Anne Carson is one of the frontrunners in tomorrow’s election for professor of poetry at Oxford University. Back in February, Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke had some interesting things to say about the poet’s work in her article about why Carson’s name was dropped on an episode of The L Word, Showtime’s drama about lesbians in L.A.
The subjects that preoccupy Carsonâ€”sexuality, irony, the mediaâ€”are trendy ones. So is her stable of referenceâ€”Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud, Antonin Artaudâ€”and her approach: postmodern juxtapositions of the old and the new (“TV is hardhearted, like Lenin”), oblique hints at dark intimacies (“Show me yours/ and I’ll give you something good”) and Sapphic themes: She’s not a lesbian, but Autobiography of Red sympathetically imagines the loneliness of having to cloak one’s identity. (If Not, Winter, her most recent book, is a translation of Sappho’s poems and fragments.) Predictably, all the attention inspired eye-rolling and worse among the more traditional academics and critics. In 2001, an essay in a Canadian magazine argued that her work must be a fraud, a kind of literary Sokal Hoaxâ€”the sententious concoctions of a writer intent on an exposÃ© of excruciatingly allusive postmodern work. In 2002, when Carson won England’s T.S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband, a British critic, Robert Potts, set off a nationwide debate, attacking Carson in the Guardian as a tuneless mountebank whose book was merely a “self-pitying account of marital unhappiness.”
This backlash is a shame. Carson certainly isn’t a traditional lyric poet, and plenty of her work misses its mark. But at its finestâ€”as in “The Glass Essay” and sections of Plainwater and Autobiography of Red, among othersâ€”it is much more daring and austere, even primitive, than any poetry merely propped up by postmodernist theory. It casts a cold eye on the wrinkled cloth of the human soul (a word she dares to use) and discerns a range of human maneuvers most of us never glimpse. It has a transparency whose levels of complexity are hard to parse.
On the one hand, here is a poet who seems to be an advocate of baring all. The manner is exposure and raw disclosure; the tone is clipped, detached, knowing: “When Law left me I felt so bad I would die./ This is not uncommon,” she writes in “The Glass Essay.” (Law is her lover’s name.) On the other hand, her impulse to disclose is less a confessional outpouring than an icily penetrating inquiry into the impasse between the mind and the animal life of the body that encloses it: “Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me.” What is notable about these lines is the utter absence of complaint. They’re not about a search for sympathy or solace. They’re inviting us to face up to our human dilemma: “There was no area of my mind/ not appalled by this action/ no part of my body/ that could have done otherwise,” Carson continues.
Given this impasse, Carson’s impulse is to clear away mental space and solitude. Ultimately, the subject of “The Glass Essay” is this: Presented with the option to love, to be human, to be transfigured by love, it is best to walk away. In a sense, it’s an alienating stance, yet invigorating because it goes against the grain of a culture that emphasizes emotional fulfillment as the route to individual happiness (and therapeutic cures for every existential woe). But Carson is fully aware that desire is addictive and that subjection is (literally) the most compelling state of mind, driving us toward something we can’t grasp. It isâ€”no surpriseâ€”an intellectual model as well as an erotic one. In her most autobiographical poems, one gradually realizes, Carson is interested in her own erotic life primarily as a way of accessing the sibylline recesses of the human mindâ€” “The Glass Essay” is as much a reflection on the Romantic anger of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as it is on the poet’s loss. In the end, Carson, like the finest literary self-explicators, uses herself as a way explaining of the world, rather than vice versa. Hers is a stringent ethic of self-control as a means of comprehension.
(I’d like to feature The L Word’s site but this is the message I get when I hit the google link: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States.” How undemocratic of them. Maybe it’ll work for you.)