Issue 28: Conrad Steel reviews Alli Warren
Conrad Steel review: Alli Warren, Another Round: Selected Poems (London: Materials, 2021)
A literary historian might think of Alli Warren’s poetry in terms of an intersection between the legacies of Language Poetry and the New York School, but the binary will be overfamiliar to some readers and opaque to others, so to put it more clearly: Warren’s poems are fractured and reflexive and disorientating, but also chatty and charming and fun.
The first manner is what’s thought of as characteristic of Language writing, to which Warren is connected both by geography (she comes out of California’s Bay Area poetry scene, where the Language poets also had their roots in the ’70s) and by technique (for instance, her more recent poems move toward the grammatical-but-still-disjointed style the Language poets called the New Sentence).
The second manner, by contrast, is thought of as the New York School’s terrain, and here Warren signals the affiliation directly in her titles: ‘On the Levelers Every Day’ pays homage to a collection of talks by Ted Berrigan called On the Level Every Day, and ‘Personal Poem’ to the poem of the same name by New York School luminary Frank O’Hara. Crossing these two ways of writing is not a new idea.
The New Narrative movement that took shape in the Bay Area in the 1980s, for example, has been described in similar terms, and is a key reference point for Warren. But more important than the details of the history is the fundamental tension that this mixed inheritance makes visible in her writing, a tension - let’s start by saying - between complex and simple, stress and leisure, alienation and community, an aesthetic that makes things seem hard and one that makes them seem easy.
Take the opening of Warren’s poem ‘Junk in the Trunk’:
on the ring I’m holding
keeps coming unhinged
I only wanted to say a few words
to you slumping there
about pirates and booty
but got rubbernecked
by the ad assault
and attempts at agency
in the great green air
I only wanted your purple sails
and fanning nymphs
to garnish every hood
with a gleaming grape
To share this junk with a swath
twiddle the law
go diving in the trunk
On the one hand, this is a poetry that works by scrambled associations and surreal collage, a poetry whose basic affective territory - in the longstanding modernist tradition - is at least partly one of confusion and overload. Sense-making gets atomised, and the third stanza in particular seems like a vaguely bacchanalian (nymphs and grapes) triumph of verbal randomness, the lines strung antically from noun to monosyllabic noun. On the other hand, though, it remains the case that a story is being told here, of sorts, and there’s a voice telling it. The poet wanted to say something to or do something with the ‘you’ being addressed, but it went awry (maybe kept ‘coming unhinged’ like the locket) and that awry state is in some sense what the poem dramatises.
The second stanza could even be read as a critical-theory type diagnosis of the impasse that the communicative situation has arrived at: on one side, the delusive intrusions of manipulative modern communications, i.e. ‘the ad assault’; on the other, the distracting, impossible ideal of freedom from such intrusion, i.e. ‘attempts at agency / in the great green air’. These lines, like much of Warren’s poetry, present themselves as the sign of this impasse, of a form of life where getting ‘rubbernecked’ like this is the inescapable norm; and this much is as per the Language Poets, for whom the idea of poetry versus ‘the ad assault’ was central. But also, more than this, Warren’s writing adopts a personal position to tell a story of how things got this way, and how it feels.
This selected volume draws from Warren’s first three books, spanning the period from 2013 to 2020. Formally, most of the poems it contains look roughly like ‘Junk in the Trunk’, which is to say, composed of twenty to forty short-ish lines, lightly punctuated (‘Commas, those fuckers, ruin everything’, she writes at one point), pushing at the edges of grammaticality or breaking free altogether. The short line in these poems fits with the idea of poetry as a document of excess complexity, because it renders Warren’s form as a structure of interruptions, filled with little rhythmic spurts of meaning that cut out or branch off unexpectedly. But it also fits with the idea of a personal voice navigating complexity, because one of the signature gestures that Warren’s prosody makes is the way it picks itself up after a line break to carry on as if nothing had happened.
The second stanza from ‘Junk in the Trunk’ again provides a good example, where every line after the first starts with a preposition or a conjunction, surprising the reader by continuing the thread. (If Warren sometimes sounds like O’Hara, this is an important part of why.) There’s also a comparable surprise sometimes when, in the very final lines, Warren pulls the scrappiness that this form lends itself to up against a brilliantly equivocal neatness of closure, with a flourish of iambs - ‘Trees like these / Oh trees like these’; ‘It’s what I use / to feed the wolf her milk’ - or a sardonically displaced stock phrase - ‘Your winnings, sir’; ‘Tell your mum I said hi’.
