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About this poet

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 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)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

A Way to Love God

Robert Penn Warren, 1905 - 1989
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.

From New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 by Robert Penn Warren, published by Random House. Copyright © 1985 by Robert Penn Warren. Used by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc., on behalf of the author.

From New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 by Robert Penn Warren, published by Random House. Copyright © 1985 by Robert Penn Warren. Used by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc., on behalf of the author.

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren

Born in 1905, author Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and served as the first U.S. Poet Laureate

by this poet

poem

[ A ]

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
poem
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
poem
I shall build me a house where the larkspur blooms
        In a narrow glade in an alder wood,
Where the sunset shadows make violet glooms,
        And a whip-poor-will calls in eerie mood.

I shall lie on a bed of river sedge,
        And listen to the glassy dark,
With a guttered light on my window ledge