Robert Penn Warren

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I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can't do without.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-04-241989-09-15) was an American poet and writer.


  • So little time we live in Time,
    And we learn all so painfully,
    That we may spare this hour's term
    To practice for Eternity.
    • "Bearded Oaks", Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942)
  • The poet is in the end probably more afraid of the dogmatist who wants to extract the message from the poem and throw the poem away than he is of the sentimentalist who says, "Oh, just let me enjoy the poem."
    • Lecture, "The Themes of Robert Frost" (1947)
  • For fire flames but in the heart of a colder fire.
    All voice is but echo caught from a sound-less voice.
    Height is not deprivation of valley, nor defect of desire.
    But defines, for the fortunate, that joy in
    which all joys should rejoice.
    • "To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress" (1956)
  • The poem... is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.
    • Saturday Review (22 March 1958)
History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that...
  • We are right to see power prestige and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War. But it is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of our mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and road-holding capability. It is to our credit that we survived the War and tempered our national fiber in the processs, but human decency and the future security of our country demand that we look at the costs. What are some of the costs?
    Blood is the first cost. History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that. It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond. It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs — the body of the dead sharpshooter in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg or the tangled mass in the Bloody Lane at Antietam.
    • The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), pp. 49–50
  • Most writers are trying to find what they think or feel. . . not simply working from the given, but toward the given, saying the unsayable and steadily asking, "What do I really feel about this?"
  • The urge to write poetry is like having an itch. When the itch becomes annoying enough, you scratch it.
  • But to poetry — You have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, though.
    • Interview with Richard B. Sale (1969)
  • If anybody's going to be a writer, he's got to be able to say, "This has got to come first, to write has to come first." That is, if you have a job, you have to scant your job a little bit. You can't be an industrious apprentice if you're going to be a poet. You've got to pretend to be an industrious apprentice but really steal time from the boss. Or from your wife, or somebody, you see. The time's got to come from somewhere. And also this passivity, this "waitingness," has to be achieved some way. It can't be treated as a job. It's got to be treated as a non-job or an anti-job.
    • Interview with Richard B. Sale (1969)
  • Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
    By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
    The great geese hoot northward.
    I could not see them, there being no moon
    And the stars sparse. I heard them.
    I did not know what was happening in my heart.
    • Audubon: A Vision (1969)
  • If, in the middle of World War II, a general could be writing a poem, then maybe I was not so irrelevant after all. Maybe the general was doing more for victory by writing a poem than he would be by commanding an army. At least, he might be doing less harm. By applying the same logic to my own condition, I decided that I might be relevant in what I called a negative way. I have clung to this concept ever since — negative relevance. In moments of vain-glory I even entertain the possibility that if my concept were more widely accepted, the world might be a better place to live in. There are a lot of people who would make better citizens if they were content to be just negatively relevant.
    • Acceptance speech for the 1970 National Medal for Literature, New York, New York (1970-12-02)
  • More and more Emerson recedes grandly into history, as the future he predicted becomes a past.
    • Acceptance speech for the 1970 National Medal for Literature, New York, New York (1970-12-02)
  • I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can't do without.
  • I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart. What he takes those things to be is, of course, his ultimate gamble.
    • Foreword, Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices — A New Version (1979)
Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true...
  • Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.
    • Foreword, Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices — A New Version (1979)
  • I longed to know the world's name.
    • Now and Then: Poems, 1978–1979 (1979)
  • A young man’s ambition — to get along in the world and make a place for himself — half your life goes that way, till you’re 45 or 50. Then, if you’re lucky, you make terms with life, you get released.
  • Storytelling and copulation are the two chief forms of amusement in the South. They’re inexpensive and easy to procure.
  • How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.
    • "Poetry Is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiography", The New York Times, 1985-05-12.
  • What is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding? It is the deepest part of autobiography.
    • "Poetry Is a Kind of Unconscious Autobiography", The New York Times, 1985-05-12.
  • Here is the shadow of truth, for only the shadow is true.
    • "A Way to Love God", New and Selected Poems 1923–1985 (1985)
  • I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
    I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and
    Heard mountains moan in their sleep.
    By daylight,
    They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions
    Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration. At night
    They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.
    So moan.Their's is the perfected pain of conscience that
    Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it. I have.
    • "A Way to Love God", New and Selected Poems 1923–1985 (1985)
  • Everything seems an echo of something else.
    • "A Way to Love God", New and Selected Poems 1923–1985 (1985)
  • I don’t expect you’ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
    • The Washington Post (1986-02-27)
    • On his appointment as the first U.S. poet laureate
  • The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.
    • As quoted in Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development (1999) by Chris Maser
  • In separateness only does love learn definition.
    • Revelation
  • Tell me a story.
    In this century, and moment, of mania,
    Tell me a story.
    Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
    The name of the story will be Time,
    But you must not pronounce its name.
    Tell me a story of deep delight.
    • "Tell me A Story"
  • In silence the heart raves. It utters words
    Meaningless, that never had
    A meaning.
    I was ten, skinny, red-headed,
    Freckled. In a big black Buick,
    Driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat
    In front of the drugstore, sipping something
    Through a straw. There is nothing like
    Beauty. It stops your heart.It
    Thickens your blood. It stops your breath. It
    Makes you feel dirty. You need a hot bath.
    I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched.
    I thought I would die if she saw me.
    • "True Love"
  • How could I exist in the same world with that brightness?
    Two years later she smiled at me. She
    Named my name. I thought I would wake up dead.
    • "True Love"
  • She never came back. The family
    Sort of drifted off. Nobody wears shiny boots like that now.
    But I know she is beautiful forever, and lives
    In a beautiful house, far away.
    She called my name once. I didn't even know she knew it.
    • "True Love"
Accept these images for what they are —
Out of the past a fragile element
Of substance into accident.
  • Accept these images for what they are —
    Out of the past a fragile element
    Of substance into accident.
    I would speak honestly and of a full heart;
    I would speak surely for the tale is short,
    And the soul's remorseless catalogue
    Assumes its quick and piteous sum.
    • "San Francisco Night Windows"

