Robert Penn Warren, known as ‘Red’ Warren to his friends, was the first Poet Laureate of the U.S.A.. He is, to this day, the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize both for poetry and for fiction, and he won it for poetry twice. His book All the King’s Men is considered the great American political novel; it’s difficult to get through school without coming across it.
Penn Warren was born in the small town of Guthrie, Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee border. By any fair measure, he should hold a prime spot in the pantheon of all-time great Kentuckians, somewhere between Muhammad Ali and George Clooney (yes, that's right, above Clooney).
Anybody who hasn’t given Penn Warren a shot, Kentuckian or otherwise, is missing out. At his best, Warren's work is not just good writing. It's writing that's good for you. In his wonderful long narrative poem 'Brother to Dragons' — C.S. Lewis was moved to write Warren and tell him he thought it was a masterpiece — the poet reflects on the course he's taken through time and writes, 'Since then I have made new acquaintance / With the nature of joy'. To read Warren is to become better acquainted with joy, with what Warren calls 'the flicker / Of joy, like a wing-flash in a thicket'. Warren's writing is challenging stuff, but it's the best kind of challenge: the challenge to figure out what's worth living for, and live for it.
In general, anything admirable in the lyrics of the latest Stonewall EP can be chalked up to a summer 2013 discovery of Penn Warren’s poetry, especially some of the later stuff from his New and Selected Poems: 1923-1985, an impulse buy from Grimey’s Too on 8th Avenue in Nashville. The delicate lucidity and austere joy of those poems were points of reference for most all the lyrics on the record; without it, ‘Astronaut’s Wife’ wouldn’t exist.
The following is a band favorite, the last poem in the sequence that makes up Audobon: A Vision, a meditation on the life of famous French-American ornithologist John James Audobon. The lyrics of ‘Astronaut’s Wife’ are first and foremost a response to the yearning already there in the guitar line it builds out of; but they are, after that, an attempt to sketch out the kind of story Penn Warren wanted somebody to tell him.
Tell Me a Story
[ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
[ B ]
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.