National Poetry Month Blog Tour - Robert Penn Warren

Once again, I must start by thanking Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit for hosting the National Poetry Month blog tour. I'm glad to be taking part and to be sharing with you the poetry of one of the fathers of Southern Literature, Robert Penn Warren. Earlier this month, I shared a little from Jeff Daniel Marion and some from Brooks Haxton with a mention of Robert Penn Warren's Jefferson Lecture on poetry. Today, I take you right to the source.

In 1986, Robert Penn Warren was chosen to be the first US Poet Laureate, a position now held by fellow Southern writer Natasha Trethewey. Robert Penn Warren was a prolific writer, creating wonderful work even in the years leading up to his death in 1989. Some argue that these later works are among his very best, and though my Robert Penn Warren Reader has selections from the many stages of his career, I want to share one of these later poems with you. In "Old-Time Childhood in Kentucky," RPW begins with these memorable words: "When I was a boy I saw the world I was in. / I saw it for what it was." In the stanzas that follow, he shares vivid images of tobacco fields, General Jackson and one of his duels, and "in limestone skeletons of the fishy form of some creature" found at a cave, with the narrator's uncle and grandfather. And then, the poem turns:
I said, "what do you do, things being like this?" "All you can,"
He said, looking off through treetops, skyward. "Love
Your wife, love your get, keep your word, and
If need arises, die for what men die for. There aren't
Many choices.
And remember that truth doesn't always live in the number of voices."

He hobbled away.  The woods seemed darker. I stood
In the encroachment of shadow. I shut
My eyes, head thrown back, eyelids black.
I stretched out the arm on each side, and, waterlike,
Wavered from knees and hips, feet yet firm-fixed, it seemed,
On shells, in mud, in sand, in stone, as though
In eons back I grew there in that submarine
Depth and lightlessness, waiting to discover
What I would be, might be, after ages - how many? - had rolled over.

Robert Penn Warren is a poet-storyteller, his poems often driven by narrative but marked by the remarkable attention to word and form that is unique to poetry. Though not in the Paris Review collection that makes up my long-neglected TPR Challenge, RPW was interviewed (by Ralph Ellison!) in 1957 for the publication, and his responses are amazing. When asked about works that influenced him, he responded that "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" made quite an impression on him at age 9. He says:
I thought it was pretty nearly the height of human achievement. I didn't know whether I was impressed by riding a horse that fast or writing the poem. I couldn't distinguish between the two, but I knew there was something pretty fine going on .
Later, when asked about what he calls "The Fugitive Group" of poets in Nashville, he responds:
...in a very important way, that group was my education. I knew individual writers, poems, and books through them. I was exposed to the liveliness and range of the talk and the wrangle of argument. I heard the talk about techniques, but techniques regarded as means of expression. But most of all I got the feeling that poetry was a vital activity, that it related to ideas and to life.
And that is why, even this half a century later, we celebrate National Poetry Month. Because poetry is so vital to our ideas and to our lives. If you get the chance, read some more Robert Penn Warren. It will not disappoint.


  1. Love the excerpt of the poem, so full of truth. I've not read RPW but I am making my way through poets laureates so I will get to him eventually. Now I am really looking forward to it!

    1. Excellent! What a good idea to work through the laureates.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, though I think the First US Poet Laureate was earlier than 1980s?! I really love that the "fugitive" poets are those where he received his education. Thanks so much for being on the tour!

    1. The Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress became known as the United States Poet Laureate after an Act of Congress in 1985. The first consultant I could find was Joseph Auslander in 1937, and RPW was actually the consultant in 1944! But he was the first with the label Poet Laureate.

  3. Haven't read much southern literature, but I really like this!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! I do hope you will try more.