But Warren is not a poet of just one form. Alongside the thirty or so short-ish short-line poems this selection contains, there are also seven longer pieces, mostly in longer lines, and the dichotomy of formal approaches gives a helpful clue to how Warren’s poetry works. Three of the longer works represent new directions explored in her latest book: it’s here, particularly in ‘Moveable C’, that the sonorous, sinuous cadences of the New Sentence start to appear (albeit with the sentences on separate lines rather than in that style’s conventional prose; they start to look like Blake’s proverbs). Each of the earlier four longer poems, however, are built around a more basic principle, that of anaphora, where a recurring phrase or construction starts each line.
The counterbalance to Warren’s poetics of rubbernecking, that is, comes from a writing strategy where the idea of consistency is fixed in the form. More, the sense of a subjective casting around for fixity extends to the content of the repeated phrases that each poem uses. First, in ‘Acting Out’, we have ‘You […]’, ‘Your […]’ or ‘You are […]’. Second, in ‘Personal Poem’, it is a series of imperatives, each followed by a piece of advice. In the third, ‘Protect Me from What I Want’, it is ‘I did it for […]’, and in the fourth, ‘To the Fledglings’, ‘I could […]’. Job advert, commencement speech, defence statement, brainstorm, is what they sound like: identity, ambition, justification, planning. ‘You are the structures you live by’, Warren writes in ‘Acting Out’, and if her poetry is concerned with finding ways to ‘“slip crosswise / through the grid-structured surveillance”’, as another poem puts it (the words are an unattributed quotation), it is also concerned with what it would mean to imagine and sustain counter-structures of its own.
Counter how, though? Part of the answer is obvious. The vocabulary Warren’s poems speak in is often intently political, and in their landscape the master-structures of capitalism are never far away: ‘the disaster of compulsory exchange’, ‘pigs on high / horseback’, ‘the suburb the slum the supermax slammer’. ‘You begin from economic fact’, opens the first poem in the book, and that critical provocation, posing the challenge of imagining a link from this abstract writing to its concrete conditions, resonates through everything that follows.
Beginning from the economic fact, though, how does Warren’s poetry respond? Do the difficult tangles of this writing ask to be taken as what the Language poets called ‘counter-communication’, a concerted disruption to the ordinary rhythms of capitalist life? Or are they rather about finding ways to subsist within those rhythms, like a lunchbreak - to take the archetypal New York School example - within the working day? The answer is somewhere between the two. The fact is that, for all their political animus and fragmentary form, Warren’s poems are too funny, too shot through with pop culture and personal anecdote and performed naivety, for them often to feel alienating or spiky in the way ‘counter-communication’ would suggest. The subject position they sketch out has more to do with smallness and softness and Californian chill than with antagonism:
I tell BB what I want around me
are the ripe and tender ones
wine the color of weather
the lush bearing of our longing
going on in my way, stupidly sincere
one foot in the office the other lolling
about the field, do you prefer the gravel
to the scrub grass? […]
‘Stupidly sincere’: clearly, any theoretical way of describing this poem as, say, a battleground of contradictions within the field of language (as theorists sometimes used to talk about Language poetry) has little purchase here. Being ‘stupidly sincere’ is partly a matter of suspending cynicism, making peace and making do with the poet’s environs, and a reminder of what those environs comprise comes from the echo, in Warren’s ‘what I want around me / are the ripe and tender ones’, not just of Jack Kerouac writing ‘the only people for me are the mad ones’ in On the Road, but also of Apple famously ripping him off - and ripping off the counterculture more generally - with their stupidly sincere but hugely successful ‘here’s to the crazy ones’ ads in the 1990s.
No coincidence, you remember at moments like this, that the storied Bay Area poetry scene shares its wine-coloured weather with Silicon Valley. The geography reminds us that the self-appointed avant-gardes of American culture and commerce are linked by a more profound structural symmetry than the former would, historically, care to admit. Warren’s writing speaks from a position where complicity and constriction are a given, and where ‘stupidly sincere’ is one of the few affective modes that anti-capitalist longing still has open to it.
At the same time, though, even within their acceptance of ‘the lush bearing of our longing’, these lines trip up against a contradiction. ‘One foot in the office the other lolling / about the field’: as so often, the fault line that Warren’s imagination returns to is not between some imagined dynamic of communication versus counter-communication, but rather that which demarcates free time - including the time to write - from paid employment.
More than the ‘ad assault’, the compulsions of corporate power experienced from the point of view of a consumer, it is the imperatives experienced as a worker that seem to press in at her poems’ edges. Sometimes this is explicit, as in ‘Water and Power’, which begins ‘Eating a freshly fried egg at 10am is one of the ways I indicate to myself I am experiencing a day without compelled paid labor’, and goes on to describe how, on other days, ‘I push paper for students steering Teslas’.
