Literary Achievements of the American Poet Robert Penn Warren: His Life-Long Struggles with Morality, Myth, and Modernity

Author: Sarnowski, Joe E.
This study examines Robert Penn Warren’s poetry within the social and cultural
dynamics of the Twentieth Century. The work fills a gap in Warren scholarship by problematizing and extending existing studies and initiating discussions on Warren’s writings that have garnered little critical attention.


“For its clarity of style and congenial tone, Sarnowski’s book is a welcome antidote to the Culture Wars. After laying out his overall approach in his Introduction, explaining his take on key terms like “Myth” and “Deconstruction,” Sarnowski addresses five central concerns of Warren’s poetic oeuvre. Beginning with the most volatile of these issues, race—concerning which Warren has sustained some serious wounds—he moves on to Warren’s handling of war, the relationship between the sexes, nature, and, most intriguingly, the interrelationship between life and death. In each instance, Sarnowski not only crosses the whole range of Warren’s poetry—seventeen volumes written over the middle two-thirds of the twentieth century—but he brings to bear a full complement of Warren’s interviews and essays, substantial criticism and scholarship about Warren, and wide-ranging recourse to the vast body of work listed under the heading Critical Theory: Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, et al.
Every generation, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, needs its own voice of poetry. He might have added that every generation likewise needs its own voice of literary criticism. To the field of Warren studies, now more than a half century in the making, Sarnowski adds a generous and helpful work on behalf of his own literary generation.” – Prof. Victor Strandberg, Duke University

“. . . a lively study that moves smoothly from intelligent close readings of individual works to insightful discussions of the important larger cultural and literary issues surrounding them. Along the way he provides a valuable overall assessment of Warren’s place in American letters.” – Prof. Thomas E. Barden, University of Toledo

“. . . develops, with commitment and care, a vision of the liberating possibilities of this decentered view of being, a view which Warren’s poetry itself elaborates and presents. This is a fine book, and a fascinating contribution to the development of criticism on Robert Penn Warren as a poet, and as a thinker.” – Prof. John Burt, Brandeis University

Table of Contents

Foreword by Victor Strandberg
Things Exist in You without Your Knowing It: Myth, Discourse, the Postmodern, and Robert Penn Warren
This Study
1. A Hard-Won Something: Warren’s Poetic Struggle with Racism
Slavery and Abolition
The South, Violence, and Segregation
Early 20th Century Literature and Culture
Late 20th Century Literature and Culture
“Tryst on Vinegar Hill”
“Pondy Woods”
Brother to Dragons
“Internal Injuries”
“Ballad of Mister Dutcher and the Last Lynching in Gupton”
“News Photo”
“Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home from Party in the Back Country”
“Last Meeting”
“Last Night Train”
(Lack of) Closure
2. Dark Ceiling: Warren’s Poetic Interrogations of the Myths of Warfare
War, Culture, and Myth
War and American Literature
Interrogating Myths of War
“Letter from a Coward to a Hero”
“Two Studies in Idealism: Short Survey of American, and Human, History”
“Shoes in Rain Jungle”
“Bad Year, Bad War: A New Year’s Card, 1969”
“New Dawn”
3. Terrible Distance: Robert Penn Warren and the Poetry of Romantic Love
Distance: Courtly Love and the Companionate Ideal
Interrogating Traditional Myths
Warren’s Poetry
“Boy Wandering in Simms’ Valley”
“True Love”
“Vision under the October Mountain: A Love Poem”
“Love: Two Vignettes” and “The True Nature of Time”
“Bearded Oaks”
“Midnight Outcry”
“Birth of Love”
“The Smile”
“Love Recognized”
4. Seeing Life as Glory: Robert Penn Warren and the Interconnection of Nature and Humanity
Othering Nature
Interconnection of Nature and Humanity
“Kentucky Mountain Farm”
“Gold Glade”
“Composition in Gold and Red-Gold”
Audubon: A Vision
“Rattlesnake Country”
“Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth”
“Going West”
“Have You Ever Eaten Stars?”
5. The Old Tale Told: An Ideology of Life in Robert Penn Warren’s Altitudes
“Three Darknesses”
Other Poems
Death and God
Ethical Codes
Life and the Inert
“Old-Time Childhood in Kentucky”
“It Is Not Dead”
“Wind and Gibbon” and “Delusion?—No!”
“Myth of Mountain Sunrise”
Doing Better: Discourse, Ideology, and Identity
Ideology and Identity
Discourse, Ideology, and Identity