It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
Paul Celan, "Corona"
I have long suspected that the genus of drab writing which the great majority of our acclaimed poets generate so effortlessly these days is the reflex not only of the ambition to write abundantly whatever the consequences but, generally speaking, of the desire to acquire status in an official community of impresarios, critical strategists and bravura players. Of course they cannot do it alone but require the complicity of an audience willing to accept inferior work and a cartel of influential critics eager to encourage it. Evidence for this claim is not hard to find. Anne Carson's sudden cometary prominence provides us with a stunning textbook example of how the mediocrity industry works in our time, attuned not to merit but to celebrity. ("A celebrity," said Daniel Boorstin, "is someone who is famous for being famous.")
Looking closely at Carson's practice, however, it remains a moot question which is more precarious, the scholarship or the poetry which it often vitiates. As a telling illustration of the former, see her analysis in Economy of the Unlost of Celan's puzzling and well-known "No More Sand Art," an analysis which is dubious in its heavy-handed dependence on John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Indeed, the few interesting things Carson does have to say about Celan's poem are cribbed almost verbatim from Felstiner. In a very compact space she duplicates all of Felstiner's main points and references, from Celan's 1948 Sand from the Urns to MallarmT's "A Throw of the Dice" to the question-and-answer binary of the poem to the rhetorical question "Your song, what does it know?" Synonyms carry on the work of evasion inaugurated by a citational stratagem: Felstiner's "reduced" becomes her "economy," his "admit no art" becomes her "repudiate a kind of art"¨and we are not even speaking of the general tenor of the two studies which are pretty well identical. Of course, by quoting his book in a footnote with respect to only one item of resident obscurity in the poem, Carson distracts the reader from noticing her various "borrowings". Cite your source in one small point¨especially if your source is esoteric¨and under cover of reputability you can get away with wholesale annexation. Anyone who doubts this overall indictment should examine pages 219/220 of Felstiner's book (Yale University Press, 1995) and compare with pages 115/116 of Carson's (Princeton University Press, 1999).
I have focused, at the start, on the scholarship because Carson constitutes a special case in which the double lack of fibre and talent is exemplified by a charlatanism more readily ascertainable in the academic work than in the poetry; the latter, as we know, can always take refuge in murkiness. Readers will often tend to question their own intelligence rather than the poet's competence when confronted by the capricious or the nebulous. But if one scrutinizes the poems dispassionately, one hardly knows where to begin, and once having done so, where to end in disclosing a production which is all surface and no body. Consider first a short piece entitled "That Strength":
That Strength. Mother, dug out. Hammered, chained,
dislocated, weeping, sweeping, tossed with its
groaning, hammered, hammering bolts
off death. Shaken and damning
stars. Unjudgeable. Knife. Un
breakable on grindstones
This typical Carson poem, with its stringing together of disjointed locutionary tagmemes, does not in itself deserve serious inspection. Its pared-down, fragmented, wounded style appears to be derived in large measure from Paul Celan's habitual practice, founded in his grievous and alienating exposure to the Nazification of his beloved German Sprache, a truly demonic encounter of which Carson has no comparable and validating experience. (Even the poem's queer verb-closure resembles¨not, I would think, altogether tenuously¨the conclusion of Celan's Dew poem: "the Lord broke the bread/the bread broke the Lord.") Nor can I refrain from posing a few simple, normative questions: What is the clear sense of the piece, if indeed there is one? Is there a single line qua line we might single out as striking or memorable? Does it radiate an impression of lexical authority? Does anything hide beneath the broken glitter of its verbal surface? Where is the gravitas appropriate to the theme (what with all the "weeping, sweepingÓ groaning," etc.)? Do we feel tempted or motivated to make it an organic part of our mental life, committing it to memory if we had the time to do so? Are we really impressed or edified by so autistic a performance? Here, for example, in another item called "Freud (1rst draft)," we discover that
Freud spent the summer of 1876 in Trieste
researching hermaphroditism in eels.
