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Robert Penn Warren

1905–1989

On April 24, 1905, Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Todd County, Kentucky. He entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, where he became the youngest member of the group of Southern poets called the Fugitives, which included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Merrill Moore. Warren's first poems were published in The Fugitive, a magazine which the group published from 1922 to 1925. The Fugitives were advocates of the rural Southern agrarian tradition and based their poetry and critical perspective on classical aesthetic ideals.

From 1925 to 1927, Warren was a teaching fellow at The University of California, where he earned a master's degree. He then studied at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and returned to the United States in 1930. He taught at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, The University of Minnesota, and Yale University. With Cleanth Brooks, he wrote Understanding Poetry (1938), a textbook which widely influenced New Criticism and the study of poetry at the college level in America.

Though regarded as one of the best poets of his generation, Warren was better known as a novelist and received tremendous recognition for All the King's Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947. As his southern background was exchanged for a later life spent in New England, with homes in Fairfield, Connecticut and Stratton, Vermont, Warren's youthful conservatism eventually gave way to more liberal views, both aesthetically and socially.

Warren's poetry became less formal and more expansive, garnering even higher critical acclaim: his Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 won the Sidney Hillman Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1979 he earned a third Pulitzer Prize, this time for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978.

About Warren's work, critic Harold Bloom has said, "At their strongest, Warren's poems win their contest with the American Sublime and find a place with Melville's best poems, formidable exiles from our dominant, Emersonian tradition."

Warren received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1969. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1972 until 1988, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 1981. On February 26, 1986, Warren was named the first U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He died on September 15, 1989.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (1998)
New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 (1985)
Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (1980)
Now and Then, Poems 1976-1977 (1978)
Audubon: A Vision (1969)
Incarnations (1968)
Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966)
You, Emperors and Others: Poems 1957-1960 (1960)
Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957)
Brother to Dragons (1953)
Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942)
XXXVI Poems (1935)

Prose

Homage to Theodore Dreiser (1971)
Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)
Selected Essays (1958)
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956)
Fundamentals of Good Writing (1950)
Modern Rhetoric (1949)
Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1946)
Understanding Fiction (1943)
Understanding Poetry (1938)
I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930)
John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929)

Letters

A Place to Come To (1977)
Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971)
Flood (1964)
Wilderness (1960)
The Cave (1959)
Band of Angels (1955)
World Enough and Time (1950)
The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1948)
All the King's Men (1946)
Blackberry Winter (1946)
At Heaven's Gate (1943)
Night Rider (1938)

Robert Penn Warren
Photo credit: Michael V. Carlisle

By This Poet

8

A Way to Love God

Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.
And the line where the incoming swell from the sunset Pacific
First leans and staggers to break will tell all you need to know
About submarine geography, and your father's death rattle
Provides all biographical data required for the Who's Who of the dead.

I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and 
Heard mountains moan in their sleep.  By daylight,
They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions
Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration.  At night
They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.
So moan.  Theirs is the perfected pain of conscience that
Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it.  I have.

I do not recall what had burdened my tongue, but urge you
To think on the slug's white belly, how sick-slick and soft,
On the hairiness of stars, silver, silver, while the silence
Blows like wind by, and on the sea's virgin bosom unveiled
To give suck to the wavering serpent of the moon; and, 
In the distance, in plaza, piazza, place, platz, and square,
Boot heels, like history being born, on cobbles bang.

Everything seems an echo of something else.

And when, by the hair, the headsman held up the head
Of Mary of Scots, the lips kept on moving,
But without sound.  The lips,
They were trying to say something very important.

But I had forgotten to mention an upland
Of wind-tortured stone white in darkness, and tall, but when
No wind, mist gathers, and once on the Sarré at midnight,
I watched the sheep huddling.  Their eyes
Stared into nothingness.  In that mist-diffused light their eyes
Were stupid and round like the eyes of fat fish in muddy water,
Or of a scholar who has lost faith in his calling.

Their jaws did not move.  Shreds
Of dry grass, gray in the gray mist-light, hung
From the side of a jaw, unmoving.

You would think that nothing would ever again happen.

That may be a way to love God.

Evening Hawk

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.
               His wing
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
Into shadow.

          Long now,
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.

True Love

In silence the heart raves.  It utters words
Meaningless, that never had
A meaning.  I was ten, skinny, red-headed,

Freckled.  In a big black Buick,
Driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat
In front of the drugstore, sipping something

Through a straw. There is nothing like
Beauty. It stops your heart.  It
Thickens your blood.  It stops your breath.  It

Makes you feel dirty.  You need a hot bath.  
I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched.
I thought I would die if she saw me.

How could I exist in the same world with that brightness?
Two years later she smiled at me.  She
Named my name. I thought I would wake up dead.

Her grown brothers walked with the bent-knee
Swagger of horsemen.  They were slick-faced.
Told jokes in the barbershop. Did no work.

Their father was what is called a drunkard.
Whatever he was he stayed on the third floor
Of the big white farmhouse under the maples for twenty-five years.

He never came down.  They brought everything up to him.
I did not know what a mortgage was.
His wife was a good, Christian woman, and prayed.

When the daughter got married, the old man came down wearing
An old tail coat, the pleated shirt yellowing.
The sons propped him.  I saw the wedding.  There were

Engraved invitations, it was so fashionable.  I thought
I would cry.  I lay in bed that night
And wondered if she would cry when something was done to her.

The mortgage was foreclosed. That last word was whispered. 
She never came back.  The family
Sort of drifted off.  Nobody wears shiny boots like that now.

But I know she is beautiful forever, and lives
In a beautiful house, far away.
She called my name once.  I didn't even know she knew it.

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