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Southern Cultures 10.4 (2004) 8-32

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Robert Penn Warren

"Mad for Poetry"

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"When I was a little boy, [my grandfather] was well into his seventies, and he would draw a battle plan on the ground with a stick. He'd use his cane to point and made me move cartridge shells or shotgun shells around, and he would try to explain the tactics or strategy of a certain operation. He'd tell about the battles he knew about and some he hadn't been in but knew about anyway.... And he was mad for poetry." Photographs of Robert Penn Warren are courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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By any measure Robert Penn Warren is one of America's most prominent literary figures. His published work includes twelve books of poetry, eleven volumes of prose, and twelve novels. Warren is best known for All the King's Men (1946), a novel based on the life of Huey Long, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. In his later years Warren produced his finest poetry and received two more Pulitzer Prizes for poetry volumes, Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957) and Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978 (1978). In recognition of his poetry he served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1972 to 1988 and was appointed the first U.S. Poet Laureate in 1985.

Warren coauthored with Cleanth Brooks Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). These texts shaped the study of literature in classrooms throughout the nation for over four decades and introduced the study of literary texts to generations of students.

Warren taught at Louisiana State University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University. His many students included novelist and screenwriter David Milch, known for his award-winning work with Hill Street Blues, N.Y.P.D Blue, and Deadwood.

Warren maintained lifelong friendships with Cleanth Brooks, Eudora Welty, and C. Vann Woodward. Their combined achievements in the fields of literature, literary criticism, and history significantly shaped our understanding of American letters and the American South in the twentieth century.

When I taught at Yale in the 1970s Cleanth and Tinkham Brooks invited me to their home for dinner and mentioned that they had also invited Robert Penn Warren and his wife Eleanor Clark. The evening sparkled with talk of writers and animated tales about the South. Both Warren and Brooks showed their passion for the English language and its use in the American South. At one point during the evening Brooks speculated as to whether the word "shoat" referred to a male or female hog. After considerable debate, Warren declared that he would phone his brother on their family farm in Kentucky to resolve the issue. His brother indicated that the word shoat referred to a male hog.

I visited Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark each year in their homes in Fairfield, Connecticut, and West Wardsboro, Vermont, until Warren's death in 1989. In 1987 the University of Mississippi Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow cosponsored a Robert Penn Warren symposium with Yale University at the Beinecke Rare Book Library. Russian and American scholars, including Cleanth Brooks and C. Vann Woodward, presented papers on Warren, and afterwards we all traveled to Vermont where we spent the July Fourth weekend with the Warrens.

Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark were incredibly generous in sharing their home and hospitality with admirers and aspiring writers. This interview was recorded with Warren before dinner at his home in Fairfield, Connecticut. Since he had spoken so often about All the King's Men he chose to discuss other parts of his life and work. He talked about childhood memories, his experiences with the Fugitives at Vanderbilt, and his interviews with black civil rights leaders such as Aaron Henry in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Malcolm...


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