Books: The Equilibrist

Fortnight ago, a silver-haired Southern gentleman named John Crowe Ransom stood up in Manhattan to receive the 1964 National Book Award for poetry. As founder and editor of the Kenyon Review, mentor to a platoon of celebrated poets and writers, and father of the New Criticism, Ransom is probably the most influential U.S. scholar-critic of the past 40 years. As the author of a few slender books of poetry, he has drawn the highest praise from the knottiest intellectuals of his time.

It might be assumed, therefore, that his prizewinning Selected Poems (Knopf;...