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Rosanna Warren

I am reading Rosanna Warren’s book, Departures, and liking it a great deal, and, since I find her poems especially keen on using the entire spectrum of poetic concreteness between representational abstraction and non-representational abstraction. I’ll use her “Portrait: Marriage” as a grounding for what I am trying to get at here as we continue our discussion on concrete and abstract.

Prior to the modernist “revolution” (it was more of an evolution with certain revolutionary slants) poets used a rich and heavily Greek/Latin-influenced sense of occasion and rhetoric to formulate their poems. There were the small lyrics, and the very free madrigals and airs but even these were homages to the small lyrical poems of the Greeks and Romans. Here are some of the more common rhetorical devices.

1. Apostrophic address: speaking directly to the dead, to roses, to nation states, to states of feeling–more or less orating to that which was not likely to orate back.

Go lovely rose! (Waller)
Oh rose, thou art sick!” (Blake)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour (Wordsworth)
Death, be not proud… (Donne)

2. Pagan allusions, and often apostrophic address to various pagan deities, nymphs, dryads, etc, etc. This was a “conceit”–not a true worship of these gods (at least we are told so). Even devout Christians such as Milton freely wallowed in such allusions. In a sense, it gave the poet and the reader a short hand idea of what he or she should be feeling as well as mirroring the glory of Greek and Roman poetry and taking some of its reflected light.

3. Set forms such as Carpe Diem (seize the day), “when I am dead”poems, poems forbidding mourning, poems that pose the transience of human life against the “immortality”of the poet’s verse, the pastoral poetry in which sheep and herders, and flowers are all having a fine time, the blazon which itemizes the lover’s virtues, the anti-blazon that itemizes the lover’s faults, etc, etc. In addition to this there were the Odes, The Elegies, all modeled on Odes and elegies by Horace and Virigil, and so on and so forth.

Most of these poems used set themes (the brevity of youth, the inevitability of death) and then played splendid variations on the usual tropes. Two forms of poem used by the first generation Romantics gave us an evolution away from public sentiment–or public sensibility played out as private anguish–and introduced what might be deemed “real” anguish: the meditative lyric as devised by Coleridge in such poems as “Frost At Midnight” and Wordsworth’s Odes, and the small introspective lyrics (or anecdotal narrative) as exemplified by Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems.” Coleridge grew bored with the meditative lyric and started writing his more fantastical poems which, via Poe’s love of the abnormal and the macabre, influenced French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the symbolists, and, then, of course, the first generation modernists who were reacting against another branch of Romanticism as exemplified by Tennyson and his followers.

In a sense the modernist got their own tradition brought back to them via the French, and the fantastical elements of this tradition–the love of the primal, the violent, the abnormal–is, in its mode as a derangement of the senses, part of the later surrealist, dadaist, cubust branch of modern poetics: heavy on odd and disjointed images, devoid of rhetoric, and forever searching for some sense of language that appeals through the intuition and the senses rather than through rational thought and feeling. If we take the exotic elements out of this equation, and replace them with camp, pop art, and comic routines, we arrive at much of what I call that poetry which leans towards the non-representational abstract: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, New York school, and all their various offshoots.

If we follow the Wordsworthian path of simplicity, conversational sincerity, and candor, and yoke it to the heavy influence of Japanese and Chinese poems on the imagists (they loved such poems because they seemed cleansed of rhetoric) we get the sort of lucid, feeling based, thought based, ontology driven representational abstraction that one finds in the poems of normative free verse writers–those who build a poem by allowing the sensual details, and incidents to imply a greater meaning or ontology.

