Robert Penn Warren (1936–2011) was an American novelist, poet and critic. From 1944 until 1945 he served as Consultant in Poetry—the position would later become Poet Laureate—to the Library of Congress.

Minneapolis Story

To John Knox Jessup Whatever pops into your head, and whitely Breaks surface on the dark stream that is you, May do to make a poem—for every accident Yearns to be more than itself, yearns, In the way you dumbly do, to participate …

Trips to California

Two days behind the dust storm—man’s Fecklessness, God’s wrath—and once Dust on the highway so deep piled Mules had to drag the car. This Was Kansas, and in midafternoon It rained blood for half an hour— Or what looked red as blood and …

Better Than Counting Sheep

On a night when sleep eludes you, I have, At last, found the formula. Try to summon All those ever known who are dead, and soon It will seem they are there in your room, not chairs enough To go around, or standing space …

Not Quite like a Top

Did you know that the earth, not like a top on its point, Spins on an axis that sways, up and down, from its middle? Well, I didn’t know, but do now, and often at night, After maybe three highballs, I lie in my bed, …

Orphanage Boy (Octosyllabics)

From the orphanage Al came to Work on the farm as what you’d call Hired boy if he might get enough To call hire. Back at the wood pile Chopping stove-lengths, he taught me the Dirty words I’d never heard of Or learned from …

Sister Water

…and to begin again, the night was dark and dreary, and The Captain said to his trusty Lieutenant, “Lieutenant, Tell us a story.” And the Lieutenant: “The night was—“ And I Have heard on the creaky stairs at night an old man’s Dragging step …

Youth Stares at Minoan Sunset

The lap of the mountain meadow Breaking at the cliff-quarry where Venetians had once sawed their stone, soft Nag of surf far below foot, he Stares seaward the distance to sunset. The sky is rose-hearted, immense, undisturbed. In that light the youth’s form …

Paradox

Running ahead beside the sea, You turned and flung a smile, like spray. It glittered like tossed spray in the sunlight. Yes, well I remember, to this day, That glittering ambiguity. * * I saw, when your foot fulfilled its stride, …

Bearers of Bad Tidings: Writers and the American Dream

Thomas Jefferson never applied the word democrat to himself, nor does the word democracy appear in the Declaration of Independence. In that time the word was, in fact, almost synonymous with riot and anarchy. But Jefferson did envisage a society in which free men—of independent self—would exercise their franchise in the light of reason.

Flaubert in Egypt

for Dorothea Tanning Winterlong, off La Manche, wind leaning. Gray stones of the gray    city sluiced by gray rain. And he dreamed Of desert and distance, sunlight like murder, lust and new colors whose    Names exploded the spectrum like dynamite,    of cancer. So went there, …

Poetry in a Time of Crack-Up

The following was given as a speech at the Library of Congress after Mr. Warren received the 1970 National Medal for Literature on December 2. This is the moment of crisis we are constantly being told—the crack-up of the Western world, of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, of the American success story.

Bad Year, Bad War: New Year’s Card

“Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” —Epistle to the Hebrews, 9:22 That was the year of the bad war. The others— Wars, that is—had been virtuous. If blood Was shed, it was, in a way, sacramental, redeeming Even those evil people …

The Negro Movement in Upheaval

I have read Freedom When? by James Farmer three times, and I am now convinced that, in spite of a certain amount of fustian and poor organization, and the sketchy treatment, or unawareness, of certain issues, this book must hold an important place on the now packed shelf of books …

Little Boy and Lost Shoe

The little boy lost his shoe in the field. Home he hobbled, not caring, with a stick whipping goldenrod. Go find that shoe—I mean it, right now! And he went, not now singing, and the field was big. Under the sky he walked and the …

Shoes in Rain Jungle

Shoes rot off feet before feet Rot, and before feet Stop moving feet Rot, rot in the Rain, moving. Napoleon was wrong, an army Marches on its feet. If It has them. If They have shoes. The Battle of …

Who Shall Overcome?

The stairway smelled of piss. The smells inside the tenement—number 18,342 East 100th Street, Manhattan—were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life. This was to be home. It had been home before: for a …

Race

Here are five books on the race crisis in the United States. None of these books will make a man turn over and sink his head into the pilow. Crisis in Black and White, by Charles E. Silberman, a trained social scientist and an editor of Fortune Magazine, and The …

Lyrics from “Delight”

Into Broad Daylight Out of silence walks delight. Delight comes on a soundless foot Into the silence of night, Or into broad daylight. Delight comes like surprise. Delight will prepare you never. Delight waits beyond range of your eyes Till the moment of surprise.