In her most recent volume of poems, So Forth, Rosanna Warren upturns our expectations as she brings her painterly eye, scholarly mind, and fine ear tuned to metrics both ancient and modern, to bear on these deeply unsettling poems, which James Longenbach calls “harrowingly everyday.” Elegance meets grime, love-making is akin to probing the vital organs of rats with a hat pin. The poems defy their prettiness. What she writes of Marianne Faithfull could be true of her approach as well: “She sang very close to the mike / to change the space.” The intimacy in the poems marks what is terrible, electrifying, or even dull about our encounters with other human beings. If something beautiful comes of surgery, these poems represent that.
Warren is the author of several volumes of poetry, including So Forth (2020), Ghost in a Red Hat (2011), Departure (2003), Stained Glass (1993), and Each Leaf Shines Separate (1984), all published by W. W. Norton. She is the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is the recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the New England Poetry Club, among others. She was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
As September 2020 reached towards its end, we emailed back and forth about tragedies and triumphs, and how perhaps art alone escapes the tyranny of time.
The Rumpus: The dead, ancient and recent, collect in these poems, not unlike the assortment of buttons and spools in your grandmother’s sewing casket in “A Cardboard Carton.” You write, as if in atonement, “my shades, I offer you / only my mistakes: a few grains of barley, a saucer / of honey at the door of the tomb.” The underworld, the other world, have long been adjoining rooms to your poems. What is different now?
Rosanna Warren: What’s different is my age. I was in my sixties when I wrote these poems, and I’m in my latter sixties now. I feel that I’ve always written “in the light of death,” a phrase that came into my mind when I was a teenager, and has stuck with me ever since. Earlier books had elegies for my parents and for friends: that was part of the imaginative work the poems had to do. Now, if my own end isn’t “nigh,” it’s clearly in sight.
The ancient Greeks called humans “mortals,” and thought that awareness of our mortality gave life a brilliant meaning the immortal gods couldn’t have. This book, So Forth, starts with a veiled memory of a youthful suicide attempt, and in the next poem, “Shelf,” envisions a human skull on a shelf, a relic of the Armenian genocide. We humans are related in death, and this book tried to ponder that relatedness.
Rumpus: I remember something from a lecture you gave on Blake and Geoffrey Hill, about fifteen years ago: ”Art is a formal question responding to a major provocation in reality.” Can you say something about your formal concerns in So Forth?
Warren: What a memory you have, Meg! I’d like to think that the poems in this book concentrate what I’ve learned about poetic form over many decades. For one thing, form shouldn’t be exoskeletal. It’s not like pressing a machine mold over malleable material. One’s material, whatever it is—the provocation in reality—demands a struggle for shaped language, a language adequate to the shock of the subject. In my experience, there’s reciprocal discovery, a dynamic process. The pressure of the words as they find their form precipitates a new understanding of the subject, and the urgencies of the subject make demands upon the form. I reject the phrase “formal poetry” for “metrical poetry.” Any good poem has form and acts out its meanings in form.
What does this mean in practice? Well, my training is in metrical verse, in English, but also in French, Italian, Latin, and to some extent in Ancient Greek. Since I’m steeped in metrical traditions, I try to play on the expressive resources those symmetries provide. But I’m a child of Modernism, and I write mainly in free verse, a free verse echoing deep patterns. The first line in “Shelf” is a conventional iambic pentameter: “A human skull among the bibelots.” This book has a sonnet, “The Crux,” and poems in quatrains and couplets and more complex stanza shapes; yet, these shapes barely contain the irregularities in cadence. An art, I hope, in which order wrestles with disorder, and suggests our human need for pattern as well as our propensity to violence. These poems have a lot of violence: cruelties, sorrows, betrayals. The language is correspondingly wrenched.
Rumpus: The language is wrenched and fiercely eloquent at once. I notice that your syntax, even in a poem’s most harrowing moments, doesn’t falter. Is this what you mean by order wrestling with disorder?
Warren: Ah, syntax. I’m glad you brought that up, one of the great, inadequately acknowledged resources, a motive force. I try to set order struggling against disorder in various ways. Some of the poems are unpunctuated or almost unpunctuated, like “Hospital Chair,” which has only a few dashes and one parenthesis, so the lines seem to float in air. But the syntax pulls them back like a kite string. I hope the effect of this poem of dream and memory, a memory of one of my children almost dying, is to plunge the reader into a state of radical uncertainty.
