The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 11970

What, if anything, inspires you to write? Do you search for the right words as you search for the right answers to life? How does your life influence you? Study and emulate this prizewinning poet!


Literary Studies

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


What surprising title was Robert Penn Warren awarded in 1986? What other accolades did Warren receive?

Robert Penn Warren

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, has been released into the public domain by its author, Ephemera at English Wikipedia. This applies worldwide.

Robert Penn Warren, a Southern poet and novelist, became the first official U.S. Poet Laureate in 1986.

This honor might seem surprising, because during Warren's early career, he was best known as a novelist, and won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, All The King's Men.

Pulitzer prizes are awarded every year in the U.S. for excellence in literature, poetry, drama, and journalism. However, Warren was a writer who became successful in both genres, and by the end of his career, he was equally well-known for his poetry. He went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry in 1958 and 1979 and is the only writer to win Pulitzers in both genres.

Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, on April 24, 1905. He published his first poetry in his late teens and became associated with a group of Southern poets known as the Fugitives, who celebrated the Southern agrarian tradition in their literature, a style of life that changed irrevocably with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the mechanization of farming throughout the early twentieth century. Agrarian refers to farming and cultivating land and crops. Agrarian literature also extolled the power of God in terms of his ability to both work good and harm through the power of creation, something with which farmers would be familiar, because they were dependent upon favorable weather for successful crops.

Warren spent most of his adult life teaching at colleges throughout the United States. By the time of his death in 1989, he was one of the most-acclaimed American poets and novelists of the twentieth century. To learn more about Warren's life, read Robert Penn Warren's Life and Career, by Charles Bohner, courtesy of the University of Illinois. As you read, answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  • What experiences in Warren's childhood would later influence his writing?
  • Why was Warren forced to abandon a career in the U.S. Navy?
  • What form of literary theory did Warren champion in his academic texts, Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction?
  • What was the goal of New Criticism?
  • Into what two categories can Warren's ten novels be divided?
  • Why did Warren return to writing poetry in the 1950s after a ten-year hiatus from the genre?

After answering the questions, discuss your findings with your parent or teacher, then compare your answers with the answers below: 

  • Warren, like many writers, was influenced by his family during his childhood. His experiences on a southern tobacco farm and the stories his grandfathers recounted of the Confederacy had a lasting impact on Warren's literary style and themes.
  • Going blind in his left eye as a result of an accident forced Warren to abandon his plans to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and instead attend Vanderbilt University, where he began his writing career.
  • Warren championed New Criticism during his career, which emphasized close reading like students do today to break down a text, systematic reading of texts, and also encouraged the use of irony and sarcasm in writing.
  • Warren's novels reflect the influence of his childhood, because the first three reflect on historical events of the South while the final seven feature contemporary events during Warren's lifetime.
  • Warren may have only been known as a novelist had he not returned to writing poetry after taking a position at Yale University, divorcing his first wife, and marrying his second wife between 1950 and 1952. This mid-life crisis helped rekindle Warren's poetical creativity, and most of his writing after this period was dedicated to poetry.

Now that you know more about Warren's life and the influences on his career, move on to the Got It? section to read several of Warren's poems and analyze them with a close reading, just like a New Critic would do!

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