I find it interesting that the New Yorker ran poems the same week from Carson and Rosanna Warren, another classics scholar and translator. I find it interesting too that though they plumb similar ground, they go about it in very different ways. Carson attacks what she really wants to talk about from all different angles and voices, while Warren takes a more linear, narrative approach. And where Carson could be deemed “difficult”, it appears Warren, at least in the poem appearing in the October 6, 2008, issue of the New Yorker, doesn’t wear that badge. 

I’m woefully unfamiliar with Warren as well; I have only read a smattering of poems scattered across the internet. And from what I’ve read, she works the terrain of the natural world.

Warren, a professor at Boston University, is the daughter of Robert Penn Warren (the novelist of All the King’s Men fame). Her students seem to really like her and she’s also a fellow Johns Hopkins alum so I really want to like “Romanesque.”

But I don’t.

There is a great interview in the Kenyon Review with Rosanna Warren and in it Warren speaks intelligently about poetry and offers great insight into her poetic process. I found particularly relevant the following passage:

“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.”

I think this is a sage and succinct description of what most serious poets and artists are trying to do–to disrupt the medium; to make an impact on future generations. Pound and Eliot and other Modernists disrupted English poetry by taking the baton from the 19th century French poets and made popular verse free of fixed and received forms. Robert Lowell further disrupted the medium by creating overtly autobiographical poems, which was picked up on and followed by many of his cronies. John Ashbery disrupts through his distinct, detatched, almost unpoetic voice and diffuse style. There are many other movements afoot in the fractured poetic landscape to disrupt the received tradition.

So why is Warren’s poem, “Romanesque” so, um, tame? I shouldn’t say tame; Warren is trying to do something very difficult, I just don’t think it’s successful.

Part of the reason is the slack language in the opening lines. Phrases such as “serious cooking” and “gives up the ghost” and “flesh sizzles” are pat and easy. In fact the entire first sentence is a string of tired phrases. Then comes the confusing line about living there (where? who? what?) for eight hundred years. I suppose this has to do with Romanesque art and architechure, which was popular roughly from the 11th to the 13th centuries. So if that’s the case the “we” is the style of art and architecture that has been around for 800 years and whose “ancient mosses nibble the stones.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a poem where an architectural period was the speaker of the poem.

The poem gets more interesting in the middle; descriptions of the figurative sculpture “carved in limestone” are well-wrought. I particularly like “Adepts at pronging pitchforks into the gut.” Adepts is a word that somehow makes the line funny and lends it an eternal nature. That line is then followed by the creepy “You saw light leak from my eyes. I saw you turn.” Eesh.

Here the poems turns as well and not necessarily for the better. Gone is the romanesque voice and entering stage right is a voice that resembles a contemporary poet, who, for some reason wants to mashup romanesque architectural details with food, particularly types of lettuce.

A Romanesque tympanum.

A Romanesque tympanum.

Christ and the chafing dish is a strange image and then the odd modern phrase “they’re microwaved” to describe Pentecostal fires roasting Apostles at the Last Supper. I’m not sure how this all fits, unless it’s a literal fire, which is “the light leaking” from its eyes so that the tympanum appears to be in a chafing dish.

There’s no change in register (or smoke) to indicate that’s what Warren was trying to do. And if it were, it would be incredibly strange to transition from a major fire to the buying greens at the market.

And then introducing another architechural stye (“rococo chapels”) when describing the lettuce is just too much and distracting and really is a non-description. The last line is a little too pat though it does tie all of Warren’s themes together: architecture, religion, and food.  

Anthologies only feature the most successful works so it’s easy to forget that even the best poets fail; often poetry is nothing but a failed attempt to capture the real. Warren says,

“…, 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.”

Further Reading:

Book Review: Rosanna Warren’s ‘Fables’ About Poetry