Noah Warren’s debut collection of poems, The Destroyer in the Glass, will be published in April 2016 by Yale University Press. He was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Charlestown, Rhode Island. In this conversation with his aunt, poet and former Academy Chancellor Rosanna Warren, they discuss poetry’s relationship to painting and music, the influence of place, and the experience of coming from a literary family—the poet Robert Penn Warren, also a former Academy Chancellor, was Rosanna’s father and Noah’s grandfather. Currently, Noah Warren is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California. Rosanna Warren is the author of numerous books of poems, including Ghost in a Red Hat and Departure. She lives in Chicago and teaches in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Rosanna Warren: I’ve spent the day moseying through your manuscript once more. Before we start talking about poetry, maybe we should clear family matters out of the way. My parents were well-known authors, and it wasn’t easy for me to imagine that I could be a writer. I wrote (and read) all the time, from the age of five onwards, but I consciously worked to become a painter. It took a lot of sidewise maneuvers, and then some willful blindness, to allow myself to craft language I would show to others and eventually publish. How does it feel to you to come from a literary family? Is it a handicap?
Noah Warren: Well, the literariness of our family was more abstract for me, and so proved a softer impediment. Because my parents were (and are) visual artists, I didn’t need to carve out domestic space for my bookishness as I began to recognize it, as it sounds like you did. And it was only at a later stage of self-awareness—as I confronted questions of self-responsibility, belatedness, and intellectual independence, and decided ultimately that I would bend toward poetry—that that legacy began to weigh on me. It’s been helpful in that respect, even if it’s a great regret otherwise, that I never met Robert Penn, who died a few weeks after I was born. Before I can wrestle with him, I have to re-create him, mostly through the voice in his poems: and I can at any instance choose not to do that, choose to read the poems as poems, and not as his cerements.
You argued, in an essay on Catullus’s translations of Sappho, that “poetry is, finally, a family matter, involving the strains of birth, love, power, death, and inheritance.” As I read it, the implication in context was that each self that the latter-day poet creates, modifies, or renounces, is, unconsciously or not, always already both constrained and quickened by the poetic genealogy that that self, speaking, summons. What I like about the argument—and the book, Fables of the Self, more broadly—is the plurality it insists on, the recognition that you the poet may have one set of family allegiances as you write today’s sonnet, but that next month you’ll be haunted by a very different crew of ghosts as you spill through stanzas. In that light, then, the idea and the vague contours of a life in literature have always been in the air for me, but at a slight remove, entirely optional, and therefore not oppressive. And when I began to write my poems, I turned emphatically to other “families.”
You spoke about your painterly background. It seems to me that ekphrasis was the ordering principle of your first book, Each Leaf Shines Separate, and even as explicitly ekphrastic poems have become less common in your work, I wonder if I see an effect like tableau vivant—or perhaps a perspectival conjunction of foreground and background—in some of the poems from Ghost in a Red Hat, as in the recent poem “Graffiti.” Perhaps you could talk a little more about how you formulate your relationship to visual traditions and spatial relationships now?
RW: It’s true that in my early books, my love of painting often expressed itself in poems taking off from paintings by Turner, Renoir, Bonnard, and John Walker, to name a few. But I came, quite soon, to feel impatient about poems that seemed to prey on works of art, poem-parasites. 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. It had to strain against the art: strongly take it in even as it resisted it. Even in a recent poem about the painter Gwen John, I’ve tried to have story take the upper hand over description. And I conceive of a poem’s relation to poetic traditions in a similar, agonistic way: The strong poem needs to be saturated in the possibilities of formal expression it’s inherited—poem-DNA—and at the same time, knowingly contort, violate, and transform. Transform; form’s the key, in genetics as in art. “Graffiti” was published in Poetry a couple of years ago. It’s not so much a tableau vivant (where the actors are rigid) as a moving picture of a scene in Queens, where beyond a marvelous wall of painted monsters I saw a small shop selling metal rods. Displayed, they looked like guitar strings pulled across the instrument’s sounding board. A train clanked overhead. Here was the image of art being made, from squalor, violence, form given and resisted:
…Hole in the wall, rose sound-hole,
ribbed sounding board—always from fissures and gaps
melody strains as trains thunderclank across…
You speak of turning to other families—literary families—to give you a path toward your own poems. In The Destroyer in the Glass, I love the counterpoint between lush, even baroque language, and stark prosaic statements. In a phrase like “the tide’s recession sucking / fire from the live mind of the flat” (in “Thereafter”), or in “Lo, you storm from the shell” (in “Two Apostrophes to the Requiem”), you sound as if you might be taking cues from Stevens. In “Quad,” one half line reads, “I got into the car,” a very different strain. Stevens, too, was capable of correcting his baroque into the severity of “The Snow Man” or “The Man on the Dump.” Has Stevens been important to you?
NW: Certainly—though I admit I’m bemused that of all the track marks of influence on the book, Stevens should stand out to you. I spent a while trying to quash the Stevensian ring out of my poems a few years ago; what I really did, I see now, was to create a convenient blindness for myself. The Stevensian flinch from a sought balm—whether it’s sensuality, other people, or philosophical consolations—comes out, I think, especially in the largo of The Destroyer in the Glass’s fourth section. Because, really, it’s hard to make sense of the tropics, of that peculiar sense of lightness in a warm winter, when your main instrument is a New England heart, a knotty thumb of wood. And I keep thinking of “The Doctor of Geneva,” now that circumstances have brought me out West.
