Monday, November 16, 2009

The Critic Meets the Poet: Anne Carson

I admit I'm not totally sure what to make of Anne Carson's book of poems and essays, Men in the Off Hours. I think Carson is a genius, and the way she plays with the ideas of poetry and criticism inspires me to think outside the box about my own work. But sometimes, her stuff is so heavy in allusion and wit that it takes away from the kind of emotionally compelling work I look for in other poets. Sometimes, it feels like Carson is a little too smart for her own good.

But even as I say that, I admit that I really, really liked this book. Some of the pieces in it were nothing short of amazing, with the way Carson builds on layers of meaning and language. The standouts in this collection are the long poem series. One, "Hopper: Confessions," was made up of 10 voice pieces centered around his artwork. Some of the lines in this series were quite wonderful and often surprising. Also, the entire set reminded me of going to the Indianapolis Museum of Art last winter with a good friend. The museum had a series of Edward Hopper's sketches for a single painting, so that you could see the piece build and change with time. The way these poems moved around his subjects reminded me of that exhibit.

The best poems in this collection come from the book's largest section, entitled TV Men. These long poems were centered around historic literary subjects. Many were about the subjects' lives but told through the perspective of someone intent on filming said lives. These poems were strange and extremely allusion-heavy (it helped to know a little about the subjects before reading the poem), but they were often beautifully written, addressing questions about humanity and love, politics and art. "Tolstoy" perfectly captured the often-contradictory strings in the writer's life, and as I mentioned in yesterday's Poem of the Week entry, Carson obviously struggles in understanding the man. The TV Men: Lazarus poems were also fantastic, with probably the best lines in the entire book.

But for me, the real standout was the TV Men: Akhmatova series. Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who struggled for artisitic control with the Soviet government, is a complicated figure, and Carson turns her into this beautifully complex, heartbreakingly tragic heroine. I read the "Akhmatova" poems at a busy hamburger joint during my work lunchbreak. It was strange balancing these sad, personal poems with the hubbub around me, but the effect only added to the idea of chaos that poor Akhmatova dealt with through her entire life. She was a writer haunted by loss and government pressure, and Carson really seems to "get" her. It was awesome to see such understanding between two important, hyper-intelligent female poets from opposite sides of the world, of the century.

That's what I like about Anne Carson. As a literary critic, she often cannot separate her work from her love for the work of others. For this reason, her poems become extremely personal essays about what it means to worship at the literary altar of writers as petty and complicated as ourselves.

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