Harold Bloom called her second collection of poetry, Stained Glass, published in 1993 “a distinguished and elegiac book: somber, frequently bitter, but always invested with an authentic, quite marvelous aesthetic dignity.” Since then the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships from the New York Public Library, Pushcart Press, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation, Warren’s body of work is remarkable for its temporal bilocation: inscribed in the present though it may be, it gestures equally toward the hallows of classicism.
At a gentle distance from the literary limelight, Warren appears to have been undertaking one of the most extraordinary projects in contemporary literature: “To feel the ancient poems as present, dangerous, and at work in us.” This “living classicism,” as she explains in the introduction to her book of essays Fables of the Self (2008) shows “that key structures of ancient verse—the Sapphic and Alcaic stanzas, the heroic hexameter, the elegiac couplet—carry with them allusive and suggestive power that modern poets can draw on actively, not passively.”
This engagement with the classics also extends to translation, and in 1995 she co-translated Euripides’s Suppliant Women (with Stephen Scully, her then husband), published in Oxford University Press’s esteemed Greek Tragedy in New Translations series. She also edited William Arrowsmith’s translations of Eugenio Montale’s Poetic Diaries, 1971 and 1972 (Norton, 2013); Poetic Notebook, 1974-1977 (Norton, 2013); The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977 (Norton, 2012); Satura (Norton, 1998); and Cuttlefish Bones (Norton, 1993). She has edited three chapbooks of poetry by prisoners, as well as The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (Northeastern, 1989), a collection of guest presentations at the Boston University Translation Seminar, on works from languages as varied as Latin, Irish, Chinese, Tamil, and Nahuatl.
At Boston University she was the Emma MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. Since 2012, she has been the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Professor at the Committee of Social Thought, University of Chicago, where she has been working on a literary biography of Max Jacob, a friend and contemporary of Picasso's and Jean Cocteau’s whose work as a poet, artist, and critic forms a crucial link between symbolism and surrealism. She spoke to Andrés Hax over the phone at the beginning of September to discuss her own journey in poetry, as well as the enriching aspects of trying to master (or translate) other languages and forms.
–Florian DuijsensWhen did you first fall in love with poetry, and how has your relationship to it changed?
It was probably born when I was five years old, because I loved poetry as a child and memorized it, and I would go around the house chanting it out loud. For some years I thought that I wanted to be a painter, but as far as I can remember I never wasn’t in love with poetry.
Each new poem is for me a tightrope walk over the abyss. And in a sense it always has been. Maybe the abyss is just deeper now. I’m really not sure what’s different.
I never, in a sense, “wanted to be a poet.” I wanted to be a painter. And the poetry just emerged. I wrote all through my childhood and adolescence. I began to become seriously aware of the possibility of publishing when I was around twenty, twenty-one. Then some poems that I had written were published and I began to become more self-conscious about the possibility of this not just being a private passion.
Poetry has always been essential to my life because it solves problems that I can’t solve in any other way. It would have been more comfortable for me not to have poetry in my life, but on the other hand, I couldn’t live without it. I want poems that I read, as well as poems that I write, to solve some real psychic, emotional, or moral problem. And if they don’t, they feel fake to me. It makes me angry, with myself and with other poems, when they seem to be just products. In technique, one learns, one explores, one experiments. You learn more and more ways to conceive of the problem and then to linguistically address it.
How has your poetry evolved technically and formally? Can you say that it has “improved” over time?
I can look back at some younger poems and smile, or wince, thinking that they were naïve in certain ways, or obvious in ways that I would try to avoid now. But there is also, in some of the younger work, a kind of freshness, a kind of brashness maybe, a quality of imagination that also one can lose.
It certainly would be too simple to say that there is a steady line of improvement, and I hope that there isn’t a steady line of decadence. But because you’re writing for Asymptote, I would also add that my sense of the possibilities of poetry, the technical possibilities—which to me are intrinsic to the psychic and moral possibilities—are enlarged by reading poetry in other languages. The plural possibility of the poetry comes through dramatically when you are reading poetry, as I do, in Italian, in French, in ancient Greek, in Latin. It’s humbling and also inspiring and enlarging. I very much depended for my lively sense of English on a constant contrast with the possibility of other languages.
Is there an argument to be made that knowing other languages could be a liability for a writer?
I can’t speak for other people, but that’s definitely not the case for me, and I can’t imagine how it could be the case for others, frankly. I think that the real danger is parochial monolingualism: you are trapped in a language so you don’t have any margin of self-awareness about that language. That expands to cultural matters—you don’t have a margin of self-awareness about your own culture and its assumptions. It’s crucial to have at least one foreign language. Especially for writers. Writers need to be super, super, super conscious about the strangeness of language. One of the essential imperatives for a writer is to treat your own language as a foreign language.
It’s sometimes difficult to hear the sounds of the words of your own language. To hear the sounds apart from their meaning.
