Robert Penn Warren Biography
(1905–89), Thirty Six Poems, Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, Promises
American poet and novelist, born in Guthrie, Kentucky, educated at Vanderbilt University, where he was a student of John Crowe Ransom's, the University of California, and Oxford University. After holding a succession of posts at American universities, he became Professor of English at Yale in 1962. His metaphorically elaborate early verse in Thirty Six Poems (1936) and Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) displays considerable formal accomplishment. He published little further poetry until Promises (1957; Pulitzer Prize). The book initiated the use of the free forms and conversational idioms characterizing his numerous later collections, which include You, Emperors, and Others (1960), Incarnations (1968), Now and Then (1978; Pulitzer Prize), Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983), and New and Selected Poems (1985). He described his methods as ‘moralized anecdote’, revealing his deeply ambivalent regard for the American South through the ironic narratives on which many poems are based. Powerful effects are achieved through his imaginative uses of natural imagery to suggest primal qualities in the human psyche. His career as a novelist began with Night Rider (1939), based on the ‘tobacco war’ in Kentucky in the 1900s; the treatment of financial power and ethical negligence in At Heaven's Gate (1943) anticipated the study of political corruption in the highly successful All the King's Men (1946), which received a Pulitzer Prize, making Warren the only author to have earned the award for both poetry and fiction. His other novels include Band of Angels (1955), in which the theme of miscegenation extends into a searching examination of personal and racial identity, and A Place to Come (1977), which voices his elegiac sense of irreversible change in his native region through the retrospection of an ageing scholar. With Cleanth Brooks, he was co-author of several critical studies, notably Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), which promulgated the New Criticism. His many other works include The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), an assessment of the enduring sociocultural effects of the conflict. In 1986 he became the first Poet Laureate of the United States.