Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) “suffered” the same dilemma as a later contemporary of his, James Dickey, in that he became more famous for a work of fiction, the novel All the King’s Men, than he did for his poetry, which, ostensibly was the creative form to which he gave his first and greatest allegiance.
Warren, a native of Guthrie, Kentucky, the very same birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, began his literary career with contributions of poetry to The Fugitive, the literary magazine of the Agrarians, that group of Nashville-based Southern intellectuals dedicated to restoring Jeffersonian democracy to a nation they felt had become too materialized and technological. Warren would go on to make a vital contribution to the Agrarians’ fabled manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, in 1930.
His first collection of poetry was Thirty-Six Poems published in 1935; his final collection, Collected Poems, appeared in 1998. Warren’s poetry underwent a transformation as it progressed, leaving aside formal conventions for more free-style explorations of metaphysical and historical topics. Among his most famous works of poetry are Brothers to Dragons (1953), in which Thomas Jefferson serves as a protagonist, and Audubon: A Vision (1969). He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice, once for Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (1957), and again for Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 91978).
All the King’s Men also won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1946, making Warren the first American writer to secure such an honor in the two genres.
In addition Warren co-edited a much-used textbook with Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Poetry (1938).
Acknowledgment for information used in this commentary is given to The Academy of American Poets; see www.poets.org .
Randall I. Ivey
Audiobook version of All The King’s Men