“How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.” – Robert Penn Warren
I remember the first time I read All The King’s Men. I was stunned by how quickly I was transported into the story and forgot that I was reading a novel and not someone’s life story. Robert Penn Warren had that remarkable ability to put his reader both into the place and into the lives of those about whom he was writing, whether it was in works of fiction or his remarkable poetry.
Founder of the influential literary journal, The Southern Review, Penn Warren is the only person to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry, and he won that latter award twice. His first Pulitzer, of course, came for All The King’s Men, the 1947 novel about a ruthless Louisiana politician. It’s one of the few books to also be made into both a movie and an opera, although the movie had much more success, earning the Best Picture Academy Award and jump-starting the career of actor Broderick Crawford as the lead character Willie Stark.
In 1958, Penn Warren won his second Pulitzer for his book of poems Promises: Poems 1954-1956, which also won the National Book Award for poetry. And, in 1979 he was awarded his third Pulitzer for his poems Now and Then.
Born in Kentucky near the Tennessee border, he was known as a segregationist as a young man but greatly shifted his views adopting a high profile as a supporter of racial integration – a view reflected in his writings. He became close friends with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1940s he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and in 1986 he was named the first U.S. Poet Laureate. Among his other honors were selection for the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”); and the National Medal of Arts.
Robert Penn Warren
When asked about the many poems he wrote over his lifetime, he said whenever he felt the urge to write one, he just did it: “The urge to write poetry,” he said, “is like having an itch. When the itch becomes annoying enough, you scratch it.”
Here’s a link to a Poetry Soup page with some Robert Penn Warren favorites:
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