Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
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."