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This article is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

Robert Penn Warren: The Question of the Answer Tony Roberts
‘The question is the only answer.’ – Audubon

WRITING IN in 1782 about naval matters, Sir John Sinclair used the phrase ‘consistent with the bent and genius of the people’. I read that phrase recently and it stayed with me because Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) was on my mind. One doesn’t have to read too far into Warren’s poetry to think in terms of ‘the bent and genius’ of his vision. What strikes me in reading the substantial New and Selected Poems 1923–1985 (Random House, 1985) are the flashes of fire in Robert Penn Warren’s work and his career-long commitment to a handful of eternally relevant questions, posed increasing elliptically. He was, as Malcolm Cowley once wrote, ‘a moralist, and this during a period when morality was going out of fashion’.

I first came to the poetry with a secondhand copy of his Pulitzer prize-winning collection Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978, which I bought from Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, Virginia a few years ago. That collection opens with ‘American Portrait: Old Style’, the poem that drew me in. It remembers a Kentucky childhood and a late meeting with an alcoholic friend, once a professional baseball pitcher. The boys’ hunting and their games tie them into frontier history. The questions they raise about one’s role in the world are quintessential Warren. The poet admires ‘K’ almost as much as the ‘cloud of bird dogs, like angels, / With their eyes on his eyes like God’. In K’s view even baseball was a children’s game, though he displays his old ...


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