If you have enjoyed or been intrigued by Graves but only know him through his justly celebrated war memoir-cum-autobiography,the Claudius novels, or a few poems about love or war that have been anthologised here and there, then you must buy this book!
Fine prose writer though he was, I think it'll be these poems on which his reputation will ultimately rest. I think we're in danger of losing sight of what a superb all-round writer Graves was. Yes, "Goodbye to All That" is an almost peerless book, one of the best about the first world war and certainly one of the most compelling autobiographies ever written in english. Then there are the Claudius novels, which have certainly been superseded by more recent innovations in the historical novel genre, but which remain groundbreaking and very fine reads in their own right.
However, Graves is perhaps at his best in his poetry. Certainly they get you to the heart of this constantly intriguing and incisive writer. Hardly any other poet has so consistently an unexpected and original way of perceiving things. Prose, Graves often said, was a necessary part of his writing life and it certainly paid the bills. But it was poetry that was his first love, and his true calling. With this one volume "Complete Poems" we get a chance to see how right he was to heed that call time and again.
In many ways Graves is the most complete poet I can think of. Stylistically he was no great innovator, but he was a superb and unshowy technician (the merciless drafting and redrafting of almost every poem on offer here made sure his ideas and feelings received their clearest expression, couched in their most fitting form). Meanwhile, in terms of subject matter, I can't think of another poet who covers so many bases so convincingly. He is rightly hailed as one of the finest love and lyric poets in the language. Indeed, many of these poems were inspired by his (in)famous devotion to the notion of the muse and to his muses. But to categorise him as 'just' a love poet- noble calling as it is- is to do him as much a disservice as to see him as 'just' a first world war poet. He ranges far wider. Indeed, Graves's concerns and interests must have been incredibly wide to judge by the subjects touched on in this collection: religion, mythology, fatherhood, loss, desire, obsession, politics, society, language, the writing of poetry, the poetic impulse, domestic life... I could go on.
One of his chief virtues was brevity and conciseness. He hardly wrote any long poems and none of the verses in this book outstays its welcome. He also had the gift not only of being able to turn a memorable phrase, but also of adopting a fresh perspective on things. Some of his best poems (masterpeices such as "To Juan at the WInter Solstice" or "The Cool Web") made a big impression on me when I first read them, and yet they have a knack of yielding up something new each time I return to them.
In my opinion Graves's Collected Poems has all the charm and merit of Thomas Hardy's or WB Yeats's respective Collected Poems: that is to say that they all contain absolute classics that you keep coming back to, but they're all great for dipping into, since there's so much on offer that you're bound to find a new gem that you weren't aware of before or had overlooked. So whether it's just for browsing or for digging deep, the main thing is about such great volumes of poetry is that you keep reading them, and consequently they will remain on your bookshelf for life.
So, in conclusion, why buy this Collected edition? Well first off it'll give you access to all the poems. If you have one of the older editions published during his lifetime, you won't have all the poems, since Graves constantly excised those verses he no longer considered worthy of publication. This edition reverses that decision. As for the poems themselves, I've indicated above that in my view he's right up there with the greats, but he's also a complete original. Other poets might be better, but I think very few range wider. Hardly any others come close to distilling their own poetic voice as Graves did. You'll hear it time after time here, that mix of the practical and the inspirational. It's a voice of authority, rather clipped and formal at times, with a touch of the officer about it (he never could get over the war in more ways than one). But it's mixed with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder about the world. It's rather like being in the presence of a great teacher who constantly beckons you on, showing you things you've never seen before, or pointing out different ways of seeing familiar things. You may learn from him. You may disagree with him. But he'll make you think. And you'll never be bored.