There are few “pure strains” of these branches. Poets often take a little from each, and, poem for poem, might lead their concrete details toward the representational or non-representational ends of abstraction. Some poets disguised as surrealists are highly emotive (Neruda, Vallejo). Others who wouldn’t spit on an image even approachig surrealism, are highly detached. What I am saying here is that the concreteness of contemporary poetry relies far more on subjective, supposedly “original” form and imagery, and far less on agreed upon themes and tropes. The rhetorical devices still exist and show up in contemporary poems, but they are more about an inner process removed from a public voice, and tend to brood, to meditate, to narrate an event, the lesson or meaning of which is implied rather than overtly stated. So let’s see what Rosanna Warren does here in Portrait: Marriage:

Through the dark feathering of Spruce boughs and crosshatch
of naked lower branches, through
splatters of beechlight and beyond the shuddered patch
of sky trapped in the pond’s net of depth and shade,
you flicker into view then subside,

into mingled inks and umbers, like the paper birch
reflected: shaft of brilliance probing
the pond’s amnesia: whole: fractured at a touch:
that’s how I’ve seen you over the years,
light robing, and disrobing,
an image upon shaken waters:

That’s how I’ve held you, as one embraces and loses
the muscled slide of water in mid-
stroke, cold, hauling forward to new darkness as
it passes.

That’s all one compound, complex sentence, held together by colons, and semi colons. The voice of the poem seems to be claiming that even though this is her spouse, he remains, in some vital way, elusive, in and out–like the flickering, and filigree, and dapple and light of the garden, and of the pond. Warren is considered somewhat of neo-formalist, and the chore she has set for herself here is to get a great deal of supporting concrete images into two remarkably constructed sentences. The next sentence begins an evolution away from the first, as would happen at the volta (turn ) of a sonnet. I think she owes something to Williams’ “Spring and All.” The ending of the first sentence reflects a ghost of that older and more famous poem with its use of the word “cold” (but I digress). Suffice it to say, in this poem, Warren exemplifies the strategy of the contemporary concrete toward representational abstraction; she uses images to imply a meaning: even a spouse, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, remains a mystery, and contingent, and provisional–an only now of leaf loam, a contingent and provisional reality within the abstract “fixed” form of marriage.

We might abstract her poem as “Even a husband of many years, even the most intimate of relationships, is a provisional reality, and depends on moment by moment attention to detail.”

We might try poetic abstraction and get clever and put it all into a neat couplet:

Like holding water is my hold on you:
my husband, ever changing, ever true.

Or we might go for a haiku sort of thing:

Through the branches of a garden,
suddenly, my husband of thirty years:
this utterly strange creature, of light of shade.

So I think we have a ball park idea of the complex spectrum of concrete imagery towards either representational or non-representational abstraction. We are always towards an abstraction, one way or the other, but the use of detail, how we emphasize or mute, or play with an image is at the heart of contemporary poetics. A beginner must learn that contemporary poetry–no matter what the school–does not directly state its maxims, and when it does, it does so with a great deal more supporting evidence since nothing can be agreed upon. We do not share the same frames of reference, and we have spent a hundred years raising subjective consciousness to a sort of God. At the same time, we have the cult of science with its own rhetoric of empirical and “objective” fact pitted against the old rhetoric of proverbial and idiomatic thought and feeling. Both our sense of the objective and subjective have changed, and the borders between them are as elusive, as provisional as Rosanna Warren’s spouse.

Poem In Which Spring Returns (or French peasants who are really from Cobble Hill)
Melissa Sheppard

Spring comes
or maybe it doesn’t,

or I come—a sort of spring,
painful shoots sticking out of the ground—
a woman of shoots, and each one painful.

This is the tulip song I sing to my daughter.
I say daughter: tulips must break soil.
Twiggy stuff pokes the ground

from below, while
sun spikes the ground from above:
it’s all a spiky operation—

just as you drew in your first grade class!
A world of piercings!

things piercing and being pierced—
that is as good a theory as any other—

out of being: a sort of ongoing power point demonstration:
Poke the pertinent facts! Say: grass! tree! Woman bending over
in imitation of a peasant in France.

She is not in France. She is in Cobble Hill.
She is not a peasant. She is a lobbyist
for a multi media corporation:

And this is her husband Swen who makes
metal sculptures for the lawns of major rock stars.
And this is her time off, when she

imitates a peasant and admires her husband’s
art installations:

This, too, is an installation.
We will add yoga and a vegan diet.
We will call it a life style.

