Rosanna Warren on why poetry matters: ‘If it discovers nothing, it’s worthless.’

UChicago scholar reckons with a fractured world in her odes to woundedness

The place Rosanna Warren calls her “writing shack” is a tiny box of a building deep in the Green Mountains of Vermont that sits on a hillside at the edge of a vast, tumbling woods. From the outside, it looks about as large as a moderately generous walk-in closet, but once you step inside, the whole place deepens. There’s a small bench and bookshelf near the door, and on the other side of a thin partition, a built-in desk surrounded by windows that open out onto the forest. It feels like the world’s most private screened-in porch. Trees unfold into the distance—beech, birch, white pine, elm—and if you sit still, you can hear, amid the breeze and the birds and the gathering quiet, the sound of water in the stream below. Warren stands here, listening.

“So,” she says finally, “this is where I sit and take dictation from the brook.”

Today she has been taking dictation since about 8:30 in the morning. Now it’s close to 2 p.m., and time for lunch. This is the last weekend of August 2018, and her annual “summer migration” to Vermont is winding down. In a week, she will be on her way back to Chicago.

Warren is the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, and a poet and translator whom critics invariably seem to wish more people knew about. In 2017 the Los Angeles Review of Books revisited Warren’s second poetry collection, the Lamont Poetry Prize–winning Stained Glass (W. W. Norton, 1993), and praised her “perspicacious vision that relentlessly seeks truth not despite but through the ‘stain’ of the full range of humanity.”

In 2002 Stephen Yenser gushed that even Warren’s earliest work was “not only ‘promising’ but truly precocious, proof of a talent already ripe.” Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2011 about Warren’s Ghost in a Red Hat (W. W. Norton), released that same year, Dan Chiasson spoke of the “shimmering shapes she devises,” her “arresting” plainspokenness and, in her more outward-looking poems, a “significant contribution to the national imaginary.” “Warren,” he argued, “is not as well known as she should be.”

Her work is difficult to summarize. The style and subjects change from book to book, and from poem to poem. Most of the time she sticks to free verse, but not always. Some of her work is deeply personal: bracing elegies to her parents and to a close friend who died from breast cancer a few years ago. “Friendship is always travel,” Warren writes, en route to see her sick friend, “from the far country of my provisional health, / toward you in your new estate of illness, your suddenly acquired, / costly, irradiated expertise.”

Other work contemplates lost love, a failing marriage, aging, illness, the meaning of home, the comforts of music and poetry. In “Cotillion Photo,” a framed image from a bygone debutante ball (“These young women will last forever, posed like greyhounds”) sparks a memory from childhood and a meditation on time and transformation, destiny and self-determination, in life and in art. “What was to come / would come in its own good time / outside the frame.”

Other poems are overtly political. Warren has written mournful, angry, pungent lyrics about the depredations of Wall Street and the war in Iraq. After Hurricane Katrina, her younger daughter, now a social worker, went to New Orleans to volunteer with the recovery effort; Warren visited her there and helped rebuild homes that had been destroyed. Afterward she wrote about what she saw: “I lost count of slab after cement slab / where bungalows used to stand.” In “Earthworks,” a 15-page poem loosely set during the planning of New York’s Central Park, Warren imagines her way into the life and work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, weaving details from his personal and professional experiences with meditations on civics and aesthetics, urban history, horticulture, the Civil War and slavery. It is a poem about designing a public park from the mud and muck of 19th-century Manhattan Island, but it is also a poem about trying to design a democracy from the “disunited, discordant parts” of American life.

At 66, Warren has a quiet intensity that persists even after her guarded cheerfulness relaxes into warmth. “I think in the last few years, I have wanted my poems to be permeable and even more wounded by experiences,” she says. That may sound like an exalted concept, but what she’s talking about is a kind of radical openness to the world around her, a way of approaching what others might call the human condition, or the fallen world, or the inherent strangeness and fracture of existence. It is also, for her, a way of setting aside the self to find something deeper. “I want my poems to be concerned, however obliquely, with the lives of people besides myself,” she says, “and with a sense of the larger relations that govern us, in justice and injustice.”

In recent years, her poems seem increasingly cracked open and almost physically broken: irregular lines, unpunctuated sentences, interrupted syntaxes, synaptic leaps, voices that collide abruptly. In 2018 Warren explained to the literary journal Five Points that she was allowing more of the outside world into the territory of her poems: “If something or someone wants to knock on the door and enter a poem, why not let that happen?” The poet’s job, she says, is to find the artistic “shapeliness” in all of this wounding experience, the music. From that comes meaning, comes beauty—and discovery. “That’s why poetry matters. … If it discovers nothing, it’s worthless.”

‘Telling stories was like breathing’

Like many poets, Warren is a scavenger and inheritor, and her life has been shaped by two powerful influences: the shared human legacy of classical literature—ancient Greek and Latin poetry infuse her work at an almost cellular level—and her own family history. She is the daughter of two celebrated writers: the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, and essayist and novelist Eleanor Clark.

