Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Contributing Editor: Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Warren is a very accessible poet, with a strong sense of narrative and a nonintimidating diction, both of which students generally enjoy.
Warren's great concern with the historical vision and the meanings found in memory and the past are distinctly southern. For students with no background in southern literature, these interests may seem forced, even bizarre in their intensity. A general overview of some of the major themes of twentieth-century southern literature would help put Warren into perspective.
The poetry speaks for itself, but I do think, as I have said, that discussing Warren's "southernness" is an effective way to begin a discussion of him. One might go from there into a discussion of which poems clearly evoke a southern perspective and which don't--and then, why and why not, which are more effective, etc.
Students generally respond well to Warren's poetry, particularly to that in which the persona struggles with problems of identity and meaning. The poetry selected here is quite varied, so questions arise about continuities/discontinuities in terms of subject matter and poetic vision between the poems, and about the different stanza forms and the lines employed by the poet. Warren's depiction of the natural world-- the hawk, for instance--is quite striking, and students like to discuss this aspect of his work.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The self in the world, particularly one's relationship with nature.
2. The meaning and significance of history.
3. The limits of the creative imagination and human knowledge.
4. The quest for meaning in continuities and in the assimilation of the self with the world outside it.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Topics for questions might include: the significance of narrative and the dramatic in Warren's verse; the effectiveness of a diction that frequently tends toward the colloquial; the contrast between Warren's narrative verse ("Amazing Grace in the Back Country") and his poetry of statement ("Fear and Trembling"); the role of the persona; the form of Warren's verse, including stanza and line.
In "Infant Boy at Midcentury," one might discuss what was happening (and had just happened) in the world at midcentury, particularly in light of and in contrast to Warren's traditional upbringing and sympathies.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Three southern poets with similar interests come to mind: John Crowe Ransom, whose verse is more formal and controlled than Warren's; Allen Tate, who explores in his poetry the tensions arising from problems of history, time, and identity; and James Dickey, whose verse is strongly narrative. In addition, look at any of the confessional poets, but particularly Robert Lowell; a comparison with them is fruitful in trying to establish whether Warren's poetry should be read as confessional.
Bedient, Calvin. In The Heart's Last Kingdom: Robert Penn Warren's Major Poetry. Chapter 2, "His Mature Manner."
Bloom, Harold. "Sunset Hawk: Warren's Poetry and Tradition." In A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren, edited by Walter B. Edgar.
Justus, James. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Section 1, "Warren the Poet."
Strandberg, Victor. The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren. "Introduction: The Critical Reckoning."