Many a Christmas holly leaf ago, Mr. Barker gave me a wonderful collection of interviews with Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King’s Men easily makes the short list of candidates for The Great American Novel. Having just finished this book of interviews, I can’t recommend it enough for all Korrektiv Kollekitivites.  (Talking with Robert Penn Warren has driven me back to the works of RPW – his poems and criticism in particular. I’ve read ATKM twice and probably will again before I’m done – but not this time – the poems are a VOLUME!)

There are many moments in the interviews which reaffirm why we all got into the writing racket in the first place. Here’s just one:

Farrell: While we’re on the subject of writing a successful collection of poems, what would you say is the profession of poet [which RPW means in the expansive sense of “maker” with words – both verse and fiction] means to you?

Warren: Well, there’s something I can say about it. I would say poetry is a way of life, ultimately – not a kind of performance, not something you do on Saturday or Easter morning or Christmas morning or something like that. It’s a way of being open to the world, a way of being open to experience. I would say, open to your experience, insofar as you can see it or at least feel it as a unit with all its contradictions and confusions…

Farrell: Can it be summed up in your phrase, one that goes something like “[It’s] a way to love God”?

Warren: Well, yes, I think so. It’s a way to accept, to deal with the world. A way to love God? – yes, I think it is. If you want to put it that way. The only way some people can live is by assuming that life is worth being interested in. It’s worth giving yourself to, and giving the best you can. I would say that poetry is not like a profession, but a way of life. These are two quite different things. 

Talking with Robert Penn Warrenis also full of insightful anecdotes about everyone from Herman Melville and Malcolm X to RPW’s fellow Fugitives*. Also, a little tidbit that would go mostly unnoticed by any reader but Catholics: RPW took art classes when he was 12 years old from one of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville (aka “The Nashville Dominicans”). You have to buy the book to get the full story, but it’s almost worth the price of admission. 

Now, onto the buried lede…

Fisher: When you, Mr. [Cleanth] Brooks and Mr. [Charles] Pipkin founded The Southern Review [funded, as Wikipedia points out, by Huey Long (cf. ATKM) in his attempt to improve LSU’s visibility outside the Bayou State], you published some very fine writers. How did these writers come to your attention, since most of them had yet to make the reputation they later achieved? 

Warren: Let me say one general thing first. In the thirties there were a lot of good writers around who had a hard time getting published. Two things were in our favor. First, there was no money around – and though we didn’t pay much, we paid something – and second, we didn’t have to try to please a mass market. We only had to please ourselves.

Then something else: in that period and the decades earlier, the period of the little magazine, the distinction between the little magazine and the slicks was important. The big slick magazines, things like The Saturday Evening Post, were totally different form literary magazines, which were out for ART. Commercial magazines and little magazines were very distinct. That’s no longer true today.

Esquire, among the pants ads, would publish (they invented this thing, you know, about mixing things up) [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and a few big names of literary value and mix them with pants ads, men’s styles, and a few pinup girls. Now this hash is all over the whole country. Playboy… the editor  [Robie Macauley] of Kenyon Review [founded by RPW’s fellow Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom] became fiction editor of Playboy. That’s how far it has gone. 


*If we’re playing “Six Degrees of Interpersonal Relationships with Walker Percy” here, one of the Fugitives, Allan Tate was married (twice!) to Caroline Gordon who, inter alia, mentored Mr. Percy in his first (and as of yet unpublished) novel. My understanding is that Percy also found Mr. Tate’s input invaluable, although I have no citation ready at hand to establish this as fact…


  1. Rufus McCain says

    Poetry as “a way of being open to the world” reminds me of Jeffrey Eugenides as quoted on The Writer’s Almanac recently. He said he decided to be a writer because “it seemed to promise maximum alertness to life.”

    Also, isn’t RPW mentioned in Thanatos Syndrome?

  2. I’d like to see that passage if you can find it!

    Just finishing up RPW’s selected essays. A must.



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