This is Rosanna Warren, part 2…

An interview with Warren was published in the Kenyon Review. She shares some deeply considered thoughts on a number of topics including the structure of poetry, writing about the visual arts, absorbing traditions, apprehension of the real.

Here are a few salient excerpts:

In a way, I have a deeply old-fashioned view that the artist in any art needs to absorb the traditions of that art and absorb them intensely. How you do it is your own business. My sense of it is that you draw from nature and that you draw from the works of the past. And that as a writer you imitate and translate from as many languages as you can so you absorb the expressive possibilities of our literatures in English, which is so various and hybrid. And only through this immersion does one enlarge the possibilities of how we can refashion inherited forms. For me, there’s no interesting art that doesn’t have a potent formal sense and also a powerful disruptive sense. I look for that in art—I look for some ratio of resistance between powerful form and powerful disruption.


Indeed, I think there’s a great misunderstanding (well, even to go back even twenty-five years in this country) between so-called open forms (and the ideological claims being made for them, even politically, which seems to be an amazingly crude way of thinking) and the traditional metrical forms. Free verse itself is now a tradition of over a hundred years old. My coordinates are a little French so I would date it to July or August of 1886, which was when the magazine La Vogue in Paris published one of the first translations of Whitman in French and (these were an incredible set of issues) Rimbaud’s first free-verse poems which came out of the prose poetry in Illuminations. Of course, Rimbaud had long since gone off to Africa and he didn’t know they were being published. So we see the double-barreled assault on the French alexandrine line in 1886 with Whitman and Rimbaud. By now that’s well over a century ago. So my sense of form is any organic set of constraints, of structural constraints that the poem sets up for itself, which should engender a powerful form of resistance, internal resistance. A poem that doesn’t have these two elements, I find, lacks life.


In a way I suppose it’s just an intensification of what art is, because art is a fiction. We make shapes from whatever private motivations we have, but what is happening is a kind of alchemy where whatever raw material we bring to the fictions we make—whether they’re prose or poetic fictions—we bring the raw material of our psyches, our lives, our experiences and they’re transmuted by the alembic shape of whatever form we put on the page.


From my very early childhood, I remember at the age of three holding pencils and trying to make shapes, trying to translate onto the page what I was seeing. Drawing and then painting are meditational exercises to work at the strangeness of the world. And that’s why I was always a figurative painter, because I could stare for hours (maybe it’s a little autistic) at tree bark, or the pattern branches make against the sky, or at the shape of an orange on a table—and look at the weirdness of anything. If you look at it hard it turns revelatory in its estrangement from what we expect it to look like. That’s a nonverbal training or positioning toward reality, and poetry, in my experience, is an exhilarating, at times heartbreaking, attempt to translate into the verbal realm those distinctly nonverbal experiences or apprehensions of the real. I guess the way I’m speaking sounds a little bit like Giacometti; that’s the way Giacometti drew, by looking at the real until it dissolved. He was thinking a lot about Cézanne, and I think about Cézanne probably every day of my life. It is a discipline of looking for the revelation in the strangeness of the truth.