About Rosanna Warren

by Dan Chiasson

As the work of Rosanna Warren reminds us, to be a poet is to be a writer of poems. The forces of abstraction that threaten always to turn real individual artworks into mere manifestations of moods or (worse) theories or (worst of all) institutions—these forces go limp before poems so brilliantly made. The sculptures are not here to show the museum to advantage. Warren's poems are original in that they differ from other people's poems, but also because, beautifully, they differ from one another. Having a "style" for so many artists is like having a chronic condition whose symptoms crop up predictably, season to season, year to year. For Warren, having a style means having a kind of kit for making surprises.

That kit includes some fine tools, some of which had to have been shaped during Warren's remarkable childhood. To be the daughter of a pair of celebrated writers (Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark), who were also present and loving parents, would seem a rare bit of luck. Warren was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1953. Like Humbert Humbert, her earliest memory of rapture involved Poe's "Annabel Lee," which she found on the shelves of her parents' fire-lit library one evening after being given, by parents of a friend, "a half glass of wine at dinner." This story, both a myth of consecration (the fire, the wine) and, very lightly, a parody of such myths, evinces the intelligence and resourcefulness—and the playfulness—that marks Warren's work. Another story from her childhood has her wheeling John Crowe Ransom (a "regal benignity") around in her doll's perambulator. Her childhood sometimes appears like a peaceable kingdom of weirdly docile geniuses, with a child in charge.

Of course, as any writer knows, writing thrives on adverse conditions. Because Warren's writing has thrived so beautifully, it is tempting to think that the conditions of her childhood must have been, at least in part, adverse. It cannot have been easy to make a life as a writer with her parents' successes at her back. The difficulty of writing poems that approach the power of the work one loves: this difficulty is apt to seem more formidable, not less, if a person has had Ransom in her perambulator. Her parents and their friends grew to become writers, she says, "by reading and by hanging out with other writers"—not, that is, by hanging out with their parents. Becoming a writer feels (it felt to me, at least) much more like saying "No" than saying "Yes": how is it a writer says "no" to a childhood like Warren's? For she did manifestly become a writer; she has published four books of poems ( Snow Day, Each Leaf Shines Separate, Stained Glass, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize, and Departure), and was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (her term ended in 2005). How did a person like Warren become a writer?

First, by becoming a painter. "As a child I didn't draw a great distinction between writing and painting. Both involved the hand," she says, "and translating seeing into some sort of form." Spoken, one might say, like a writer; but spoken, also, like a writer whose first art she never entirely abandoned, and whose principles still inform—deeply, as both subject and technique—her poems. Her counter-life as a painter is suggested by her brilliant visual inventiveness. (The New England stubble fields from an airplane window are a "dun, scuffed, moulting carpet" while a lover's presence is at once "an image upon shaken waters" and "the muscled slide of waters in mid / stroke.") But it seems especially suggestive that, though Warren was "always a figurative painter," nevertheless she says she worked on "the strangeness of the world." This tension between opposing intuitions (the world can be depicted with clarity; the world is strange and, therefore, always a little ahead of or apart from its depictions) is a fundamental principle of Warren's poems.

Translating ancient poems—particularly Ancient Greek and Latin—has also given her what it gives many poets: a feeling for literary beauty as it inheres in "the fabric" of poems—in syntax, in idiom, in versification. Perhaps no poet of Warren's eminence now knows the Classics so well at such close range. But just as forensics don't add up to life, metrics don't make a poem. The spirit behind Warren's Classical scholarship, it seems to me, is the pursuit of vivid estrangement from what she has called "our little selfhoods." The faint silliness of being a person, of clinging to episodes and atmospheres so central to oneself, while to the world so tangential and evaporative—is this a comic or a tragic point? True that art can make anything permanent. If a blush can have engendered Wyatt's "My Galley Charged with Forgetfulness" or a glance given us Sappho's "Phainetai Moi," had we better hoard our blushes and our glances? The Classics have helped Warren articulate both the contingent nature of selves in time (bound by whatever conventions of speech and thought obtained at a given moment) and the permanence of art as a way out of selfhood, a way to transform the small souvenirs and trinkets of its existence in history. As she writes in a poem called "Portrait: Marriage": "now is a proposition / molded over and over / in water, loam and stone."