It’s hard to hear the sounds. And it’s hard to hear the clichés because you are used to them and they sound natural to you. It’s hard to hear the multiple meanings in certain words and the oddness of the grammatical possibilities in your own language. Unless you’ve studied another language and you become alive to the possibility of many different ways of construing reality.
It’s about a relation to reality. One thing that I think is so exciting about grammar is that grammar is an ethical structure and a dynamic structure. What’s fundamental about reality? It’s: Who is doing the action? Who is suffering the action? Who is participating in the action? Where is it happening? All this really matters politically, morally, emotionally, and erotically.
Does that mode of thinking put you in the minority?
I suspect that quite a number of writers would agree with me about the force and thrill of grammar. But I know that many professors of composition in the United States would not. Professors of composition have practically outlawed instruction in grammar, which I think is criminal. It’s appalling and profoundly disabling to students. In that sense I guess I am a minority. But I don’t teach composition. Or you might say that everything I do is to teach composition. To teach literature is to teach composition. To be a human being is, in some sense, to teach composition. We compose our lives. And we should do it consciously and seriously.
How does your work as a translator coexist with your work as a poet?
They are definitely part of the same process. I almost think of them as being on a continuum. I think that translating is like receiving a blood transfusion. I translate works that I love, whether it’s ancient poetry like Sappho or Alcaeus or Alcman from Greek, or Catullus from Latin. More recently I’ve translated early twentieth-century French poets like Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy and a contemporary Italian poet like Patrizia Cavalli. From each of these works I am receiving a life-giving blood that charges me up and gets my whole imaginative and emotional system throbbing. And I am constantly learning new ways to conceive the world and to make it happen on the page.
Is there an ethos or central idea that you would like to pass on to students of translation?
There are many kinds of translation, and I would not want to be in the position of advocating for only one kind or method. It has to be an experimental relationship, new each time between the translator and the text. What I try to do is to honor the musical structure of the original. I don’t do it literalistically—that is, I don’t necessarily try to represent a metrical pattern in English that is in the Greek or in the Latin, because English works differently from Greek or Latin. What I try to do—I think of it as shamanistic and theatrical—I try to create an illusion in English of the feel of the form of the original. In translating Sapphic meter from Catullus, say, I don’t discipline my English to eleven-,eleven, eleven, and five-syllable lines, as the Sapphic meter would require. I try to give the feeling of an expanding and suddenly contracting stanza, and of a kind of cadence or lilt in the middle to represent something of the lilt in the middle of a Greek or Latin Sapphic. To me, it has to be performable, it has to be almost singable, and it has to give the hearer, listener, reader the illusion of being under the spell of something like the original music. It’s a magic trick. When it works.
How do you know that it has worked?
Sometimes you don’t. You can be deluded. It’s a matter of feeling one’s way. It’s like knowing when one’s own poem works. Sometimes it takes months before you know. But I think that any art has a large element of the intuitive in it and also experience. If you’ve been doing this for years you begin to have a feeling for what is plain wrong, what is sounding clumsy, what is sounding dissonant, what is sounding out of relation to the original poem.
For instance, Robert Lowell’s famous “Imitations,” which he called imitations, not translations, are often pretty high-octane Lowell poems. But they also run counter to the soul of the original poem. I admire them because I cherish the poetry of Robert Lowell. I admire them as part of Lowell’s own private workshop, but I wouldn’t go to Lowell’s Baudelaire to find out anything about Baudelaire. Sometimes he’s going 180 degrees opposite to what Baudelaire was doing. An example of that is the Baudelaire poem “Recueillement,” which means meditation. The last line of that, in the French, is: Entends, ma chère, entends la douce nuit qui marche. Which is an alexandrine, twelve syllables, a very slow line about a shroud unwinding across the planet as evening comes on: listen my darling, listen, to the sweet night approaching. And Lowell translated that: Listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march! That’s not only a mistranslation, but “marche” does not mean “march” in English. And it’s metrically opposed to the swishing, spectral movement in the French. He turned it into a military stamping. That’s what I’m trying not to do.
What is it like to have your own poetry translated? Do you work with the translators?
I have been translated into Russian and Polish, and I don’t read those languages so I just trust the translators. But when I am translated into French, as I have been quite a bit, and into Italian, then I can read the original and sometimes make suggestions. There is one person in particular, Aude Pivin, who translates a lot of my poetry and publishes it in France. She and I work quite closely together, and that is fascinating, because you see your own work in a different light. It is a mirror reflected back at you so you become more aware of what it is you have done. It makes me more aware of French and of subtleties of expression in French.
