A Poet and a Novelist


I'm glad that All the King's Men has had another screen attempt (although I must admit I'm dubious about the casting) because from a reading in 9th or perhaps 10th grade, the book has remained with me in quotations and images. For example, I remember clearly Jack Burden's dictum that "Life is motion toward knowledge." I also remember the image of the great desk in the empty room and its small pond of green carpeting with the tagline "Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde."

However, the mavens of literature, the High-Priests of the politically correct and the important would have you know that All the King's Men is NOT an important work. It is a half-novel, and mostly-not-there novel, a novel of unfulfilled promised. This despite the fact that one group of journalists felt it important enough to pattern their own title after it.

Let us leave aside the squawking caw of the crows of the literary world--let them preside over the death and funeral of the novel, and let us take ourselves for just a moment into the world of All the King's Men. I will share the very beginning of the novel, another image seared into my literary imagination and into my way of thinking about the world. From the very beginning of the novel.

from All the King's Men
Robert Penn Warren

Mason City.

To get there you follow Highway 59, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you'll try to jerk her back on but you can't because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you'll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won't make it, of course. The a n***** chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he'll say, "Lawd God, hit's a-nudder one done done hit!"

(Please forgive me over delicacy with language, a glance at the photograph in the upper left will tell you instantly why I might be a bit squeamish about some word usage. I don't object to it in literature, but I have a real problem thinking through how I'm going to talk to Sam about it.)

This is the language of a poet steeped in the motion of a novel without slowing it down. This is where the best of both worlds comes together in a way that amplifies both. The poetry of this passage makes it indelible. I've never tried to remember it, but I remember the image of the car on the white concrete highway with the black median line and it associates with very early days in Pensacola driving to the beach. He captures both the motion of the vehicle and the hypnotic effect of the line coming out of infinity-gorgeous language to certain purpose. The scene is set and the ending is forecast in the very beginning. You're in a speeding car and you're going to hook over that curb-like shoulder by the time you're done. And you don't know it yet.

One more little observation from later in the novel--not one I recall, but one of many that struck my eye as I thumbed through the novel:

He wasn't the real thing, but he sure was a good imitation of it, which is frequently better than the real thing, for the real thing can relax but the imitation can't afford to and has to spend all the time being just one cut more real that the real thing, with money no object. He took us to a night club where they rolled our a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of "Nordic Nymphs" in silver gee-strings and silver brassières came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and the white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassières vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trialing and floating and whipping in the air.

It took the boy from Mason City, who had never seen any ice except the skim-ice on the horse trough. "Jesus," the boy from Mason City said, in unabashed admiration. And then, "Jesus." And he kept swallowing hard, as though he had a sizable chunk of dry corn pone stuck in his throat.

It was over and Josh Conklin said politely, "How did you like that, Governor?"

"They sure can skate," the Governor said.

And so you can almost see Huey Long, Lyndon, or William Jefferson with their cronies at some place where neither politicians nor their cronies really ought ever to be and yet always seem to find themselves. And there is a certain touching naivete in the Governor's response (please pardon the violation of the third Commandment).

Poetry and power, the twin rails of this magnificent book, and the third rail--pride, ambition, gluttony, the panoply of the Capital Sins that end in the way of all such. One doesn't touch the third rail with impunity.

An intimate glimpse of the political world which has only gotten darker since the time of its writing. Powerful, prolonged and ultimately true about many things--the book is worth your time in a way the film probably will not be. We await the news.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 18, 2006 11:10 AM.

Silence and Presence was the previous entry in this blog.

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