Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self (Norton, 2008) is a richly idiosyncratic work, blending what Warren calls “occult autobiography” and a set of interpretative readings from her canon of Golden Oldies, as well as from 20th century poets. Warren confronts, and is affronted by, what she calls a culture of literalism and crude confession in recent American poetry. To it, she opposes her memoir of childhood in the South of France, in which the adventures of learning Latin and French and connecting imaginatively to an ancient world become a foundation for life, and for literature experienced as a complex, symbolic realm. Her studies of poetry from Ancient Greece and Rome, and from 19th and 20th century France, England, and the United States, establish still other models of rebuke to literalist poetics, and her “Coda,” a section of a Poet’s Journal, is a tissue of quotations from other writers rather than a diary of so-called personal life. Not surprisingly for a writer whose ethos is anti-Romantic and un-self-centering, the practice of translation assumes a key role in her thinking: for Warren, translation is an extension of, and an intensification of, other acts of reading and writing. Over and over, she reminds us, reading and writing are acts both solitary and intensely collective. Her book probes illusions of literary originality, as well as other fiction-making by which we live (and without which we would die, benumbed and stupefied). This brilliant study is a must-read for anyone concerned with the fate of poetry, past and present, in the modern age.
For 2008-2009, Rosanna Warren is a fellow at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. She has recently published poems in The New Yorker, American Scholar, The New York Review of Books and The Yale Review, and a short essay in Threepenny Review.
– Clare Cavanagh