In other poems, a visible stanza shape seems to insist on symmetry, while abrupt enjambments make the lines and the sense lurch. In “Muse Not Muse,” one of the poems about the painter Gwen John, who was also Rodin’s model and lover, the line, “olive and smoky lime, a” dangles the article at the end, and the whole poems twists and torques while it dramatizes the twists in John’s postures in art and love, and in her painting. The other poem about Gwen John, “Rodin Commands,” about the time he made her make love with his female assistant so he could draw them, ends in an intense ellipsis. It’s not ungrammatical but it almost appears so, since it lacks a predicate. “His greatest gift will have been / to prove, once and for all, that the person / craving, is not.” Is not what? Craving? Is not a person? Does not exist? All of these conditions could be compressed for a woman making love on command. Whose desire is it?
Rumpus: “Rodin Commands” seems less about desire than the elixir of power, of force: “It’s his brush that arcs.”
Warren: Yes, you’re right about power. Which is why I needed to write two poems about Gwen John: in “Muse Not Muse,” she gets her power back, “her brush // her own.” And I love the last line, copied from her notebook: “We must go on with our mysterious work.” But her long affair with Rodin was truly an exchange, I believe. Through him she came in touch with a great force of eros as well as of art, and though she suffered from it, she found in it, finally, the source of her own vision. I wrote this series of poems about women artists because I wanted to explore power, not powerlessness. The experience of sex, even of dreadful sex, can be a revelation we can use.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about the Bunny Harvey painting on the cover of the book?
Warren: Bunny Harvey is a marvelous painter, whose work I’ve admired for years. This painting she let me use for the cover, Survival Tactics, has exactly that end-of-the-world feeling I wanted for the book. The years in which I was writing these poems seemed menacing enough—the planet melting and broiling, a monstrous demagogue dismantling our government and putting children in cages. But I couldn’t have predicted the extreme demolition we are now witnessing. As I write to you, the sky over the Catskills is a gray mattress, and stinks of smoke from the Western fires three thousand miles away. Antarctica and the Arctic are melting. Thousands of people are being prevented from voting. The list of iniquities is long, including the wicked corruption of the Justice Department. The country is being run by a criminal gang. Excuse my ranting! Political grief and fury run through my book.
The poems about the pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales and Anaximander, imagine terrifying gods on the move (“Thales”) and the earth succumbing to whirlwinds and fire: “That the earth is suspended…” That seems to be happening right now and not just in North America; look at Siberia burning, Brazil, Australia. Bunny’s painting makes us see through a chain link fence, a feel of a vacant lot, weeds struggling through the gaps, in the distance what may be the ruin of a city. We’re not just living in the ruins; we’re creating them. I want my poems to mourn and to protest, but also, like Bunny’s weeds, to show vigorous life.
Rumpus: “Thales” frightens me, in all the right ways. The poems here about Judaism also contain remnants of ruin, moments of flourish (like Bunny’s weeds). “Rosh Hashanah,” which begins this evening, gives us newness and a reminder of how “dark, alone, and small we are.” Could you say something about these poems?
Warren: Yes, the Jewish New Year is commencing right now, and I wish I could believe it would be a happy one, but Ruth Bader Ginsberg has just died and I fear for our country. I am not Jewish, but I live close to Judaism: my beloved, with whom I live, is certainly Jewish. We keep a kosher household and honor the Shabbat and the main holidays, and he blows the shofar for his synagogue. In the poem you just quoted, “Rosh Hashanah,” he is blowing the ancestral ram’s horn to summon souls for the New Year.
All my life I’ve been looking for the sacred in various forms. The Hebrew Bible has always seemed to me a heart-wrenchingly realistic and noble (as well as in some ways demented) record of the human story: fratricide, covenant, forgiveness, the search for justice. It comforts me to live in its force field. Another Jewish poem in this book, “Tashlich,” also celebrates a rite for Rosh Hashanah, in this case the casting off of sins in the form of bread thrown upon running water. My poem examines the turbulent conscience of the speaker, the recognition of having harmed others, which seems to me important work a poem can do. This is another unpunctuated poem, with spaces serving as period, and the acts and feelings running into each other like running water: “I let / one more sorrow one more question fall / into the sudden the sodden and anonymous night.” The book ends on a quieter note. After all the griefs and fears, the gentle promise of letting the Shabbat candles burn themselves out, signaling to the rising moon. It’s a humble way of suggesting that we cannot fully control our own fates.
Photograph of Rosanna Warren by Joel Cohen.