As I conceive it, the broader family behind the book begins with Milton, that other chilly dialectical thinker. Wordsworth’s project in The Prelude also lingers. Similarly, I tried to trace the upwelling of moral consciousness through an aesthetic sensibility. For that sensibility, Hopkins and Swinburne were important at a certain stage; morally, Lowell’s successes and his fascinating failures were a crucial counterpoint. I worked with Louise Glück for many years, so her voice was another I had to convince myself I had rooted out before I could write the book. As with Stevens, however, and not unrelatedly, her discoveries have passed into the poetic vernacular. I mean, she figured out how to blanch the sentimental center from pastoral while retaining the sensuousness of its props, and, even more enduringly, how to serve up truths on ice, so they last. And cut.
Maybe we could talk about the relation of poetry to music. Those lines you cited above perform—amazingly—the climactic Doppler effect of the train approaching, then passing: A sonic texture of low vowels and l sounds moves through sibilants to the raised ā vowel and heavy, clanking consonance. What has music meant to you? I know you included a long sequence in Departure (2003) about Janáček and the muse/mistress of his later years, Kamila Stösslová, which may be a way in to this.
RW: Like many poets, I’ve found models for poems in various kinds of music. Long ago, I practically memorized John Hollander’s classic book Vision and Resonance, an enduringly useful study of the interplay of visual and sonic elements in Western poetry. He starts from ancient Greek poems, which were composed for musical performance, either in monody or chorus, and he carries the story through the great age of Tudor and Elizabethan lute songs, and forward into modernity, showing the fluctuations between periods when poems really were songs, and periods when poems remember only metaphorically that they have musical origins. It’s a story that presses on any poem being composed today: Is it a speech-poem or a song-poem? What’s the ratio? Poems, for me, are haunted by dual mysteries: the mystery of writing (Christ’s invisible writing on the ground in the scene with the woman taken in adultery; occult traditions of hieroglyphs and zodiacal signs), and the mystery of word music (magic spells (abracadabra); Greek lyric, Campion’s lute songs, nursery rhymes, ballads, blues, rap. Even pop songs—I have a poem inspired by Marianne Faithfull. What has music meant for me? Partly, a principle of composition, the abstraction provided by structure. In the Janáček poem, “Intimate Letters,” I was inspired by the shock of hearing his last string quartet played in concert. I felt icy water running down my spine at the very first notes, and the effect continued throughout the piece. Only later did I learn the story of his long love for Kamila Stösslová. 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.
NW: Your description of the process behind “Intimate Letters” resonates strongly with me: that idea of sound as that which transforms a represented world into a world of its own—not necessarily building, but animating. Your muscular language (“dragging”) reminded me a great deal of your other long biographical poem, “Earthworks,” which traces Frederick Law Olmsted’s heartbreaking travail with Central Park—another instance of world creation, in a poem which balances the vowelly and unruly muck and slough of its natural elements against the contemporary discourse around the project. Music as landscape as organizing principle, threaded with biography.
I suppose I was trying to arrive at something not too dissimilar (from that kind of music-landscape) in the book. The poems you pointed to are performed with or against (classical) music in a tightly constrained, dark, and solitary theater: They occur in the book’s first movement, which I think of as a series of crisis odes. But I was trying to work with something approaching symphony form in the architecture as a whole. After that claustrophobic first part reaches an impasse, the second movement is a kind of Hungarian dance in the form of slightly manic character poems. The third movement begins to explore ethical consequence and violence through miniatures, themes which the fourth movement, the largo, takes up on a broader scope. So I suppose the explicit uses of music early on are subsumed into fluency tropes—rivers, birdsong—by the time the book closes.
RW: That’s an exciting description of your book’s architecture, as much emotional structure as intellectual. You mention your New England heart, but your mother is Cuban-American, and came to this country as a small child. Her art is steeped in Caribbean imagery, color, and light. You spent months living in Cuba after you left college. On the other hand, you grew up in the woods of Rhode Island and in a near-wilderness on a cliff in Nova Scotia. Does the sense of place shape your poems?
NW: I think I’ve internalized a chilly New England landscape, either rural or urban, as the psychic and emotional backdrop, studiously evacuated of detail, against which I build a self or a poem. Nova Scotia, where I was born, has functioned as a purer assembly of the same elements, and returning there is a way to cast off cargo, be silent, and cut myself back. Cuba, where my mother’s from and where I spent significant time, pulled me apart. The feeling of involvement that intensified my aesthetic and physical experience was forever being belied, and ironized, by gulfs of difference (whiteness, leisure, money, accent, et al.). There was a lot of pain in that, and a lot of thinking about ethics and complicity—and though the poems I wrote then were mostly too exuberant and too sad to stomach, I date the germ of this book to that struggle. New Orleans, where I moved in 2013 and where the book resolves, if it resolves, proved to be a happy middle ground: both American and Caribbean, with its long tradition of masks, self-refashioning, and syncretism.
But even the places I return to are studious neutrals, and the essential lack of a sense of belonging shows in the book’s restless peregrinations. Perhaps the endless reproducibility of art and text in this millennium has made the dream of curating for oneself an alternative landscape of culture more conceivable. And so one tries to attach oneself to an imagined landscape because it seems more dependable than physical places that can be snatched away or razed in an instant by market forces. I barely need to say that I tried this, and failed.
RW: I’ve had great fun thinking aloud with you, and it moves me that we don’t seem to be in one another’s way, poetically—at least I hope we aren’t. I mean—that a poetic aunt is perhaps not as oppressive as a poetic parent or grandparent, and a poetic nephew not threatening. It felt like following lines of discoveries in our back-and-forth.
NW: Gosh, I sure hope I’m not threatening—it’s never occurred to me that we could be in each other’s way, far from it. As I know I’ve said to you, and amply proved in action, it’s an enormous comfort to know you’re there, and have done what you have. If we share a few concerns—some proclivities—ultimately, I think we’re plowing diverse fields with very different animals.
This conversation originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2016 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2016 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.