A poet who taught many what they know about poetry

So the office of United States poet laureate has fallen on the great shoulders of Robert Penn Warren! I doubt he even feels it. Born in Guthrie, Ky., in 1905, Warren taught most of us what we know about poetry in the book he co-authored with Cleanth Brooks, ``Understanding Poetry'' (1938). Warren later won three Pulitzers, one for fiction, two for poetry. Success did not go to his head. That has always been involved in his ongoing quarrel with American history. In novel and poem, Warren has shown the dire consequences of the anarchic individualism associated with Thomas Jefferson, and the romantic optimism associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Not that Warren has replaced these dogmas with a dogma of his own. Rejecting the notion that man is born good, Warren has consistently presented the drama of a man learning to be good. He has himself become a representative man. In ``Hope,'' Warren addresses the reader with a stern compassion:

In the orchidaceous light of evening

Watch how, from the lowest hedge-leaf, creeps,

Grass blade to blade, the purpling shadow.

He makes us see meaning where he found it, so we find it, too. The purpling shadow will give way to ``in all fulness, the moon.'' This moon looks like poetry. As Warren says, it ``Will dominate the sky, the world, the heart,/In white forgiveness.''

It's not that Warren will make a great poet laureate. He has been a great poet for many years. Making him the first American poet laureate is just one more way for us to acknowledge it.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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