Quick, class, this is a test! Name the first poet laureate of England and the year of his appointment. (Sir William Davenant, 1638.) What were his duties? (To write poems the king wanted written.) Now, what are the two most vibrant lines ever written by a poet laureate at a royal command? (Alfred Austin, on the illness of the Prince of Wales: “Along the electric wire the message came/ He is not better, he is much the same.”) Okay, so who is the first poet laureate of the United States, when was he appointed and will he have to write, say, about the banishment of President Reagan’s dog to California? (Robert Penn Warren; two weeks ago; no.)
Perhaps the nation’s most distinguished man of letters, Warren has published, over the past 54 years, 10 novels, 16 volumes of poetry, a play and many critical, historical and biographical works. As the only person to win Pulitzer prizes for both fiction (All the King’s Men, 1947) and poetry (Promises, 1957; Now and Then, 1979), Warren is a natural for the post. Unlike Britain’s poet laureate, Warren will be paid $36,000 annually instead of a case of wine and £100 and will serve one or two years instead of a lifetime.
Born in Guthrie, Ky. in 1905, Warren graduated from Vanderbilt University and first gained fame as one of the Fugitives, a group of primarily Southern poets(John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate) whose work stressed agrarian values. He later taught at Yale between 1950 and 1973. He and his wife, novelist and travel writer Eleanor Clark, live in a converted barn in Fairfield, Conn, and write every day in separate studios until 2:30 p.m.
Despite all his laurels, Warren has never been much concerned with prestige. What is the importance of poetry to the nation? “It isn’t important,” he says in his rapid Kentucky twang. “It’s just poetry. A poet just writes poems. He hopes to, anyway.” Typically, he’s too modest. Robert Penn Warren’s poetry defines, refines, exalts and exults. Next assignment, class: Check it out.