April 1, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Lit Fest | Tightrope Walking Over the Abyss: The Vivid Poetry of Rosanna Warren, April 12, 13

Rosanna Warren, portrait

Rosanna Warren

The 2018 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Rosanna Warren for a lecture on Thursday, April 12, at 11:00 a.m., in Walter Hall Rotunda, and for a reading on Friday, April 13, at 8:30 p.m., in Baker Theater.

By Emily Kramer
Graduate student pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing: Poetry

Rosanna Warren was born on the kitchen floor of a cottage in Fairfield, Connecticut, to a pair of talented writers: her father, Robert Penn Warren, who delivered her, is the only person to have won a Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry, and her mother, Eleanor Clark, was a respected critic and writer who won the National Book Award in both nonfiction and poetry. One can easily imagine the pressures of pursuing the very art your parents excelled at, but Rosanna Warren has done more than just make a name for herself.

Warren has published criticism, translation, and poetry, and her most recent books include Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (2008); and two collections, Departure (2003) and Ghost in a Red Hat (2011). 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, 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.

Warren’s poetry is infused with her own set of wide-ranging interests, including painting, music, and translation. These interests combine to create a poetic voice interested in place, time, and grief that resonates with us well after we leave the page. Warren describes writing poetry as

a tightrope walk over the abyss . . . The danger is different for every new poem. But if you don’t feel a sense of danger, of stumbling into some state of truthfulness that you hadn’t understood before or that you hadn’t seen before . . . Something that is unsettling to your comfortable ideas of life: that’s the danger . . . We have to be crossing some boundary—I’d say walking over an abyss. We have to find something out and we have to stretch the language to make it true, make it visible.

In Warren’s poems, we feel that danger, that tightrope walk over the abyss; there is something there that is unsettling, some question always avoiding answer. Warren’s poetry does not so much illuminate that abyss for us as it does encourage us to join her over it, to “cross some boundary,” and it is largely through her brilliant understanding of art, music, and the nuances of language that she does so.

Warren spent a large part of her childhood traveling with her family, spending summers in countries like Italy and France. Though she was always drawn to literature and writing—Random House published her first book, The Joey Story, when she was 10—Warren studied painting at Yale University in the 1970’s before earning her MA in 1980 from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her history as a visual artist shows in Warren’s poetry, which is steeped in vivid image. In fact, much of her poetry emerged through visual art, with many of her early poems responding directly to works of art. Later, however, she began “to feel impatient about poems that seemed to prey on works of art, poem-parasites.” In a recent conversation between herself and her nephew, the poet Noah Warren, featured in the Spring 2016 American Poets, she explains a shift from description of the image itself to the language: “I wanted tension between the poem and the visual art, sometimes a mortal tension. Description would be death. The poem had to act like the painting (or photograph), but in its own purely verbal terms—syntax, rhythm, phonetics . . . [I] tried to have story take the upper hand over description.”

We can see this attention to the poem’s “verbal terms” in her title poem from her most recent book, Ghost in a Red Hat. This is a poem about aging and mortality, where we follow the speaker from girlhood to womanhood and end with the image of a cemetery “teeming” with lichen and a fresh package of goat cheese. It begins,

—these cabbages under full sail, these ancient walls
smothered in ivy and wisteria with its purple froth:

in my middle age and sensible girth

I remember

I don’t know why.

The poem tells us a story about the speaker as a young girl living in a village in Italy, who buys a “broad brimmed crimson straw hat.” The poem then raises the question, “What to do with this girl?” We learn her story; we learn her dreams and her experiences. “She looked for the small flame guttering in a sacred jar.”  The speaker gave birth, “buried small animals, with appropriate rites, in the backyard.” Then, the speaker returns from her reverie and not so much describes as paints the place she is in now. The poem tells us a story, and at the same time begins and ends a painting:

So steeped and soaked, this land where I live now,
so rushing in rain,
roof tiles bristle in moss, close-woven or feathery, sprigging with                                  spores—

The cemetery teems: lichen, honeysuckle, roses.
Little mildewed photographs under glass.
Enemies make peace.
Centuries fall through limestone cracks.