In the lab of zoologist Karl Klaus
more than a thousand to check whether they had testicles.
"All the eels I have cut open are of the tenderer sex,"
he reported after the first 400.
the "young goddesses" of Trieste were proving
But frankly, what do we learn from such boilerplate verses that we could not acquire from journalist or biographer (and in precisely this syntactical form) had we a mind to? In point of fact, much of the poem's content and even its general phrasing seems to be poached from Peter Gay's "Life" of Freud (Doubleday, 1989, page 32) and, together with a couple of quoted passages from Freud's letters, some of these also mentioned by Gay, chopped up into stanzas. So once again I must ask not only "where is the integrity?" but: where is the poetry? For, drawing on her own discussion of negation in Economy, "I bring together in my mind two pieces of data, one which is present and actual [the above passages], the other of which is absentÓ[poems by the few good poets remaining to us]. I put these two data together and say, "This is not that.' " This is indeed not that.
Time for a reality check. Carson may be our newest pedestalized inamorata but the fact is¨and I say this unabashedly¨she is a phony, all sleight-of-hand, both as a scholar and a poet. Although Milton assuredly demanded too much of poets when he affirmed in the Apology for Smectymnuus that "he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things," the asymptotic approach to this ideal remains crucial. As Celan once said, "only true hands write true poems." Still, if the work is so obstreperously bad, how account for the reputation? This is mainly spread and consolidated by editors, critics and reviewers whose literary expertise¨regardless of whatever previous accomplishments they may licitly boast¨can be described in far too many instances as a kind of higher Sesame Street word-and-number recognition facility. They tend to sound like sciolistic Counts and half-educated Big Birds reacting with manic delight to the lexical fragments and allusions that Carson-type poetry provides for their enlightenment. Sometimes I find myself inadvertently thinking that Carson actually doesn't exist but is rather the creation of a couple of heavyweight critics and a swarm of quailing lightweights straggling along in their wake, all brandishing the same set of clichTs about Carson's "quirky wit" and "surprising juxtapositions." In this way, a career is built up by a relentless concatenation of identical platitudes, leading to what Seamus Heaney has called the "manufactured concensus" to which poetry should properly immunize us. Carson is, so to speak, only a suburban legend.
Thus Harold Bloom, who has already begun to call his credentials into question by his latest bardolatric profusions, is now risking his reputation further by adopting Carson (along with the equally gormless John Ashbery) as poetry's last best hope, and Susan Sontag is plunging into critical eclipse with a similar endorsement. Misconceiving opacity as complexity and a farouche coquettishness for unsuspected depths, Guy Davenport compares her to Arnold, Joyce and Dante. Elizabeth Lowry, a tutorial fellow in English at Greyfriar's College, Oxford, swoons down six columns of the London Review of Books, obviously smitten by "one of the most seductive writers around" like Carson's own "lovesick Geryon" thrilling to the voice of Herakles. Back cover blurbs are in this case especially compromising. "Amazing," gushes Alice Munro apropos The Autobiography of Red, "I haven't discovered any writing in years that's so marvelously disturbing." I suppose Munro must be referring to such notable lines (which come by the bale) as "I better be getting home./Okay" or "Somewhere a door slammed./Leaves tore past the window." Michael Ondaatje considers Carson as ˘the most exciting poet writing in English today.÷ Don Summerhayes writing in the Literary Review of Canada eliotically reminds us that we might have ˘to shift the rankings of all the other poets to accommodate this one,÷ yet blithely observes that her texts are full of the kind of thing that ˘you do not yet know what it is to formulate÷ and refers with quixotic wonder to ˘whatever it is that Carson does.÷ Ignorance never stopped an infatuated reviewer.
Fraser Sutherland in the Globe and Mail adduces lines "that would make any other poet murderously envious" and The New York Times reviewer trumpets: "Carson writes in language any poet would kill for." I had always thought the real test was whether poets write in language they would be willing to die for, but since we are in such a bloodthirsty mood I might ask the reader if he or she would be ready either to kill or to die for the gift of being able to declaim with pseudo-Catullan afflatus so memorable a litany as "Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate/Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate love hate" or to ask with such ineffable lucidity, "Can you pause in the thought/that links origin/and tendency?" (Incidentally, can you?) And this is watermark Carsonese.
