writing of court odes to celebrate the state. That, Mr. Warren will not do. He told the New York Times that he would not have accepted the post if he “had been required to compose an ode on the death of someone’s kitten.” Our post-colonial laureate from Kentucky will not be, he says, “a kind of hired applauder. . . .” Nor is his current British counterpart, Ted Hughes. But Mr. Hughes breaks with tradition. Here we have no such tradition, as far as the role of the laureate goes. The laureation this year of Mr. Warren may be the admirable beginning of a peculiarly American tradition a tradition of the Poet Laureate as social conscience. I can see Mr. Warren wince and tell me to leave his poems alone. He would write essays, as he has already, if he wanted to deal directly with social issues. He would write novels, as he has already, if he wanted to deal indirectly with social issues. But I think he would tell me that he writes poems to deal with poetry. Still, I think of Robert Penn Warren as a poet with a great social conscience. I think of his long narrative poem of 1983, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, in which Mr. Warren chronicles one of the most sensational fighting retreats in history. Since most liberals in this country have been engaged in a fighting retreat since 1980, I think it is appropriate, on the occasion of Mr. Warren’s appointment, to look again at his book-length poem of Chief Joseph’s retreat in the midnineteenth century. The Nez Perce Indians once peacefully gathered camas root in their Gary Pomerantz is a freelance writer living in Houston. 26 MARCH 21, 1986 homeland of Wallowa in what is now northeastern Oregon. The bones of their ancestors were buried there, and the eyes of their ancestors kept a close watch over what the living were doing. The Nez Perce, like many other Plateau Indians, encouraged their youth to seek guardian spirits by fasting and isolation, and it was at Wallowa that Joseph, son of Old Joseph, acquired his guardian spirit and his new name, ThunderTraveling-to-Loftier-Mountain-Heights . But to the soldiers who harried and hounded him, to the President who shook his hand, to Buffalo Bill who once rode beside him, and to art, legend, and history, he has always been known simply as “Chief Joseph.” Warren’s poem tells the story of the displacement and defeat of Chief Joseph’s band of. Nez Perce. The Nez Perce were unlucky in that they were living on a reservation, federally guaranteed to them in 1855, on which gold was discovered. The land was seized from the Indians, and in 1863 the government tried to resettle the Nez Perce on a new reservation in Idaho. Some of the Indians agreed to move, but not Joseph’s band. Federal troops forced Joseph to reconsider, and in 1877 he reluctantly agreed to leave his homeland forever. Unfortunately, fighting broke out along the way, and the Nez Perce, who had always avoided violent confrontation with whites, killed eighteen white men. Federal troops advanced, and Joseph retreated toward the northeast, fighting all the time, in the hope of getting to Canada, where he thought his band could live in peace and security. But Joseph made a mistake. When he was still in the United States in northern Montana, just short of the border he thought he had already made it to Canada. He relaxed to catch his breath, and the federal troops took him by surprise. Joseph’s flight had begun on June 17, 1877, and he surrendered less than three months later, on September 5, in the Bear Paw Mountains. In that time he had covered almost 1,000 miles, with government troops always in hot pursuit. Joseph’ s band was eventually relocated to a reservation in the state of Washington, and Chief Joseph died there in 1904. Most of Warren’s poem is written in blank verse, although short prose pieces are interspersed throughout. The prose is taken from factual record: testimonies of federal officers involved in the pursuit; declarations of General Sherman; excerpts from contemporary news and government reports; statements of Indian scouts and guides who were at the scene; and the words of Joseph himself, sometimes wondering how this horrible event could have occurred: The Great Spirit Chief who rules above seemed to be looking some other way, and did not see what was being done to my people. Joseph’s words are reminiscent of those of many Jewish Holocaust survivors who sometimes explain Hitler’s reign of horror with the simple formula, “God blinked.” If there is or was a God, surely He was at least looking the other way when Chief Joseph was finally crushed. If He exists at all, He probably has other, more cosmic concerns. And if it is presumptuous to expect the Great Spirit Chief to take an interest in Joseph’s plight, how much more audacious it is to expect Him to keep an eye on contemporary American political ephemera. Surely He must have been busy elsewhere in November of 1980 and 1984, when the Democratic party began its fighting retreat. The nightmare of Joseph’s retreat is recursive it generates its successive nightmares as surely as a polynomial generates its successive terms. It makes little difference to the nightmare vision if there is gold, oil, or computer technology in the land. It makes little difference if we are of Native American origin or not. It makes little difference if we are harried by federal troops, terrorists, or nuclear warheads. To the nightmare vision it is all the same we may all be subject to Chief Joseph’s fate. We may all be displaced and crushed. This is, to me, one of the messages in the bottle of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. But it is only one message among many, and the bottle that contains it is enormous. Now that the eightyyear-old poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher has pocketed the fine coin of a newly-minted laureateship, let us hope that the nation has ears to hear and mind to decipher his coded messages. A Fighting Retreat By Gary Pomerantz
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