America's First Poet Laureate, Robert Penn Warren, Was a Wise and Eloquent Son of the South

updated 10/02/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/1989 01:00AM

In his precise and thoughtful way, Robert Penn Warren might have liked this to have a beginning. Try the first page of his masterpiece novel on politics and the South, All the King's Men:

"You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up...and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself... you won't make it, of course."

Yes, it is headlong and heady prose, perhaps as mesmerizing as the best openings penned by Warren's friend William Faulkner. But when "Red" Warren died recently at 84, he left much more than those wonderful sentences.

This was a rare isotope in the human laboratory, a man of passionate prose and intricate poetry, heavy scholarship and a ready wit. All of us who studied with him at Yale and elsewhere, I suspect, consider it a singular honor.

Warren won three Pulitzer Prizes and was named America's first poet laureate, in 1986. But his students learned not to bring up Warren's own work. Instead he set us to examining novels by Faulkner and other giants. But over a semester, we would never get past Faulkner—Warren loved him too much to pull away.

Born in Guthrie, Ky., Warren grew up to write learned articles for the landmark journal the Southern Review. He also wrote vivid fiction about greed and vengeance, love and death. But as much as he mingled with such intellectuals as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Faulkner, he always saw behind the pomposities of Southern literature and encouraged students to approach it with a sense of humor.

A creature of the South who never left it in spirit, he still managed to change his early segregationist views. In the mid-'60s, Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro?—a compilation of interviews and commentary—gave eloquent voice to the black experience. Until the end, he had an invaluable capacity for growth.

When one man lives a life so long, so full, so giving, it is almost difficult to mourn its ending. Better to celebrate his legacy—a body of work that is truly, as he titled one of his novels, A Place to Come To.

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