I confess, then, that there are moments when I cannot help but wonder a little facetiously if there is not some sort of professional scam going on. Carson may be the recipient of the benefits of an upward displacement assigned by critics who cannot surrender the hermeneutical cachet which Carson confers, thus allowing her to profit from a type of pseudo-promotion the purpose of which is to delude those outside the hierarchical structure. As a result, our critics and reviewers have invested so heavily in the Carson phenomenon that she has become practically unstoppable, a gigantic pyramid scheme no-one can blow the whistle on without the entire edifice tumbling down on their heads.
Even reviews are beginning to sound like extended blurbs and this is particularly true of all the little, nameless, unremembered acts of blindness and praise, the myriad sampler articles written by the bit players and small-time brokers who carry the reputation forward into the field of public consciousness. Like the burghers of Schilda, they are busy scooping the night up in buckets. For example, local reviewer Michael Springate is as typically unrestrained in his adulation of the poet¨the less hair, the more hairbrushes¨as he is embarrassing in the passages he isolates for special commendation, which any sensible reader would realize undercut his intentions. In an appraisal of Carson's farrago of essays and poems (Knopf, 2000), entitled Men in the Off Hours, which appeared in The Montreal Gazette for June 17, 2000, Springate asks us to relish such exquisite lines as
"It smells of burning."
The mother remains alone.
The wall is subtly different from hour to hour. Season to
Sprayed with dawn.
Akhmatova's son Lev was arrested in 1933 (released), 1935
1938 (not released).
She came to the wall to stand in line.
And so on. What Springate does not say or maybe even know is that these expository lines are conceptually downloaded from Akhmatova's prose anti-preface to her "Requiem" on the assumption, apparently, that Akhmatova is not competent to speak for herself. The original passage is certainly moving in its context as a prose reminiscence¨"I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad," the Russian poet writes, and explains the circumstances that impelled her to describe the experience¨but the hubris implicit in Carson's gesture further prejudices the reading of verses that are already problematic as poetry. Far better to go to the poetry of Akhmatova herself, the poetry of genuine witness and suffering and the only creditable account of the experience hinted at in the preliminary exposition:
And not for myself alone I pray,
but for all who stood with me then,
in savage frost and in July's blaze,
beneath that red blinded wall.
To put it bluntly, then: what Carson does here and elsewhere has been done before, done better and done authentically¨for example, by Akhmatova as by Celan. Whatever magic one may find in her work is largely borrowed or stolen (or, at best, merely contrived, as when she directs the reader in "First Chaldaic Oracle" to "keep Praguing the eye/of your soul," a locution which is not only unintelligible but just plain silly). A major reason for her surging popularity may have something to do with the current obsession with fragments and simulacra. In an age where continuity and seamlessness, artisanal craftsmanship and wholeness of original conception are at a discount, Carson writes an IKEA-type poetry, fitting together bits and pieces into a mental furniture that appears weirdly functional but is utterly devoid of charm, staying-power and liveability. It is, in effect, a poetry of screws, hinges, dowels, thin linear splines and sharp corners, a line from Akhmatova here, a soupton of Celan there, little bits of Beckett and Bataille, a dollop of Plato, a generous helping of Keats, all put together according to a blueprint from Sappho. What we are getting is a poetry whose composition is a function of shrewd outsourcing and subsequent importation for the mechanical assembly of parts.
