Nationality: Canadian. Born: 1950. Education: University of Toronto, Ph.D. 1981. Career: Has taught at Princeton University, Emory University, and University of California, Berkeley. Professor of classics, McGill University, Montreal. Awards: Rockefeller Foundation fellowship; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship; Djerassi Foundation fellowship; Pushcart prize, 1997.
Short Talks. London, Ontario, Brick Books, 1992.
Plainwater: Essays and Poetry. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Glass, Irony and God: Essays and Poetry. New York, New Directions, 1995.
Wild Workshop, with Kay Adshead and Bridget Meeds. London, Faber, 1997.
Glass and God. London, Cape Poetry, 1998.
Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York, Knopf, 1998.
Men in the Off Hours. New York, Knopf, 2000.
Critical Studies: By Guy Davenport, in Grand Street (Denville, New Jersey), 6(3), spring 1987; "Fickle Contracts: The Poetry of Anne Carson" by Adam Phillips, in Raritan (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 16(2), fall 1996; "An Introduction to Anne Carson" by Jorie Graham, and interview with John D'Agata, both in Brick, 57, fall 1997.* * *
"The Canadian writer Anne Carson is among the most interesting of contemporary English-language poets." So wrote Oliver Reynolds in the Times Literary Supplement. The front cover of Carson's book Autobiography of Red offers an encomium from Michael Ondaatje: "Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today."
Carson's books of prose and poetry are issued by major publishing houses in New York and London; she and her work are profiled and praised in leading newspapers and literary magazines; and she has held a series of academic fellowships and received a number of major literary awards. Yet Carson has received little appreciation in her native Canada. As Richard Teleky wrote in the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1997), "That a writer of Carson's importance should be almost unknown in her own country attests to the eccentricities of contemporary Canadian literary culture."
The lapse is odd and inexplicable (like much of the poet's work). Carson was born in Toronto, holds three degrees from the University of Toronto, and since 1988 has been a professor of classics at McGill University in Montreal. She has no Canadian publisher, and it was not until the appearance of Autobiography of Red that the country's reviewers and critics took notice of her unique achievement.
"Anne Carson is the real thing," Rachel Barney wrote in the National Post, "but just what thing it is hard to say." Perhaps the best way to discuss the "real thing" is to describe the idiosyncratic books she has published to date. Certainly reviewers and critics delight in doing so.
Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (1986) is a critical study of Sappho that examines sexual desire, poetry, and the Greek alphabet. Short Talks (1992) is a chapbook collection of prose poems (with a discussion of prepositions as among the world's "major things") later included with essays in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995). Prose and poetry are also integrated in Glass, Irony and God: Essays and Poetry (1995). She contributed "The Glass Essay" to the anthology Wild Workshop (1997), which also features other long poems by Kay Adshead and Bridget Meeds. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998) is not a novel but rather a free verse narrative about a winged red monster named Geryon as described by the Greek poet Stesichoros (who introduced the antiheroic mode to literature), reimagined and set in the main in the 1950s. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999), a book of literary criticism, compares and contrasts the ancient Greek poet Simonides and the modern Romanian poet Paul Celan, who lived in Paris and wrote in German. Men in the Off Hours (2000) is a relatively straightforward collection of poems. The poems, however, are not straightforward, but clipped and curious. Indeed, they are replete with contemporary and classical references to Lazarus, Catherine Deneuve, Thucydides, and Virginia Woolf, among others.
Reading Carson's writing, whether prose or poetry (or more likely a combination of the two), brings to mind the experience of reading the poetry of John Ashbery. Ashbery's writing has no subject matter per se (it makes no statements ad hoc), but it offers the reader the expression of one poet's remarkably refined sensibility and seemingly unlimited range of reference. Carson too writes out of her sensibility, but the writing has been made pungent, rather than seasoned, with learning. Her temperament, like Ashbery's, is decidedly postmodern in the sense that there is no continuity except what is provisionally imposed by the sensibility. Ashbery's style has been described as "language-based"; Carson's is based on commentaries and fragments of information from the past and the present. Ashbery delights in shifts in levels of language and popular references, whereas Carson enjoys displays of erudition. If Ashbery sounds smug, Carson sounds cocky.
An instance of her tone is her amusing statement about the Greek poet Stesichoros: "He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet." The sentence is meaningless, but it is not senseless; it makes one giggle along with the poet. An instance of her showy use of scholarly practice is writing appendixes A, B, and C to a narrative poem and then perversely placing them before rather than after the narrative itself.
Carson shares with Ashbery the technique of the free association of words and phrases to segue the reader from meaning to meaning in the general direction of whatever overall meaning may be present. In the introduction to "Short Talks," included in Plainwater, she writes,
Early one morning words were missing. Before that, words were not. Facts were, faces were. In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else & You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.
The passage makes incremental sense, but whether the sense of it adds up to more than a sensitivity to suggestive phrases is anyone's guess. Many of her effects are subtle indeed. Here is a couplet from "One-Man Town" from the same collection:
It's Magritte weather today said Max.
Ernst knocking his head on a boulder.
What is surprising about those lines is the period that unexpectedly appears following the painter's given name, Max. Who is Max? Oh, Max Ernst the artist. Is his full name Maxwell? The reader is sidetracked, buffaloed.
The poet is quick on the uptake. Here are sentences from the introduction to "The Anthropology of Water" from Plainwater:
Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried.
Anne Carson is certain to have an influence on how academic poets write, read, and teach poetry in the future throughout the English-speaking world (and even in Canada). It is hard to imagine that there exists a wide public for her writing, yet her erudition, imagination, spirited nature, and cultural sensitivities guarantee her an elite reading public. One wonders what literary delight she will dream up next.
—John Robert Colombo