Warren has worked a range of complex operations on foreign texts, from the most "faithful" translation (notably of Euripides) to the loosest riff. To find oneself already represented in texts, texts long circulating in the cultural bloodstream, and yet to be the only witness to the discovery: this Borgesian or Rimbaudian problem is explored in a sequence of poems called "From the Notebooks of Anne Verveine," which is included in her collection Departure. The poems are faux-found and "translated" works of a made-up French poet a generation Warren's junior. These are erotic poems, emphatically and conventionally so, finding a pitch that Warren's work otherwise seems nearly to repudiate ("Some Gallic reach of mind," Warren has said, was needed to circumvent her "New England censoring mechanisms.") It is important that the most "naked" poems she has done (though everywhere the conventions that indicate "nakedness" obtain) rest on this mountain of complex thinking and counter-thinking about poetry. Part of the pleasure of her Anne Verveine poems comes from hearing a poignant voice express itself in artless terms; subsequent, even deeper pleasures, await the reader who thinks carefully about questions like the following: What counts as "artless" in works of art? How and why do poets present their own poems as "original" as distinct from translation, collage, and pastiche? You cannot not consider these issues when you read these poems; but in doing so you are reconstituting in your own mind the forces of culture and discourse that threaten to muffle, under their heft, the little heartbroken voices that make lyric poetry so riveting. What is a reader to do?

When it all comes together for Warren, as in the Anne Verveine poems or in the short elegy for her mother called "Simile," there seems simply more for readers to do with Warren's work than with the work of even her finest contemporaries. "Simile" is a poem about how a person one loves looks when harrowed, when agonized. Warren's mother is sitting upright in a hospital bed, her hands gripping the metal rails. She is frightened, and, as we know from the poem, she is near dying. Here is the extended Homeric simile that opens the poem:

As when her friend, the crack Austrian skier, in the story
she often told us, had to face
his first Olympic ski jump and, from
the starting ramp over the chute that plunged
so vertiginously its bottom lip
disappeared from view, gazed
on the horizon of Alps that swam and dandled around him
like toy boats in a bathtub, and he could not
for all his iron determination,
training and courage
ungrip his fingers from the railings of the starting gate,
so that
his teammates had to join in prying
up, finger by finger, his hands
to free him, so

The poem continues after a stanza break that feels like an indrawn breath: "facing death, my / mother gripped the bedrails . . . " "As" and "so" are the end terms that bracket a simile that includes a sub-simile ("like toy boats"), suggesting that what one does when facing oblivion (the tragic oblivion of death or the comic oblivion of a steep Alpine run) is to find recourse in figurative language. The figuration fails, finally: the mother is not a skier, even a "crack" skier; those mountain peaks are not toy boats. Reality—vertiginous, immediate—will prevail, and (as the mother must once have told her children) the only thing for a person to do is to face it head-on. The poem's single headlong sentence leaps the stanza break, like a fugitive chased across rooftops, leaping while fleeing, until it ends where the life ends: with the loosening of hands.

Poems are great to the degree that they overcome a skeptical reader's permanent resistance to being powerfully moved. I am almost never moved; I am deeply moved by "Simile." That is one way you know a poem is great. But "Simile" is great in an additional and very unusual way: it helps us think more deeply and more precisely about poetry, its claim upon the world, its claim upon its readers. How a poem can fulfill both functions, breaking one's heart even as it makes one think, is a secret that only a handful of living poets know at any one time. Rosanna Warren seems to me now among that small group of secret-sharers.

Copyright © Dan Chiasson


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Poetry & Fiction
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Rosanna Warren