The following excerpts are from the book Talking with Robert Penn Warren, published in 1990. Warren made these statements in conversation with John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, William Y. Elliott, Louis D. Rubin, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Dorothy Bethurum, Randall Stewart at Vanderbilt University in 1959:
“Warren: Greatness is not a criterion — a profitable criterion — of poetry; that what you are concerned with is a sense of a contact with reality. And it’s maybe a pinpoint touch or a whole palm of a hand laid, or something; but the important thing is the shock of this contact: a lot of current can come through a small wire. And there you are up against, well, big subjects and little subjects. It’s just so it’s a real subject, and, of course, you’ve got this word to deal with; you’ve got to have something that will actually create human heat in that contact. Well, language can in certain ways, because language drags the bottom of somebody into being, in one way or another, directly or indirectly. But if I had to say what I would try to hunt for in a poem — would hunt for in a poem — it would be some kind of vital image, a vital and evaluating image, of vitality. That’s a different thing from the vitality you observe or experience. It’s an image of it, but it has the vital quality — it’s a reflection of that vital quality, rather than a passing reflection, but it has its own kind of assurance, own kind of life, by the way it’s built. And when you get around to talking about the scale [the size of a poem], it’s not the most important topic. It is an important topic, but it’s something that comes in very late in the game. . . . But there’s no virtue or defect in the size one way or the other. The question is: where do you get that image, that speaking image, the walking statue, and how would we interpret that? . . .
“Another thing: poetry is an exploration; the process of writing is an exploration. You may dimly envisage what a poem will be when you start it, but only as you wrangle through the process do you know your own meanings. In one way, it’s a way of knowing what kind of poem you can write. And in finding that you find out yourself — I mean a lot about yourself. I don’t mean in the way Merrill’s [Moore] talking about: I mean in the sense of what you can make available, poetically, is clearly something that refers to all your living in very indirect and complicated ways. But you know more about yourself, not in a psychoanalytic way, but in another way of having dealt with yourself in a process. The poem is a way of knowing what kind of person you can be, getting your reality shaped a little bit better. And it’s a way of living, and not a parlor trick even in its most modest reaches; I mean, the most modest kind of effort that we make is a way of living. And I think Bill [Elliott] has something important when he insists that there is such a thing as a poetic condition, which is the willingness to approach a poem in that spirit, rather than in the spirit of a performer, when you get down to a business of writing a poem, or even thinking about poetry.”