John Burt's Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren is
more broadly representative of Warren's poetry than any previous selected gathering. More
than two hundred poems from every phase grace the volume, a vehicle for sampling__or
soaking in__the finest of Warren's rich output.
With each poem, Burt has carefully located the
version that constitutes Warren's final revision. His introduction gives an eloquent
overview of the poet's career, touching on every published book of verse and highlighting
significant lines. A "selected" collection in the truest sense, featuring
several previously unpublished pieces, this treasure is at once new and familiar.
Burt showcases some very early verse, such as
"The Bird and the Stone" and "Oxford City Wall," the only poem known
to derive from Warren's days as a Rhodes Scholar. There are also portions from the
book-length poems, Brother to Dragons and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.
Arranged chronologically, the selections run the course from darker, more self-consciously
formal poems of the 1920s and early 1930s __ including "Kentucky Mountain
Farm," "Terror," and the most ambitious poem of Warren's early phase,
"The Ballad of Billy Potts"__to a looser style and a
fusion of personal and political concerns in the 1950s and 1960s.
Warren's late phase yielded more than half of
his entire poetic opus. A new stylistic boldness elevates his poems to the sublime from
1968 to 1985, as exemplified in the intense "Island of Summer" sequence, the
violence-filled "Natural History," and his most famous poem, "Evening
Hawk." In his final working years there surfaces a kind of shadow autobiography in
verse as well as a self-doubt that edges at times toward despair__ as revealed
in Warren's darkest meditation on American history, "Going West"__ before
the calmer and more reflective mode of his last volume, which also contains the Hiroshima
atom-bombing reconsideration "New Dawn."
At the heart of Warren's poetry is a
celebration of man's intellect and imagination, his integral place within nature, and his
relationship to time and the past; ultimately, joy coexists with the knowledge of life's
many mysteries, including its tragedies. Selected Poems, a generous survey and a
convenient compendium, is the shining portal to this greatly gifted poet.
John Burt is the editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren and the author of two books of
poems. He is professor of English at Brandeis University, where he has taught since