Poets have long memories. They recall poets of the past, famous and obscure, read them, imitate them, and keep them from being completely forgotten. It sometimes seems as if every poet who has ever lived is still our contemporary. To a greater or lesser degree, poetry written in any historical period is an amalgam of traditions. This appears to be the case today more than it ever was in the past. After a century of innovation and an immense amount of translation, there’s nothing homogeneous about American poetry—if there ever was. There are still followers of Frost, W.C. Williams, and Stevens around, but they have to compete with East European, Latin American, and Chinese poets. Now even the Greek and Roman classics are revered once again. With all the scavenging among moderns and ancients, it is no longer easy to stick labels on poets. This makes it tough on those who like to know what they are getting and joy for those who don’t mind being surprised now and then.
This chaotic state of American poetry may seem like a recent development, but it isn’t. Already in 1929, summing up a decade of verse in The Bookman, Allen Tate worried that the new poets had not been able to make a single native tradition. “Their performance,” he writes,
is thus more varied, and it lacks the sustaining force of a common idea. It lacks utterly the belief in a united America. The poets of our own time have not been able to organize a school that could advertise itself as representative of the whole country.
Reading Rosanna Warren, August Kleinzahler, and C.K. Williams, I’d have to agree, without shedding any tears. Our poets are less interested than ever in legitimizing their practices from a nationalist standpoint. As Tate says, there are—at the very least—several different Americas out there, not one of which contains all the values of the whole and any one of which, in respect to the whole, may seem incoherent. That makes every poet a heretic of sorts. It accounts for the antithetical ideas of poetry one encounters in these books, all capable in their own way of giving us a memorable poem.
Rosanna Warren was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1953. Departure is her fourth book of poems and her strongest. In addition to her poetry, she has translated Euripides and Max Jacob, and has edited a book on the art of translation. Her poems tend to be set pieces; she picks a subject the way a painter arranges some apples and pears on a plate or has a model pose in a favorite chair. Accordingly, there are poems that come from passages in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, one on Max Beckmann’s triptych Departure, and others on a story by Colette and a painting by Bonnard. The longest poem, the deliciously comic and entertaining “Intimate Letters,” is made up of quotes from the correspondence …