Sometimes it’s cultural. An eminent elder Italian poet, a man, Lucio Mariani translated a couple of my poems, including the poem “Ghost in a Red Hat,” which has a line that says “in my middle age and sensible girth.” And this elegant, older Italian man just couldn’t bear the idea of a woman talking about herself that way. So he changed it to something rather mellifluous and gracious, and I had to write back and say, “No, no, no. This is what I mean!” It’s not “bella figura”—which is everyone trying to make a good impression, or a romantic impression—this is the truth! There was a deep cultural clash there that needed to be addressed, which I thought was very funny.
Which fundamental texts would you recommend to someone undertaking or continuing the serious study of poetry?
I think the most fundamental thing is to fall in love with some poems. If there is no love at this core, then nothing else will happen. There has to be all the energy that a teenager devotes to baseball cards or some kind of video game. You need that kind of obsession, that kind of drive to stay up all night. Then you want to know everything about this object of your love, and the more poetry you read, the more you learn.
A book that I have found crucial, and that a number of my poet friends find crucial still, is “The Founding of English Metre,” by John Thompson. It’s a book that was written in the 1950s about the sixteenth century, that great, radical century in English. From the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey at the beginning of the century on to the end, where you have the great English line that flowered into the poetry of Christopher Marlowe and Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare. I still think the sixteenth century is by far the most radical, experimental, inventive, exciting century in the history of English poetry. Thompson’s discussion in the introduction and in the first chapter on the poetry of Wyatt is absolutely thrilling. It helps one to go on and understand, then, what is happening with the metrical irregularities in John Donne or forward to Gerard Manley Hopkins. It helps one think about rhythm and meter and expressive values and the tension between speech and song in twentieth-century poetry. Even though this is a book about meter, you can extend some of its principles to thinking about the forces at work in free verse. This book remains continuously useful.
A very different kind of book, not formal, certainly not metrical in its concerns would be Louise Glück’s collection of essays Proofs and Theories, which gives you a very different inside look at a highly demanding poetic intelligence. It contains her tributes to poets like George Oppen, among others, who have led her, inspired her, and it describes the kind of truthfulness she demands of poetic language. That too I find extraordinarily inspiring and I think it would be to others.
I’m certain that future literary historians will note that you and Geoffrey Hill were in the same place at the same time for several years. Did you have an artistic, intellectual exchange with him while you were both at BU? Has he influenced you as a poet?
He influenced me enormously. I learned a tremendous amount from him. To watch him working and see book after book appearing while we were there, to be talking almost every day about poetry and about other things was a magnificent education for me, for which I am eternally grateful. There were other presences at Boston University at the same time. Christopher Ricks, who is still there. Derek Walcott, Robert Pinsky. The presence of Rodger Shattuck for French literature, Donald Carne-Ross for Greek and Italian, William Arrowsmith for the classics. For a while there was a literary golden age.
Were all of you conscious of that as it was happening? What was it like to be in one another’s company?
Well, sometimes we would fight, but the fights were interesting! The fights were good fights! Mostly, I think there was a sense of solidarity and of common enterprise, literarily. And for the younger person—I was definitely a younger person in that group—it was an education that I had missed as an undergraduate.
What was so ennobling about that group was a sense of passionate attention being devoted to works of literature, and the fact that there was no boundary between the classics and the Italian Renaissance and modernist work and a variety of languages. There was a sense that literature was, in some large sense, one, and that it made immense formal and imaginative demands on anyone who cared to live in its powers. The fact that we worked together required everybody to stretch. And I imagine that students felt something of that excitement from the professors, the sense that we were involved in a common enterprise of creating and learning that we were excited by. We weren’t going to a job.
I once asked Harold Bloom why he had not become a poet himself. He felt that to enter poetry there was a threshold guarded by demons and that if he were to attempt to cross, they would destroy him. Do you think that is true?
I think it’s true for Harold, who is a dear friend of mine, and I know what he is talking about. Each of us has to find our own way and our own place. I don’t see those demons. I have to cross that threshold every day or I am not fully alive.
And yet you say there is an abyss.
I see the danger. The danger has to be there.
The danger is different for every new poem. But if you don’t feel a sense of danger, of stumbling into some state of truthfulness that you hadn’t understood before or that you hadn’t seen before . . . Something that is unsettling to your comfortable ideas of life: that’s the danger. If the poem doesn’t take that risk, it hasn’t discovered anything and it’s a waste of one’s time, of one’s energy. And worse than a waste, it can seduce you into a state of complacency—of, “Oh, I have made another object to add to my curriculum vitae.” That’s death. That’s absolute death. We are not making objects to add to our curriculum vitae. We have to be crossing some boundary—I’d say walking over an abyss. We have to find something out and we have to stretch the language to make it true, make it visible.
With Harold’s demons, I may have felt something like that with painting. I painted for years. I drew for years, from early childhood, very, very seriously. But it was such an emotional and physical strain. Sometimes I would paint almost all night. It was such a battle, which isn’t why I stopped painting, but the thought crossed my mind that if I kept this up I might not live very long.
But what really happened for me was not that fear of dying early; it was the sense that the poetry was calling harder.