But more generally, if, as suggested earlier, one of the distinctions of her poems is the way they stage their own difficulty as the passage of a speaking subject picking a course through an uncertain sequence, a passage through language but also through time, then perhaps this enmeshment with other rhythms, other compulsions, other temporal demands, is part of what is at stake.
Warren’s preoccupation with this question is longstanding. From 2010 to 2014, she jointly ran the Poetic Labor Project, a blog collecting poets’ reflections on their non-literary employment, and it makes sense that here, in this overview of her early career, ‘the office’ reappears as the key negative structure that Warren’s intricate, iridescent poetic forms structure themselves around and against. If the paradigm of the Language poem, in Warren’s writing, seems to have left its political urgency and promise in the past, the paradigm of the lunch poem, or the ‘fried egg at 10am’ poem, has never seemed more fraught.
In an essay on the poetry of Holly Pester, Helen Charman draws attention to a recent trend of poets similarly engaged with the intersection between work and writing, ‘whose poems aren’t simply about work but perform it’. But Warren’s poems don’t wholly fit into that bracket. If anything, her writing is concerned with performing its avoidance of work, the work it’s hemmed in and contorted by but separate from. Of course, the poems themselves are meticulous, finely worked over. But that working nonetheless has something of the quality of a shorthand: all those terse syntagms left in incomplete relation, whose significance seems somehow less than fully worked out. In a series of posts for the Poetry Foundation website from 2014, an anecdote that Warren tells puts this idea of glimpsed but inaccessible potential in her work centre stage:
Given my tendency on the internet and in the internet of RL to catch an ear-raising phrase and rudely interrupt conversation to note it would make a good poem title, I thought why not collect these phrases into a poem composed entirely of titles. An exercise in laziness, perhaps. Turns out it’s more rewarding to actually write a poem than compile a four-page long list of poem titles.
Even in their completed form, Warren’s poems are full of ‘ear-raising’ phrases like this, whose promise seems suspended or truncated. The deferred, cut-off utterance, ‘I only wanted to say a few words’, is emblematic. The gap between ‘ear-raising’ and ‘rewarding’, which she designates as ‘laziness, perhaps’, is the whole space of her poetry.
This figure, the list of titles of unwritten poems, recurs strangely across the avant-garde poetry of the early 2010s. There is Sam Riviere’s ‘Alternative Title Matrix’ in 81 Austerities (2012), Kevin Young’s concept of ‘the shadow book’ in The Grey Album (2012),Jane Gregory’s sequence of prose poems each titled ‘Book I Will Not Write’ in My Enemies (2013), Anne Boyer’s ‘Not Writing’ from Garments against Women (2015). All ‘exercise[s] in laziness’? In a sense, perhaps, yes. All exercises in writing under the conditions of a recession that pushed more and more writing into contracted pockets of time, and by consequence pushed more and more writing into the realm of the unrealised. But also, all exercises in reimagining the possibilities of non-work that writing poetry entails, and of the broader antiwork politics that was starting to emerge.
Where once - in the era of the previous major recession, that of the 1970s - it seemed possible to conceive of poetry’s efficacy in terms of language, maybe it could be said that that possibility was now transposed onto the axis of time, with the familiar binaries of difficulty and easiness, resistance and pleasure, now rearranged around the new central opposition between working and not working. In any case, when we look back and try to make sense of what happened in the 2010s, Warren’s poetry will be a vivid, bittersweet resource.
These distinctions within the politics of twentieth-century poetic avant-gardes have been the subject of much significant recent scholarship, and I am drawing here particularly on Jasper Bernes’s The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 8. The ‘here’s to the crazy ones’ copy (often said to be written by Steve Jobs, actually by an ad agency) can just be made out by iPhone users as the tiny text in Apple’s version of the ‘memo’ emoji.
Poetic Labor Project, ed. by Steven Farmer, Lauren Levin and Alli Warren. labday2010.blogspot.com
Helen Charman, ‘Holding the Room: On Holly Pester’s “Comic Timing”’, The White Review, 2021. thewhitereview.org/reviews/holding-the-room-on-holly-pesters-comic-timing
Alli Warren, ‘On Failure’, Poetry Foundation, 2014. poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2014/03/on-failure
Conrad Steel is a writer and researcher. His first book, Ambient Lyric: Apollinaire and the Social Imagination of American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2023.
Copyright © 2022 by Conrad Steel, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.