No doubt this sort of thing succeeds with sheep, but poetry does not clone all that well. Between what is expropriated, what is borrowed, what is parallel, what is synchronous, what is shared and what is reminiscent, there is scarcely an original line or thought to be found in any of her work. The spectacle is potentially an edifying one, as we observe a poet busy preparing her place in the Seventh Chasm of the Eighth Circle of the Inferno where those who ransack and conscript what does not belong to them are condemned to protean evanescence, exchanging identities with and repeating the forms and gestures of others. Carson herself seems subliminally aware of the predicament while at the same time maintaining a sense of personal exemption. "Repetition is horrible," she writes in "TV Men: Lazarus," for
Poor Lazarus cannot have known
he was an
But the act of critical liberation involved in our recognizing this species of negative biomimicry will require prodigies of unsparing self-analysis. For it is we who have summoned Anne Carson into being as the reflex of our hankering for the speech, the experience, the knowledge, the confidence and the authority of others rather than the authenticating of our own. To say it differently: Carson writes on litmus paper which tells us who and what we are. And who and what we are is not difficult to determine. We are Anne Carson: patchwork creatures without genuine moral and intellectual substance, preference machines lusting for unmerited approval, media constructs even in the privacy of our beings. We have become dabblers in poetry and classical scholarship without having to know much about either. Anne Carson is our reflection in a distorting mirror which is at the same time wholly accurate and orthogonal. We have appropriated her as she has appropriated others. One might even say that Anne Carson is the higher Oprah. The projection of our unearned selves, she is watched, admired, and subsidized by us until reverse osmosis sets in and we are inevitably absorbed by our own emanation. Eventually we all appear on her program.
Indeed what we are also getting is a poetry that is almost impossible to satirize or deflate for the pre-emptive reason that such poems read chiefly like parodies of themselves or, better, like the products of a sophisticated literary prank. The material has forestalled the critic who would come to grips with it and to some considerable degree has stolen the thunder of the litigant, like certain bizarre physiognomies that are the bane of the caricaturist since they render him dispensable. In this respect Anne Carson could just as well be Anne Knish who, along with Emanuel Morgan, figured as one of the two main principals in the celebrated Spectra hoax perpetrated by Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke in the early part of the century. Of course, what Bynner and Ficke had in mind was (in the words of William Jay Smith in his book on the subject) to clear the air of "the stuffiness that tends to gather about literature when it loses its sense of humor and earnest but lumbering personalities take over." But what happens when the apparent parody is not deliberate, when what properly seems like a spoof is intended seriously, when, as Smith complains, "the element of common sense, which should shape all judgment, isÓin eclipse"? To reset this question in practical terms, I would suggest that the following poem by one Anne ("Opus 76") could be readily mistaken for a typical poem by the other.
Years are nothing;
Days alone count;
These, and the nights.
I have seen the grey stars marching,
And the green bubbles in wine,
And there are gothic vaults of sleep.
To answer my question: what happens when this sort of thing is taken at face value is a fall into industrious absurdity by a poet striving for grave and decisive expression.
Carson, then, is a watershed figure: which side of her one falls on tells one and others who one is, as part of the literary community, or simply, as an educated and presumably sentient reader. She is certainly a clever writer; however, the important question is not "Is she really that good?" but "Are we really that dumb?" So perhaps it is not as much Carson I am objecting to as that "gullible" readership responsible for her election.
In any event, I do not want to apologize for someone else's publications or the public's unexamined receptivity. For I do not regard myself as some sort of literary carnifex having a tantrum but only as someone whose irritation threshold has finally been reached. I wish I could be more gracious but I have no tolerance for the slub and quackery of this poetry and the easy ride the critics have accorded its purveyor. A recent illustration of what I am getting at is furnished by Fraser Sutherland who, reviewing Carson's verse novella The Beauty of the Husband (The Globe and Mail, February 10, 2001), after a few initial and half-hearted disclaimers veritably sinks to his knees in adoration. Yet Carson's latest offering is a mere jeu d'esprit without spirit and devoid of any real sense of play, deficiencies which inevitably subtend the pseudo-cerebrality of the intellectual mountebank. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is its penultimate page where under the rubric, a note about the author, we learn that "Anne Carson lives in Canada." That's it! No more information is needed for so illustrious a personage. The implication is that Canada is fortunate for being put on the map by virtue of its association with Anne Carson.
