BEING named the first official poet laureate of the United States is neither the first nor the most prestigious award in poet-novelist Robert Penn Warren's distinguished career. He's won three Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, the National Medal for Literature, and a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship among other recognitions. Yet it is special note by his country of Mr. Warren's 60 years of poetic consistency and productivity. In his early years Warren's works stressed the importance of returning to traditional values, including to the land. His poetry passed through different phases, and he came to have a foot both in the ``city'' and ``rural'' poetry camps, reflecting both the sophistication of contemporary urban life and the significance of basic rural values.
In terms of national need, it is hard to argue that the US requires a poet laureate. England's experience with the post has been, at best, dappled.
Yet it is useful to have a bow in the direction of the culture from an administration and a Congress that have been no great patrons of the arts.
And if there is to be an American poet laureate, there is no quarrel with Warren's being named. Throughout his career quintessentially American rural images have run through his poems: They were pulled no doubt from his formative years on the farm. What serenity there is, and sense of the earth, in the opening stanza of ``What Voice at Moth-Hour'':
What voice at moth-hour did I hear calling
As I stood in the orchard while the white
Petals of apple blossoms were falling,
Whiter than moth-wing in that twilight?