Canadian poet Anne Carson first published “New Rule” in the United States in her 2000 collection, Men in the Off Hours. Like many of her other works, this book features juxtapositions of modern people and situations with people and situations from history and ancient literature. While “New Rule” differs from this pattern, which is one of Carson’s hallmarks, the poem contains other aspects commonly associated with Carson’s work, including an unusual structure and imagery that is challenging to decipher. The poem takes place on an ice-covered, New Year’s morning in an unspecified location, when the poet uses the presence of a squirrel, with whom she has an imaginary conversation, to reflect upon a failed relationship from her past. The coldness of the setting reflects the coldness of the poet’s lost love. New Year’s, however, suggests a new beginning. Although much of Carson’s work appears to have autobiographical elements in it, and critics have noted Carson’s own failed relationships, there is no guarantee that Carson is speaking about herself. As a result, it is difficult to determine Carson’s true inspiration for the poem, except to say that her poem explores the pain of breakups. Carson should not be confused with Anne Regina Carson, an American writer. Both were born in 1950, and the former has even lived and worked in the United States, so it is easy to make this mistake. A current copy of “New Rule” can be found in the paperback version of Men in the Off Hours, which was published by Vintage Contemporaries in 2001.
“New Rule” starts by setting the scene. It is: “A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.” The fact that the ice is new means that it has probably just arrived, perhaps through an ice storm. Right away, the reader knows that the action of the poem is taking place in winter and probably in a northern climate. The fact that the poet defines the ice as “hard” probably has some significance, since this is a statement of the obvious. In poetry, every word counts, and to make a good poem the poet must ruthlessly trim any unnecessary words. It could be that the poet just wants to help the reader visualize the setting. However, at this point, the reader cannot tell for sure. As the poem progresses to the next line, the setting gets more specific. Now, with the discussion of “frozen branches,” it is clear that the poet is, in fact, witnessing the aftermath of an ice storm, which has coated a tree with ice. High up on this tree, the poet sees “a squirrel jump and skid.”
At this point, the squirrel is merely a woodland creature that has had the misfortune to be stuck on a frozen, slippery tree. However, with the third line, the poem becomes more fantastical, as the poet begins an imaginary conversation with the squirrel: “Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced”— the line stops here, in mid-sentence, running over into the next stanza. The reader can only assume that the squirrel’s imaginary thoughts are in regards to his precarious situation in the tree. Since the poet is giving the squirrel an imaginary voice in the poem, she is personifying it, which may mean that she wishes to give the squirrel greater significance. Personification is a technique whereby poets give inanimate or non-human objects human qualities— in this case, the squirrel is given the ability to have a conversation.
The first line of stanza 2 continues the previous line: “down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed.” When a line of verse runs over from one line to the next, either within or between stanzas, it is known as a run-on-line. Poets use this technique for many reasons. By running the text over into the next line, the poem moves faster, since punctuation marks at the end of the line—such as those found at the end of the first two lines of the first stanza—inevitably cause the reader to pause. At this early part of the poem, it does appear that Carson is using the run-on-lines to make the poem read faster. The poem moved slowly in the beginning, before she started talking to the squirrel. Now that the imaginary conversation has started, the poem is picking up speed.
Besides the increase in speed, Carson is also emphasizing the idea of instability. The squirrel is “clutching his branch,” which is bobbing in the wind. The slippery branch has become an unsafe place for the squirrel, which could fall if it is not careful. The next line hints at this possibility, saying that the branch is bobbing “in stiff recoil.” Recoiling is a defensive move, so the poet is saying that the branch views the squirrel’s presence on the branch as an attack and may buck him off. This depiction of the branch’s movement as a human-like reaction is another use of personification. The poet has the squirrel finish his imaginary thought train from the previous stanza, when the squirrel said “Is this scary?” Now, the squirrel says: “or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?” Once again, at this point, the reader does not know if the poet is referring to the sound of the ice-covered branches, or if there is something else that sounds wrong. In any case, the next line mentions “The branches”—this line follows the same pattern as before and runs over into the next stanza.
The first line of stanza 3 continues the previous line: “clinked.” This abrupt, one-word line finishes the poet’s description of the branches by using a technique known as onomatopoeia—the use of words whose sound expresses their meanings. In other words, when something “clinks,” like the icecovered branches in the poem, it literally makes a clinking sound. Of course, in the human world, glasses also “clink” when they are tapped together in a toast, as when two lovers toast each other with wine or champagne glasses. One could venture a guess at this point that the poem has something to do with romance, but there is not enough evidence yet to make a definite conclusion. In the next line, the poet notes that the squirrel “wiped his small cold lips with one hand.” Since the squirrel has just recently survived his fearful sliding ordeal without falling or getting bounced off the branch, he stops to wipe his lips. This is another sign of personification, because one usually discusses a squirrel as having a mouth, not lips, which are normally associated with humans. Even the gesture of wiping one’s lips has human connotations. When people have been through a frightful ordeal, they may wipe their lips as a nervous gesture.
However, going back to the idea of...
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