“Tell Me a Story” by Robert Penn Warren

[ 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.


Audubon: A Vision (Random House, 1969) is a tale of a violent episode in the wilderness, involving the famous American naturalist and painter John James Audubon. In the poem, Warren employs Audubon as a vehicle for exploring the questions of human identity, empathy, and mercy. In this final section, the narrator steps out from behind Audubon and speaks autobiographically, defining the essential ingredients of a story.

Robert Penn Warren was a well-established poet, novelist, and literary critic. He remains to be the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. Among his many accomplishments, Penn Warren received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. His writings continue to echo their contribution to American literature.