Though Rosanna Warren bills her new collection of essays as “an occult autobiography,” the reader picking up Fables of the Self should not expect a self-indulgent tour through the author’s life and legacy. Instead, her “investigation into the nature of literary selfhood” is just that: literary and investigative in true scholarly manner. In sleuthing through the complexities of how the self is depicted in poetry, Warren provides an adumbrated walking tour of poetry from Sappho to the present day. This itinerary also maps the landscape of the author’s own self and sensibility, for Warren’s pursuit of her various subjects is more personal than programmatic. Were the book intended as an exhaustive, academic study of the self in poetry, whole chunks would seem missing, whether the Romantics, the Metaphysicals, or even Shakespeare. Considered as a collection of essays, however, culled from twenty-five years of work, Fables of the Self is a sustained set of linked preoccupations, the fertile residue of a literary mind worrying its subject over time’s jagged course.
That said, one wishes that the collection had a more coherent structure. Warren attempts an overall organization by collecting the essays in three sections that move in a vague chronological order that aligns them under the rubrics “Antiquity at Present” (which ranges from the Greeks and Romans to Louise Glück, Frank Bidart, and Mark Strand), the “‘I’ as Another” in French poetry, and the relationship of “Poetry and Conscience” in Dante, Melville, Hardy, H.D., and Geoffrey Hill. The eclectic nature of this last set illustrates the collection’s wide-ranging sensibility, but also how the author sometimes overshoots her mark. After a learned discussion of the pastoral in Theocritus, for instance, Warren links the “negative idylls” found in Strand’s use of landscape as an “allegory for poetic creation [that] reenacts obsessively the sacrifice of the self,” only to admit that “I’m not trying to prove that Strand is imitating Theocritus; for all I know he has never read him.” Hence, as illuminating as the connection may be regarding to Strand’s poetry, one wonders about the need to reach for Theocritus to make it. In contrast, the observation in the same essay that “the elevation of self, the poetry of me, me, me and Mom and Dad, stands in direct opposition to the sacrificial poetry we have been considering [in Theocritus and Strand],” seems more genuine in its tone and address, as well as more purely originating from a critical triage of the contemporary, rather than a somewhat rickety bridge to the past.
Warren is at her best, however, when most squarely planted in the past. She is not only immersed in Greek, Roman, and Symbolist poetry, but also able to bring their words to life before the reader’s eyes. She continually lives up to her challenge to “feel the ancient poems as present, dangerous, and at work in us” in her effort to promote “a living classicism.” In practice, this supplies her writing with a liveliness that is as rigorous as it is refreshing, such as when she points out how a Sappho poem “runs from stanza to stanza like water pouring from basin to basin down a trout stream,” or when she observes that “it is one of the weird brilliances of Virgil … to have used the same verb for founding the city of Rome in the opening lines … and for Aeneas planting (or founding) his sword in Turnus’s chest at the poem’s conclusion.” While one might pick at the slight awkwardness of “weird brilliances,” the point is a trenchant one that speaks to the thrust of the entire poem. Similarly, in assessing the poetry of H.D., Warren’s suggestion that her “old Imagist elegance … should have been dipped in corrosive sublimate” shows her as ready to lower the boom of frank assessment as she is to open the door of critical illumination.
“My subject is knowledge,” announces Warren at the start of her essay on Melville’s poetry, and the theme holds for the enitre collection. Though this differs from an exclusive focus on the self per se, the knowledge she is most interested in lies in the alchemic extraction of poetic value from the dross of quotidian subjectivity. “I think of a poem as a structure of weights and balances,” she says in her essay on Hardy, “and of a fine poem as one whose resources—syntax, meter, rhythm, etymology, soundplay—work as carefully placed fulcrums to hoist statement to figurative height.” It’s an admirable sentence and sentiment, particularly for its focus on the poem itself. Her concern with the “self” does not indulge in the vagaries of the poet, choosing instead to explore “the mystery by which brute life experience is transmuted into poetic figuration and patterned language.”
The refutation of the personal is not the same as an arid depersonalization. Warren underscores this by including a brief memoir of the year she discovered her love of poetry while living in France as a young adolescent, as well as a “Coda” comprised of notebook entries from recent years. While the latter at times seems a bit too “occult” (“My spine a braid of pain” reads one entry; “Personality is born out of pain” she quotes from John Butler Yeats in another), such private musings work as bookends to Warren’s more critical investigation, reminding us that we are, after all, in the hands of a thinking and feeling poet. All the learning, all the knowledge to be gained from these pages is not there for mere show. “To read is to take possession,” Warren reminds us. “But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind.” In the depth of the reading that informs it and the vigor which shapes its writing, Fables of the Self provides us with the opportunity for such keeping throughout.
Peter Filkins recently translated The Journey, by H G Adler, into English forthe first time (Random House)
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