Love's Voice (c.1935–1939)

  • What glass unwinking gives our trust
    Its image back, what echo names
    The names we hurl at namelessness?
  • Such fable ours! However sweet,
    That earlier hope had, if fulfilled,
    Been but child's pap and toothless meat
    — And meaning blunt and deed unwilled,
    And we but motes that dance in light
    And in such light gleam like the core
    Of light, but lightless, are in right
    Blind dust that fouls the unswept floor

    For, no: not faith by fable lives,
    But from the faith the fable springs
    — It never is the song that gives
    Tongue life, it is the tongue that sings;
    And sings the song.
    Then, let the act
    Speak, it is the unbetrayable
    Command, if music, let the fact
    Make music's motion; us, the fable
  • Then let us turn now — you to me
    And I to you — and hand to hand
    Clasp, even though our fable be
    Of strangers met in a strange land
    Who pause, perturbed, then speak and know
    That speech, half lost, can yet amaze
    Joy at the root; then suddenly grow
    Silent, and on each other gaze.

All the King's Men (1946)

  • To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, the day we went up.
    • First lines
  • The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him.
  • The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God's omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection. To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension. Seperateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him seperate from God Himself, and to be seperate from God is to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God's glory and His power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man's glory and power. But by God's help. By His help and in His wisdom.
  • My only crime was being a man and living in the world of men, and you don't have to do special penance for that. The crime and the penance, in that case, coincide perfectly. They are identical.
  • For either killing or creating may be a crime punishable by death, and the death always comes by the criminal's own hand and every man is suicide. If a man knew how to live he would never die.
  • Dirt's a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.
  • For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: "Flee, all is discovered." It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
  • You can't make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand from the cowpen.
  • Let the hog lie, and listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks, too, and they’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m going to get out of this race.
  • The world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.
  • Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
  • If you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.
  • They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people.
  • Go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.
    • Final line


  • History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.
  • I think the greatest curse of American society has been the idea of an easy millennialism — that some new drug, or the next election or the latest in social engineering will solve everything.
  • Poets, we know, are terribly sensitive people, and in my observation one of the things they are most sensitive about is money.
  • Real writers are those who want to write, need to write, have to write.
  • The past is always a rebuke to the present.

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