In the same interview, Warren talks about the influence of music in her writing: “What has music meant for me? Partly, a principle of composition, the abstraction provided by structure.” One could imagine Rosanna Warren’s writing as sheet music painted over in watercolor. One example of this blending of music and painting in her work is the poem “Intimate Letters,” based on Leoš Janáček’s last string quartet. Here’s what she had to say about it:

Janáček used to jot down sounds from everyday life—birdsong, chatter, “fox bark, thrush whistle, hen cackle,” and so forth—on anything he had at hand, even his shirt cuffs, and then translate them into musical notes that went into his operas and instrumental pieces. He even “translated” his dying daughter’s last words and sighs, and I copied them into my poem. I tried to imitate his compositional techniques, using repetitions and harmonies to structure jagged, rough, “lived” material. The question recurs throughout the poem, “What can be assimilated into song?” I ask that of my poems, trying to drag unliterary experience into rhythmic form, and to use the sonic resources of language to build subliminal feeling. To build reality.

The poem explores Janáček’s life and his unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová, who Janáček based several of his operas on. In this poem, Warren uses language that sings. She explores musicality in both content and by employing specific musical sounds in the language:

He who had scrawled
on his cuffs, on envelope scraps, on market paper, in his little pad,
robins’ trills, girls’ chatter at the railway station,

fox bark, thrush whistle, hen cackle,
kitten mew, bee hum, “the chord of stalagmites covered with hoarfrost,”
the airy, bell-like patter of fountain spray [. . .]

He tells her,
“You are the most beautiful among them,” and she smiles,

in his notebook she smiles.
And, down to a G,

“Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.”

In a notebook—
2:45 A.M. 25 February 1903, Olga,
her light hair spread across the pillow,


“A-y-a,” two drawn out B’s, scrupulously noted by her father,

and in the margin,

“God be with you, my soul.”

This poem typifies Warren’s work in its attention to not only sound but also repetition and rhythm. Readers will notice this attention in lines like, “robins’ trills, girls’ chatter at the railway station,” and “the airy, bell-like patter of fountain spray.” Warren’s deep understanding of music transforms these words to song in the readers mind.

It is no question that Warren is a polymath. In addition to the images and sounds Warren effortlessly creates for us in her poems, readers will also notice a kind of careful devotion to language that only one who truly and intimately knows language can demonstrate. In another interview, with Asymptote Journal, Warren discusses the importance of learning different languages and the crucial role of this knowledge in a writer’s understanding of her own language: “One of the essential imperatives for a writer is to treat your own language as a foreign language.” She describes her work as a translator as both a coexistence with and an enriching of her work as a poet: “I think that translating is like receiving a blood transfusion . . . From each of these works I am receiving a life-giving blood that charges me up and gets my whole imaginative and emotional system throbbing. And I am constantly learning new ways to conceive the world and to make it happen on the page.”

There is always a gap in translating experience into language, and Warren seems acutely aware of that in this interview, as well as in her poetry. She seems to suggest that an understanding of multiple languages may help bridge this gap, but it is nevertheless still there in her poem, “Family: A Novel.” Here is an excerpt:

John brought out watercolors and painted and repainted

in puddles and eddies the mountainscape he has mulled over for fifty                          years.
When will he get it right? Mist billows and drifts, lake water gleams like a blade unsheathed, the loon dives and seems likely to never reemerge.

Inside, the ceiling paint flakes,
its scrofula patches spread. I open an empty album
and lay out, in a vast game of Patience, snapshots from our last,                                  unsettled years.

Here we see one person struggle to translate the landscape of his home into painting, which we can read as a metaphor for translating experience into poetry. We struggle to capture experience in painting, in story, in photographs, but “when will [we] get it right?” The ceiling paint flakes. The photographs grow mildew. We struggle, but we try to understand.

We might think of poetry, painting, music, and translation all as ways to look encounter the abyss, mediums through which we try to understand. They make visible; they offer us a look. Through these modes of expression, we can climb out and try to cross together, flashlights in hand, tip-toeing over a darkness of unanswered questions. No one makes this process—the process of the writer, but also the process of anyone who tries to understand as a way of life—more visible than Rosanna Warren. In reading her poetry that paints, sings, and grieves, we follow her across the tightrope, and gladly.

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