It is a tulip that has thrust its spear of green
up through the body of earth: someone will say

phallic and dismiss it. I never think of a penis when I
think of Tulips. But suppose it was a penis balancing

a tea cup, and the wind spilled the tea all over this page,
and we were stained by longing, and went forth into the garden
to learn how to be more at home with nature, or to

calm down after a busy week of being successful?
Ah, I think I’ve come to the point of my argument!
After being successful, we return to the earth,

or the earth returns to us, or something returns.
I like the idea that something returns.
I think its a good idea.

What is Sheppard doing here? First, I think she is taking some of the goodies of Dadaism and absurdity, and comic shtick, and being playful. Second I think she is affirming the very cliché ideas she tweaks, something comedy does. It affirms by tweaking; it doesn’t just destroy or mock. Comic perspective takes our sacred categories and dismantles them for the sake of making us have a perspective by incongruity. In this case, the poet implies “being”, as a power point demonstration. I like her sense of play. There is even a little nod to E.E Cummings in these proceedings—of what I call speculative verse. I define speculative verse as follows: verse in which the poet conjectures, improvises, steps out of the usual structures and categories of logical priority not to destroy meaning, or artistic effect, or artistry, but, rather to relieve the system of some pressure, to let off steam, to return to a sense of play. This conjectural, playful verse is an evolution from the conversational poems of Wordsworth, the sort of poem that has dominated the last couple centuries: subjective consciousness on the page, looking at, or experiencing something outside the self yet in reference to the self, while , at the same time, allowing consciousness to roam. The common denominator between poets as diverse as those in language poetry and those writing normative free verse in which emotion and subjective consciousness hold sway is this sense of the improvised. It is rarely if ever truly improvised.

Part of the 20th century revolution in poetry was an interest in parody, pastiche, send ups, cut ups, a constant recapitulation of tired tropes in such a way as to reinvigorate them, and this poem is no exception. If I had to put Melissa’s poem in a poetry camp, it would be with those who have learned to use the modes of Dada, the surreal, the ditzy, the childish, the incongruous, the comic, the speculative, without abandoning hope of emotional effect or depth. If we look at poetry aesthetics as tools rather than as truths, then everything becomes available to us—all the thousands of years of utterance. Sheppard says part of this poem’s inspiration comes from the great ditzy yet pointed ramblings of thirties screw ball actresses like Carole Lombard, the stream of consciousness ramblings of Gracie Allen—as much from them as from French Dadaists. She is a conscious artist. When she begins “Spring comes,” she is not unaware of Chaucer but she quickly adds instability to that notion by having the voice of the poem make a corrective: “Or maybe it doesn’t.” She says she moves through the poem in a speculative way. The daughter offers a foil to the traditional parent/child routine. She sees the poem as an incongruous melding of disparate “routines” that lead to an ancient idea of Spring as return, but which make that idea unstable. Return means death as well as new life. Spring hurts—it pokes through structures. It intrudes. Sheppard also plays with identity: the pastoral peasant who is really a lobbyist for a multi media corporation, the idea that a child’s drawing of a spiky sun and spiky shoots is a truly accurate depiction of how things are interpenetrative—piercing and being pierced. The “this is” trope conveys the “being” as a power point demonstration. A lot is happening in this poem, and it moves, flits about, but has an overall tone of someone being wise by pretending to be witless—the Socratic “towards” rather than “at” wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Rosanna Warren, very different, but also using a “towards” rather than “at” wisdom/technique—in this case, a series of seemingly random questions. The poem is called “A Questionnaire for Bernard Chaet”:

Can a scar emit light?

Can objects slide off the curved surface of earth?

And later in the poem:

Can a sword of sunlight crack rocks?

Have we lost the sky, looking down?

Were we ever safe here?

Warren’s seemingly random and even childish or absurd questions create a cumulative effect anything else but childish. So here’s the challenge:

1. Write a Poem like Melissa Sheppard in which you flit from one thing to the other, yet, somehow, create an overall implication of a meaning, a mood, a tone.

2. Write a poem like Warren’s in which the seeming randomness of questions adds up to a serious theme, or implication (In Warren’s case—the instability of everything).
Good luck.

Home work: YouTube Gracie Allen and Carole Lombard. Listen to what they do to language. Read the last section of Job with God’s questions. Did Warren have these in mind? How do they differ? How are they the same?