Robert Allen's improbable story is unlike any other. He grew up poor in the hard-scrabble country northeast of Memphis, and until he entered college at the age of 32, he had never set foot in a school. He carried a legacy of family identity on his belated pursuit of a formal education, first to Bethel College in West Tennessee, where he received his undergraduate degree, and then to Vanderbilt University, where he earned his master's and his Ph.D. He began writing poetry in the course of that journey, much of it about the members of his family, and he left some dazzled professors in his wake.