Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn
Warren
1905
1989

American Poet, Novelist, Educator

Author Quotes

If you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.

If you want him to do it, you've got to change the picture of the world inside his head.

If, in the middle of World War II, a general could be writing a poem, then maybe I was not so irrelevant after all. Maybe the general was doing more for victory by writing a poem than he would be by commanding an army. At least, he might be doing less harm. By applying the same logic to my own condition, I decided that I might be relevant in what I called a negative way. I have clung to this concept ever since ? negative relevance. In moments of vain-glory I even entertain the possibility that if my concept were more widely accepted, the world might be a better place to live in. There are a lot of people who would make better citizens if they were content to be just negatively relevant.

I tried to tell her how if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make a future.

I turned around to face the reality, which was not something caught in the ice of the mind but was something now flushed, feline, lethal, and electric and about to blow a fuse.

I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool which seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went.

I went back to my own innocent little chores and sat in my office as the fall drew imperceptibly on and the earth leaned on its axis and shouldered the spot I occupied a little out of the direct, billowing, crystalline, consuming blaze of the enormous sun.

I'd be lying there on my back with my clothes on and looking up at the ceiling and watching the cigarette smoke flow up slow and splash against the ceiling like the upside-down slow-motion moving picture of the ghost of a waterfall or like the pale uncertain spirit rising up out of your mouth on the last exhalation, the way the Egyptians figured it, to leave the horizontal tenement of clay in its ill-fitting pants and vest.

If a man knew how to live he would never die.

If anybody's going to be a writer, he's got to be able to say, "This has got to come first, to write has to come first." That is, if you have a job, you have to scant your job a little bit. You can't be an industrious apprentice if you're going to be a poet. You've got to pretend to be an industrious apprentice but really steal time from the boss. Or from your wife, or somebody, you see. The time's got to come from somewhere. And also this passivity, this "waitingness," has to be achieved some way. It can't be treated as a job. It's got to be treated as a non-job or an anti-job.

I reckon I am a smart aleck, but it is just a way to pass the time.

I suppose that Willie had his natural quota of ordinary suspicion and caginess, but those things tend to evaporate when what people tell you is what you want to hear.

I think the greatest curse of American society has been the idea of an easy millennialism -- that some new drug, or the next election or the latest in social engineering will solve everything.

I thought God cannot be Fullness of Being. For Life is Motion. For Life is Motion toward Knowledge. If God is Complete Knowledge then He is Complete Non-Motion, which is Non-Life, which is Death. Therefore, if there is such a God of Fullness of Being, we would worship Death, the Father.

I longed to know the world's name.

I never thought of a combat with the past. I guess I think more of trying to find what there is valuable to us, the line of continuity to us, and through us.

I heard somebody open and shut the gate to the barn lot, but I didn't look around. If I didn't look around it would not be true that somebody had opened the gate with the creaky hinges, and that is a wonderful principle for a man to get hold of... What you don't know don't hurt you, for it ain't real. They called that Idealism in my book I had when I was in college, and after I got hold of that principle I became an Idealist... If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn't real anyway.

I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart. What he takes those things to be is, of course, his ultimate gamble.

I got an image in my head that never got out. We see a great many things and can remember a great many things, but that is different. We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind that become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.

I got back from the University late in the afternoon, had a quick swim, ate my dinner, and bolted off to the Stanton house to see Adam. I saw him sitting out on the galley reading a book (Gibbon, I remember) in the long twilight. And I saw Anne. I was sitting in the swing with Adam, when she came out the door. I looked at her and knew that it had been a thousand years since I had last seen her back at Christmas when she had been back at the Landing on vacation from Miss Pound's School. She certainly was not now a little girl wearing round-toed, black patent-leather, flat-heeled slippers held on by a one-button strap and white socks held up by a dab of soap. She was wearing a white linen dress, cut very straight, and the straightness of the cut and the stiffness of the linen did nothing in the world but suggest by a kind of teasing paradox the curves and softnesses sheathed by the cloth. She had her hair in a knot on the nape of her neck, and a little white ribbon around her head, and she was smiling at me with a smile which I had known all my life but which was entirely new, and saying, 'Hello, Jack,' while I held her strong narrow hand in mine and knew that summer had come.

I had no interest in writing when I went to college. I was interested in reading?oh, poetry and standard novels, you know. My ambitions were purely scientific, but I got cured of that fast by bad instruction in freshman chemistry and good instruction in freshman English.

How life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.

I could lie there as long as I wanted, and let all the pictures of things a man might want run through my head, coffee, a girl, money, a drink, white sand and blue water, and let them all slide off, one after another, like a deck of cards slewing slowly off your hand. Maybe the things you want are like cards. You don't want them for themselves, really, though you think you do. You don't want a card because you want the card, but because in a perfectly arbitrary system of rules and values and in a special combination of which you already hold a part the card has meaning. But suppose you aren't sitting in a game. Then, even if you do know the rules, a card doesn't mean a thing. They all look alike.

I don?t expect you?ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.

Author Picture
First Name
Robert Penn
Last Name
Warren
Birth Date
1905
Death Date
1989
Bio

American Poet, Novelist, Educator