From Warren’s earliest memories, their home was full of words. Her father was always reciting poems, she says, and for her and her family, “telling stories was like breathing.” She grew up with the idea that writing was “just what people did.”

Much of that growing up happened here in rural Vermont, where her parents bought a small cabin in 1959, the year she turned six, and a few years later built a house on the same lot. During the school year, the family lived in Connecticut, where her father was a professor at Yale, but these woods were where they spent long summers and Christmas vacations, Easters and Thanksgivings, and weekends in between (especially winter weekends—Warren’s mother was a fanatical skier, and Mount Stratton, the highest peak in the southern Green Mountains, stands just five miles away). 

This is the place Warren still migrates to every summer. The writing shack where she works once belonged to her father. Like her, he wrote every day, from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon.

Painting with words

For a long time, Warren resisted becoming a writer. Her earliest ambition was instead to paint. Looking back now, she says, the incandescence of her parents’ careers would have been too much pressure for her younger self. But also, she fell in love with the work of Henri Matisse. From the time when she was a child looking through art books and going to museums, paintings like French Window at CollioureGoldfish and Palette, and The Red Studio astonished her: Matisse’s sculptural sense of form, his “abstracting force,” his sumptuous, dramatic colors and subtle shades of black and white.

And so Warren spent thousands of hours filling up hundreds of canvases, investigating shape and shade, the mystery of light and color and space, working to connect her inner world to the external one in front of her. At Yale she majored in painting and comparative literature and spent college summers in painting programs in Paris and New England. “I was almost trying not to write,” she says. “I was trying to paint.” And Warren never completely surrendered her first art. Its principles remain visible in her writing, and she still draws from time to time, “very privately, as a way of connecting with reality.”

But in her early 20s, she came to the realization that she wasn’t a painter. “It broke my heart,” she says. Unwittingly, she’d been spending more of her time on poetry, a practice she had also never surrendered. And there were “internal pressures that I couldn’t control,” she says, ideas and experiences she couldn’t express except in words. Three years after graduating from college, she enrolled in the creative writing graduate program at Johns Hopkins University and afterward spent 30 years teaching literature, creative writing, and translation at Boston University, before coming to UChicago in 2012.

In 2020, Warren will publish a long-term writing project that bridges—and in fact helped spark—her transition from painting to poetry. Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters (W. W. Norton) is a biography of the French painter and poet, whom she first discovered as a college student still intent on becoming a painter. While working in a Paris library to archive the painting papers of the Matisse contemporary André Derain, she ran across a mention of Jacob’s name and was intrigued.

Jewish and gay, Jacob underwent a mystical conversion to Catholicism and spent two seven-year periods living in a Benedictine monastery before being taken by the Nazis in 1944; he died from pneumonia in Drancy internment camp. Two early poems Warren wrote and dedicated to Jacob were the first she ever showed to anyone besides her parents, and their publication effectively marked the start of her professional writing career. Fascinated with Jacob’s life and work, she has spent the past 30 years working on his biography. As both a painter and a poet, “he was divided in a way that I was feeling divided,” she says.

This September she released a volume of selected poetry in French translation, De notre vivant (Æncrages & Co.), and in 2020 a book of new poems, her fifth. Titled So Forth (W. W. Norton), it compiles nearly a decade’s worth of writing. A sequence of poems called “Legende of Good Women” is at its core, the title borrowed from an unfinished work by Geoffrey Chaucer that narrates the lives of 10 famous women from antiquity and mythology. Warren focuses on an updated cast: Renaissance poet and translator Mary Sidney, fashion designer Coco Chanel, singer and songwriter Marianne Faithfull, harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe.

The poems wind themselves around concerns that run throughout the book: womanhood, sexual identity, art and power, the damage we suffer and inflict. “There are many ways / to throw oneself away,” Warren reminds readers in “A Way,” about Faithfull. So Forth, Warren says, “is deeply about forms of woundedness and wounding, remorse and perhaps healing.”

Those themes play out sharply in another poem from the book, “For Chiara,” a deceptively slight lyric that returns to the woods of Vermont. On an evening walk, Warren and her daughter—who, the poem tells us, wants “to hold each wounded soul”—come across a garter snake injured by a passing car. Helpless to heal its agony, which they also cannot help but witness, they nudge the animal into the grass beside the road. It is autumn, and like the snake, the season bursts with a final wild vigor as death closes in: “fevered” and flaring, the crab-apple tree a “crimson pointilliste nimbus,” the crackling leaves underfoot “tinder, kindling” ready to catch fire.

But autumn, Warren writes, “croons an old song,” and dust scuffs their feet as they walk. Alluding briefly to a story about the Gorgons, the snake-haired women of Greek mythology, the poem gestures toward an inherent, unavoidable connection between the power to heal and the power to kill. After Warren and her daughter edge the snake off the road, the poem asks, “Do we stop seeing / when we walk away?” That question hangs in the air as the final lines exhale: “The brook prattles on. / Home’s far off. Dusk settles, slowly, among leaves. / That’s not mercy, scattering from its hands.”

—Adapted from a story that first appeared in The University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.