But to get to the last pages we still have to dance through 29 "Tangos." Too many. Decently compressed and tucked into the featureless prose that is its natural medium, Husband would make a tidy little article on marital infidelity in Chatelaine. There we might better sympathize with a helplessly patient Griselda being given the terpsichorean runaround by her cynical and devilishly handsome husband. Readers with a fondness for Canadian literature might even remember the passage from Timothy Findley's Pilgrim (1999), in which a stricken Emma Jung, paralyzed by the intellectual beauty of her philandering husband, answers his leading question: " 'If you could dance with the devil, which rhythm would you choose?'Ó'The Tango,' she would have said." And experience the frisson of recognition.
But in its present form, a narrative flatness stretches interminably over nearly 150 pages, glib imagistic non sequiturs proliferate ("He would fill structures/of threat with a light like the earliest olive oil." But what is a structure of threat? And in the gender context of this "fictional essay," olive oil makes sense only if it signifies Popeye's girlfriend. Or is there a sleeping pun on virgin?), the clichTs cluster round a central emptiness like the golden emerods of the Lord ("a raw picking wind," "Is innocence just one of the disguises of beauty?" "Madness doubled is marriage." "You know how beauty makes sex possible." "Well life has some risks. Love is one." "But it all comes round/to a blue June moon."), and a hollow sententiousness echoes sepulchrally throughout: "To stay human is to break a limitation." Exactly. (For an instance of how the subject of a disintegrating relationship may be handled poetically with genuine artistry, while at the same time breaking the limitation of an established form, see George Meredith's Modern Love.)
If poetry is to make any sort of difference in our lives, if it is in some sense or other even residually important as a means of engaging the verbal and moral imagination, and if it is remembered as something precious that we are in imminent danger of losing and that needs to be defended as resolutely as possible, then sympathy or courtesy extended to poets like Carson is merely another form of collaboration with those who would injure it even further. It is time the arrogant deceit implicit in such work were radically debelled no matter who professes to be appalled by the contumacy of my approach. Therefore there are times when one must speak explicitly, even if it is considered tactless and niggardly and abusive. And sometimes one must have the courage not only of one's convictions but of convicting others for their lack of such and for the impunity with which they continue to produce and extol such derelict material.
Such is the condition of poetry at the present cultural juncture. The drive to produce (and eulogize) poems that contain scarcely a pellet of genuine or discernible content, the slightest hint of cohesive form or the merest geode of a memorable phrase now seems virtually undeflectable. And it is accompanied by a portentous solemnity of spirit, in both poet and reader, that augurs poorly for the recrudescence of aesthetic taste, critical judgment and verbal liveliness. It is truly astounding how the glaring deficits of quality I am anathematizing here can be toggled into press success and canon presence, but I console myself by remembering that the quickless Reverend Bowles was, if not the most influential, arguably the most celebrated poet of Wordsworth's day and certainly one of the most ubiquitous.
And that is precisely the trouble with Anne Carson, namely, that she keeps turning up everywhere you look, yet, like Hitchcock's Harry, is moribund despite her apparent mobility. But don't expect this to stop an inexorable progress toward stardom fostered by a sort of critic-and-peer collusion, a veritable conspiracy of literary dunces who, loving the things they love for what they aren't, engage in the promotion of imposters. ˛
David Solway is the author of many books of poetry including the award-winning Modern Marriage, Bedrock, Chess Pieces, and Saracen Island:The Poetry of Andreas Karavis. Among his prose publications, Education Lost won the QSPELL Prize for Nonfiction and Random Walks was a finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de MontrTal. His most recent prose work, The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods, was released by McGill-Queen's in 2001. Solway was appointed poet-in-residence at Concordia University for 1999-2000. ˘The Trouble with Annie÷ is a radically abridged version of an essay from Solway's new book of critical reflections, Director's Cut, forthcoming with The Porcupine's Quill in 2002.